Dispute between Giants
11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
15We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. 17But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. 19For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 20I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
In the New Testament, aside from the name of Jesus, no other names stand higher than Peter and Paul. Both stand as heroes of the faith 2,000 year later and there is much to admire about both of them. But there was a time when they were locked in a dispute and Paul lays that story before us in Galatians 2.
These events take place both in Jerusalem and Antioch. To understand this dispute, we need to look at Acts 15 where this issue of circumcision was discussed at length by the Apostles and Church leaders, including Paul. Galatians 2 examines this event and its consequences from Paul’s perspective. What we don’t know is whether the Acts 15 conference or this meeting in Antioch took place first.
1But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. 3So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” 6The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
From the theological conference that took place in Jerusalem, it is clear that all of the Apostles and Paul agreed that conversion of the Gentiles did not include a trip through Judaism. That fact is the crux of the entire book of Galatians. As a part of that teaching, we find Paul confronting Peter for stepping back from the decision made at Jerusalem – or displaying a lack of understanding when it concerned the Gentiles (depending on the timing of this confrontation.)
The confrontation at Antioch requires the sober recognition that even the greatest and most gifted of leaders may at times fail and fall. Paul’s rebuke of Peter is a call for humility on the part of all Christians. The Word of God and its teachings have to retain their priority at all times in the church’s life. At stake in Paul’s adamant and vigorous reproof of Peter was the unity of all believers in the Gospel of Christ and his church. Although it was surely not his intent, Peter’s actions created a situation in which some Christians would become “second-class” Christians. If Jewish Christians did not eat with gentile Christians, the gentile Christians would find themselves marginalized. There is no such thing as a second-class Christian. Whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (3:28), no person is of lesser worth in the Lord’s eyes.
Das, A. A. (2014). Galatians. (p. 201-202). Saint Louis, MO: CPH.
In the end, Paul accused Peter of hypocrisy, not apostasy, which indicates that they both agree about the Gospel and its relationship with the Law. While they may not have spent a great deal of time together as best buddies, they didn’t not treat one another poorly or bad-mouth each other. They disagreed and went their separate ways. Even God’s people do no always agree with one another. What we might be encouraged to do with this story is examine our own response to fellow believers when we disagree. Are we open to conversation and perhaps even a change of heart? Or do we demand to be “right” and have others congratulate us on that “rightness”? The text is silent as to who “won” this argument, but we do know that in Acts 10, Peter receives a lesson on the Gentiles from the Lord Himself in the form of a vision. Old habits die hard and when we become intractable, we become a problem no matter our standing within the Christian community.