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Galatians 2:11–21 Paul Rebukes Cephas (Peter): How to Confront Another Christian

 

David Eastwood

David has served for thirty-two years in Taiwan with OMF International. During that time, his ministry has included Bible teaching, preaching, and church planting, and, for the last nine years, he has served as the Field Director. David initially trained at All Nations Christian College in the UK but has since completed further studies with Singapore Bible College and Spurgeon’s College in the UK. He is studying for a Doctorate in Practical Theology with the Cambridge Theological Federation, investigating the experiences of the Taiwanese working class as they become part of a local church.

 

Mission Round Table 19:1 (Jan-Apr 2024): 40-43
To read articles in this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 19:1.

11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.

19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

I have always been nervous about preaching from Galatians. I think it is because I spent long hours at Bible college writing a tedious essay discussing the North/South Galatian hypothesis regarding where exactly these churches Paul was writing to were, how that affects the dating of the letter, and why it matters.[1] Somehow, all that put me off digging into the very profound theological material in the letter. But our focus in this study is on Paul’s report of an incident that has been a big source of debate in modern scholarship. Paul gives an account of how he publicly rebuked Peter, an apostle from Jerusalem and one of Jesus’ closest companions. Paul does not report the result of that rebuke.[2] This has led some scholars to propose a strong theological division split the early church, that Paul’s gospel of salvation was different than Peter’s.[3] Of course, if you want to follow that kind of thinking, you also have to question quite a bit of what Paul says earlier where he implies that his theology had been approved by the Apostles in Jerusalem and you also have to dismiss the authorship of 2 Peter where the writings of Paul are commended by Peter. What is interesting is that in trying to propose a difference in understanding of the gospel in the early church, scholars are attempting to confirm the very thing that Paul is writing to prevent, that is, a varying understanding of the gospel in the early church.

I think, though, that this passage of Scripture contains some interesting things for us to pay attention to, both on the subject of race and culture but also on the topic of when Christians disagree. Firstly, Paul is addressing the issue of a version of the gospel that associates Christianity with Jewish culture and traditional Jewish religious practices. That is one that Paul says in 1:7 is really no gospel at all, but a perversion of the gospel of Christ. People who Paul calls “false brothers” (2:4) had infiltrated the church and their teaching about the necessity for Gentiles to be converted to Judaism, be circumcised, and follow Jewish food laws and other religious practices had been debated in Jerusalem. Clearly, even though the church in Jerusalem had ruled against their teaching, there was still a strong group within the church who were opposed to the freedom that both Gentile and Jewish Christians were experiencing in Christ. Perhaps some were still proposing that Gentile Christians should adopt the Jewish law. Others, perhaps, were simply insisting that Jewish Christians should maintain their cultural practices. And I’m sure that tied up with the theological debates were racial and cultural pride and personal feelings of superiority.

In the early part of the letter, Paul argued about his authority as an Apostle (1:1)—that it was from God (1:11) but recognised by the Apostles in Jerusalem (2:7)—and that the gospel that Paul had preached—which he received as a revelation from Christ—was the same gospel as taught by the church in Jerusalem. Indeed, Paul tells them that Peter himself came to Paul’s sending church in Antioch, the first church with a significant Gentile membership. We should remember that it was in this church—where such a unique multicultural community of Jewish and Gentile believers had been planted—that people needed to invent a new term to describe them, and they chose the term “Christians”—people who are like Christ! It is important for Paul to emphasise the gospel message—which is the source of their faith—because his key point here will be that the church of Jesus Christ is to be unified by the gospel that has brought salvation to its members and not by a uniform cultural interpretation of how their faith should be practiced or imposed by one dominant culture on another.

It is important to look at what Paul is saying and what he is not saying in this description of his interaction with Peter. In Galatians 2:12, Paul says that Peter was “afraid” and, in 2:13, he describes what Peter and those who emulated him were doing as “hypocrisy”. It would have been very easy for Paul to throw accusations of pride, cultural superiority, and racism against Gentiles at Peter. It would have been easy for Paul to imply that Peter and those who followed him were exactly the same as the false brothers or false teachers that he has already mentioned. We live in an age when casual ascribing of labels to people based on how we perceive their actions or speech is common, but I doubt if in Paul’s day people were any calmer when it came to conflicts and disagreements that touched on religion, ethnicity, and culture.

