The Epistle to the Galatians – 03 (“Peter the Hypocrite – Peter the Rock”)

The Epistle to the Galatians – 03 (“Peter the Hypocrite – Peter the Rock”)

Previously we looked at Galatians and saw that Peter and James acknowledged Paul’s apostleship. They sent Paul and Barnabas off to the Gentile world to share the gospel with the people outside Israel ~ “…and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me (i.e. Paul), they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised…” (Gal.1:10). Somewhat later though, Cephas (i.e. Peter) went to Antioch (the present day, Syria) where he met Paul and Barnabas again. This meeting was a tragic and traumatic happening, but as always, the words of Paul in Rom.8:28 can and must be applied ~ “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” While we are looking at this piece of church history from the first century, we must keep the saying in mind, “God uses crooked sticks to hit straight blows” (freely translated from Afrikaans).

Gal.2:11-14 (ESV) ~ “11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step 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 force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

As Gentiles began to convert from Paganism to Christianity, a dispute arose among Christian leaders as to whether or not Gentiles needed to observe all the tenets of the Law of Moses. In particular, it was debated whether Gentile converts needed to be circumcised or observe the Jewish dietary laws. Paul was a strong advocate of the position that Gentiles need not be circumcised nor observe dietary laws.

In the meantime, Peter went to Antioch to visit Paul and the Gentile believers and to minister there. From the outset, while Peter was in the company of Paul and the Gentile believers, he sat with them and he ate with them. But then one day, a group of believers from Jerusalem arrived in Antioch and Peter was suddenly “between a rock and a hard place.” The men “from James” as Paul called them, were probably very influential men from Jerusalem and men who practiced separation from those they considered “unclean.” They may even have been “false brethren,” and Paul speaks of this in his letter to the Galatians in the context of the Jerusalem council (Gal.2:4). This is also what he was referring to previously as believing in another gospel.

Perhaps we should not make too much of Paul’s choice of words here. He may have only meant to refer to the fact that James was recognised as the dominant leader in Jerusalem and that to come from Jerusalem was, in effect, to come from James. On the other hand, James must at least have been informed of this visit and might even have been the initiator of it.

What was probably going on in Peter’s mind, after these men arrived in Antioch, was that he must not offend these “brethren” from Jerusalem. They could cause trouble if they were offended. Peter probably felt uncomfortable leaving the table-fellowship of the Gentiles to make these Jerusalem Jews feel comfortable in Antioch. To add to this unfortunate happening, and Paul’s dismay, the rest of the Jewish Christians in Antioch sided with Peter, including Paul’s long-time associate Barnabas, implying that these men were powerful Jews in Jerusalem, perhaps members of the Sanhedrin.

We must keep in mind that, Jerusalem was the most important and influential church in the world at the time for preaching the gospel. Pilgrims from all over the world came to Jerusalem to celebrate the annual Holy Days. The Jerusalem church had a vast mission field right there in their home town. That is why the gospel spread so quickly throughout the empire and even into the east. Jews made pilgrimages to Jerusalem and met Jesus. They returned to their home synagogues and brought the Gospel with them and preached Jesus there. Without a doubt, the Jerusalem church had to be preserved for as long as possible.

This was probably going through Peter’s mind when he separated himself from the Gentile believers in favour of those men who had come from Jerusalem. Nevertheless, wrong behaviour doesn’t reflect the image of God and isn’t worthy of the gospel. When confronted, the Scriptures indicate both Peter and Barnabas repented immediately. Often when we try to protect something important to us, we don’t see the full extent of what we are doing in order to guard what is vital. Most probably, this incident, was the impetus for the Jerusalem council and the decision that was taken there somewhere between 49 and 50 AD. The decision that was taken, was that Gentile Christians did not have to observe the Mosaic Law of the Jews, including circumcision ~ “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom.8:28).

