As if This Wasn’t Enough, Peter and Antioch
Verses 9 and 10 of the second chapter of Galatians had closed with harmony having been established between Paul and Barnabas, and the Jerusalem council. The Jerusalem council and Christians had extended the right hand of fellowship to their new Gentile friends.
One would hope that this would bring an end to such conflict, but the next few verses of Galatians paints a different picture. For what develops next is one of the tensest sections of the New Testament as two apostles face off in open conflict. Instead of circumcision, the issue now centered around Jews sharing a meal with Gentiles.
In near mid-east culture and the areas around, sharing a meal with another was considered an intimate act. Even enemies would share a meal together before going to conflict. It is no wonder then that since Pentecost, shared meals had been common among Christians.
This is why it seems so surprising that since the issue of circumcision had been put to rest, that Paul and Peter would come at odds with each other. Why and how could this be? Were they not both Christians and as such, should they not then love all mankind as Christ had shown love and compassion upon all. Yet, for Peter and others apostles, old habits die hard especially when pressed by Pharisees that believed the Gentile converts should really become Jews before they could become full members of the Christian church.
Peter had a difficult time with this before, and this is why Christ ventured to the region of Tyre and Sidon and healed the Gentile woman’s daughter. This was the reason Peter had, had his famous dream of all the unclean animals being let down in a sheet. Christ was trying to teach him and the other disciples that there is no difference from one person to another. In God’s eyes, all are equal and of the same value. This should be the attitude of all Christians if they truly reflect the character if Christ.
Down through the ages, this had been a real problem for the Jewish people for they held themselves to be special, above others and this same attitude prevailed among the Jews of Paul’s time.
Peter after having received his vision of the many animals had visited the home of a Roman Centurion. Listen to what Peter told the Centurion. “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” After preaching to those Gentiles that “everyone who believes in (Jesus) receives forgiveness of sins through his name,” he baptized them (Acts 10:13, 15, 28, 43).
Yet when Peter returned to Jerusalem, he came under fire from the circumcision party who “criticized him saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’”. He successfully defended himself on the basis of the vision and the fact that the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles the same as it had been on the Jews at Pentecost (Acts 11:1-18). This temporarily gave Peter some breathing room, but the powerful circumcision party remained unconvinced.
Galatians 2:12 makes it clear that he ate or had been eating with Gentiles. The imperfect tense of the Greek verb indicates that such meals had been a regular practice.
James then sent certain men and Peter reverted to his old ways and separated himself from the Gentiles (Galatians 2:12). We must ask, why did a man of Peter’s stature as an apostle and prophet abandon his new practice? As bold and brash as Peter had been during Christ’s time on earth, seems to be a false bravado for the fact that he was truly a man that fought fear. This was his downfall at the time of Christ’s crucifixion and appears to be the reason he stepped away from his new-found conviction that all men and women are created equal in God’s eyes and those should be treated as equal.
Why in this case did he feel is necessary to be so fearful? What did he really have to fear? He feared people! – representatives of the same powerful circumcision party that had challenged him in Acts 11.
Speaking of James, a moment ago I mentioned that James had sent these people to Peter. We really need to be careful, for there is no evidence that James thought this way or that he really sent these people, but rather they came to Peter claiming that James had sent them. A really careful examination of James’ letter reveals that this way of thinking would have been contrary to James’ understanding of truth. James responds in Acts 15:13-21 and makes it perfectly clear that he sided with Paul.
Here come the dangerous part and the part that leaders in the church need to be careful of. Peter’s change of heart fueled the drive and passion of those living in Antioch in the same direction. The result is all fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians was severed. Here is the subtle lesson to be learned from all this. Tradition, yes tradition can be a dangerous thing! Let us define what tradition is.
Tradition is something that is handed down from generation to generation. This doesn’t make it right or the correct thing to do, it is just something that has been handed down from one generation to another. In the past generations, farming practices or traditions were handed down from father to son. Today we see this less.
The Jews had a ceremonial washing that was a tradition that they felt brought them cleanings, yet was in no way taught in scripture, yet Christ was asked why his disciples did not conform to this tradition.
Paul commenting on traditions in II Thessalonians 2:15 states. “Therefore brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” Basically, what Paul is stating is this. If it is a tradition and it can be upheld by the word (the scriptures of his day or by something Christ had actually said) or the epistles (that were written by the Apostles), then hold fast and do these things leaving behind anything that is not scriptural.
It is true, God had called the Jewish nation of Israel apart from the rest of the nations. He called them a peculiar people. They were peculiar because of the promise, the covenant made with them that was not given to any other nation or people. What was this covenant or promise that was given to them. That through the seed of Abraham the Messiah would be born. But the Jews had misapplied this and set themselves apart from others setting up certain traditions, no biblical backing. These traditions had been set up to keep themselves separate from others. I get it and can even understand their reasoning, for there are some churches today that have the same attitude, they are looked down on and frown on others by others until the church’s relevance is marginalized in the communities in which they are established.
In the eyes of the Christian believers in Antioch and even Peter the fear of being held accountable for going against Jewish tradition utterly intimidated everyone.
All that is except Paul. Paul saw three things clearly. Frist, he saw that if the Church followed Peter’s example Jewish and Gentile Christianity would go their separate ways. This put in jeopardy the concept of one Church of the living God, one Body of Christ.
Second, Paul recognized that Peter’s actions threatened the gospel of justification by faith. This is not to say Peter had denied the gospel in his teachings but rather it was through his actions that he was denying the gospel. It was like talking the talk without walking the walk. An action which has done much harm to the Christian church. At the bottom of the issue was the same as the case of circumcision. Either justification by faith was sufficient to become a Christian, or one had to become Jewish before one could be a full member of the body of Christ. Thus, Paul realized that Peter’s hypocrisy undermined the very heart of the gospel itself.
Third, Paul understood that immediate and forceful action was needed to avert the impending crises. As a result, he publicly confronted Peter to his face (Galatians 2:11). It was this confrontation that paves the way for Paul to reintroduce to the Galatians and too us the theme of justification by faith and dying with Christ that will dominate the heart of the epistle.
I realize traditions can bring us stability and order to society, but in a church setting, traditions that are not based upon sound Bible doctrine can have a devastating effect upon the church and to a greater degree upon the community in which the church lives and interacts with. For as we will see next, “Justification is the Foundation of Christian Unity.”