We should read this passage with great fear and gratitude. It takes us to a meeting in Jerusalem which may seem distant from the concerns of 21st-century Christians. But in fact, the stakes could not have been higher—it was a meeting which had huge consequences for us all, even today. And, as we’ll see, God protected all of us—you and me—on that day.
Paul’s Fear: Why He Went
Paul, still writing autobiographically, moves us on to a time “fourteen years later” than his first visit to Jerusalem, when he “went up again”, along with two trusted members of his mission team, Barnabas and Titus (v 1).
Why did he go? “In response to a revelation” from God externally, and “for fear” internally (v 2). This should make us pause. The Paul who we meet in Acts and his letters isn’t a man given to feeling afraid! First, he was a bold persecutor of the church; then, he was a still bolder preacher of the gospel. So why was a man such as this afraid?
At first glance, it might seem that Paul was concerned that he had been wrong in his message or in his methods, and so he went back to Jerusalem to meet with the other apostles “privately” to “set before [the leaders] the gospel that I preach” (v 2), to get confirmation that he was doing things correctly. But that is impossible for several reasons.
First, Paul went to Jerusalem “in response to a revelation” from God (v 2). This reminds us that he was an apostle with direct access to God. He had received his gospel from the lips of the visible, risen Christ (1:12). It makes no sense for someone getting revelations from God to go and get authorization from someone else! Second, if he had been uncertain, why wait 14 years before heading back to Jerusalem? And third, Paul said in 1:8 that the Galatians should reject even Paul himself (“we”) if he should come and say he’d changed his mind about the gospel.
Nothing was threatening Paul’s certainty, but something was threatening his fruitfulness.
If the other apostles did not confirm his message and renounce the false teachers, it would be very hard for him to retain his converts. False teachers were telling these young Christians that Paul was preaching a gospel that was inadequate and not as full as the original apostolic gospel preached by the Jerusalem leaders. They insisted that Paul taught an “easy believism” that was his own very eccentric message.
Paul knew his message was God-revealed and therefore true. But he would not be able to keep his churches in sound gospel teaching if he could not disprove this falsehood. That is why Paul feared he was in danger of “running [his] race in vain” (v 2). He was afraid that his ministry would be stifled and relatively fruitless.
Equally, Paul’s trip was not “for fear” that the Jerusalem apostles didn’t have the true gospel. What he did fear was that the Jerusalem apostles might not be true to that gospel. They might not stand up to the false teachers, but rather, allow their own cultural prejudices to entice them to let these teachers continue to make such damaging claims.