For the sake of clarity, just one other remark. The question may occur, why the council was held in Jerusalem. Did they go to Jerusalem because Jerusalem was the “mother-church” and therefore only the church in Jerusalem that could settle such disputes and problems? The answer is an emphatic “no.” Paul, Barnabas, Peter and others went to Jerusalem because the trouble-makers had come from Judea (Jerusalem), and from James’ reaction later, the trouble-makers had intimated that they had been sent by the Jerusalem church – that is, the trouble-makers were saying that they represented the views of the Jerusalem church and so, Paul and the others (Acts 15:2) went to Jerusalem to find out if the church there really had sent out these people.

The conduct of Peter in Antioch, may be regarded as:

  • An example of temptation arising from the fear of man. Peter was by nature timid; prompt to act and afraid of opposition.
  • His conduct may be regarded as an instance of an apostle’s departure from the straight path of gospel truth, and of the ease with which such departure may take place.
  • Peter’s conduct may be regarded as inconsistent with his integrity as a Christian.

What was the problem with Peter’s actions?

  • The actions of Peter and the others were wrongly motivated. Peter, we are told, acted out of a fear for the “circumcision party” (vs.12). It is safe to say that the others were also motivated out of a desire not to offend, either the Judaizers or Peter. Peter, as well as those who followed him in his capitulation to the circumcisers, was guilty of acting as “men-pleasers.” Their actions were wrongly motivated.
  • The actions of Peter (and the others) caused some people in the church in Antioch to stumble. Vs.13 informs us that Peter’s actions set an example which was followed by the “rest of the Jews” and that their hypocrisy caused “even Barnabas” to follow. Peter’s actions led others to follow his lead. We see this every time when there is a church-split, that the split usually originated from one strong man and some people follow him without thinking for themselves or testing what the man’s motives were.
  • The actions of Peter and the others were hypocritical. In vs.13 Paul wrote that the rest of the Jews, including Barnabas, “was led astray by their hypocrisy.” The hypocrisy of their actions was based on what they still believed, but what they have ceased to practice. They had not deliberately departed from right doctrine: they had simply deviated from it in practice.
  • The actions of Peter and the rest were a practical denial of the gospel. Paul acted decisively when it became apparent to him that… “… their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (vs.14). What Peter did, was to compel the Gentiles to live like Jews, which was, in Paul’s words, a “different gospel” (Gal.1:6-7).

In contrast to Peter’s conduct and actions, Paul was an example of moral courage in administering reproof. No easy thing, at any time, to rebuke a friend. It is painful to oppose one whom we love, or whose good opinion we value and it was a noble vindication of gospel truth.

Many theologians in the past (especially the German theologian, Baur during the 19th century), taught that the conflict between Paul and Peter intensified as time passed. However, the two apostles’ differences were few and short-lived. This incident most probably took place before the Jerusalem Council, described in Acts 15. Since Peter defended Paul at the Jerusalem Council, it is clear that Peter quickly responded to Paul’s rebuke and confessed his sin.

When reading this piece of church history, we must be careful not to jump to all sorts of conclusions too quickly and especially not start condemning Peter as weak, sinful two-faced compromiser – maybe he was one, but…

Peter was a colourful character. His full names were Simon Peter. He was one of the first followers of Jesus Christ. He was an outspoken and ardent disciple, one of Jesus’ closest friends, an apostle, and according to Gal.2:9, he was a “pillar” of the church. Peter was enthusiastic, strong-willed, impulsive, and, at times, brash. But for all his strengths, Peter had several failings in his life. Still, the Lord who chose him continued to mould him into exactly who He intended Peter to be – and this is a very important lesson for all of us to remember.

Simon Peter was originally from Bethsaida (Joh.1:44) and lived in Capernaum (Mark.1:29), both cities on the coast of the Sea of Galilee. He was married (1 Cor.9:5), and he, James and John were partners in a profitable fishing business (Luk.5:10). Simon met Jesus through his brother Andrew, who had followed Jesus after hearing John the Baptist proclaim that Jesus was the Lamb of God (Joh.1:35-36). Andrew immediately went to find his brother to bring him to Jesus. Upon meeting Simon, Jesus gave him a new name: Cephas (Aramaic) or Peter (Greek), which means “rock” (Joh.1:40-42). Later, Jesus officially called Peter to follow Him, producing a miraculous catch of fish (Luk.5:1-7). Immediately, Peter left everything behind to follow the Lord (vs.11).