Paul clearly says the issue here is not that Peter doesn’t understand the gospel—that he has misunderstood justification by faith. The issue is that he is failing to act consistently with what he believes. We know that God went to great lengths to teach Peter that the gospel was for all humanity, that God does not show favouritism, and that, as shown in Acts 11, Peter explains clearly to the other apostles about the revelation he received in Joppa and Caesarea as recorded in Acts 10. Peter’s revelation immediately preceded the scattering of the Jerusalem Christians that resulted in the establishing of the Antioch church in Acts 11. Our passage tells us that when Peter visited the church at Antioch, prior to the arrival of the circumcision group, he was eating with Gentiles and, in Paul’s words, “living like a Gentile and not a Jew” (Gal 2:14).

Peter’s problem was not heresy—failure to understand the gospel. His problem was cowardice—fear of the consequences of living the gospel. Paul says that Peter “was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group” (2:12). So, what was going on here? What was Peter’s fear? Commentators fail to agree. Some say that Peter was concerned for his personal credibility as a church leader in Jerusalem. This view states that the Christians who wanted to associate Christianity with Jewish cultural practice were a powerful group in Jerusalem and Peter was afraid of his reputation and position.[4] Others more charitably suggest that Peter’s concern was with Jewish persecution of the church in Jerusalem and that the news that a prominent church leader was living like a Gentle would add fuel to the attacks and accusations of those wanting to attack Christians in Jerusalem.[5] Whichever one of these was the case, neither would be that surprising, as Peter had in the past denied Jesus out of fear (John 18:17, 25, 27), and Paul has clearly discerned fear to be a factor here.

But before I smugly condemn Peter in this passage, I need to remember how often when reading the Gospels I have recognised that Peter’s weaknesses are the same as my own—including his failure to speak up for Christ. How much more have I failed to live out or speak up for fear of the consequences of my faith in society today? Even those of us who are known as Christian leaders can still be tempted to keep quiet or back off from speaking up about things that we know to be true, especially when it could affect our personal reputations with non-Christians (or even with Christians), and especially in today’s world of Christian academia. We can also go silent out of fear of putting others, or our organisations, institutions, or churches at risk. If I, as a leader, speak up on what I see to be a clear biblical teaching, will it lead to others being attacked, labelled, criticised, cancelled? This is a real dilemma for many Christian leaders today. I know, for example, of two evangelical Christian organisations that have deliberately put off writing a section about gender in their policy documents for fear of the adverse attention it could attract.

But notice that by publicly confronting Peter about this, even writing about it, Paul is taking the very same risk. Theologically, he may be in the right, but it is risky to publicly rebuke Peter who was a companion of Jesus, a leading apostle of the church in Jerusalem, the very apostle whose revelation from God opened the doors to Gentile ministry in the first place. I think we can all understand what Paul was risking both to his reputation and to the reputation of others who were associated with him. Paul was exercising bravery and trust in God even as he admonished Peter for his fear.[6] Where did Paul find the bravery and confidence to do this? We live in a context in which we are all encouraged to be so self-reflexive and conscious of our own bias that we almost dare not criticise anyone for fear of being accused of either displaying hatred or hypocrisy. Often speaking up against false teaching is left to those who seem so uncaring or lacking in personal humility that, even if we agree with what they are saying, we are almost embarrassed to admit it.

For that reason, it is worth considering Paul’s approach here.[7]

Firstly, Paul reminds us of what he knows Peter believes to be true: that his relationship with God is based on faith in Jesus Christ, which alone leads to justification before God. As Peter himself will write in his first Epistle, there is a good reason to praise God who mercifully gives us “a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).  This is a salvation by grace that the prophets of old predicted and that would redeem people from the empty way of life handed down to them by their forefathers (1 Peter 1:10, 18). Paul reminds his readers that this salvation—which he and Peter, as Jews by birth, have come to embrace through Jesus—is entirely due to faith and that it fundamentally removes all sense of privilege and power that comes from their Jewish birth. It is inconceivable, then, that the Christian faith should be lived out in a way that prejudices us against another person based on race, culture, or tradition.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul by El Greco (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons. Oil on canvas, 116 x 91 cm.

Paul is not directly attacking Peter based on what many would see as his sin—whether said to be prejudice, cultural superiority, or racism. He is aware that the consequence of Peter’s actions could easily be used by others to justify these. He is not even directly confronting Peter with what his sins are—cowardice, hypocrisy, and disobedience to God’s revelation (as recorded in Acts 10) and failure to trust in God. Instead, Paul gets to the core of the problem—the root of the sin—a self-righteous pride that rejects the core of the gospel of grace. And honestly, at this point, the Scriptures turn into an accusatory mirror because each of us can see ourselves in this. I dare even to say that Paul could write confidently because he had to struggle with this as well.

