Exploring Galatians: The Antioch Incident

Paul uses an incident with Peter to vividly explain the Gospel of Grace. At some time following the Jerusalem Council, Peter visited the church at Antioch. In the early days of Christianity, there were two centers of faith, Jerusalem and Antioch. Jerusalem was the touchstone for Jewish Christians and Antioch for Gentile Christians. It was the Antioch church that sent Paul on his missionary journeys.

For an unknown reason, Paul chooses to call Peter by his given name of Cephas instead of his Christ given name when recounting the incident. Paul writes, “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.” (Galatians 2:11–13, NASB95) Oh, how social pressures can cause us to stumble. Not even Peter and Barnabas were immune from them.

Paul goes on the confront Peter and, in the process, introduces the Gospel of Grace. The whole of the event and Paul’s rebuke are found in Galatians 2:11-21. In our next article, we’ll dive into Paul’s explanation of the Gospel contained in his words to Peter (verses 14-21). Today, Let’s look at the confrontation itself.

We’re talking Peter here. The same Peter that left his fishing business to follow Jesus. The Peter who walked on water, was in Jesus’ inner circle, denied Jesus, and was restored by Him. The same Peter who preached the first sermon at Pentecost and the first sermon to Gentile seekers. That Peter. This would be like Billy Graham or some other renowned Man of God showing up at your local church.

For a time, Peter joined the Gentile believers in their ways and their meals without regard to the Law of Moses. Perhaps he even enjoyed some pork or something else forbidden under Jewish Law. But then came some folks who did observe Jewish customs. Peter bowed to the social pressure and again observed Jewish custom. His example caused others, even Barnabas, to follow suit. Before we wag our heads at Peter, we need to recognize our own failings in this.

We all face social pressures to talk and act a certain way. Unwritten (or perhaps written) rules to conform to a set of norms. Breaking or challenging the norms is risky since we may become divorced from that social circle. What we choose in those moments of social conflict reveals much about our character. In some ways, Peter’s choice is an echo of that fateful night when He denied Jesus three times. On the night of Jesus’ trial and at Antioch, Peter chose what seemed to be the safer of the two options. And both were wrong.

I’m all for picking our battles. Sometimes “going along to get along” is a viable path to take. But we also have to know when to stand our ground and say “no.” That was the decision Paul had to make. Does he go along with Peter or stand his ground to a powerhouse in the church world with a public rebuke?  But know this, Paul didn’t launch into a direct attack of Peter’s character but essentially preached the Gospel of Grace to him. His rebuke wasn’t, “you’re a bad person, and you need to shape up.”

Paul instead began by saying, “But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? “We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” (Galatians 2:14–16, NASB95)

I think we need to look closely at both Peter and Paul. Consider where we may be acting like Peter, bowing to social pressures to be, do, and say certain things. And we need to consider how Paul addressed that. So often, we attack the person instead of presenting the truth of the Gospel.

While neither Galatians nor Acts provide us a picture of what happened next, there are a few glimmers that Paul and Peter grew to respect one another’s labors. Late in his life, Peter wrote, “and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness,” (2 Peter 3:15–17, NASB95)  I don’t know about you, but I hear echoes of the incident at Antioch in those words.

Dale Heinold
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