Summary: The doctrine of justification is such an important doctrine that a breech of it by Peter caused him to be rebuked by Paul. If the apostles can get it wrong so can we, therefore we need to understand what is at stake.
Galatians 2:11-14 (text)
Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Does it strike you that Paul might be overreacting? After all Paul is making some pretty strong allegations.
• Paul states without reservation that Peter was wrong. The original Greek word can apply to “those who stand condemned before God”. This is not just a difference of opinion between two men – biblical issues are at stake.
• Paul also accuses Peter of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is literally “play-acting” – being people who intentionally contradict their own belief and practice. Peter is being accused of living a lie.
• Paul directly accuses Peter of not acting in line with the truth of the gospel. Peter has taken a different road to the one required by the Scriptures – and it was a road that was taking others away from the truth of the Scriptures. “Peter the Apostle” had become “Peter the Stumbling Block”.
Paul considers it to be such an important issue that we still know about this encounter 2000 years later. All because Peter decided to sit with a few of his old mates from Jerusalem, rather then remain seated with the Gentile Christians at Antioch. Is it really that bad?
Is it really that bad? Yes it is. To see why we need realise that when you ate with someone it meant that you were willing to identify with those people. Having table fellowship meant acceptance of the values and morals of those whom you were with. Table fellowship meant allowing this group to influence your conversation and giving equality to their views. That’s why the Pharisees condemned Jesus by saying, “He eats and drinks with tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners”.
Peter was making a huge statement when he picked up his plate and utensils and moved from the table of the Gentile Christians to the table of the Jews from Jerusalem. Traditionally Jews do not eat with Gentiles. Gentiles have no concept of clean and unclean animals. Gentiles do not follow the rules of Kosher set down over the ages. The Gospel of Jesus is a gospel of grace. But tradition and prejudice are hard to put aside. Peter had allowed his fear of the Jews to make him break fellowship with the Gentile Christians. And in the process a subtle message is being made “You are not good enough for me because you don’t meet certain standards”.
Now that would be bad enough, but Peter is in a position of respect and authority. Like sheep many people follow Peter’s example – “even Barnabas was led astray”. By this stage Barnabas and Paul had spent a year preaching to the church in Antioch – this was Barnabas’ flock. We also know that the church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey through Cyprus and Southern Galatia – and the church in Antioch praised God for the work done by them during this mission. Barnabas was close to these people yet, because of the pressure exerted by the example of Peter, Barnabas felt he must also follow suit. Peer pressure is not just something that happens in our teenage years. And peer pressure has caused the gospel to be compromised.
Peter was scorning brothers in Christ because they were not of “good Jewish stock”. Peter was relegating them to second-class citizens because they didn’t meet Jewish standards. Because of his position Peter was causing others to sin in the same way. Such intolerance to Gentiles deserves rebuke – and Paul was willing to give it. So now we have two sides facing one another:
On one side is the group of Jews. Some wearing a self-satisfied grin because Peter had sided with them. Some feeling a little confused by this turn in events. Some a little ashamed that they had been so easily lead. And Peter, perhaps beginning to regret his decision because of the tension it had caused.
On the other side is the group of Gentiles. Some feeling betrayed by Peter who had turned his back on them. Some hurt by the reality that acceptance into this group is more than just a matter of grace. Some wondering if they will ever be good enough. And Paul, fired up and angry by this overt display of prejudice.
As the two sides face one another Paul calls it for what it is:- a compromise on the doctrine of justification by faith. Does it matter? Does it really matter that the doctrine of justification by faith has been compromised? Yes it does matter. In and of ourselves there is nothing that makes us worthy of God’s love. We cannot please God by our actions. We don’t have any goodness which is of value to God. We fail to take God’s law and live it perfectly. We are born in sin. Even one slip-up makes us guilty of breaking the whole law. We cannot be justified – we cannot be declared right with God – by any works we do.