Summary: Salvation is by Grace through faith alone. This affects how we see ourselves, others and God.
You can imagine the scene. The Church in Antioch are sitting down to their meal, with the Gentile Christians on this side with Paul in the middle and the Jewish Christians on that side with Peter in the middle of them. The meal’s about to start when Paul jumps up and says "This isn’t good enough! Peter, what are you doing over there? Don’t you realise the hypocrisy of your action?" Complete silence! Jaws begin to drop. People shuffle in their seats. Some of them begin to get that hollow feeling in their stomachs. Here are the two great figures of the Church and they’re about to have a stand up argument. Here are the two leaders that these Christians most look up to and they’re at loggerheads.
Paul goes on. He says "You’re not acting in line with the gospel that you proclaim. What’s come over you? I mean ever since you had that vision on the rooftop back in the early days, when Cornelius asked you to come and talk to him, you’ve given up living like a Jew. You don’t worry any more about the Jewish ceremonial laws. You’re happy to eat non-kosher food when you visit Gentile brothers and sisters. So how come, now that this Jerusalem group have come to Antioch, you’ve changed your mind? How come now you’re siding with them and expecting Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?"
They’re strong words aren’t they? And he says them in the assembly, in front of all the others. Why didn’t he take him out the back and have a quiet word with him? After all, wasn’t it important to maintain the appearance of unity among the leadership even if they did have this problem? But no, he makes a very public issue of it. Why do you think that is? Why does he embarrass Peter like this? Why does he make such a big issue out of it? Well, because it is a big issue.
You see, this behaviour of Peter goes right to the heart of the gospel. It goes right to the heart of what we believe about our salvation. It affects how we see ourselves, how we see others, and even how we see God.
How we see ourselves.
Here’s the thing. If we seek salvation through obedience to an external law, and we achieve it, how do we see ourselves? Well, we see ourselves as pretty good; above the average; more worthy than others who haven’t done as well as we have. We perhaps even begin to see ourselves as equal with God or at least good enough to satisfy him, to please him.
You see, Paul looks back at his early life as a Jew and that’s what he sees. Look at 1:13. "You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors." Notice the subject of the verbs. It’s I, I ,I. He’d got to where he was by his own efforts. He was the champion of God’s cause; set on destroying this new sect because it was a danger to the true worship of God. And he was proud of the fact!
And it isn’t just self-satisfaction that’s the danger. What if we don’t live up to the standards of the law. Look at what he says in 2:18: "if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, [that is the dependence on the law] then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor." Why? Because as soon as you start to depend on the law you discover how far you fall short of that law. All the law does for you is to show you what a sinner you are.