So far in his letter Paul has been appealing to the Christians in Galatia to follow the Good News he taught them and hold fast to the promises of God.
Just before our text today we learn that the Good News that Paul preaches is verified to be truth by the ‘Pillars of the Church’ - the key apostles and James the brother of Jesus who were leading the mission to the Jews from Jerusalem. Paul and Peter agree and Paul says that the same God is working through both of them.
Yet now Peter is shown to be in Paul’s bad books. Paul is telling the Galatians what he is to show them that he has power over other teachers - a power that comes not from himself or his human skill and strength but by divine appointment. Without this divine appointment it would have been foolish to challenge one like Peter, the foremost of the twelve disciples.
But let’s start at the beginning. Paul tells us that Peter – called by his Hebrew name Cephas – comes to Syrian Antioch which is North East of Cyprus when the coast forms a ninety degree angle. Antioch was the third largest city in the entire Roman Empire and was a major place of culture and influence. All trade going East and West had to travel through it and by land it was also a point along the main trading road from North to South or the rest of Europe to Egypt.
Why did Peter leave Jerusalem to come to this gentile city of commerce and culture? We don’t know but maybe it was due to the kind of persecution we find recorded in Acts 12.1-19 at the hands of Herod Agrippa in the area that is now Isreal.
Whilst in Antioch Peter enters gentile, non-Jewish, houses and eats with non-Jews. This is something which is a big no-no for Jews living under the Old Testament Law, not only were gentiles and their houses dirty and unclean but they ate non-Kosher food. Early in Acts we have the account of God revealing to Peter on a roof top that all foods are clean and Kosher and that it is fine to eat and have fellowship with non-Jews. God has a tablecloth with all kinds of unclean foods like pork and snake and camel and insects come down three times before Peter’s eyes and each time God tells Peter to eat. At first Peter thinks it is a test and says he won’t but he finally gets the message. When he does a messenger arrives and Peter heads to the non-Jewish Roman Centurion Cornelius’ house to tell him about Jesus. Peter thus begins the mission to the Gentiles and radically breaks with the Jewish laws about purity.
The fear and hypocrisy
But then people came from James the brother of Jesus, the man who led the early church from Jerusalem. Whether James actually sent them or they were just associated with him we don’t know. When these people get to Antioch Peter slowly begins to withdraw from eating and having fellowship with gentiles or thieves or sinners who would be considered ‘unclean’ by the Jews. Why? Because of fear and cowardice.
Who did Peter, first among the disciples fear? Likely it was fear of the non-Christian Jews. There were many ultra-nationalist Jews who were seeking and stating a revolution and demanded strict Old Testament Law observance. If you didn’t keep the Law and keep pure then you faced an inquisition and likely death.
This fear seems to spread to other ‘Jewish-Christians’ and even to Paul’s trusted Barnabas. But Paul is having none of it – if Christians are martyred so be it but they must not compromise on the Gospel.
Paul publically opposes Peter face to face, mano-a-mano. The gloves come off as it were. Paul recognises that by his actions Peter is bringing himself and others into condemnation. Paul considers Peter a total hypocrite – a word which was used to describe actors in Greek plays who wore different masks to play different characters, you never saw their real faces or heard their real voices. A hypocrite is someone wearing a mask, someone who hides their real self and their real beliefs behind a fake image out of fear or desire to be loved. It is something God despises – Christ is the light of the world and unless you walk in the light as He is in the light, which shows up all our darkness, then you have no part of Him.
Peter clearly knows the Old Testament Law is exactly that – Old Testament, Old Covenant Law. He knows that they are now living under the New Covenant and are in the New Testament. He knows that what he is doing is wrong, that withdrawing from his brothers and sisters in Christ because of their race is wicked in the sight of the Lord. But still he does it because of fear. Fear is a powerful emotion, it drives so much of who we are and what we do. We so often, knowingly or unknowingly let fear create our identity and mould our actions.
Paul confronts Peter before a crowd – but this raises a big question. Jesus tells us in Matthew 18 to firstly confront the person alone. In that passage Jesus sets out how we as Christians should deal with sin and hurt. First we must go to the person responsible and tell them and rebuke them and ask them to repent. If they do then you have won back your brother or sister. If they don’t you take two or three witnesses or experts, perhaps church leaders, and confront them again. Hopefully they repent, but if they don’t you take them before the whole church for judgement in the hopes the seriousness of their not repenting is clear to see and they change their heart and mind. If they still remain obstinate and unrepentant then the whole church is to treat them like a non-Jew or tax-collector would be in the time of Jesus– in other words the person is to be shunned and ignored by the entire church family till they come back to the fold with humility.
