But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 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. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 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?” – Galatians 2:11-14 ESV
When Paul had left Jerusalem, he had done so on good terms, having received “the right hand of fellowship” (Galatians 2:9 ESV) from his fellow apostles: Peter, James and John. But when Peter came to Antioch to get a first-hand look at Paul’s ministry, it didn’t take long before a confrontation took place between the two men. Upon his arrival, Peter was interfacing and even eating with the Gentile believers in the church in Antioch. But when a group of believing Jews arrived from Jerusalem who were of the opinion that Gentiles must be circumcised before they were truly Christians, Peter succumbed to peer pressure. Paul accused him of hypocrisy, because he drew back and separated himself from the Gentiles. The Greek word Paul uses carries a powerful punch. It is same word used by Luke when writing of an incident in Ephesus when Paul had been preaching in the synagogue there. He had been doing so for three months and had seen many come to Christ. The Luke records, “But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him” (Acts 19:9 ESV). He separated himself from them because of their unbelief. It seems that Paul is accusing Peter of treating the Gentile Christians as unbelievers because of the pressure he felt from the Judaizers. His behavior had radically changed when the Jews from Jerusalem had arrived in town. And his actions had negatively influence the Jewish Christians in Antioch to follow his lead. Even Barnabas, Paul’s companion in ministry there, had been led astray by Peter’s actions. Suddenly, there was an unhealthy and uncalled for division in the church. And Paul would not tolerate it.
Paul made a very condemning assessment, saying, “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14 ESV). Their decision to separate themselves from the Gentiles Christians because they had not been circumcised was unwarranted and not in keeping with the message of the gospel. There was no requirement of circumcision tied to the message of the good news. There was no missing “next step” that had to be taken in order for these Gentiles to be fully saved or deemed legitimate Christians. And the idea that there were somehow Jewish Christians and Gentile (incomplete) Christians was in direct opposition to the message of the gospel. Rather than unity, the message of the Judaizers was causing division.
A little later on in this same letter, Paul writes of the unifying nature of the gospel.
So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. – Galatians 3:24-29 ESV
Peter’s actions were divisive. Whether he meant to or not, he gave the impression that the Gentile Christians were somehow deficient in their justification before God. His decision to distance himself from them was based on the teachings of men, not the law of Moses. In fact, in the book of Acts, Luke records the encounter between Peter and Cornelius, a Roman Centurion who was “a devout man who feared God” (Acts 10:2 ESV). God had spoken to Peter in a vision and commanded him to go to Cornelius. In his vision, Peter had seen “the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat’” (Acts 10:11-13 ESV). Appalled at the very thought, Peter had refused. But God commanded him a second time to eat, and then said, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15 ESV). When Peter woke up from the vision, he obeyed God and went to see Cornelius and said to him:
“You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” – Acts 10:28-29 ESV
It is interesting to note that the unlawfulness to which Peter referred had nothing to do with the law of Moses. According to the Benson Commentary, the term, “anyone of another nation” refers to “A stranger, and an uncircumcised Gentile. This was not made unlawful by the law of God, but by the precepts of their wise men, which they looked upon to be no less obliging. They did not indeed forbid them to converse with Gentiles, in the way of traffic or worldly business, but to eat with them. With such scorn did the Jews look upon the Gentiles” (Benson Commentary on the Old and New Testaments).
Peter’s aversion to the Gentiles was based on man-made rules and regulations. And it is important to remember that Jesus, a practicing Jew and keeper of the law of Moses, ate with tax collectors and sinners, a practice for which He was derided by the Pharisees. In doing so, He was breaking their laws, not the law of God. And so, when Peter allowed the pressure from the Judaizers to cause him to pull away from the Gentile believers in Antioch, he was violating the very message God had given him in his vision: “I should not call any person common or unclean.”
Peter was wrong and he deserved to be confronted for his behavior. Paul, never one to pull any punches, was more than willing to call his brother on the carpet and demand that he rethink his actions. The gospel was too important. The unity of the church, too vital.