Preserving the Truth of the Gospel
Verses 1-10 of Galatians 2, as a unit, serves only to support verses 11-14. Meaning, even though Paul’s apostolic authority and message were confirmed by the pillars at Jerusalem, Paul still rebuked Peter when he was not living in accordance with the truth of the gospel. Which in turn supports his main claim that he’s not a man pleaser. But Paul did not say these things just to make a point about his independence still. He said these things in such a way that highlights how the two apostles responded to the issue of legalism. This could be the last nail that will put to rest the issue of whether Paul was just trying to please people, and he will not hide this facts just to avoid a bad press. Now let’s be honest, this account was not a shining moment for Peter, but I will immediately add though, that Peter, by implication from what he wrote in his letters about Paul, already repented of the sin that Paul was describing here. So my aim is not to condemn Peter or reject his apostolic authority, but to just show faithfully how the two responded to the attacks against the gospel of grace during this period and hopefully learn from them.
So I will first address what happened at Antioch, and how Paul rebuked Peter, and then compare how Peter’s response to the Judaizers in Antioch differs from Paul’s when he addressed the false brothers in Jerusalem. Then we will look into how the truth of the Gospel can be preserved. Lastly I’ll close with some applications in making a stand for the gospel and how it should shape our lives.
Peter’s visit at Antioch(verse 11)
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he had clearly done wrong.
Just as we are not sure exactly when did Paul’s visit to Jerusalem happended, we also aren’t sure when exactly did Peter’s visitation at Antioch occurred. Did it occur before the second visit in Jerusalem or after his second visit? Or is it even much earlier than that, namely before or after his first visit?
Now, I feel warranted to answer these questions first because Paul’s argument here hangs on whether he was confirmed by the Jerusalem apostle before he rebuked Peter or is it the other way around.
By looking at two greek words used here, we can make a case that this happened after Paul’s second visit in Jerusalem, described in Galatians 2:1-10. First is the word Οτε, translated in English as “when” and δε, rendered as “but” in most translations. “When” tells us that verses 11-14 is a distinct event from what happened in verses 1-10 but it doesn’t tell us exactly in relation to when did Peter’s visit at Antioch occured. Paul used another word for that, he used the more flexible greek conjunction δε.The conjunction δε functions two ways in this passage, (1) to suggest continuation and or progression of events, and (2) to show a mild contrast between what happened in Jerusalem and Antioch. Paul could’ve use a more sharp contrast by using the word αλλα, but then the time aspect would be vague. Therefore he chose the word δε so that both the continuation and the contrast of events can be expressed clearly.
The gospel is a message first before it is an experience.
Now let’s move on from when to the what of Peter’s visit in Antioch.
We are told immediately that Paul opposed Cephas to his face-Cephas is just Peter’s Aramaic name. The reason Paul gave for the rebuke was that he had clearly done wrong, or more literally blame-worthy or worthy of condemnation. Then he tells us why is that the case based on what happened in verses 12-13. Before certain men supposedly came from James, Peter had been eating with the Gentiles. If you are a Jew, Christian Jew at that, eating on the same table with a Gentile was very controversial during the early church and even more so in the old covenant. It means that not only you were eating with the unclean but that you yourself becomes unclean for doing so. But in the new covenant, we are now freed from the law. The dividing wall of hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles has been destroyed(Ephesians 2:14-16). So Peter here was just exercising his freedom to eat with the Gentiles. But when those who were pro-circumcision arrived, he withdrew from his fellowship with the Gentiles because he was afraid of them. Then the rest of the Jews joined also with him in his hypocrisy and as a result even Barnabas was led astray with them by their hypocrisy. Not only did Peter not live in accordance with the gospel, he even led others astray by his actions. So Paul responded to the situation when he saw what was happening. He said to Peter that he’s not living consistently to what he require of others, hence the charge of hypocrisy.
Response, Result, Motivation and Purpose
Now let’s contrast what happened in Jerusalem and Antioch.
First, the response to the Judaizers.
In verses 1-5 Paul brought Titus, a Gentile, to the fellowship, and he defended the gospel at all times(verse 5) while Peter on the other hand withdrew from fellowship with the Gentiles and did not defend the gospel.
Second, the result of their behavior
Paul in taking his ground encouraged others to not surrender the gospel not even for a moment. Take note of the plural “we” in verse 5. He said “we” did not surrender. But in the case of Peter, when he withdrew, others joined him in his hypocrisy.
Third, the grounds or motivation for their actions.
Paul, from the preceding verses and chapters clearly doesn’t want to impress people and so he addressed the Judaizers the way he did because he wants the approval of God first and foremost. But Peter for his part, his actions were motivated by fear. Verse 12 says “he separated himself because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision.”
Fourth, their purpose
Paul’s aim was to preserve the truth of the gospel. Verse 5b says: “we did not surrender to them even for a moment, in order that the truth of the gospel would remain with you.” Peter just want to preserve a following. He might lose a hearing from the circumcision party perhaps if he’s to be seen mingling with Gentiles.