For the next three years, Peter lived as a disciple of the Lord Jesus. Being a natural-born leader, Peter became the “de facto” spokesman for the Twelve (Matt.15:15; Mark 11:21; Luk.8:45; Joh.6:68, etc.). More significantly, it was Peter who first confessed Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” a truth which Jesus said was divinely revealed to Peter (Matt.16:16-17).

Peter was part of the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, along with James and John. Only those three were present when Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:37) and when Jesus was transfigured on the mountain (Matt.17:1). Peter and John were given the special task of preparing the final Passover meal (Luk.22:8).

In several instances however, Peter showed himself to be impulsive (impetuous). For example, it was Peter who left the boat to walk on the water to Jesus (Matt.14:28-29) – and promptly took his eyes off Jesus and began to sink (vs.30). It was Peter who took Jesus aside to rebuke Him for speaking of His death (Matt.16:22) – and was swiftly corrected by the Lord (vs. 23). It was Peter who suggested erecting three tabernacles to honour Moses, Elijah, and Jesus (Matt.17:4) – and fell to the ground in fearful silence at God’s glory (vss.5-6). It was Peter who drew his sword and attacked the servant of the high priest (Joh.18:10) – and was immediately told to sheath his weapon (vs.11). It was Peter who boasted that he would never forsake the Lord, even if everyone else did (Matt.26:33) – and later denied three times that he even knew the Lord (vss.70-74).

Through all of Peter’s ups and downs, the Lord Jesus remained his loving Lord and faithful Guide. Jesus reaffirmed Simon as Peter, the “Rock,” in Matt.16:18-19, promising that he would be instrumental in establishing Jesus’ church. After His resurrection, Jesus specifically named Peter as one who needed to hear the Good News (Mark 16:7). And, repeating the miracle of the large catch of fish, Jesus made a special point of forgiving and restoring Peter and re-commissioning him as an apostle (Joh.21:6, 15-17).

On the day of Pentecost, Peter was the main speaker to the crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 2:14), and the Church began with an influx of about 3,000 new believers (vs.41). Later, Peter healed a lame beggar (Acts 3) and preached boldly before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4). Even arrest, beatings, and threats could not dampen Peter’s resolve to preach the risen Christ (Acts 5).

Jesus’ promise that Peter would be foundational in building the Church was fulfilled in three stages: Peter preached on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Then, he was present when the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8). Finally, he was summoned to the home of the Roman centurion Cornelius, who also believed and received the Holy Spirit (Acts 10). In this way, Peter “unlocked” three different worlds and opened the door of the Church to Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles.

Even as an apostle, Peter experienced some growing pains. At first, he had resisted taking the gospel to Cornelius, a Gentile. However, when he saw the Romans receive the Holy Spirit in the same manner he had, Peter concluded ~ “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34). After that, Peter strongly defended the Gentiles’ position as believers and was adamant that they did not need to conform to Jewish law (Acts 15:7-11).

Another episode of growth in Peter’s life concerned his visit to Antioch, as we discussed already, where he enjoyed the fellowship of Gentile believers. However, when some legalistic Jews arrived in Antioch, Peter, to appease them, withdrew from the Gentile Christians. The Apostle Paul saw this as hypocrisy and called it such to Peter’s face (Gal.2:11-14).

Later in life, Peter spent time with John Mark (1 Pet.5:13), who wrote the gospel of Mark based on Peter’s remembrances of his time with Jesus. Peter wrote two inspired epistles, 1 and 2 Peter, between A.D. 60 and 68. Jesus said that Peter would die a martyr’s death (Joh.21:18-19) – a prophecy fulfilled, presumably, during Nero’s reign. Tradition has it that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome, and, although such a story may be true, there is no scriptural or historical witness to the particulars of Peter’s death.

