I found this very incisive introduction to Galatians 2 in Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary:
His co-ordinate authority as apostle of the circumcision recognized by the apostles. Proved by his rebuking Peter for temporizing at Antioch: his reasoning as to the inconsistency of Judaizing with justification by faith.
Then after fourteen years I went up to Jerusalem again with Barnabas, taking Titus along too. I went there because of a revelation and presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did so only in a private meeting with the influential people, to make sure that I was not running—or had not run—in vain. (Galatians 2:1-2)
After fourteen years, since his conversion, Paul visited Jerusalem (also mentioned in) at the same time when the church and apostles council met to decide that Gentile Christians didn’t need to be circumcised.
The council’s decision did not go as far as to show that the Mosaic institution itself is at an end. The important point here is: The Galatians were Judaizing, not because the Jewish law was imposed by authority of the Church as necessary to Christianity, but because they thought it necessary to be observed by those who aspired to higher perfection (Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown).
Paul came to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles to communicate with them the gospel he preached to the Gentiles. He wanted to make sure this gospel would not be perverted, by the imposing of Mosaic laws upon Gentile Christians, and that would have made all his effort to run about to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ become wasted, and his toiling in vain.
So though the council made a decision to spare the Gentiles from Mosaic law, it did not achieve what was in Paul’s mind concerning the Jewish Christians; the decree did not at all disapprove of their view—that the Jewish law would bring them to a higher state of spiritual perfection (we talked about this “being made perfect” business in the last chapter). We modern Christians fall into a more subtle trap of this legalism, since we don’t have clearly spelled out rules of conducts, we create vague laws that effectively undermine the all-sufficiency of the cross of Christ; or we simply reduce the assurance of salvation to the theoretical, academic realm.
There is a law outside of the Jewish realm that is yet even more sinister: God may have forgiven you but He’s not entirely pleased with you until . . . I’m always of a belief that a Christian only knows of his salvation as far as he knows how God accepts him. If he feels he’s still somehow not godly enough, not sanctified enough, not holy enough, that God still find blemishes in him, salvation is just a nice word without a reality. So for the past many decades, the weary Christian was always searching for that elusive place where he can be completely at ease with his Savior, or to realize the rest that Paul advised him to make every effort to enter (). And if preachers believe it, they must also make every effort to preach that rest.
Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, although he was a Greek. Now this matter arose because of the false brothers with false pretenses who slipped in unnoticed to spy on our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, to make us slaves. But we did not surrender to them even for a moment, in order that the truth of the gospel would remain with you. (Galatians 2:3-5)
Paul must have brought Titus along for a purpose: to show that God is saving him, a Gentile, just fine without circumcision. Titus is to be set free from these legal bondage. Had Paul given in, letting Titus be circumcised, the faith of the whole section of Christ’s body, the Gentile believers, might be in jeopardy.
Paul speaks of the freedom in Christ which Jesus promised long ago in John 8:32, “… you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” And the spies who tried to bring the Galatian Christian back to slavery, the slavery under “precept upon precept,” are alive and well today in our churches, in books, radio, and the internet. It’s incredible but true that many Christians actually preach against this freedom.
To surrender, to let Titus be circumcised, runs the risk of the truth of the gospel might not remain with the Galatians, because this truth runs against the grain of legalism.
But from those who were influential (whatever they were makes no difference to me; God shows no favoritism between people)—those influential leaders added nothing to my message. On the contrary, when they saw that I was entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised just as Peter was entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who empowered Peter for his apostleship to the circumcised also empowered me for my apostleship to the Gentiles) and when James, Cephas, and John, who had a reputation as pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we would go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They requested only that we remember the poor, the very thing I also was eager to do. (Galatians 2:6-10)
There is not much to add to what Paul is saying here, except that he officially declared that he’s endorsed by the other apostles who were before him, and perhaps more importantly that they “added nothing to his message.”
