Can you imagine going to a church dinner where both Peter AND Paul were in attendance? And then can you imagine Peter and Paul having a public confrontation over theology? You might say, “I'd have liked to been a fly on the wall for that!” Almost as good..... you can read about it in the Bible.
In Galatians 2, Paul tells the story of a time when Peter came to Antioch to fellowship with the Christians there. Most of them were of a Gentile persuasion; and of course Peter and Paul were of a Jewish persuasion. Yet they all had come to know, by God's grace, that God is not one to show partiality. We are all sinners before God and can only be saved by an act of His sovereign grace. But what about the Jewish Law? What about Moses? How were Gentiles supposed to relate to that? For that matter, how were Jewish Christians supposed to relate to it? This was what caused the strife between Peter and Paul at Antioch. But be forewarned, this was not a mammoth clash of the theological titans, if you will. This was not a debate between Peter and Paul. This was a rebuke. One of them was CLEARLY in the wrong. And one of them was CLEARLY in the right. Here's what happened, by Paul's own reckoning:
“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. 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?” (Galatians 2:11-14 NASB)
Before I point out Peter's fault, let me cushion the blow by praising him a little. Peter was clearly used of God in a unique and powerful way. As one of the twelve disciples he was one of the “chosen of the chosen” if you will. And within the twelve, Peter was a part of a trio that Jesus seemed to have an extra closeness with (Peter, James, and John). And even within the trio, Peter was the undisputed leader. He frequently speaks boldly on behalf of the other twelve. Sometimes he speaks too boldly and puts his foot in his mouth. But he clearly loves Jesus and was probably the most prominent leader in the early church. Which is why it was so surprising what he did at Antioch. And it was why Paul had no choice but to rebuke him publicly for it. The truth of the gospel was at stake, and no man is bigger than the gospel. Not even Peter. Not even Paul. Earlier in Galatians Paul wrote that even if he himself came back later and preached a different gospel, “let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:8) The truth of the gospel was absolutely vital to Paul. Which is why he had to rebuke Peter.
As the text tells us, Peter was fellowshipping quite freely with the Gentile Christians before the Judaizers arrived. Bear in mind that Peter had already had this issue settled quite profoundly in his mind. In Acts 10 it was Peter who had the vision regarding eating things which were “unclean.” Peter, being a loyal Jew declared that he had never eaten anything ceremonially unclean! But God reveals deeper truth to Peter, declaring: “Arise, Peter, kill and eat!......What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” (Acts 10:13, 15) A short time later Peter is instructed to go and share the gospel with Cornelius. And when he does he tells Cornelius: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for. So I ask for what reason you have sent for me.” Acts 10:28-29)
A few chapters later, we are told of a council that convenes in Jerusalem to deal with how Gentile Christians were supposed to relate to the Law of Moses. It starts when “some men from James” come to Paul and Barnabas insisting that the Gentile believers must be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses. Paul and Barnabas vehemently disagree and they all head to Jerusalem to meet with the elders and apostles. While there, some of the Pharisees who had believed also clung to the Law saying that circumcision and observing the Law of Moses was vital. After much debate, it was Peter who arose and gave the rousing defense of justification by grace through faith in Christ alone. Read his words: “After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, 'Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.'” (Acts 15:7-11)
With all that said, let us not miss what the judgment of the Jerusalem council was. And let us not miss how it pertains to the so-called “Moral Law” of the Ten Commandments as a rule of life for the Christian. James' judgment was this: “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.” (Acts 15:19-20 NASB)
That's it? This is all the Jerusalem council has to say regarding Gentiles observing the Law of Moses? Let us not forget that this was what the debate was about. It wasn't JUST circumcision; but also “observing the Law of Moses” according to Acts 15:5. And the Jerusalem council concludes four things. Avoid things contaminated by idols. Avoid fornication. Avoid things that are strangled and blood. Why didn't James instruct the Gentiles to keep the eternal, unchanging, moral law of God contained in the Ten Commandments? Maybe that is because the Ten Commandments are not the eternal, unchanging, moral law of God. And never once in the Bible were presented as such.
This account certainly sounds the “death knell” to Covenant Theology's insistence on the Ten Commandments being the unchanging, eternal, moral law of God. Why on earth would James mention NOTHING about it in this passage and in this context? The Pharisees who believe said the Gentile Christians were to “observe the Law of Moses.” Why didn't James divide the Law into three sections and say, “Well they need to observe the moral law, but not the ceremonial or civil?” James' actions and his words utterly destroy Covenant Theology's “moral law” theory. And it seems the early church leaders were in adamant agreement that Christians were not “under the Law” in any way, shape, form, or fashion. Peter, James, John, Barnabas, Titus, and others were present. And they all agreed with James' judgment. Many decades later, Thomas Aquinas might have presented a different view by dividing the Mosaic Law into categories. The Apostles never do such a thing. So whom will you choose to follow? Aquinas or the Apostles?
