Early in the ministry of Paul (at least three years after his conversion, Gal. 1:15-18), the apostle returned to his native Tarsus (Acts 9:30), where it is estimated he labored six or seven years. In the meantime, Barnabas, the great exhorter in the early church (Acts 4:36-37), was working with the expanding congregation in Antioch of Syria (Acts 11:23), just north of Palestine.
As the church flourished, Barnabas felt the need of a working companion; he thus went to Tarsus to seek the assistance of Saul (later called Paul – Acts 13:9). These co-laborers returned to Antioch, where they vigorously served the Lord for the following year (Acts 11:25-26).
When an impending Judean famine became known, these brothers conveyed a contribution from the Syrian disciples to the saints in Judea (Acts 11:29). Subsequently, these partners returned to Antioch, bringing with them Mark (Acts 12:25), who eventually penned the Gospel that bears his name.
Probably in the spring of A.D. 48, Paul, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, departed on what is commonly called his “first missionary journey” (Acts 13:4-14:26). Scholars believe that this trip consumed less than two years, so that by the fall of A.D. 49, the apostle was back in Syrian Antioch.
It was at this point that an interesting turn of events occurred, from which several valuable truths can be gleaned. As Paul and Barnabas “tarried no little time” (possibly about a year) with the disciples, they were confronted by certain Judaizers from Jerusalem. These were Jewish Christians who demanded obedience to Moses’ law as an appendix to the Gospel. These teachers contended: “Except you are circumcised, after the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).
But Paul and Barnabas would not let such an egregious error pass. There was great “dissension and questioning” between these men of God and the innovating Judaizers. The controversy created considerable confusion in the minds of the Syrian Christians. The church was at a crucial point. What to do?
The Syrian brethren came up with this solution. Paul and Barnabas, along with certain others, would be dispatched to Jerusalem. Once there, they would consult with the “apostles and elders” about this matter (15:2), and return with a decision. There are several interesting implications in this circumstance.
First, what was the church doing sending Paul to the other apostles, and the Jerusalem elders, in order to obtain a ruling about the relationship of the law to salvation? Was not Paul himself an apostle? Of course he was. Was he in any sense inferior to the others? He most certainly was not (2 Cor. 11:5; cf. Gal. 2:6ff). This action, therefore, on the part of the brethren in Antioch revealed that they had not fully accepted the authority of the great apostle to the Gentiles.
Note McGarvey’s comment:
“If the brethren at Antioch had properly estimated the authority of an inspired apostle, they would have accepted implicitly Paul’s decision without this mission to Jerusalem...” (New Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, 55).
Second, there is another important consideration. Though Luke, the author of this account in Acts, says nothing explicitly about this reticence to accept Paul’s authority, the facts fairly imply it. It is known, however, from other sources that Paul’s apostleship subsequently was questioned elsewhere as well. There was a minority element within the Corinthian congregation that vigorously opposed Paul and disputed his authority as the Lord’s apostle. Four chapters in the concluding portion of Second Corinthians focus upon this controversy (10-13). And so, there is a sense of unity between these accounts. The subdued nature of Luke’s record in Acts 15 is but one of those hundreds of examples of undesigned, incidental harmonies that give the Scriptures an aura of credibility.
Third, the fact that Luke unhesitatingly records this event, which reflects upon Paul’s apostleship, suggests another aspect that lends support to the issue of inspiration. This is a circumstance that no forger, who is creating a fictitious account in order to enhance Paul’s reputation, would ever contrive. Again, this is clear evidence of the integrity of the historical record.
Fourth, reflect upon this. When the folks in Antioch petitioned Paul and Barnabas to go up to Jerusalem for an apostolic judgment, there is not one shred of evidence to suggest that the apostle was indignant about the matter. Had he been so inclined, he might have “pitched a fit,” demanding that the confused brethren accept his dictum regarding the role of circumcision in the divine economy. He might have heatedly argued: “Listen, I am an apostle, and I am in no degree behind the others. I have every right to settle this issue here and now. You will listen to me!”
But no, Paul is ever ready to put the kingdom first. His ego is not so fragile. It is not Paul, but Christ, who must be magnified. That the apostle was willing to make this trip, with neither reticence nor complaining, is a magnificent commentary on the attitude of this remarkable gentleman.
Finally, the fact that Paul was so successful in his apostolic labors, in spite of opposition from within, and persecution from without, is a testimony to the indomitable spirit of this servant of Christ. What a man!