Discover more from Heaven On Wheels
An Exploration of Galatians: Paul Opposes Peter
Galatians 2: 11-14; Acts 10:9-16, 30-35 - Be aware that we can all be fearful and subject to the weaknesses of flesh and the opinions of others
“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
Galatians 2:11-14 NASB1995
Paul has his “Martin Luther” moment when Peter comes to Antioch after the issue of circumcision had been supposedly put behind by the church leaders. The timeframe is unclear, but it certainly does occur after the visit to Jerusalem by Paul, Barnabas and Titus. What’s interesting about this passage is that it made little or no impression on me after dozens of “Bible in One Year” readings of Galatians. However, having to research and write about it, I now clearly see the struggles of the early church and the weaknesses that even great men like Peter can demonstrate. I am truly becoming convinced that the best way to learn scripture is to write about it!
Regardless of whether or not that Jerusalem visit was the second visit (in Acts 11) or the third visit (in Acts 15), both visits occurred AFTER Peter had his vision from God and subsequent visit to the household of Roman centurion Cornelius, as described in Acts 10:
“On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he *saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky.
Cornelius said, “Four days ago to this hour, I was praying in my house during the ninth hour; and behold, a man stood before me in shining garments, and he *said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Therefore send to Joppa and invite Simon, who is also called Peter, to come to you; he is staying at the house of Simon the tanner by the sea.’ So I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.” Opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.”
Acts 10:9-16, 30-35 NASB1995
Peter had apparently been sharing meals with the Gentile believers in Antioch on previous visits, but after the Judaizers (men of circumcision) came and discouraged mingling with those who are not Jews, he stopped. This hypocrisy extended even to the mild-mannered and ecumenical Barnabas (possibly leading to the rift between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15), so Paul is probably furious and and opposes Peter to his face and calls Peter “condemned” for this behavior. A word study finds “condemned” translated from the Greek word καταγινώσκω or kataginosko, meaning to find fault with, blame, accuse or condemn. Paul is not saying that Peter has lost his salvation, but he is finding fault to the extreme with Peter’s behavior and likely considers it sinful, but even more so, it is an affront to the Gospel of Jesus. Here’s what Enduring Word says about this conflict:
He withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision: Though Peter was previously in agreement with welcoming Gentiles into the church without bringing them under the Law of Moses, when Peter came to Antioch (Paul’s home church), it was another story. He refused to associate with Gentile Christians once certain Jewish believers from Jerusalem came.
These men were Christians of Jewish background. Paul called them certain men… from James and those who were of the circumcision. Knowing their background, Peter knew they would be offended at his fellowship with Gentiles who had not come under the Law of Moses. In their eyes, these uncircumcised Gentiles were not really Christians at all. Therefore, to please them and to avoid a conflict, Peter treated these Gentile Christians as if they were not Christians at all.
Peter had known that God did not require Gentiles to come under the Law of Moses for salvation. He learned this from the vision God gave him in Acts 10:10-16. He learned this from the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Gentiles who believed (apart from being circumcised) in Acts 10:44-48. He learned this by the agreement of the other leaders of the church in Acts 11:1-18. Now, Peter turned back on all that he had known about the place of Gentiles in the church, and he treated uncircumcised Gentiles as if they were not saved at all.
“He seems to have taken this action shamefacedly. As Bishop Lightfoot says, ‘the words describe forcibly the cautious withdrawal of a timid person who shrinks from observation.’” (John Stott)
“It is perhaps curious that nobody seems to have recalled that Jesus ate ‘with publicans and sinners’, which can scarcely mean that he conformed to strict Jewish practice.” (Henry Morris)
Sadly, others would follow Peter’s lead. “The sins of teachers are the teachers of sins.” (John Trapp)
This photo is of the Cave Church of St. Peter in Antioch, Syria. This Orthodox church reopened in 2014 to worshippers. Peter was the Bishop of Antioch before going back to lead the Council in Jerusalem and the new believers (Jews and Gentiles) were first called Christians in Antioch. Going back to the action in Galatians 2, Peter has walked back his commitment to the Gentile believers because of his “fear” of the men of circumcision. The old fearful and easily influenced disciple has been manifested again in the great apostle. Before we, too, condemn him, know that we are all subject to the weaknesses and corruptibility of the flesh (and Paul admits that, too). Here’s more from Enduring Word:
It is easy to criticize Peter; but every person knows what it means to do something that you know is wrong. Everyone knows what it feels like to go against what you know very well is right. Everyone knows what it feels like when social pressurepushes you towards compromise in some way.
