Do As I Say, and Not as I Do
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”Galatians 2:11-14
One of the first things that comes to mind when reading this passage is that Peter was reacting out of fear, much like he did in the courtyard of the high priest after Jesus’ crucifixion. When people confronted him about his association with Christ, he denied that he knew Jesus. And here, when he fears confrontation about the freedom he knows in Christ, he pulls himself back from eating with gentiles.
Peter had a vision which showed him that gentiles were loved by God (Acts 10:1 – 11:18), and that God had accepted them as full members of God’s family. And so, Peter accepted the gentile Cornelius and his entire family and brought them into the family of God, not requiring them to follow all the rules and regulations that he he had grown up with. Paul preached this same freedom from maintaining the law, and, he had just told the readers of this letter that he had met with Peter (Galatians 2:1-10), and that Peter and the other apostles had agreed with him about the inclusion of the gentiles into the family of God.
Since Paul is writing to the Galatians – gentiles – and since he had just explained to them that Peter had agreed that gentiles are a part of God’s family, this calling out of Peter’s hypocrisy serves more than just to bash Peter in the eyes of the Galatian believers. It has to do with who belongs to Christ’s family; and how exactly that relates is in the next section.
But, we cannot overlook that Peter, and even Barnabas joined into this division within a church of fellow believers. They heard what the people from James had said, and then turned around and refused to eat with the gentiles. Peter had understood God’s decision to include gentiles in the story of salvation. And Peter had already had a meeting with Paul, James, and John about not needing to make gentiles follow the rules and regulations of their Jewish heritage. So this decision by Peter and Barnabas to fall into a pattern of excluding people is, as Paul says, based entirely in fear. Fear that he might be ridiculed, have his authority challenged, or have his leadership threatened.
If Peter, the pillar of the church, could be swayed by fear over those confronting something that God had personally explained to Peter, then we can see how easily it might be for us to step into doing things that are opposite what we claim to follow.
But we must examine that possibility, because Peter’s actions harmed those whom he excluded. His actions harmed himself, because those watching (those within the community as well as those outside of it) saw that he was failing to live up to his own standards. And his actions harmed the church as a whole, because he was unwilling to correct those who would sow the seeds of exclusivity and division among the believers. By not correcting them, these men were able to continue sowing division and confusion among the greater church.
But this side story by Paul, really had the intent of defining who truly belongs to the family of God, rather than just calling out Peter for his inconsistencies.
Those Who Believe Are Christ’s Family
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.Galatians 2:15-21
The whole story about Peter’s inconsistency was just a lead up to remind everyone that anyone who believes in Christ is a member of God’s family. No one should make distinctions between people who believe.
Paul reminds Peter and the others about their heritage, in order to remind them that they themselves know that it is impossible to keep all of the law, and that they cannot be deemed righteous by following the law all on their own. And he reminds them that they themselves know that it is only through the faithfulness of the messiah that they are justified.
Paul has set up the dichotomy between God’s grace and trying to attain righteousness by maintaining the law. It’s a comparison between God’s works, and our works. And the point is clear. Our works can never amount to enough to justify us before God, because if we could, then there was no need for the messiah, or for the messiah to die. So, the only people who are justified in God’s sight are those that believe in Christ.
And that includes the gentiles, who also believe.
And if it includes the gentiles, why are you pulling yourself back and refusing to eat with them? You’re falling back into the idea that your works of the law that you grew up with will save you. But you cannot be justified by any of that. You are justified only by faith in Christ, just like these men who did not grow up with your heritage. But, they now share the same future that you do, simply by believing in Christ.
Paul has, by calling out Peter’s inconsistencies, brought back the idea that there is to be unity among all believers. He calls out those sowing confusion and division by bringing them all back to the understanding that the only thing that matters is faith in what the messiah has done through his death and resurrection.
Important Words and Phrases
ὑποστέλλω – hupostello – “I draw back” mid. shrink from, avoid, keep silent 1 – notable because it sounds similar to ἀποστέλλω – “apostello” – “to send, to send out,” as of the apostles. Peter “drew back and kept himself separate.” Peter, like Paul, had been sent by God to spread the news of Christ, but here, rather than living into his “sending out,” he has retreated in fear of what others might think of his living in spiritual freedom. In Hebrews 10:37-38, this word indicates that believers can not expect a reward if they fail to confess the truth of the gospel.
ἀφώριζεν – from ἀφορίζω – aphorizo – “I separate” 2 – Peter separated himself, held himself off, created boundaries between himself and others; the exact opposite of the unity the Gospel teaches. The New Testament uses this word to indicate being separated for divine service, or “calling.” So in a sense, Peter has separated himself from his calling to preach the gospel because he has separated himself from those with whom he should share the Gospel.
συνεσταύρωμαι – I have been crucified, from συσταυρόω – sustaurao – “To crucify together with” – in this sense, ” I am crucified with.” We tend to gloss over the idea of having died to sin, having died with Christ, etc. but this imagery of being nailed to a cross together with Christ should carry a bit more weight than it seems to.
- Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), pp 1074
- TDNT, pp 728
- TDNT, pp 1105
Mike is a jack of all trades, master of none. He’s a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn’t have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride.
Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a postulant for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. He will attend Sewanee School of Theology for a year of Anglican Studies in the Fall of 2022.