In the previous paragraph, the apostle Paul has described how he went to Jerusalem in defense of the truth of the gospel. God called him by revelation to go there and set before “the influential” the gospel he was proclaiming to the Gentiles. Paul also took Titus with him, an uncircumcised Gentile who became a Christian and remained uncircumcised. But Titus was not compelled to be circumcised. The gospel Paul preached and the gospel the apostles and influential in Jerusalem preached was the same message. The problem was that there were false brothers who secretly slipped in, trying to bring them back into slavery to the Law of Moses. No one yielded for a moment to this false gospel.
So everything seems fine. Except it wasn’t. There is another issue that can arise, and it did arise in the first century regarding the gospel. It is one thing to agree with the gospel message, but it is another thing to live according to the gospel message. You know the truth of the gospel but will you live in line with the gospel? This is the issue Paul must deal with next, and it comes from a very unexpected place. Read Galatians 2:11-14 to see what happened.
Peter In Antioch (2:11-13)
The apostle Paul tells about something that happened to show how he has defended the truth of the gospel. When Peter came to Antioch, Paul had to oppose him because Peter stood condemned. This is an amazing situation. One apostle had to confront another apostle and the reason is because one of the apostles, Peter of all people, stood condemned. This statement should blow a large hole in the idea that the apostles were infallible. Peter is apparently making such a mistake that Paul feels compelled to confront him on what he is doing. So what was Peter doing that required apostolic confrontation?
Verse 12 reveals that Peter was eating with the Gentiles, as he ought to have been. The picture is that Peter did not care about the kinds of foods the Gentiles are eating. Peter is eating these unclean foods along with the Gentiles. Remember that in ancient near eastern society, eating together was a powerful symbol of acceptance and fellowship. We still have some semblance of this idea even in our society, but it was even stronger then. So Peter is doing the right thing and living his life according to the truth of the gospel. There is no returning to the Law of Moses for any of its commands, regulations, or ceremonies.
But a problem arose when certain men came from James. The “James” that this would be referring to is James, the brother of Jesus, one of the pillars in the Jerusalem church. We saw his named mentioned back in verse 9. Now we learned from verse 9 that James agrees with the truth of the gospel, along with Paul, Peter, and John. We see this also in Acts 15:13-21 where James at the Jerusalem council declared that the prophets agree that the Gentiles are not under the Law of Moses and are not to be troubled by telling them to keep any of those customs. So we know that James is not the problem. But certain people came from James. Paul has told us in verse 4 that false brothers had secretly slipped in, and it seems it was some of these who came from James to Antioch to cause trouble. So when these men came, Peter drew back and separated himself from the Gentile Christians. He no longer ate with them after they came (2:12). Unfortunately, not only did Peter do this, but the rest of the Jewish Christians also followed Peter’s actions, so much so that even Barnabas was swept away into this.
Why would they do this? Why would they act hypocritically? They knew the truth of the gospel. It was not that they were misinformed. Not only is Peter included in those who agree with the truth of the gospel (2:9) but also remember that Peter ate with Cornelius and his household who are Gentiles after he received his vision from the Lord (Acts 10:28; 11:3). Peter was criticized by the Jewish Christians but Peter defended his actions to them (Acts 11:2-18). So what caused him to cave into hypocrisy at this point?
Verse 12 reveals that Peter feared the circumcision party. That is, he fears the Jewish Christians who are claiming the need for Gentile Christians to keep the Law of Moses and to be circumcised to be saved. The rest of the Christians in Antioch also fell into this fear, and it seems even Barnabas caved under the fear. They are afraid of what these Christians are going to say. They are under pressure to compromise the truth of the gospel and are doing such because they are in fear. It is useful to consider that peer pressure never ends. We might as well learn to deal with it when we are young because even as adults people will try to use their approval or distain to manipulate us to do things. No one is above falling into error. No one is above caving into pressure.