To Paul’s contemporary, the council’s decision of not requiring circumcision of Gentile believers was a major event, but to Paul it was inconsequential, or perhaps even borders on damaging the gospel message that he took time to explain to the “influential” people in a “private meeting,” a meeting of pillars which Paul hoped to influence to get them back on the right path, so that they won’t undo and make vain all his running all over to share this great news that he couldn’t contain. As a matter of fact, Paul didn’t even mention the council’s decree in this epistle.
If the blood of the Lamb was sufficient for mankind for salvation and for perfect holiness so they may be presented before the throne of grace, why this circumcision business, or anything like it for that matter? Unless they think otherwise, that Christ’s finished work on the cross wasn’t really finished, and they must add to it, to “attain their goal,” to bring it to completion, as Paul cynically talked of it in .
So what has the council’s decision added to Paul’s gospel message? Nothing.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he had clearly done wrong. Until certain people came from James, he had been eating with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he stopped doing this and separated himself because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also joined with him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray with them by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not behaving consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “If you, although you are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you try to force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:11-14)
If the legalists were powerful during Jesus’ time, still they are at the time of this epistle; powerful enough to threaten the mighty Peter, and the mature Barnabas; and even now.
According to Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, but we don’t need them to know this, that Paul’s contemporary thought the Jewish law and ordinances would make them more spiritual, attain a higher level of perfection. This drive for higher perfection is prevalent throughout Christendom and through all the ages. But this begs the question: What part of us that Christ’s blood missed that demanded sacrifices from fallen flesh?
We are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:15-16)
Note Paul’s rhetorical statement calling himself and his Jewish counterparts “not Gentile sinners.” Paul knows all too well “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.” Remember the gospel passage where the religious man beat his chest calling himself not a sinner like some others? The law, or the use of the law, to appear righteous before God, does nothing but give its adherers a false sense of security, a self-righteousness that blinds them to their need of God’s grace.
We are justified by “the faithfulness of Christ,” but frequently hear from my fellow believers that we are justified by our faithfulness. No, we have faith in Christ, because He’s faithful until the point of death on the cross. We didn’t sing the hymn “How great is the saved sinners’ faithfulness,” but we sing of God’s faithfulness. And finally this beautiful declaration from the revelation Paul received: “by the works of the law no one will be justified.”
But if while seeking to be justified in Christ we ourselves have also been found to be sinners, is Christ then one who encourages sin? Absolutely not! But if I build up again those things I once destroyed, I demonstrate that I am one who breaks God’s law. (Galatians 2:17-18)
As we know, the Jews don’t consider themselves sinners, saved for the Gentiles, so if they seek to be justified by Christ, they admit that they are sinners. To them this is a strange dilemma: I’m a Jews therefore I’m not a sinner, but now I want to trust Christ, I become a sinner, so they question whether Christ is promoting sins. Paul was trying to explain to them that this is not the case. And the rhetorical phrase Paul said here “But if I build up again those things I once destroy,” he was speaking as if he was Peter. This can be paraphrased like this: Peter, you worked hard to proclaim the Perfect Sacrifice that would abolish the Jewish sacrificial system, now are you trying to bring it back by observing circumcision again? You, Peter, then become a law breaker, you break the new law that says: only your faith in the Lamb of God can justify those that believe.
For through the law I died to the law so that I may live to God. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19-20)
If you refuse to die to the law, you cannot live to God. It’s no longer I who try to lead a perfect Christian life, but it’s the Perfect Son of God who’s doing it for me, just as He did on the cross. So now how do I live? I live by continuing to believe, to receive what Christ did and will be doing through me until the day I die, to rely on His faithfulness and not mine, on His love and sacrifice, and not anything this flesh can offer, because it is no longer I who live, but Christ in me, the hope of glory. Besides what can a dead man do?
I do not set aside God’s grace, because if righteousness could come through the law, then Christ died for nothing! (Galatians 2:21)
If I but try to get even a tiny amount of righteousness by something other than the simple faith in Christ, namely the law, or anything that resembles something that undermines the all-sufficiency of Christ, Christ died for nothing! Before He died He said: “It’s finished,” the work to restore man is finished, why are you still trying to act like my death is not enough? What can you do that can add to what your Creator has done, you prideful little man?