Paul Confronts Peter

Mike Mazzalongo

Galatians 2:11-21

So far in our study of Galatians we have seen that Paul is defending himself against accusations that he has changed the gospel in order to make it more palatable to Gentiles by removing certain commands concerning circumcision. His accusers, the Judaizers, were charging that they and the "true" Apostles, like Peter in Jerusalem, were teaching the original gospel which included circumcision and law keeping.

In describing his past associations with Peter and the other Apostles, Paul demonstrates that they have always been supportive and in agreement with the gospel he preached, not the one promoted by the Judaizers.

In Galatians 2:11-21 Paul goes even further to recount a time when even Peter himself was untrue to the gospel and Paul had to correct him in defense of the pure message of salvation in Jesus.

Peter's Rebuke - 2:11-14

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.

Paul establishes the place and seriousness of the problem. Because of his error in judgment on the matter of the gospel, Peter stood condemned. In an incident that he will describe later, Paul says that he opposed Peter publicly. (There is no basis in the Bible for apostolic and subsequent papal infallibility.)

12 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.

Peter visited Antioch, a Jewish/Gentile church to which this letter was sent from the Jerusalem meeting. While there he mingled and ate with Gentiles, which Christians were free to do, but unconverted Jews were not.

"Certain men from James" probably means Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, associates of James, who also came to Antioch. Peter was afraid that they might report to the church in Jerusalem that he was associating with Gentiles in Antioch, and when the Judaizers learned this they would cause problems for Peter when he returned. Peter's reaction was to withdraw from the Gentiles and not mingle or eat with them any more.

13 The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.

Peter's actions prompted other Jewish Christians to do the same, even Barnabas (who helped Paul establish churches among the Gentiles in Galatia).

This was very dangerous because:

14 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?

Paul confronts Peter publicly about his hypocrisy. Peter was condemning what he himself practiced because of the fear of criticism. Peter was neither bound by law nor the traditions being promoted by the Judaizers, but by his separation from the Gentiles he was supporting the idea that the Gentiles should be.

Paul's Argument - 2:15-21

Paul reviews the basis of the argument that he had made to Peter and the rest of the church at Antioch during that confrontation.

15 "We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; 16 nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified

Paul begins by explaining that even the Jews, who were the chosen people of God (unlike the Gentiles who were in total darkness), recognized that salvation was obtained through Christ and not through law.

What was the ideological conflict between Paul and the Judaizers concerning the Law? Paul believed and taught that the true purpose of the Law (commandments and ordinances) was to reveal sin and how God dealt with sin (Romans 3:20). The giving of the Law was not an end unto itself, but rather a step in God's overall plan to save man. Here is where the Law fit in:

This is where the Law came in. It was given to reveal what sin was, its impact on mankind and how God was going to deal with it (the sacrificial system pointing to eventual atonement by the Messiah).

Once man had learned from the Law that sin causes spiritual blindness and death, and that God deals with sin through the method of atonement (the payment of one life for another), he was prepared to recognize two things:

  1. He was a sinner and it was his own sin that condemned him.
  2. The final sacrifice for sin was the perfect life of Jesus, the Savior sent by God.

The righteousness that man had at creation in Adam was recreated again in Jesus, and just as all shared in Adam's fallen nature, all could now share in the righteousness of Christ through union with Him by faith. We are connected to Adam by flesh, and therefore share in his sin. However, we are also connected to Jesus by faith and thus share in his perfection.

Paul taught that man was saved because he shared in the righteousness of Christ through faith, and the Law served to reveal man's unrighteousness and the way Jesus dealt with it through his atoning death on the cross.

When the Pharisees spoke of the Law, they included all of the man made traditions that had grown up around the Law. In many instances they used a perverted view of the Law to establish their own righteousness. They did not see the Law as something to reveal sin, but rather as something to conquer sin. They claimed that they were righteous in God's eyes for two reasons: they were the chosen people of God, and they actually obeyed the Law.

The problem with this self-view was that they were chosen to be the people through whom Christ would come in order to deal with sin, but they were not just chosen arbitrarily as the saved people. They obeyed their version of the Law, but Jesus showed how shallow their concept of the Law really was. For example, in their interpretation of the Law, adultery was defined as sex with the legitimate wife of a fellow Jew, not a single woman, widow, slave, or divorcing without cause. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, demonstrated just how demanding the Law really was when it came to adultery. He said that simply lusting in your heart for a woman, any woman, was adultery.

The Judaizers, who were Pharisees that had become Christians, wanted to introduce a system whereby man could achieve righteousness by obeying certain laws, like circumcision or certain food restrictions. Paul maintained that in living a perfect life and offering it on the cross, Jesus obeyed the entire law. Christians, in turn, became obedient to that law not by keeping every command, but by being united to Jesus by faith. Both Paul and the Judaizers had the same objective: to be perfect and thus be saved. Their method required obeying all the commands one by one until perfect. Paul, on the other hand, taught that God's method for being perfect was to share in Jesus' perfection by faith.

17 But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be!

In defending this way Paul asks the question, "Do we sin by trying to be justified through faith rather than through law?" In the end, this is what the Judaizers are saying. If this is so, he says, we make Christ to be the one who leads us into sin because He is the one who says to believe in Him. Heaven forbid!

18 For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor.

If he reestablishes the system of salvation by works of law that he removed when accepting Christ, two things automatically happen:

  1. He will be condemned by the very laws he is reestablishing. The system of law can only reveal and condemn but it cannot make someone perfect, which is what is necessary to be saved.
  2. Christ will condemn Paul for abandoning the true way of salvation: faith in Him.

Either way, he will become a transgressor.

19 For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God.

Paul declares that when he understood the true purpose of the Law (to reveal sin, etc.) and recognized his true sinfulness and condemnation under the Law, he stopped trying to use the Law as a means of saving himself (he died to the Law). He did this so he could be saved by Christ (live to God).

This imagery of him "dying to the Law" and "living to God" is a wonderful parallel to what he says in the next verse where he repeats the same idea, but now uses different imagery. This time his death is on the cross and his life is the resurrected one with Christ.

20 I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.

The old Paul, who depended on the works of the Law for righteousness and salvation, died with Christ, a death expressed and experienced in baptism (Romans 6:3).

The new Paul, righteous, perfect and saved, has Christ's presence within himself through the actual indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).

You die in baptism and you resurrect from baptism with Christ in you through the Holy Spirit.

Everything now done with his flesh is no longer done to earn righteousness through law keeping. Paul's behavior is now a response of trusting faith in a savior who loved and died in his place in order to confer upon Paul the perfection necessary to be acceptable in God's eyes and thus saved. Previous acts done as works of law were burdens, discouraging and produced a false sense of pride. Now, the very same things done as a response of faith are acceptable to God, joyful to do and create humility in the believer's heart.

21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly."

Paul is not the one eliminating the grace of God; Peter and the Judaizers are doing this by returning to the old system. Paul argues that If righteousness could be obtained in this way, Christ would have died for nothing. God did not send Him to die for some sins. Jesus was sent to die for all sins. His death pays for all sin, or no sin. It is one or the other: You either accept perfection through union with Christ based on faith, or you pursue it through perfect law keeping.

It is one or the other. You cannot have both. The problem in the Galatian church and in many churches since is that people try to mix the two systems and end up with various forms of legalism as a result.

Paul mentions nothing more of Peter here or elsewhere, so we assume that Peter received the correction, adjusted his position and his later letters seem to confirm this.

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