Again this is in no way to diminish Peter’s authority as inspired spokesman for God and don’t hear me saying that Paul was a better apostle than him. Rather, it’s written for our learning and edification.
I would like to add also that both apostles maintain their position about the gospel. They share the same principle as to what the gospel is. What happened here is a temporary lapse in behaviour by Peter and not doctrine. We know that Peter was in agreement with Paul because of what he said to Peter in verse 14. Paul said that “if you, although you are a Jew, live like a Gentile..” This means that Peter was consistent in the application of his freedom in the gospel up to a certain point only. But he did understand the gospel and its radically culture and tradition shifting effects.
Preserving the truth of the gospel
So what does this account tells us about how to preserve the truth of the gospel? There are at least two that I can see here. One is to preach or herald the truth of the gospel and two, live under the sway of the truth of the gospel.
1) Preach It – The truth of the gospel is preserved if we proclaim it faithfully. Paul’s presentation of the gospel in verse 2 proves this point. We must talk about the gospel both privately and publicly(verse 14). A life’s testimony is not the gospel. The gospel is a message first before it is an experience. A message that must be heard according to Romans 10:14. The gospel is the faith that’s once for all delivered to the saints.
Much of what we see in preaching nowadays is more of life’s testimonies and anecdotes than preaching the whole counsel of God that centers in the truth of the Gospel. The gospel according to scripture has to do first with the God-Man Jesus Christ before our response and benefits that we’ll receive from it. The gospel is that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures and that he was buried and rose again on the third day according to scriptures(1 Corinthians 15:3-7). The gospel is first an objective reality that is outside of us.
2) Live by It – The truth of the gospel is preserved if we live by it. Living consistent with our confession is as important as the confession itself. Notice the phrase that unifies verses 1-10 and verses 11-14 is the phrase “truth of the gospel” and it has to do with how we should live consistent with it. Paul in verse 5 presented the gospel in order that the truth of the gospel might be preserved, but in verse 14 Paul rebuked Peter not because of what he preached but what his conduct signifies. So the subjective aspect of the gospel has its proper place. Our testimonies matter not only to the unbelieving world but also to our fellow believers.
Legalism comes in different forms and one of the worst is having it cloaked under the flag of orthodoxy.
What should we make out of this sad and sobering event in the history of the Church?
Controversies must teach us to look into our own hearts
First we can see that controversies within the body of Christ already is in existence since its infancy. We are not to be surprised by what we’re seeing today. Truth is too important then, and still is too important now. There will be people who will make a stand for the truth and there are those who will cower and compromise the truth of the gospel just to win the approval of men. But let me make this perfectly clear, it would be wrong that after hearing this, you’ll ask yourselves who are the Pauls and Peters of the church and then decide which group you would like to fellowship with base on that. Remember that Peter here did not remain in the state of living inconsistently with the gospel and so to draw an application that way would be very reckless. Not only that, this kind of attitude deserves the rebuke that Paul gave to the Corinthian believers in 1 Corinthians 1:10-15. Instead, we ought to ask ourselves do we really conduct our lives consistent with the gospel? Don’t point your fingers somewhere else. Reflect if we ourselves are denying the gospel by our very own actions. Do we really live with the freedom that we have in Christ? Or are we still enslaved by the desire to gain the approval of men?
Legalism hiding in Orthodoxy
Second, we can see that legalism comes in different forms and one of the worst is having it cloaked under the flag of orthodoxy. Theological rightness does not necessarily equate to right practice. Sometimes we elevate some of our theological distinctives, that can be deemed secondary, and as a result we cut off fellowship from those who differ from us on secondary matters. The issue really is a conflation of the necessary implications of the gospel and what we “think” is necessary to the gospel. This calls for discernment and much patience. Don’t be quick in cutting ties just because of differences on secondary issues. As some theologians usually say; it is much better to err on the side of grace than err on the side of legalism.
Preserving the Truth of the Gospel is more than just theological accuracy
I think a necessary element for the preservation of the truth of the gospel is to treat others in a such a way that is consistent with the way God treats us. That is one of the radical marks of a gospel centered life. Not theological acumen first but a grace filled life first. Sadly, much of our polemics today err on the side of legalism than on grace. You may win the arguments but when the way you speak or write shows the very opposite of what you’re arguing for, you’ll not win their souls. Preserving the truth of the gospel then means that we lead others to the truth of it not just with propositions but also with our actions.
Preach the Gospel to Yourself
Lastly, at the root, all our insecurities, fears and hypocrisy flows from our lack of faith that God is for us in the Gospel. Peter deny the gospel through his actions because he was afraid of the men from James. The Jews joined also because they want the approval of Peter, a pillar from Jerusalem. Even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy because everyone else already joined in. Preach the gospel to yourselves first before to others. Before it is a battle to preach, it is a battle to believe and truly live under the sway of the gospel day by day and if you are still trying to preserve the truth of it relying only on ourselves then we might as well give up because you’re battling a lost cause.