An Important Spiritual Confrontation in Antioch

“But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. 12 For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. 13 And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. 14 But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?” (Gal. 2:11-14).

Antioch is located in the northwest part of Jerusalem, along the Mediterranean Sea coast. It was from this city the apostle Paul began his ministry first journey, and to which he returned. After persecution broke out in Jerusalem, many of the Jews had fled, seeking safety in Antioch. Others remained in the Holy City.

In the providence of God, a church began in Antioch, which was largely Gentile Christians. Like their Jewish brethren, the new converts had to learn that through much tribulation the saints enter into the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). There is a high price to pay for being part of the Christian faith.

Sometime around AD 45, an important confrontation took place between Paul and Peter. Two titans of the church clashed, in the words of Reformed theologian Derek Thomas. The area of concern was over whether or not a Gentile convert should be compelled to live as do the Jews by being circumcised, keeping the Law, offering sacrifices, and observing special days.

This controversy was not a new issue. It had been discussed many years before in Jerusalem when James, the Lord’s brother, was alive and presiding over the early church. Peter was also in Jerusalem at the time, as was John, the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 20:2). This privileged trio, Peter, James, and John knew Jesus well for they had lived with Him, and heard Him teach. They had watched Jesus heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, and forgive sins. They were present at His crucifixion and beheld Him in His resurrected body.

Fiercely opposed to the church in Jerusalem was Saul of Tarsus. A religious zealot, and a Pharisee, Saul had obtained letters from the High Priest of Israel which allowed him to go to the synagogues in Damascus and, if he found any Christians daring to worship God there, to arrest him, whether they were men or women, and bring them in chains back to Jerusalem. While on this mission of madness, Saul of Tarsus was converted to Christ.

When it was rumored that he who once persecuted the church, now preached Jesus to be the Messiah, for He was both Lord and Savior, there was suspicion in Jerusalem by many Christians. The people had a right to be suspicious. They did not know if he was only pretending to be a convert in order to spy on the church, and hurt more people. Moreover, if it were true that Saul, now Paul, preached Christ, he was declaring that the sacrifices were no longer necessary, and that was a cause for alarm. Paul was destroying the boundary markers of Judaism.

Paul had other ideas about the Sabbath, observing special holidays, and circumcision. In Galatians 2, we read that Titus was not forced to be circumcised. (Gal. 2:3). There was a time when Jews compelled individuals to be circumcised at all cost. For example, during the days of the Maccabeans (c. 167 BC – 37 BC), “what children soever they found within the coast of Israel uncircumcised those they circumcised by force (1 Macc. 2:45-46). The Essenes (2nd century BC to 1st century AD) also compelled circumcision. For Paul, if a person wanted to be circumcised for practical reasons, like Timothy (Acts 16:3), that was acceptable, provided the doctrine of justification by faith alone was not violated (Acts 15:22-29).

While the believers in Jerusalem were transitioning from Judaism to Christianity, by ceasing to offer sacrifices, by not demanding circumcision, and by worshipping on Sunday and not the Sabbath, other Christians, Gentiles, were struggling to live a life based on the principles of grace. This was not easy to do because some Jewish Christians were trying to bring the Gentile converts back under the Law. The modern-day Messianic Movement testifies to the strength of legalism. Many Christians today are being pressured to keep the Sabbath, and observe Jewish special days. They do not remember how Paul wrote to the Galatians, who faced this same pressure, saying, “I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain” (Gal. 4:11).

It is possible for a person to invest themselves in others in spiritual matters, only to discover they had labored in vain.

The Lord Jesus had invested three years in the life of Peter, but all that time was on the verge of being made meaningless for Peter had begun to fear the zealous and dogmatic Judaizers. Peter had begun to transition from the Law of the Life of the Spirit in Christ Jesus, to the Law of Sin and Death. Peter had decided to no longer sit at the table with the Gentiles. He would only fellowship with His fellow Jewish friends.   

Peter’s motive in withdrawing his fellowship from the Gentiles is said to be fear. Peter feared those who were of the circumcision who had come from Jerusalem.

This not the first time we read of Peter being afraid. The fears of Peter are well documented.

We remember the time when Peter was afraid, he was going to drown, even while he was in the midst of a miraculous experience for Peter was walking on the water. “But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me” (Matt. 14:30).

