Lest, Perhaps, Paul had Run in Vain

And I went up by revelation; and I laid before them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately before them who were of repute, lest by any means I should be running, or had run, in vain. (Galatians 2:2 RV)

I’ve been thinking of this verse in Galatians. Paul is recounting the events of Acts 15 when he and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to confer about the issue of circumcision. Some were teaching that Gentiles must be circumcised – they must become Jews – to be saved. Paul opposed this teaching.

This event comes up frequently in certain circles as the First Church Council and this verse in particular is used to say that Paul had uncertainty concerning what he preached and that he was submitting what he preached to the Church leaders for their affirmation or for their correction. According to this take, Paul was unsure if what he taught was accurate and had the leaders ruled that Gentiles must be circumcised, it is assumed, Paul would have had to admit he had run (taught) in vain and changed his teachings in submission to the leaders. I suggest, rather, that this phrasing means something quite else. Paul did not fear the teaching he received “by revelation” was false but that “those of repute” (A title which seems to show that Paul is referring to them not for any need on his part for their authority, but used as an apologetic towards his opponents) may decide against the Gospel.

One of the first things to notice is that the “to make sure I was not running in vain” – NET (“I did this because I was afraid that I was running or had run my life’s race for nothing” – ISV) take on this is quite contrary to the confidence Paul was expressing in the rest of the passage. Paul had deliberately brought an uncircumcised Gentile believer (Titus) to take part in the discussion at Jerusalem. Indications are that Paul considered Titus “Exhibit A” for “no circumcision”. Titus was an “in the flesh” example of the Gospel which Paul preached which he presented to those who were of repute (v 2).

Also, those who would wish Titus to be circumcised were “false brothers” (v 4 clearly distinguishing these guys from “those of repute”) to whom he gave no inch (“not even for a moment” v 5). This confidence is quite opposite of the picture presented that Paul was concerned that he was teaching the wrong Gospel.

With the confidence expressed by Paul, “lest, …” is probably not expressing concern for error on Paul’s part, but rather may be a question for his “reputable” hearers which almost forces a negative answer. “Here is the Gospel I preach and here is an uncircumcised Gentile believer resulting from my preaching. Can you really say that I am running in vain?”

Paul’s other uses of “vain” also push things in this direction. holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. (Philippians 2:16) Here the vanity would not be in false teaching, but the short-lived fruit of his preaching. For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. (1 Thessalonians 2:1) Here, again, Paul is talking about the fruit of his preaching despite previous persecutions and then current opposition. Finally, an example that not only talks about working in vain but is also introduced with the same phrase “lest, by any means” which introduces the Galatians passage, For this cause I also, when I could no longer forbear, sent that I might know your faith, lest by any means the tempter had tempted you, and our labour should be in vain. (1 Thessalonians 3:5). Here, the possibility which concerns Paul is not that his teaching would prove to be in error but that something would destroy the work. His work would be in vain because there would be no lasting effects and the people would be following false teaching.

Likewise, the fear for Paul in Galatians 2:2 would be the destruction of the Gospel and the fruits of his work should it be decided or become accepted teaching that circumcision be required for Salvation for the Gentiles. Later, he puts it very strongly: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. (Galatians 5:2) The requirement of circumcision runs counter to the Gospel (given to Paul by revelation and never doubted by him) and the teaching must be stood against.

Given the confidence of Paul, the certainty that he had of what was given to him by revelation and his common concern for lasting fruit, it seems unlikely that Galatians 2:2 expresses concern that Paul was teaching wrongly about circumcision and was submitting his teaching for correction. Rather, he was standing up against a false teaching which originated in Jerusalem and placed his “running” on the line as evidence for the Truth of the Gospel.

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2 Responses to Lest, Perhaps, Paul had Run in Vain

  1. Ray Nearhood says:

    You seem to be in good company in your commentary of this passage:

    Lest by any means. What then? Shall the word of God fall, when it is unsupported by the testimony of men? Though the whole world were unbelieving, yet the word of God remains firm and unshaken: and they who preach the gospel by the command of God are not uselessly employed, even when no fruit is produced by their labors. This is not Paul’s meaning; but, as the consciences of men, so long as they doubt and hesitate, derive no benefit from the ministry of the word, so a preacher is said, so far as men is concerned, to run in vain, when his labors are ineffectual, and unaccompanied by proper edification. – John Calvin

    though his take may be sort of midway between yours and Matthew Henry’s

    And the reason of this his caution was lest he should run, or had run, in vain, lest he should stir up opposition against himself and thereby either the success of his past labours should be lessened, or his future usefulness be obstructed; for nothing more hinders the progress of the gospel than differences of opinion about the doctrines of it, especially when they occasion quarrels and contentions among the professors of it, as they too usually do. It was enough to his purpose to have his doctrine owned by those who were of greatest authority, whether it was approved by others or not. And therefore, to avoid offence, he judges it safest to communicate it privately to them, and not in public to the whole church. This conduct of the apostle may teach all, and especially ministers, how much need they have of prudence, and how careful they should be to use it upon all occasions, as far as is consistent with their faithfulness.2. That in his practice he firmly adhered to the doctrine which he had preached. Paul was a man of resolution, and would adhere to his principles; and therefore, though he had Titus with him, who was a Greek, yet he would not suffer him to be circumcised, because he would not betray the doctrine of Christ, as he had preached it to the Gentiles.

  2. mem says:

    x —

    I’ve always felt the same way, that Paul’s concern was not with what he believed, but with what might be coming out of Jerusalem. This tension is heightened by the fact he went up “by revelation,” rather than by seeking out the council himself. He was told to go. It also seems as though he spends a fair amount of time introducing the letter with his God-given (not church-granted) authority, but also with the supreme authority of the gospel (which trumps his own, 1:8,9). It is really difficult to use the passage to mean that Paul was afraid that his own personal teaching was wrong.

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