“Their withdrawal from table-fellowship with Gentile believers was not prompted by any theological principle, but by craven fear of a small pressure group… He still believed the gospel, but he failed to practise it.” (John Stott)
This was the kind of behavior that dominated Peter’s life before he was transformed by the power of God. This was like Peter telling Jesus not to go to the cross, or Peter taking his eyes off of Jesus and sinking when walking on the water, or like Peter cutting off the ear of the servant of the High Priest when soldiers came to arrest Jesus. We see that the flesh was still present in Peter. Salvation and the filling of the Holy Spirit did not make Peter perfect; the old Peter was still there, just seen less often.
We might be surprised that Peter compromised even though he knew better; but we are only surprised if we don’t believe what God says about the weakness and corruption of our flesh. Paul himself knew this struggle, as he described it in Romans 7:18: For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find.
“No man’s standing is so secure that he may not fall. If Peter fell, I may fall. If he rose again, I may rise again. We have the same gifts that they had, the same Christ, the same baptism and the same Gospel, the same forgiveness of sins.” (Martin Luther)
So Peter is confronted by Paul publicly - that had to be an interesting moment in the new church! We can easily envision a breaking of bread between the believers, who are probably thrilled that Peter is there, but then the Gentiles are told to go sit at the tables in the back and not share in the food because they are “unclean”. I keep going back to Enduring Word on this passage because I think Guzik did a fantastic job capturing the importance of this moment and how difficult it was for Paul:
It must have been hard, knowing who Peter was. Peter was the most prominent of all the disciples of Jesus. Peter was the spokesman for the apostles, and probably the most prominent Christian in the whole world at the time.
It must have been hard, knowing who Paul was. This was before any of Paul’s missionary journeys; before he was an apostle of great prominence. At that point, Paul was far more famous for who he was before he was a Christian – a terrible persecutor of the church – than he was for who he was as a Christian.
It must have been hard, knowing who was in agreement with Peter. First, Paul had the strong, domineering personalities of the certain men from James. Then, Paul had Barnabas, who was probably his best friend. Finally, Paul had the rest of the Jews. Paul was in the minority on this issue – it was him and all the Gentile Christians against all the Jewish Christians.
As hard as this was, Paul did it because he knew what was at stake. This wasn’t a matter of personal conduct or just personal sin on Peter’s part. If that were the case it is unlikely that Paul would have first used such a public approach. This was a matter about the truth of the gospel; proclaiming, “This is how a man is right before God.”
Finally, let me share some of the insight from the Gospel Coalition in their new Biblical Commentary. Some good food for thought…
Although the others could not see it, Paul recognized that this seemingly harmless concession left them out of step with the truth of the gospel. The gospel is not merely how a person becomes a Christian, but it is also the means by which one lives the Christian life. Because this departure from the gospel was so severe, Paul confronted Cephas in front of the entire church. He questions how Cephas, who was not living like a Jew (i.e., not keeping the food laws) even though he was Jewish, could try to compel Gentiles to live like Jews (i.e., observe the food laws in order to maintain table fellowship). The actions of Cephas and the rest of the Jews who followed him would [could?] lead to a deep and potentially permanent rift in the body of Christ between Jews and Gentiles, a rift that would undermine God’s intention to unite Jew and Gentile together in Christ.
My next devotional examines Galatians 2:15-21, where Paul transitions from his historical perspective to the churches at Galatia and starts to define what the Gospel means to him.
Heaven on Wheels Daily Prayer:
Dear Lord - I thank You, again and again, that You gave us early church leaders like Paul, who was not afraid to challenge the hypocrisies and fears that distracted other church leaders from their true mission of bringing the Gospel to all people. Please guard my heart from fears and weaknesses and the corrupting opinions of men. Amen.
Scripture quotations taken from the (NASB®) New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved. lockman.org
The Blue Letter Bible was accessed on 11/15/2023 to review the Greek lexicon for Galatians 2:11-14.
Commentary from Enduring Word by David Guzik is used with written permission.
The text of Galatians, excluding all Bible quotations, is © 2023 by The Gospel Coalition. The Gospel Coalition (TGC) gives permission to reproduce this work in its entirety, without any changes, in English for noncommercial distribution throughout the world. Crossway, the holder of the copyright to the ESV Bible text, grants permission to include the ESV quotations within this work, in English.