Peter’s life story reminds us of King David’s story, doesn’t it? David was an adulterer, a murderer, a pathetic father and yet, God called him ~ “…I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will’” (Acts 13:22).

Why am I telling you all of this? Because there is so much to learn from the life of Peter:

  • Jesus and overcoming fear: Whether stepping out of a boat onto a tossing sea or stepping across the threshold of a Gentile home for the first time, Peter found courage in following Christ. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear” (1 Joh.4:18).
  • Jesus forgives unfaithfulness: After he had boasted of his fidelity, Peter fervently denied the Lord three times. It seemed that Peter had burned his bridges, but Jesus lovingly rebuilt them and restored Peter to service. Peter was a former failure, but, with Jesus, failure is not the end. “If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Tim.2:13).
  • Jesus patiently teaches: Over and over, Peter needed correction, and the Lord gave it with patience, firmness, and love. The Master Teacher looks for students willing to learn. “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go” (Ps.32:8).
  •  Jesus sees us as He intends us to be: The very first time they met, Jesus called Simon “Peter.” The rough and reckless fisherman was, in Jesus’ eyes, a firm and faithful rock. “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Phil.1:6).
  • Jesus uses unlikely heroes: Peter was a fisherman from Galilee, but Jesus called him to be a fisher of men (Luke 5:10). Because Peter was willing to leave all he had to follow Jesus, God used him in great ways. As Peter preached, people were amazed at his boldness because he was “unschooled” and “ordinary.” But then they took note that Peter “had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Being with Jesus makes all the difference.

Paul’s authority as an apostle is fundamental to the argument of the book of Galatians, but there are other lessons for us as well. Let us conclude our study by considering the implications of the gospel suggested by this passage.

  • We as Christians need to become much more conscious of the implications of our actions, for we can deny in practice what we believe in propositional form. Let us seek to understand the gospel more fully and live it more consistently.
  • Second, we should learn that we should expect to be tested on those very points which we believe most emphatically and which we may teach dogmatically. Who, more than Peter, had come to know that eating with the Gentiles was consistent with the will of God? In Acts 10 God instructed Peter to abandon the ceremonial food laws in order to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Peter defended his actions before his Jewish brothers in Acts 11. In Antioch Peter lived according to the lesson he had learned in Acts 10. Later when some Jewish brothers arrived “from James,” he capitulated. Under testing Peter abandoned what he believed.
  • Third, this passage provides us with a footnote on the matter of private rebuke. We are all aware of the teaching of our Lord in Matt.18, which instructs us to confront an erring brother privately. Our text in the second chapter of Galatians should inform us that some correction must be done publicly. Public correction is necessary where public error has corrupted others. If we can deal with sin privately, so much the better, but according to Matt.18, it is only when private rebuke fails that public rebuke should follow.
  • Fourth, when pointed out to be in sin, Peter did not try to justify his sin, but instead, he accepted the discipline in humility and immediately repented and corrected his wrong.
  • Fifth, we are reminded of the fallibility of the giants of the faith. We must keep in mind that great changes happened in the life of Peter and others when they were filled with the Holy Spirit, but the gift of the Spirit did not make Peter infallible. Let us be reminded that no matter how spiritual a man may be, he’s always capable of sin, but God’s love, grace and forgiveness are always available to His children. We must be careful not to judge and condemn others, and in the process, forget about our own sins.
  • We should learn that serious problems can have very beneficial ends. E.g. the split between Paul and Barnabas resulted in an extended gospel force, because there were now two men, spreading the Good News and the Jerusalem Council led to an ever-deepening love and respect for each other. God is always able to take unpleasant incidents and turn them into life-changing lessons.
  • We should also learn from this passage that our authority comes from

    Kobus van der Walt

    Biblical principles, more than it does from position. Paul was able to stand up against Peter, not because Paul was an apostle, but his authority was based on the truth of the gospel. Paul’s actions were therefore based upon principle, not upon position.

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