There are a few things that should challenge us here. When we are discussing difficult subjects with fellow Christians, do we focus on the surface issues—be that race, gender, spiritual gifts, eschatology, morality, cultural issues, biblical authority, or whatever—and tackle them by rebuking others and trying to force them to our perspective? So often, when the starting point is our perspective, others are automatically disempowered and alienated.

Two years ago, I attended an online conference in which the topics included race, gender, and colonialism. Every speaker was either black, female, or gay, and some were all three. Every speaker began their talk by explaining where they were coming from—the starting point of their theological perspective. For some, it was their personal journey and experiences of hatred, prejudice, and marginalisation both in society and sometimes, sadly, in the church. For others, it was the historical experiences of their church whose practice and expressions of beliefs had been moulded by political power and racial bias associated with European colonialism. In most cases though, they didn’t really get beyond that. There was no suggestion that this reflexive process not only established their perspectives but also their possible bias and that this should open the doors to dialogue and discussion with Christians who acknowledged different perspectives.[8] Though it was a Practical Theology conference, there seemed to be very few practical suggestions and almost no mention of God or the Bible. Instead, most papers seemed to conclude with defining problems as the speaker saw them, the need to be aware of historical or current prejudices, and a suggestion that “theology” should take on board the things that had been mentioned, without any real suggestion of how that should occur. I found myself as a white, straight, male marginalised because there was no way I could comment or ask a question without feeling I was somehow questioning their truth. Though I also felt there was so much I wanted to explore and be challenged by, I pretty much had to do it quietly in my own head.

So often when Christians address issues such as racism, gender issues, and other controversial topics, the approach is not that much different from a secular approach. There is an assumption that anyone whose view is different is motivated by some kind of sinful attitude for which they need to be condemned and repent of. The problem with such an approach is that, often, we ourselves seem to display a high degree of self-righteousness, especially when our starting point is our own experiences.

Can you imagine a conference in Antioch where some Gentile theologians point to a case in which new believers have been pressurised into circumcision by abusive imposition of power by Jewish believers in Jerusalem? Can you imagine them pointing out that Christianity is no longer a religion exclusive to Jewish people and going on to argue that imposing a prohibition against roast pork and rejecting sexual liaisons with temple prostitutes are a denial of Greek culture and an imposition of a Jewish culturally-biased Christianity that prevents Gentile Christians from experiencing their true freedom in Christ? Can you see them complaining that this view shapes how they interpret their past, present, and even future by forcing them to live with a myopic version of future hope based on theology solely concerned with the preservation and propagation of a cultural, philosophical, and theological identity at dissonance with the experience of the Gentile church? Can you imagine a Jewish believer keeping silent for fear of being accused of racism? Can you imagine a whole conference in which the gospel is barely mentioned, and everything is discussed at the level of cultural practice and personal feelings of disempowerment? If Paul had handled this differently, and if Antioch had been a post-modern instead of an ancient society, then something like that could easily have been a possibility.

Paul’s starting point is the core of the gospel: something he knows that both he and Peter agree on.

15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

Paul goes on to write down some sentences that have become so precious to us evangelicals. Galatians 2:20 is a verse we have probably all memorised at one time. But Paul’s aim here is not to write out a definition of the gospel to correct Peter’s mistaken version. In verses 15–21, he reminds his readers of the precious truths that both Peter and he held as crucial, as apostles of Jesus Christ, leaders of the church, and authors of Scripture. He seeks to show how Peter’s behaviour threatens an understanding of that gospel core. In this case, anything that creates a hierarchy of humanity that claims any people can be more acceptable to God based on cultural practice, religious ritual, or ethnicity must be an anathema to a gospel of grace, and any behaviour that seems to imply or support such an idea—even if those doing it do not themselves support that view—is also wrong and threatens the core of the gospel. Paul’s concluding words in verse 21 are striking. If we set aside the grace of God in our assumption that righteousness can be gained by the law, then Christ died for nothing!

