Galatians 2: 2 I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain.
Paul went to Jerusalem (no small journey, to be sure) “in response to a revelation.” No details are given, but its clear God told Paul to do this. Was it a direct revelation? Or did it come via a brother, or in counseling? (Some scholars point to Acts 11: 27 as the source of the revelation to go to Jerusalem). It doesn’t matter what the source of the revelation was, I suppose. But Paul was obedient to God’s word in his life.
The gist of the “revelation” was apparently to go to the leaders of the church at Jerusalem and submit his ministry to them, to get “official” approval for the outreach to the Gentiles, and to settle the issue of circumcision for the Gentiles once and for all.
This was done privately – which would conflict with the details of Acts 15, which explains the details of the meeting of the Council at Jerusalem, where this topic was debated publicly among the church leaders and settled. Either there was another visit by Paul to Jerusalem prior to the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 (many scholars think so, and point to the “famine visit” of Acts 11:27), or perhaps Paul met with the Apostles and other church leaders privately prior to the Council taking place – immediately before. Therefore, its not impossible to fit the events of Galatians 2 into the Acts 15 narrative. Acts 15:4 has Paul and Barnabas “welcomed” in Jerusalem, and reporting what God had done for the Gentiles through their ministry. Paul could have had his private meeting with “those who seemed to be leaders” at that time. Then, in Acts 15:5, the Pharisees who had become Christian believers publicly objected to Gentiles being exempt from the requirement of circumcision, and a public debate ensued. This would mean Paul would have been vindicated in private first. But its hard to reconcile the leaders allowing the public debate if they had just given Paul their blessing. Perhaps its possible that Paul and the Jerusalem elders orchestrated the entire public display of the Jerusalem Council in order to make their point. That would seem disingenuous, I suppose. This makes it difficult to reconcile Acts 15 with Galatians 2. I need to do a little more research.
“those who seemed to be leaders” Is Paul being disrespectful? I don’t think so. There was not a “papal” concept of authority in the early church. Individual leaders did not necessarily wield authority, but groups of men, working together as leaders, usually regionally. But the church at Jerusalem was recognized as having a sort of primacy. When Paul says “seemed,” its because he would have addressed whoever was there and appeared to be “in charge.” From both Acts 15 and Galatians 2, we can glean this included Peter and James the Lord’s brother. Both of these men were leaders at Jerusalem, but neither of them individually had authority over the whole church – they labored together.
“running my race in vain” At first blush, this would indicate that Paul was having doubts about the truth of his calling. But this is NOT borne out by the rest of scripture, or even the rest of Galatians. Paul was not only passionate about his calling, but he was totally convinced he was right. Yet, this language shows that if the elders had said to Paul, “stop” – he would have. Paul was completely submitted to authority, and he was willing to obey and give up everything he was living for, much like Abraham, when God told him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. (That Paul believed in the truth of his calling is borne out in 2:5 – he never wavered. Yet he was willing to stop or change if the Council had said so). I believe the comparison with Abraham is appropriate. The book of Hebrews states that Abraham had the faith to believe that Isaac would have risen from the dead had God forced him to kill his son, I think Paul was putting his ministry “on the altar” in a similar fashion, and Paul had the faith to believe that if the elders had told him to stop, or that Gentiles had to follow the law, God would miraculously intervene in some way to allow His work to continue among the Gentiles.