Paul’s perseverance is a notable feature in the stories we have about him (eg 2Co 11:16-33). Our verses demonstrate this as he returns from an exhausting mission trip not simply to enjoy a rest at home, but to handle a crisis which threatens seriously to pull apart the Christian church.
We begin with the final stages of his mission in the area we would now call southern Turkey (v24). Paul and Barnabas have been preaching the gospel to people who have not heard of Christ. Some have been converted and formed local churches where they lovingly care for one another, and gather to worship the Lord and learn his ways. Each of these churches see themselves as part of the eternal kingdom which Jesus now rules from its capital city in heaven (He 12:22). That kingdom began in the tiny nation of Israel but has now burst its ancient borders. Likewise, the first citizens of the kingdom were Jews but now many Gentiles have joined too (Ro 1:16). And those Gentiles have not had to take up a Jewish lifestyle – for example with circumcision – but have been saved simply through faith in Jesus (Ro 3:28-30). This growth in Gentile churches has been Paul’s passion and delight. So he returns to his home church of Antioch in Syria, excited to tell of their answered prayers (v25, 26), and ready to recount many tales (v27).
The joy Paul found serving Christ (Ph 1:4) was part of what drove him. Seeing conversions, gaining new friends, receiving answers to prayers – all these rewarded Paul’s work. The Lord Jesus promised that though his road is hard, many blessings are found en route (Mk 10:28-30).
However, back in Antioch Paul meets a problem. To understand it, we need to go back to a visit Paul made to Jerusalem with Barnabas. They went to deliver a gift for needy believers caught in a time of famine (Ac 11:27-30), but for Paul it was about more than that. Although the Jerusalem church had initially been supportive of gospel work in Antioch (Ac 11:22,23), suspicions were now being aroused by the behaviour of Gentile Christians. Some men arrived from Jerusalem to check this out and Paul was disturbed by their concern that the non-Jews were not taking on board key Jewish ways. Therefore, his charity trip to Jerusalem was also a chance to test the leaders on this issue. Would they accept a Gentile gift or reject it? Indeed, Paul decided to push the matter harder by taking Titus, a Gentile convert, with him: would they tell Titus to be circumcised? But to Paul’s relief, they didn’t challenge his preaching of faith not works (Ga 2:1-10 tells this tale).
Paul’s stand for the gospel is inspiring. The gospel challenged his own patterns and standards of life as a Pharisee (Ph 3:5), grated on his personal preferences (1Co 9:21) and, like the Jerusalem church, he found the change it brought hard to cope with. But he held firmly onto the gospel in his teaching and life, even though it might lose him friends and bring confrontations.
Paul’s earlier visit to Jerusalem, then, appeared to be successful. However, on his return from Turkey to Antioch, Paul hangs around rather launching a new mission (v28). Why? Because, some men arrive from Judea, once more to raise the issue of Gentile Christians becoming more Jewish (v1). The intense pressure from these men misleads a number including Peter (who, it seems, had previously turned up from Jerusalem (Ac 12:17)) and Barnabas – see Ga 2:11-16 for Paul’s description of what occurred. Well, Barnabas repents and takes up the fight alongside Paul (v2), but it is now clear that the issue must be raised with the Jerusalem church! So a team goes down to meet the leaders. On their way, they talk openly about all the Lord has been doing among the Gentiles, refusing the hide the matter (v3). Jerusalem may be opposed to them, but they will rejoice in what has been done! However, on arrival they happily find they are welcomed (v4), even though the issue is still live (v5) and a tense conference has to be called to discuss it (v6).
This must have been a worrying time for Paul, as he wondered who’d support him. Anxiety might have caused him to react badly in a number of ways. But Paul puts the kingdom first and seeks loving reconciliation, if that’s possible without endangering the gospel. His example should teach us to manage our feelings of fear and worry, so that we always seek peace where we can.