I wonder if we can be as charitable in our disagreements with other Christians? Can we seek to understand their fears, their experiences, their contexts, and what might motivate them to behave in ways or say things that we find disagreeable? We should firstly try to establish if we have a common understanding of the core of the gospel, and, if we do, base our conversations on that. This would mean we all humbly stand as condemned sinners before the cross of grace rather than as self-righteous crusaders seeking to condemn others as sinners.

Of course, we may find that we are, in fact, trusting in a different gospel. But if that is the case, then I would argue that that is also a better starting point. Because if I am having a discussion with someone who calls themselves a Christian but doesn’t understand the gospel as “by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law,” then I will need to know that from the start or the resulting discussion will probably lead to even greater misunderstanding and frustration.

So, how do you handle disagreements with other Christians? If you find your dearly-held views being challenged, do you lash out because your opponents are not as enlightened as you? Or do you keep quiet but inwardly maintain a feeling of smug superiority? Do you keep conversations at a surface level so that people’s backgrounds and life experiences give them the right—more or less—to speak up and where disagreements can only either add importance to or devalue those experiences? Or are you prepared to affirm the faith of those you disagree with and humbly invite your brother or sister to dialogue with you starting with the core of the gospel and with a concern that Jesus be glorified?

Modern debates are often caught up with questioning the right of anyone to critique another person’s beliefs if they don’t and can’t fully understand that person’s cultural and historical perspective. So, a white person may not comment on colonialism, a straight person may not comment on homosexuality, etc. In contrast to this anthropocentric approach, the core of the gospel looks at us all from God’s perspective. Instead of creating multiple hierarchies of “us” and “others”, all of humanity is placed in the same category of created, fallen sinners. The gospel then invites us to interact as forgiven sinners who know that solutions to human problems are to be found in the grace of the One who created all humanity, who sees us all fully, and loves and understands us without prejudice or bias.

 


 

[1] See Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove: IVP, 1970), 450–52.

[2] Some, such as Dunn, have proposed that Paul lost the argument with Peter because he does not tell us Peter’s response. J. D. G. Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians, Black’s New Commentaries (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993), 130.

[3] F. C. Baur, the founder and leader of the Tübingen school of theology, is credited with originating this view. Many variations of this view can be found. For example, Dunn proposed that Peter forms a link between opposing factions of Paul and James the brother of Jesus. James D. G. Dunn, “Echoes of Intra-Jewish Polemic in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians,” Journal of Biblical Literature 112, no. 3 (Autumn 1993): 462.

[4] “Peter perhaps felt that if the members of the embassy went back and told the Jerusalem church that he was eating with Gentiles it would compromise his position with the leading church.” Leon Morris, Galatians: Paul’s Charter of Christian Freedom (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 74. A key issue is the dating of this incident. Scholars are divided as to whether Paul is describing an event that occurred before or after the Jerusalem council recorded in Acts 15.

[5] See T. Scacewater, “Galatians 2:11–21 and the Interpretive Context of ‘works of the law’,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 56, no. 2 (2013): 307–23. Scacewater argues against Dunn’s interpretation, claiming that “Peter’s actions were sociologically not soteriological motivated” and his fault was “fear induced, implied ethnocentrism rather than an attempt to maintain covenant righteousness.” Scacewater, “Galatians 2:11–21,” 309.

[6] Wiersbe comments: “today’s Christians need to appreciate afresh the courageous stand Paul and his associates took for the liberty of the Gospel. Paul’s concern was ‘the truth of the Gospel’ (Gal 2:5, 14), not ‘the peace of the church.’ ‘Peace at any price’ was not Paul’s philosophy of ministry, nor should it be ours.” Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1989), 692.

[7] I am indebted to Tim Keller’s discussion of this passage in his article, “The Bible and Race,” Life in the Gospel website Spring 2020, https://quarterly.gospelinlife.com/the-bible-and-race/ (accessed 10 April 2023).

[8] Pillow observes that mere reflexive understanding, while assumed to offer greater “ethnographic authority” is often deployed in a very weak “monological” sense that allows the researcher to be released from the weight of misrepresentation that inevitably accompanies any exercise in which one is attempting to name, classify, and analyse a social field of study. The mere act of being reflexive can often be assumed to have released a researcher from suggestions of bias whereas the reality is that it can often be an academic box ticking exercise with little impact on the researchers work or conclusions. Wanda Pillow, “Confession, Catharsis or Cure? Rethinking the uses of Reflexivity as Methodological Power in Qualitative Research,” Qualitative Studies in Education 16, no. 2 (2003): 186.

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