In modern society and church life it is most unpopular and controversial to ‘excommunicate’ a person because they have sinned – but it is the biblical model and without such church discipline the wolves will quickly infect the sheepfold and destroy it from within. As the bride of Christ, the moment we depart from His teaching we are putting ourselves in danger – like a child who has been told not to play in the road but goes ahead and does it.
We so often hear people saying, as Miley Cyrus did in her recent hit single, “only God can judge me.” They are right, God is the judge, He alone hands out the sentence – but as brothers and sisters it is our duty and our responsibility to look out for, lovingly warn and rebuke, those who are living lives where because of Scripture we know what the judgement is going to be. Cain after killing his brother Abel said to God sarcastically “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer was YES. As a church we must encourage and build up one another, challenge and rebuke one another, we must be open and humble, submit to proper discipline and be fervent in prayer and the pursuit of holiness.
We are all going to sin, we are all going to be hypocrites who fail to live up to what we preach, and the world may judge us for that, but what makes us different from the world is that where we sin and mess up we repent to God and neighbour, we recognise the enormity of our guilt and, by the grace and help of the Holy Spirit, we act upon it.
Why didn’t Paul confront Peter alone and follow the pattern Jesus laid out? Because this was not a normal situation – this was not a private issue between two parties, one of which was wronged. This was a public issue of huge importance, Paul needed to publically rebuke Peter to make sure others didn’t follow Peter’s example.
So what was the Big Deal?
But what was the big deal? Why the need for such a dramatic and climactic throw down with the Apostle? We know from 2 Corinthians that Paul was a small man, quietly spoken, humble and not intimidating or prone to public rebuke and controversy. Why such a change of character? What could have driven Paul to such a radical course of action against Peter?
The answer is simple. It is because Paul, as he says in verse 14 believes that the very truth, the bone and marrow, the flesh and blood, of the Gospel, it’s very heart, is at serious risk of cancer, disease, and ultimately death. Paul says that he “saw that they were deviating from the truth of the gospel.”
How were they deviating from the truth of the Gospel?
Because they were living under the Old Covenant and not under the New Covenant. They were living as slaves at Mount Sinai not as sons of God at Calvary.
They were not living by grace alone but were adding in works based salvation. They were living in the chains of legalism not the sunshine of freedom. Salvation is not by works of the Law and it is not by a genetic claim to be a Jew. Peter was breaking apart and tearing asunder the unique freedom of unity, of Jew and Gentile, in one single family – the Body of Christ. He was rebuilding the very walls that Jesus came to rip down and he was reinforcing the barricade the Holy Spirit had been showing needed to be dismantled.
Ignatius of Antioch – the Bishop of the same city where all this happened not long after the time of the Apostles – writing around 97 AD to the Megnesian Christians said:
“it is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to proclaim Judaism”
The early church abolished the food laws, it threw away the Passover, it dismantled the Sabbath, and it abolished the Jewish Festivals and Holidays. The old has passed away and clinging to it can only bring imprisonment.
Paul was making clear that these things had no place in a life lived under Jesus Christ, in a life lived under the Grace of the Cross.
In their song ‘Feeling Good’ the band Muse has the words:
“It’s a new dawn,
It’s a new day,
It’s a new life...
And this old world is a new world
And a bold world...”
It is indeed a new dawn: a new dawn with the light of hope shining from the tomb of Jesus. It is indeed a new day: a new day under the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is indeed a new life, a new life purchased with the blood of Jesus Christ. It is indeed a new world made from the ruins and sin of the old world - a bold world of freedom and intimate relationship with God. A world in which the curtains and the walls that divide God and man and man and his brothers have been torn down and trampled under foot by the feet by the angels as Jesus cried out the words "IT IS FINISHED!"
Because of this, as Muse go on to sing:
“Yeah, freedom is mine,
And you know how I feel!
I'm feeling good!”
We must hold fast to the joyous Gospel no matter what persecutions or temptations come. Do not ever give in to legalism, do not ever submit to the yoke of Sinai – submit to the love and power of Jesus Christ.