Paul ends the autobiographical section of the letter and the defense of his ministry with a story about confronting Peter. The purpose of telling the Galatians about this event is to demonstrate again the freedom that is theirs in the gospel and also to demonstrate for a final time his independence from and equality with the Jerusalem apostles. In this case he shows that he is the equal of Peter – probably the most famous of the apostles and their de facto leader – and that he is unwavering in his defense of the gospel he received from God and preached to the Galatians.
It is difficult to know when this story takes place. Does it occur before or after Paul traveled to Jerusalem and met with Peter, James, and John (the story he just described in verses 1-10)? If after, how strange is it for Peter and Paul to have this dispute directly after extending the right hand of fellowship to each other? Another question – is this the same event Luke records in Acts 15:1-2 that precipitates a conference in Jerusalem to officially decide whether the Gentiles must abide by the ceremonial law to be saved? If so, it gives more detail to Luke’s story and sheds more light on the critical importance of the conference. Neither of these questions, however, can be answered definitively, and ultimately the story’s timing does not affect the point Paul makes in telling it.
Paul begins by saying simply that Peter came to Antioch. He gives no reason for the visit nor explains how long he was there (although it apparently was for some time). His main point is that he opposed Peter to his face because he stood condemned. Paul certainly knows how to write a topic sentence.
It is important when studying this to remember Peter’s call to the Gentiles in Acts 10. There he saw a vision – presented three times so he made no mistake as to its message – that told him to eat unclean food. Immediately after the vision he received visitors from a Roman centurion asking him to come to the centurion’s house. Peter went there and led the man and his family to Christ. He witnessed very clearly the Holy Spirit coming on Gentiles and realized without a doubt that the gospel was for all people. Peter was the pioneer in taking the gospel to the Gentiles.
While in Antioch Peter regularly ate with the Gentiles. This is consistent with what he witnessed in Acts 10 and consistent with what he discussed with Paul in Jerusalem (assuming that happened before this). These meals were likely common meals as well as the Lord’s Supper.
By eating with the Gentiles Peter took the freedom of the gospel to another level. Not only do the Gentile believers not have to become Jews (through circumcision and keeping the ceremonial law), but the Jewish believers can effectively behave like Gentiles (we know from Paul’s later comments that these meals include food unclean by Jewish law). He fully exercised the freedom God gave him in his vision. Peter was confident in the truth of the gospel – Christ’s death was completely sufficient and nothing more is needed to effect salvation. Dietary and separation laws no longer matter because all are one in Christ.
The happy scene that was Peter and the Gentiles (sounds like a British Invasion band) ends with the appearance of certain men from James. Apparently these were Jewish believers from Jerusalem (where James is the leader of the church) who do not share Peter’s and Paul’s relaxed views of the Gentiles and the Law. They continue to hold the belief that Gentiles must abide by Jewish Law in order to be true believers. As such they do not associate with Gentiles who do not keep the Law.
When these men showed up Peter changed his behavior. Instead of eating with the Gentiles he began to pull away and hold himself aloof. He no longer was comfortable associating with them because the men from James did not approve. Since the Jews would never eat the unclean food of the Gentiles they do not eat with them at all. Thus, for the sake of appearance, Peter gave up the freedom and fellowship he had enjoyed. He changed his practice fearing the party of the circumcision.
It is interesting to conjecture what exactly caused him to fear. Was he worried about them causing a scene in a young church? Was he worried about his reputation back in Jerusalem? Was he worried about what James would think (this does not seem likely as James had just expressed unity with Paul and his mission to the Gentiles)? Did he fear he may lose his standing in the Judean churches or his standing as the leader of the apostles? It is impossible to know, but in so many ways it is incredible that someone with Peter’s resume would fear the opinions of other men.
Peter’s fear of man ultimately overcame his commitment to the gospel. At the moment of truth he looked at who was directly in front of him and made the decision that they were more to be feared than his Creator and Savior. He had seen some of the most incredible miracles in world history. He personally had healed the sick and walked on water and been miraculously delivered from prison. He was at the cross. He saw the resurrected Christ. He watched Jesus ascend to heaven. He was told by Jesus that he would be persecuted and actually die for the gospel – far worse than anything the Judaizers could do to him. And yet none of it mattered at that point. He saw men and forgot God and forgot the truth of God
What is amazing is that the vision God gave to Peter in Acts 10 commanded him to do the very thing he was doing with the Gentiles in Antioch (“Arise, Peter, kill and eat!”). Plus, he had already faced down criticism for going to the Gentiles and fellowshipping with them and taking the gospel to them (Acts 11:1-18). He had been through this! Yet he still became fearful and acted hypocritically. Peter defended his actions in Acts by saying, “If God therefore gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (11:17). He equated denying the gospel to the Gentiles as standing in God’s way. Here, however, he did exactly that. Peter is SO human and SO inconsistent (this is the same man who spoke incredible truth to Jesus about His identity and then almost in the same breath caused Jesus to call him Satan – Matt 16:15-23) and thus encourages us that God can use anyone for His great means. Peter is part of some of the greatest acts in human history and also some of its biggest failures. The same Peter who had denied his Lord for fear of a maidservant now denied Him again for fear of the circumcision party – John Stott.
