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?”
15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. – Galatians 2:11-16 ESV
During the early days of the church’s growth after Pentecost, there was a natural or, better yet, supernatural division of responsibilities. Peter, along with James and John, “had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised” (Galatians 2:7b ESV). Yet Paul wrote, “I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised” (Galatians 2:7a ESV). Jesus had given Paul his commission and declared Paul to be “a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15 ESV).
God had divided up the task of disseminating the gospel, but He would not tolerate a dividing of the gospel message. It would be by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. That is why Paul claimed, “…when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (Galatians 2:11 ESV). Those are bold words and can come across as a bit arrogant, but they simply reflect Paul’s determination to proclaim the gospel message he had received from Jesus Himself. As a former Pharisee, he knew all too well the pantheon of rules and regulations associated with Judaism. Paul still considered himself to be a faithful Jew. But he knew that when it came to salvation and man’s justification before God, the works of the law were worthless, “because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16 ESV).
Paul’s primary issue with Peter was his hypocrisy. When Peter came to Antioch to witness the ministry firsthand, he gladly associated with the Gentile believers, even eating with them. But when a group of men showed up who represented “the circumcision party,” Peter disassociated himself from the Gentiles. Paul does not provide the identities of these men but indicates that they had been sent by James, the de facto head of the church in Jerusalem. They could have been members of the church in Jerusalem.
What made all of this so confusing and frustrating for Paul was that the leaders of the Jerusalem church had given Paul their official seal of approval.
James, Peter, and John, who were known as pillars of the church, recognized the gift God had given me, and they accepted Barnabas and me as their co-workers. – Galatians 2:9 NLT
This letter was likely written before the Jerusalem Council, a gathering of church leaders to discuss the matter of circumcision. There were those among the Jewish Christians who believed that circumcision was a necessary requirement for a Gentile to be welcomed into the faith community. Paul and Barnabas would be a part of this event and present their side of the argument. But they would face stiff opposition from the other camp.
But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” – Acts 15:5 ESV
But long before this seminal event took place, Paul was forced to confront Peter about his duplicity. When members of the circumcision party arrived in town, Peter altered his behavior, choosing to disassociate from those he had earlier embraced. Peter’s course reversal irritated Paul because it sent a mixed message to the Gentile believers. Peter’s actions would have brought into question the validity of their salvation, and Paul was not willing to let that go unchallenged. To make matters worse, Peter’s decision influenced Barnabas and the other Jewish believers in the church to follow his example. They withdrew from fellowship with the uncircumcised Gentiles as well, creating a rift in the local faith community. Peter’s face-saving decision ended up dividing the body of Christ and Paul would not stand for it – regardless of Peter’s position as the elder statesman of the apostles.
As far as Paul was concerned, Peter stood condemned. He was guilty as charged. Paul boldly claimed, “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14 ESV). They were guilty of adding unnecessary requirements to the gospel, and were, in essence, preaching a different gospel.
Paul had opened his letter with these words of warning:
…there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. – Galatians 1:7-8 ESV
Peter’s actions were hypocritical and ultimately divisive. They caused the Gentile believers to doubt their salvation. Since they had not been circumcised, they were tempted to see themselves as somehow lesser Christians or perhaps, not Christians at all. They would have also wondered why Paul had not told them about circumcision if it was a non-negotiable requirement for salvation. So Paul’s ministry and message were at risk of being undermined.
But for Paul, there was no question about the truth of his message. He was confident that salvation was through faith in Christ alone. Circumcision was not necessary. He even reminded Peter and the other Jews, “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16 ESV).
Paul made this same claim in his letter to the Romans:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.– Romans 3:21-25 ESV
Paul would stubbornly hold to his belief that salvation could only be received by faith. No human effort was required. No rules had to be obeyed or rituals observed. Nothing was to be added to the offer of salvation. There were to be no addendums or alterations of any kind. Salvation was the work of God, not men. We bring nothing to the table. We are made right with God not by what we do, but by what Christ has done for us. All men stand before God as sinful and worthy of condemnation. His judgment against our sin is just and righteous. Our penalty of death is well-deserved and well within HIs rights to enforce as the righteous judge of the universe. But He provided a means by which all men, including Jews and Gentiles, might be restored to a right relationship with Him, despite themselves.
God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16 NLT
Faith alone in Christ alone. That is the only requirement.
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. – Romans 3:28-30 ESV
We are made right with God by believing in what Christ has accomplished for us on the cross. He died so that we might live. He rose again so that we might have eternal life. He has done it all.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.