A Sophisticated Way of Denying the Gospel

I wish I knew what Peter was thinking when he was looking at Paul--a ministerial acquaintance at best--who was now confronting him publicly. Yes, publicly. At least some portion of the Antioch Church was looking on as it unfolded. Was Peter shocked, dumbstruck, mouth agape? Was he incredulous, tight-fisted? Was he broken and penitent like a man shaken awake from a bad dream? These are the kinds of questions that arise when we come across those rare moments when one Apostle gets sideways with another. Unfortunately these are questions that will remain definitively unanswered on this side of the parousia. The Holy Spirit has left us with the only details He deemed necessary for us to have through the pen of the Apostle Paul. In so doing He has given us with several very important lessons:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For 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. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But 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?' (Galatians 2:11–14)

The first lesson we learn from account is that orthodoxy is married to orthopraxy. It may be a rocky marriage at times, but the two are meant to be committed until death do they part. Right doctrine is to produce right practice. Paul tells Peter that he “stands condemned.” Condemned by whom? The context allows a little wiggle room but not enough to deduce any other subject than God himself. Why condemned? It was because Peter stopped eating with Gentiles for fear of what his more Jewish friends might think of him. Don’t miss this. It was for a particular practice that Peter stood condemned--not for a particular belief. I have no doubt that Peter could have aced a theology exam on the spot. But his knowledge of the Gospel was not all that was required to avoid the rebuke of another Apostle. Paul rightly believed that how a Christian acts can and will undermine what that Christian may confess to be true. Hypocrisy is a theological issue--and a potentially damning one! J. Gresham Machen summed this up so well when he wrote:

Paul rebukes Peter for hypocrisy--not for false opinions, but for concealing his correct opinions for fear of men. In condemning his practice, Paul approves his principles. Peter had therefore been in fundamental agreement with Paul.1

We must remember that this wasn’t strictly a moral violation. Peter wasn’t stealing from Gentiles; he just wasn’t eating with them. I wonder if that is a category that most Christians have. Do we work as hard at avoiding Gospel-undermining behavior as we do at avoiding immoral behavior? If not, it is imperative that we learn to do so. Otherwise, we may find ourselves, in a real way, standing condemned as Peter at the Antiochan meal.

The second thing that we learn from this incident is how just how angry Paul is in this letter. Most people know that Paul’s epistle to the Galatians was written to confront the Galatians concerning a False gospel with which they were flirting. But here we have Paul expressing anger with regard to another situation. He’ll return to the Galatians and the issue they have with the Judaizing false-gospel, but for now Paul’s sights are set squarely on Peter, the envoy from James, and the circumcision party (who I think is a separate group from the Jewish envoy). Here we have two groups of people with Gospel-error—Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.

This first group includes Peter and the Jews who followed him into error--not the least of which was Barnabas, who knew all too well what it was like to get on Paul’s bad side. For a myriad of reasons this group decided that they should and would no longer eat with Gentiles. We need to be clear at this point. Out of fear of others--and probably for a feather in their justification hat--these Jewish Christians refused to eat with Gentile Christians. To be more precise, these Jewish Christians were living like Jews, which, if we are to follow Paul’s later logic, meant looking to ritual aspects of the Old Testament law—like Jew-only eating establishments and circumcision—for their righteousness and standing before God. To snub a Gentile Christian company at meals was to snub God for his Gospel, by which there is no longer Jew or Gentile.

Secondly we have the Gentile Christians. They are left in an interesting position, aren’t they? They have two choices. The first choice is to respond to Peter and his crew with retribution, refusing to eat with Jewish Christians. They can take their ball and go home. Or they can accommodate for the sake of fellowship and begin to observe various aspects of fulfilled and abrogated Old Testament law in the hopes of retaining the right to eat with their brothers and sisters in Christ. This is a lose-lose position for them, and a lose-lose for the gospel.

Do you understand why Paul is so upset? "Untenable" doesn’t even begin to describe the situation at Antioch. The interplay between these two groups reminds us that encroaching implicit legalism is a complex issue. There are those who are established in the faith who garner respect and the imitation of others. This isn’t a bad thing at all until they lead those that follow them into Gospel error. But the other group is equally complicit. These are new converts who understand the Gospel but who don’t have a track record in the faith. These Christians are equally liable to protect the truth of the gospel and as much as they can avoid practices that undermine the gospel they protect. Some of these practices might be fellowship destroying acts of faux piety or the tendency toward insular communities within the local church that do not reflect the socio-economic or ethnicity spanning reach of the gospel. This may at times lead them to disagree with leaders or those more established in the faith. That certainly doesn’t mean that mature Christians should be automatically suspect. It does, however, mean that every Christian must know and be able to stand up for the truth of the Gospel no matter from whom the challenge may come.

Leaders and followers alike are tasked with gospel vigilance.

Here we have exasperated Paul, toe-to-toe with Peter and engaged in angry correspondence with the Galatian church. We may not know all the details that we wish we could know, but we do know this much: We must learn from Paul’s pathos and protect the Gospel at all costs. Because when it comes Jesus and his gospel, there is no other way under heaven or earth by which we may be saved. 


1. J. Gresham Machen's, "Jesus and Paul" in Biblical And Theological Studies by The Members of the Faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912) p. 554.


Related Resources

J. Gresham Machen Notes on Galatians

Eric Alexander's Sermon Series on Galatians

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