Paul describes Peter’s behavior exactly for what it was – hypocrisy. Peter’s beliefs and actions did not match; that’s the definition of hypocrisy. Paul says that not only did Peter engage in this but he led other Jewish believers into hypocrisy also. It is vital to this story to realize how big a name Peter is in the church. He is likely the most well-known and well-respected of all the apostles. He was the leader of the original disciples and is the leader of the new church movement. His behavior has a huge effect on those around him. The crowd mentality and Peter’s influence are so strong that even Barnabas joined in and began to shun the Gentiles also.
It is not difficult to imagine what effect this had on the Gentile believers and the church as a whole. Suddenly there were effectively two groups and two classes of believers. The exclusive class abides by the Law and eats special food together and associates with Peter. The lower class eats unclean food and is shut out of the preferred meals (including, it stands to reason, the Lord’s Supper). The gospel is no longer about freedom and grace – it is about the Law and the privileges of obedience and the exclusivity of the Jewish believers.
It is interesting and tragic that Barnabas joined the crowd. His is another case of radically inconsistent behavior. Acts 11 tells us he was instrumental in evangelizing Antioch and responsible for bringing Paul there. He is a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith (Acts 11:24). He rejoiced when he saw Gentiles believing and at this point in the story had ministered in Antioch for some time. He had already gone on the first missionary journey with Paul that was targeted at the Gentiles. He fully knows the truth and has exercised his freedom – it has actually been his way of life. Yet he followed Peter’s hypocrisy. He likely did not fear man as much as he fell under the influence of man. This, perhaps more than any other fact about this story, shows Peter’s influence and the danger of his behavior.
Barnabas’ behavior was possibly a weakness born from his temperament. He is called Barnabas because it means son of encouragement (his real name is ‘Joseph’ – Acts 4:36). He is a peacemaker and someone who loves people. Perhaps he saw what Peter did and has all the respect in the world for Peter and wants to support him and so followed his behavior. This is where his difference in personality from Paul may have let him down. Paul is not as concerned with peacemaking and pleasing others as Barnabas is. Barnabas is a wonderful encourager but perhaps is more susceptible to following others when he should not.
In verse 14 Paul describes his reaction to Peter’s behavior. He decided to confront Peter in no uncertain terms. He says he acted because he saw that Peter and the others were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel. This echoes what he said in verse 5 about why he and the other apostles did not yield to the Judaizers when they faced them in Jerusalem. In both cases the reason is the same – the truth of the gospel was at stake. The truth is that man is saved by grace alone through faith alone. Yielding to the demand that believers must obey the Law to be saved undermines the truth and effectively destroys the gospel. And yet that is exactly what Peter did. He compromised the truth – the very thing he would not do when he was with the other apostles – including Paul – in Jerusalem. So to restore the truth of the gospel Paul had to call out Peter directly.
Unlike his trip to Jerusalem where he consulted with the apostles in private (2:2), Paul confronted Peter in the presence of all. He knew Peter’s behavior had been very public and that his influence was drawing many away with him. There was no choice but to confront him publicly for the sake of unity and the sake of the gospel. Others must know that the truth of the gospel had not changed just because some purported believers changed their behavior.
He said to Peter, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles (he ate with them and ate the same foods and did so routinely) and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel (the same word used for what the apostles in Jerusalem did not do to Titus in regard to his circumcision) the Gentiles to live like Jews?” He effectively says to Peter, “If you can live like the Gentiles, why can the Gentiles not live like Gentiles?” He called him out right in front of the very men Peter was trying to please and right in front of the men he had offended. Everything secret was out and all the cards were on the table. Paul made sure that any fear Peter had of the Jerusalem dignitaries would now be realized.
[Note – no one is sure where the statement to Peter ends. Does it end in verse 14 or does it extend all the way to the end of the chapter? Does it end in verse 16 where Paul finishes the point he starts in verse 15 with “We are Jews by nature…” that could be addressed to Peter? It is difficult to know because Paul does not make it clear in the Greek. It seems to make sense that it ends in verse 14 or 16 only because the length of the statement becomes awkward if it extends all the way to verse 21. For Paul’s purposes it does not matter because he launches directly into a theological defense of why Peter’s behavior was wrong and uses it to instruct the Galatians about the gospel.]
