Summary: A message from an expository series on the book of Galatians
There is so much that is communicated over a meal. A shocking fact is that businessmen do not schedule so many appointments in restaurants simply because they prefer mass produced food over their wives’ home cooking. The reason lies in the fact that eating together with their clients has proven time and time again a very effective way to conduct business. Through common meals, friendships are solidified, romances are ignited and barriers are broken down. To eat together is to treat one another as an equal. This is the reason that throughout history slaves have been forbidden to eat with their masters. That is also why, in the first century, no self respecting orthodox Jew would be caught dead eating with a Gentile. According to the Jewish mindset, Gentiles were not equals. Our text details a conflict that arose between Peter and Paul over this issue. Peter had been a Jew much longer than he had been a Christian, and he was prone to allow the traditions with which he was raised to cloud his thinking. In this instance Peter gets himself in trouble with Paul when he allowed his Jewish prejudice to override his Christian convictions.
I. Peter’s problem was whether or not he should eat with Gentiles.
A. In the fast-food culture of modern Western civilization, it is difficult to appreciate the religious significance ancient peoples associated with the simple act of eating.
1. When Peter came to Antioch, he found Jewish and Gentile believers eating together at the same table, and he freely joined them in this practice.
2. We do not know the precise nature of these meals, but they very likely included the agapē, or Christian love, feast, of which the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was an integral part.
3. Jesus drew sharp criticism because of His practice of eating with tax collectors and sinners.
4. By freely associating with notorious sinners and Gentile “dogs” in the fellowship of a shared meal, Jesus was in effect announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God in his own person. By this radical act he also was saying that the basis of one’s true standing before God could no longer be measured in terms of obedience to the law.
5. Jesus’ disciples did not immediately grasp the full implications of his practice of open table fellowship, nor did they easily imitate him in this regard.
6. The crucial point for understanding Peter’s action at Antioch is the fact that he himself had pioneered the sharing of the gospel with the Gentiles and had already worked through to a position of Christian liberty concerning unbroken table-fellowship within the body of Christ.
B. Three interrelated events precipitated the confrontation between Peter and Paul.
1. The arrival of the delegation from Jerusalem.
2. Peter withdrawing from the common table fellowship.
3. The defection of Barnabas and other Jewish Christians.
4. Peter had learned as early as the rooftop vision which led him to preach to Cornelius (Acts 10:28) that he was free to eat whatever God has called clean. It is not surprising that after some initial reluctance a person should begin to enjoy exercising freedom in Christ.
5. The “old-line” Christians from Jerusalem arrived, and Peter apparently felt he was caught in the act. In military terms he “beat a hasty retreat”; in naval terms he “headed for shelter”; in animal terms he slunk back “like a dog with its tail between its legs.”
C. In separating from the Gentile believers, Peter was guilty of straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.
1. To avoid a possible ceremonial contamination with what was “unclean,” he committed a very grievous sin before God. He set aside brothers for whom Christ died.
2. The old Peter, who had once denied his Lord to a young girl in the high priest’s courtyard, was coming to the surface.
3. Although he had previously decided that eating with Gentiles was right in the sight of God, he was now fearful how it might look in the sight of men.
4. The example of Peter soon led the other Jewish believers of Antioch to withdraw from fellowshipping with Gentiles.
5. They were not doing so because they actually thought it was wrong to eat with Gentile brethren, but because they were afraid what others—the Jewish believers from Jerusalem—might think.
6. Anytime someone does not act on the basis of convictions, but on the basis of what people might think, it is hypocrisy.
II. Paul’s reprimand was based on the fact that we are saved by grace.
A. Observing the law cannot make you right with God.
1. To be “justified” is to be pronounced legally innocent and “in the clear” by God.
2. The question is, how does a person get to be “justified”? One approach is to keep God’s law so carefully and completely that we earn God’s approval (and admiration!). Three times in this verse, however, Paul denies that this is the way it happens.