Unfortunately these pressures are often still applied today. Preachers, elders, and churches can live in this fear of what other churches or other preachers might think or say about them. I could digress into a lengthy description of the staggering number of times I have personally seen this happen myself. When certain people come around who have made themselves to be “be something” or seemingly “influential” then suddenly they will behave or teach differently. We must recognize that we have a vast freedom in Christ for our worship and must not be compelled by others in how we do things. We have the tendency to want conformity and can perceive a lack of conformity to signal sinfulness or liberalism or something else. I have seen this many times. One example is a church I was at that decided to have the Christians meet in four different members homes on Wednesday night for Bible study. Members of the church would go to the home that was nearest to them and members were encouraged to bring their neighbors and friends to these Bible studies. You would think that this decision meant that we have rejected Christ, were trying to be sinful or slick, and some of the surrounding churches caused us problems because we did something different. But meeting in our homes for Bible study on Wednesday is not unscriptural. It is not traditional but it is quite scriptural. What was amazing was if you asked the critics they would tell you that it was perfectly scriptural to have Bible studies in homes! They understood what the scriptures said. But they did not want to practice the truth of what they knew. They want conformity instead. Friends, we must be compelled by the scriptures alone. The goal is not conformity. The goal is not to have the acts of worship all be the same so that we all perform two songs, a prayer, a song, the Lord’s Supper, a song, the collection, a song, the sermon, and then an invitation song. The goal is not to have all our websites look the same. The goal is not to all have the same meeting times. Conforming to each other is not the goal. All that we must desire is conformity to the word of God.
Living In Line With the Gospel (2:14)
This is exactly the problem Paul identifies. Peter’s conduct was no longer in step (ESV) or “in line” (NIV) with the truth of the gospel. Christian living is a continual realignment process with the scriptures as the standard, not people. It is our job to bring everything in our lives into conformity with the scriptures. Our thinking, our feelings, and our behavior must be brought into line with the truth of the gospel. Peter knew the truth of the gospel, but his action did not conform to that truth. Rather, he succumb to the fear of what these other Jewish Christians might do or say. Peter wanted to be in conformity to the circumcision party rather than live in conformity to the truth of the gospel.
Peter did not realize that by believing in the truth of the gospel but not living according to the truth the gospel caused the gospel to be denied. Even the imposition of the food laws from the Law of Moses had the same denial of the gospel as if he were to require Gentile Christians to be circumcised. If the Law of Moses has been set aside and fulfilled in Jesus, as Paul and Peter agreed, then going back to any aspect of the Law of Moses, no matter how small or trivial it seemed, was a denial of the gospel message.
Therefore, Paul says that he said before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can your force the Gentiles to live like the Jews?” Why did Paul says this in front of everyone? Why not pull Peter aside and without anyone watching ask him what he is doing? The reason is revealed in what had happened. Peter’s actions had caused the rest of the Jewish Christians to also act hypocritically. This does not mean that Paul had a fit of rage in public on Peter. But his public sin before the Christians in Antioch required a public confrontation before these same people so that the truth of the gospel would be preserved before them as well. Public confrontation is needed for public sin. Listen to what Paul taught Timothy.
Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. (1 Timothy 5:19–20 ESV)
Jesus taught in Matthew 18 that those who refuse to repent of sin must have such taken before the church. Paul taught the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 5 that those who are engaging in unrepentant sin were to be marked and withdrawn from. It can be uncomfortable but there are times when there must be a public stand against sin when that person’s sin causing other’s faith and knowledge to stumble. This is why Paul uses the image to the Corinthians: Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? (1 Corinthians 5:6 ESV)
Living for Christ means continual realignment of our lives to his word. We may come under pressure to turn away from the truth of the gospel to follow traditions. We may come under pressure to conform to the way other churches do things. But we must not give into the pressures of others simply for the sake of appeasement. Paul and the apostles could have just said, “What is the big deal? Just get circumcised so that there are no more problems.” Paul understood that this will not work. We cannot create our own rules and bind them on ourselves or others. Unfortunately, many will cave in rather than stand for what the scriptures teach.
Another part of our continual realignment is the need to always change our lives to the gospel. Everything in our lives must be brought under submission to Christ. This means a constant checking of our heart, our beliefs, and our actions. If Peter can fall, anyone can fall. We are never so strong so as to not be able to fall. Evaluate your hearts. Is Jesus your one and only desire and the gospel that to which you will submit all things in your life under? Pressure will be given by family, friends, and even seeming Christians to do otherwise. Give Jesus everything and live in line with the gospel.