Paul does not record Peter’s response. He also says nothing about Barnabas. In both cases it is likely they were ashamed and repentant. Paul acted as the cold water that brings everyone back to reality. He played the part of the crowing rooster that makes Peter realize his sin. We can imagine Barnabas being horrified at what he had done because it caused division and hurt and threatened the very foundation of the gospel. He may wonder how he was so foolish as to follow others into sin. We can imagine Barnabas saying ruefully, “I knew this was wrong! I knew it was not the right way to react to James’ men, and I did it anyway. I saw Peter going with them and so just went with it and did not think it through. How could I have done this?!! How could I have hurt the very men I have spent so much time leading and loving and bringing to the gospel?”
In the end the summary of Paul’s story is as follows. Peter acted because of the fear of man. Barnabas and the others acted because of the influence of man. Paul acted because of the truth of the gospel (showing as he did in 1:8-9 and 2:5 that he will not tolerate any deviation from the message of the gospel). Only one did not take his eyes off God and the truth. Only one saw the actions of men for what they were and chose to follow his Creator. It is the one who is grounded in the truth who sees most clearly.
Paul has now completed his defense. He has shown clearly that he is an authentic apostle beholden to no man. His message was delivered to him directly by God – not taught to him by other apostles. He is no people-pleaser, he is fully independent of the Jerusalem apostles, his gospel is his own and he will aggressively defend it, and his authority is equal to that of even the heaviest of heavyweights – Peter.
Thus the Galatians know the gospel they received is real and the authority under which it was preached is real. They have heard God’s words from God’s apostle. His authority is greater than the false teachers and his message is fully true and truly complete. There is no additional doctrine and no additional demands for salvation. Paul’s original gospel is all they need.
Fear of Man
Fear of man can affect anyone. We see Peter’s behavior and wonder how in the world he could falter after all he had been through and all he had heard and the amazing experiences he had. And yet – did Peter have the full Bible as we do? Did Peter have at his fingertips not only the amazing stories of God’s power in the Old Testament but the full doctrine of God for daily living in the New Testament? We have the fully revealed will of God and His Spirit indwelling us and His promises to sustain us and His teaching to guide us and the certainty of His return and YET – do we not falter just like Peter because of the fear of man? Do we not often look at the men in front of us and ascribe more value and strength and fear to them than we do to our Creator and Savior? The fear of man is not only completely out of step with the gospel, it reveals an inordinate level of self-deception and foolishness.
Fear of man leads to hypocrisy. None of us are hypocrites if our only concern is pleasing God. I believe one thing and do another (or I hide the actions that violate my beliefs) because I fear what others might think if they knew the truth. When my main concern is being thought of well by others my allegiance to God becomes secondary. The fear of man causes me to hide my righteousness from sinners and my sin from the righteous.
Fear of man leads to legalism. Issues of the heart become secondary when the only thing that matters is acceptance by others. Acceptance can often be gained by outward obedience. My actions show I am part of the club and approval is mine because of adherence to accepted behaviors. My outward actions are all that matter because they are what cause others to praise my piety and think well of me. And that is what is most important.
Fear of man is born out of pride. We are ultimately concerned about ourselves more than God. Our reputation is more important than God’s glory. I must have the approval of men because it is all about me and I fear disapproval because it affects me directly. What affects God and His glory is not on my radar because it is secondary to my own ambitions. Since my eyes are full of myself I have no vision of God and thus no fear of Him. And with no fear of God the fear of man becomes paramount and the main motivator for my behavior.
How to overcome the fear of man?
Fear God who can destroy both the body and soul in hell and yet loves each one of us to the point where He knows when we lose a single hair from our head (Matthew 10:26-33).
Fill our mind and focus with the gospel message itself. How can we fear man after seeing the example Christ provided by going to the cross? He was willing to endure that and yet I am fearful of what man may do to me? If we are full of God and His truth we will react as Paul did when faced with the disapproval and sinful behavior of men.
Remember the promises of scripture:
For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline (II Tim 1:7).
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:31-39).
When you feel insecure or frightened and are tempted to put up a front and avoid taking a stand for what you believe is right, the battle you are fighting is a battle to believe the gospel. The gospel tells us that the death of Christ assures us of God’s love, and so it gives deep root and stability and security to our lives. But more than that, the sheer beauty and power of Christ’s resolve to suffer for me instead of putting up a front to save His skin shames me in my fear of man and my inclination to play the hypocrite in order to avoid suffering. Center your life on Jesus and His gospel and the root of hypocrisy will be severed. – John Piper