We remember the time when Peter was terrified, he would be arrested and crucified, just like Jesus, despite his boasting of how brave he was. “Now Peter sat without in the palace: and a damsel came unto him, saying, Thou also wast with Jesus of Galilee.  70 But he denied before them all, saying, I know not what thou sayest.  71 And when he was gone out into the porch, another maid saw him, and said unto them that were there, This fellow was also with Jesus of Nazareth. 72 And again he denied with an oath, I do not know the man. 73 And after a while came unto him they that stood by, and said to Peter, Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech betrayeth thee. 74 Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew. 75 And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.  And he went out, and wept bitterly” (Matt. 26:69-75).

Now we read that Peter was afraid of certain religious men from Jerusalem (Gal. 2:12). Who were these religious men, and why was Peter afraid?

Perhaps, the fear of Peter was rooted in his own insecurity. Peter was not confident, at this point in his life, that he was embracing the truth of salvation by grace through faith alone. In time, his confidence in the gospel would be secured, and Peter would become steadfast in the faith, but, for a moment, in AD 49, Peter was afraid.

It is also possible the fear of Peter was rooted in a desire not to lose his reputation as the leader of the Church. The Lord had promised to build His Church upon Peter and, up to this point, that is what had happened. It was Peter who preached on the Day of Pentecost, and three thousand souls were saved (Acts 2:41).  It was Peter who performed a wonderful restorative miracle the Beautiful Gate of the Temple (Acts 3:6-16). It was Peter who first took the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10:24-33).

Nevertheless, Peter would not have wanted to lose his reputation before the Jewish Christians. It was one thing to give the gospel to the Gentiles; it was something else to fellowship with them on a personal, and daily basis.

When Hudson Taylor adopted the clothing, and the pigtail, of the Chinese among whom he ministered, he was soundly judged by his fellow Englishmen. Perhaps Peter was afraid of criticism from his peers, or simply afraid of the unknown.

Whatever his reason may have been for his dissimulation, it affected others. Even Barnabas, the son of consolation, was carried away.  That is very surprising, and disappointing, because Barnabas was well known to be generous, gracious, tolerate, and understanding.

When the early Church needed financial resources, it was Barnabas who sold some of his property, and “brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:36.

When Saul came to Jerusalem and desired to fellowship with the Church, only to be fearfully rejected, it was Barnabas who took Saul, now Paul, “and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus” (Acts 9:27).

When Paul wanted to go on a missionary journey to visit the brethren in every city where he had gone before to preach the word of the Lord, it was Barnabas who insisted John Mark be allowed to travel as well. When Paul strenuously objected, it was Barnabas who stood up for John Mark, left Paul, and sailed for Cyprus.

Now, we read that in Antioch this sweet man of God was carried away with the dissimulation, being influenced by Peter. When Paul realized what was happening in the city of Antioch, he personally traveled there to withstand Peter, and by association, Barnabas, because Peter was acting in a blameworthy manner.

Peter was pretending to be something he was not. Peter was going back under the Mosaic Law when he knew better. Peter was willing to abandon his fellowship with the Gentiles in order to curry favor, and impress the Judaizers from Jerusalem.

Because the sins of Peter were public and not private, Paul rebuked Peter publicly, saying, “If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?” (Gal. 2:14).

This was a classic showdown, in front of the Church in Antioch between the established pillar of the Church, Peter, and the later convert to the Christian faith, Saul of Tarsus, now Paul. In the great clash of belief and behavior, who would prevail. It is a defining moment in Christian theology and Church practice.

The reason why Paul was willing to confront Peter was for the sake of the gospel. Either a person is saved by grace through faith alone, or a person must have faith and do something else in order to be saved.

A person must have faith and be baptized in order to be saved.

A person must have faith and be circumcised in order to be saved.

A person must have faith and live a life without sin in order to be saved.

A person must have faith and observe the Law, the Food Laws, the Ceremonial Laws, the Oral Laws in order to be saved.

A person must have faith and keep the sacraments in order to be saved.

If any of this is true, then a person can never be sure of their eternal salvation for they will never know if they have done enough to please God.

In contrast, converted sinners sing a song of gratitude for the doctrine of justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from the works of the Law. The Christian sings:

“I know not why God’s wondrous grace
To me He hath made known,
Nor why, unworthy, Christ in love
Redeemed me for His own.

I know not how this saving faith
To me He did impart,
Nor how believing in His Word
Wrought peace within my heart.

I know not how the Spirit moves,
Convincing men of sin,
Revealing Jesus through the Word,
Creating faith in Him.

But “I know Whom I have believed,
And am persuaded that He is able
To keep that which I’ve committed
Unto Him against that day.”

—Daniel Whittle

Can you sing this song? Do you believe in Christ alone for your salvation? Are you persuade that He is able to keep your body, soul, and spirit against the day of final judgment? The promise of Scripture is that, “whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:13).

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