I spent a week at Cornhill last year learning about how to handle the Bible. One of the things they suggested doing when preparing a talk on a passage was to work out the “Big Idea” of the passage (the main thing the passage teaches us – the point that, if your listeners only remembered one thing, this would be what you want them to remember), and to try to summarise that in one sentence of a maximum of 12 words. And then do the same thing with the application, so summarise what you hope people will go away and do as a result of what they’ve learned from the passage.
For this passage in Galatians 2v1-10, I concluded that the “Big Idea” could be summarised as: “Paul’s gospel ministry to the uncircumcised is validated by the other apostles”.
And I would summarise the main application for us to take away from this passage as: “Believe the gospel of Christ and do not submit to religious slavery”.
I guess you should judge for yourselves whether those are accurate summaries of the point of this passage.
v2 “to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain”
So having made a big point in Chapter 1 about how little contact he’d had with the apostles in Jerusalem following his conversion – in order to emphasise that the gospel he preached came from God, not man – now Paul tells us about the time, 14 years after his conversion, when he did go to Jerusalem.
In v2 he tells us why. On first reading, when Paul says he went up “to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain” it sounds a bit like he’s suddenly having major doubts about the gospel he’s been preaching and wants to go and check with the apostles for reassurance that the message he’s been preaching is in fact true. That would be a very strange thing for Paul to admit to following on from the 2nd half of chapter 1 when he was very keen to emphasise that the gospel he preached was trustworthy because it came direct from God, not men.
There are also a couple of other clues in this passage that tell us there was something else going on, that when Paul says he wanted to make sure he wasn’t running in vain, his concern is not about the validity of his preaching.
Firstly, in v2 Paul says he went up “because of a revelation”. So he reminds his readers again that he had direct access to God. If you receive direct revelations from God, you don’t need people to reassure you that what you’re saying is right.
Also in v2, Paul tells us he set the gospel that he proclaimed before “those who seemed influential”, but then in v6 he says “what they were makes no difference to me”. If Paul was having doubts and wanted some reassurance that the gospel he was preaching was really true, it wouldn’t have made sense for him to go up to see some people in Jerusalem and then say, “but actually their influence means nothing to me”.
So what did Paul mean by saying he went up “in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain”?
He uses the same term “in vain” later on in the letter. Look at Ch4v8-11.
So when Paul says he’s concerned that his labouring/running might have been in vain, he means he’s afraid that the people who received the gospel from him might be turning back away from the gospel to religious works.
So he didn’t go up to Jerusalem for his own sake, to get reassurance for himself that the gospel he was preaching really was true; he went up for the sake of those who heard the gospel from him. He didn’t need the apostles’ validation of his ministry for his own sake, but for the benefit of those who heard Paul’s preaching and initially believed what he said, but then also heard conflicting teaching from other people, and weren’t sure who to trust.
Now Paul could say not only that his gospel came directly from God, but that the apostles in Jerusalem also confirmed its validity, so those who heard the gospel from Paul could confidently dismiss any other gospel they might hear as false.