Summary: THE ART OF STUMBLING When Peter’s behavior didn’t line up with the gospel, Paul confronted him publicly.
Someone sent me a list of popular sayings third graders were asked to complete. Their surprise endings made me smile.
1. Better safe than punch a fifth grader.
2. Strike while the bug is close.
3. It’s always darkest before Daylight Savings Time.
4. Don’t bite the hand that looks dirty.
5. A miss is as good as a mister.
6. You can’t teach an old dog new math.
7. An idle mind is the best way to relax.
8. A penny saved is not much money.
9. Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you have to blow your nose a lot.
10. If at first you don’t succeed get new batteries.
Those kinds of surprises make us smile, but most Christians don’t smile when they discover a surprise in the Bible. You’re probably familiar with the names Peter and Paul (and Mary), but you may be surprised to learn there was a time when Peter and Paul had a major confrontation. Paul, the newcomer, publically reprimanded Peter for being two-faced. Are you surprised to learn these two Christian heavyweights went toe-to-toe and face-to-one-of-Peter’s-faces? Paul, the champion of grace, was saying, “Come on, Peter! You’re too graced to be two-faced!”
So don’t be surprised to learn there was a disagreement between these two spiritual giants.
Galatians 2:11-16. “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, [the pastor of the church in Jerusalem] he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ [Paul is employing sarcasm here] know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.’”
To understand this historic confrontation between two of the most important Christian leaders in history, let me give you some background. Antioch, the third largest city in the Roman Empire, was the main center of Gentile Christianity. Acts 11:26 tells us believers were first called Christians in Antioch. There was a strong church there, comprised of two groups of people. Jewish Christians had been raised keeping the dietary Law of Moses, and Gentile Christians came out of the pagan religions where there were no dietary regulations.
One day the Christians in Antioch got exciting news. The great apostle, Simon Peter, was coming to visit! Peter who had walked on water; Peter who had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the grave; Peter who preached on the Day of Pentecost and had 3,000 converts. He was the Christian rock star of this time—and he was coming to visit the church in Antioch.
His visit to Antioch sets the stage for the confrontation between Paul and Peter. As we examine this issue, I want to talk about three of the principal characters, Peter, Barnabas, and Paul. We’ll learn a spiritual truth about each of them, and then a personal lesson we can apply to our lives.
1. PETER: Great saints can go astray
Paul wrote, “When I saw that they were not acting in line [ortho-podia] with the truth of the gospel…‘How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’” (Galatians 2:14)
The entire disagreement had to do with what Peter ate, and with whom he ate. It was a food problem and a fellowship problem. In Acts 10 God gave Peter a dream where he saw all kinds of unclean animals. God said, “Kill and eat.” Peter said, “Never, Lord! Those are unclean.” God had said, “Don’t call unclean what I call clean.” After that Peter understood that the gospel was for Gentiles as well as Jews. He went to the home of a Roman Centurion and ate with him. So this was an issue Peter had already settled.
To help you understand the issue, let’s imagine that when Peter arrived in Antioch the church served a welcome meal for him. The menu was barbecue, and the church cooks served beef brisket for those Jewish Christians who still preferred the Jewish dietary rules. But they also served pork barbecue for the Gentile Christians. When Peter went through the serving line first, everybody was watching. He loaded down his plate with both beef and pork barbeque. Then he sat down and ate at the same table with Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians. Everyone sighed with relief. They rejoiced to know that the gospel of grace had eliminated all the tedious rules and regulations of the Old Testament.