Furthermore, James makes no mention of the Law as a means of "salvation" NOR of "sanctification." Again, a common notion in Covenant Theology circles is that Moses will drive you to Christ for salvation; then Christ will drive you back to Moses for sanctification. Apparently, if this is true, someone forget to tell James and the Apostles. There is no mention of sanctification by the Law.
It is quite telling what James fails to mention in this text. And while some might see this as an argument from “silence” it is actually an argument made quite loud and clearly by our Lord's brother. He doesn't mention the Decalogue and even uses the phrase “not to trouble” the Gentiles with Mosaic issues (Acts 15:19). Even the four things James mentions aren't so much commands as they are ways in which the Gentiles can live “free from the Law” while not needlessly offending Jews whom they seek to evangelize. Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 8 when he unpacks the idea of eating meat sacrificed to idols. Paul declares that it is NOT sinful to do so. Meat is neither holy nor profane. It is lifeless meat. But if a weaker brother sees you and is caused to stumble, then refrain for his sake.
Likewise fornication. The Decalogue forbid adultery. And while adultery is certainly a form of fornication; it is not quite the same thing. Marriage vows must be broken for adultery to take place. Not so with fornication. Most likely James is making a reference to the common pagan practice of temple prostitutes who were such an avid part of pagan worship services. Christians, obviously, should abstain from such things in all forms. As for the avoidance of things strangled and blood; again we see something that is “dietary” in nature and not sinful in and of itself. Peter's dream in Acts 10 made that clear. Nevertheless for the sake of the weak brother or the unregenerate Jew, James tells them to abstain from such things.
In many ways, what James tells the Gentile Christians to do in Acts 15 is very similar to what Paul said he himself did in 1 Corinthians 9 in his famous “all things to all people” passage. “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23 NASB)
Of course it is vital to note that Paul declares he is “not under the Law” in this passage. Yet at times he does things and abstains from things that will keep him from needlessly offending, so that he will have an open door to present Christ. As the new believers mature Paul will have opportunity to bring them along, by God's grace, into a proper understanding of being “free from the Law.” But initially, he needs to share the gospel with them. Paul had a sacrificial heart to share the truth and to make disciples and was willing to suffer and give up freedoms to see it happen. All the while, teaching the truth about his freedom from the Law and his freedom in Christ. He would not let the gospel be tainted by legalists. Nor would he let it be tainted by the actions of an intimidated Christian such as Peter. Which brings us back to Galatians 2.
Why does Peter “hold himself aloof” from the Gentiles; after the “certain men from James” came? Verse 13 tells us that he “feared the party of the circumcision.” While it might be hard for you to believe.....Peter was intimidated. So he hung out with the Jews and shunned the Gentiles so the Jews would accept him. But this was more than a mere social issue. The truth of the gospel was at stake. If Peter, the most prominent leader in the church, was shunning Gentiles then this could have brought massive confusion to the Gentiles, indeed the entire church. Were they wrong about being “free from the Law?” Were the Judaizers right about the necessity of circumcision? And the requirement to keep the Law of Moses? With Peter's public actions the truth of the gospel was in serious jeopardy. But Paul, thankfully, would not stand for it. He rebukes Peter and I suspect Peter quickly repented. There is no record of him arguing with Paul about the matter. Acts 10 and 15 show us that Peter knew full well the truth. Galatians 2 just shows us that he was intimated and ignored the truth.
Christians are not under the Law. But rather being free from the Law, we look to Christ and His law to lead and govern our lives. With the Spirit indwelling us, we live our lives out of love for our Lord. Far from a dutiful drudgery of keeping lists; we joyfully submit and follow our King! Paul knew this was the case. So did Peter and all the other apostles for they were in hearty agreement with the Jerusalem Council's conclusion.
And in case you wonder what became of Paul and Peter and their relationship with each other. Go and read the words of Peter. In fact the FINAL WORDS of Peter ever recorded in Scripture, shortly before his death. And you will see exactly what Peter thought of Paul. Even after Paul publicly rebuked him and probably royally embarrassed him. Here is Peter's last words: “Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, 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, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” (2 Peter 3:14-18 NASB)
Peter did not resent Paul for correcting him. Peter loved Paul all the more for it. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” (Proverbs 27:6) Paul wasn't Peter's enemy. He was his friend. And what's more he was his brother in Christ. And Paul simply could not stand idly by and watch Peter, his beloved brother, get buffaloed into confusing the gospel. Paul rebuked. Peter repented. And all of us are the better for it.
Shane Kastler serves as Pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Lake Charles, LA. He is also the co-host of "Church and State" on Eternal Life Broadcasting (KELB 100.5 FM and KEBL 105.5 FM radio) each Thursday. He teaches Logic at Covenant Grace Academy and writes a weekly religious column for the Linn County News (KS). He has contributed articles to Economic Policy Journal, Target Liberty, Lew Rockwell.com, Sword & Trowel, and Reformed Libertarian.com.