[Originally published as part of The Plot (an overview of the Bible)]
Wrong ideas about God impair evangelism.
The Apostle Paul used this same caution in the same context! Following Paul’s approach to explaining and resolving doctrinal disputes will provide the key to resolving these ten debates.
Watch Paul Carefully
Paul strongly emphasized that he had little contact with the twelve apostles prior to the Jerusalem council. This point is so crucial to Paul that he declares, “I saw none of the other apostles… I do not lie” (Gal. 1:19-20). Paul emphasizes this slight contact to explain in part why he needed to confront Peter and why he and the Twelve had to meet to “consider” theological matters.
The idea that Paul stressed, that he had little contact with the twelve apostles, is foreign to many Christians. Therefore, when reading the Bible, believers tend to gloss over these passages, acting as though they do not exist or that they have no meaning or relevance to Christian truth. However, God put these details in the Bible, just as He put Mars on an elliptical orbit. So, like Kepler, good students will not neglect details even if they do not seem to fit anywhere in a neat worldview.
While reading the following verses, remember to use the “sentence-within-a-sentence” technique. First, read the whole quotation. Then read the sub-sentence formed by the boldface words. Then read the sentence within the sub-sentence formed by the underlined words. Notice how Paul emphasizes his brief contact with the twelve apostles:
But I make known to you, brethren, that gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it [the Gospel] from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ. Gal. 1:11-12
Paul, an apostle, not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ… Gal. 1:1
But when it pleased God… that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; Gal. 1:15–17
God wanted Paul to preach Christ to “the Gentiles.” Originally, the concept of Gentile referred to people who were out of a covenant relationship with God. But since the New Testament era, more Gentiles have followed Christ than Jews, and so today, in Christian terminology, the Bible’s word Gentile refers specifically to those who are not Jews, that is, non-Jews.
and I was unknown by face to the churches of Judea which were in Christ. Gal. 1:22
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. (Now concerning the things which I write to you, indeed, before God, I do not lie.) Gal. 1:18–20
Notice what the “sentence-within” technique makes clear:
- [Paul] did not immediately confer, nor did [he] go to those who were apostles before [him]; Gal. 1:15–17
- [Paul] neither received [the Gospel] from man, nor was [he] taught it. Gal. 1:12
- [Paul] was unknown by face to Judea. Gal. 1:22
- [Paul saw Peter but] none of the other apostles except James, Gal. 1:18–19
But fourteen years after his brief initial contact with two of the apostles, God revealed to Paul that he should go up to Jerusalem and tell Peter, James, and John about the Gospel which he was preaching to the Gentiles.
Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem… And I went up by revelation, and communicated to them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to those who were of reputation, lest by any means I might run, or had run, in vain… and when James, Cephas [Peter], and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Gal. 2:1–2, 9
Paul communicated this to those with reputations as leaders privately.
Why privately? God wanted the Twelve to accept Paul and his ministry to the Gentiles. Paul sought the right hand of fellowship (Gal. 2:9) from the apostles in Jerusalem. He did not want to run the risk of a public disagreement with them which might cause his efforts to have been in vain (Gal. 2:2). His godly discretion achieved the desired result. The Twelve Apostles in Jerusalem blessed Paul’s ministry (Acts 21:17–20; 15:6–31).
To imitate Paul’s method (to bring unity of understanding to believers with contrasting ideas) is to invite the success he met. For Peter not only backed Paul’s apostleship (Gal. 2:7–8) but also endorsed, as Paul wrote, “that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles” (Gal. 2:2).
Even after this, however, Paul was given cause to confront Peter forcefully as doctrinal inconsistencies erupted into disunity.
But when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?” Gal. 2:11–14
Again notice the clarity with which the “sentence-within” technique brings into view a difficult but undeniable aspect of the biblical record:
- [Paul] withstood [Peter] to his face, because [Peter] was to be blamed;
- And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with [Peter].
- But when [Paul] saw that [Peter was] not straightforward about the truth of the gospel. Gal. 2:11–14
Christ commissioned Peter, a great apostle. Further, the Holy Spirit came upon Peter at Pentecost. So why would Paul have such difficulty with him? Also, why do other doctrinal difficulties between the apostles appear in the New Testament?
As the reader shall see, these difficulties appear because of a major plot twist that occurs in the Bible. But until the student fully identifies the plot and the plot twists, understanding these details will be almost impossible. As a result, many Christians simply ignore such passages, though there are many of them.
Surprisingly, Paul’s argument with Peter was rooted in the same doctrinal confusion that Paul had earlier attempted to resolve at the Jerusalem Council, described in Acts 15. But. thank God, that with His help, even today’s confrontations will be resolved and all relationships restored among believers. For approximately ten years after Paul’s harsh-but-needed confrontation, Peter wrote kindly about Paul. In his own epistle, Peter indicated that even though Paul’s writings contained some things “hard to understand,” he nonetheless accepted them as a part of the “Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:15–16).
An intuitive reader may already understand why this book introduces this Peter and Paul episode here. Their interaction illustrates the root cause of most scriptural disagreement among believers. Their entire relationship, as recorded in the Bible, teaches a vital message.
Doctrinal disputes began with the earliest Christians!
After the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the most important characters in the New Testament are Paul, Peter, James, and John. The Lord spent three years with the Twelve and had repeated direct communication with Paul. Yet Peter and Paul would find themselves embroiled in practical disputes important enough to find their way into the Bible.
To understand the doctrinal disputes popular among Christians today, one must understand the causes and resolution of those disputes that began among the earliest Christian leaders. Once the historical disputes are understood, one cannot help but see clearly through our modern theological fog.
Therefore, this text first presents a historical survey to clarify the first-century disputes. This survey will also reveal the key, the one solution, which will resolve many current conflicts and remove the great divide between traditional proof texts and problem texts. A biblical theology will result, which displaces “apparent contradictions” with the force of dynamite clearing boulders for a new road.