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Lowell Brueckner

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Paul Rebukes Peter


Chapter 2:11-14But 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?

This is one of the most revealing portions of Scripture, concerning the absence of the importance of rank and, on the other hand, loyalty to the truth of the Word of God in the early church. Paul’s point in telling the story is to strip the Galatians of all the false, idolatrous awe that they had given to the church and eldership in Jerusalem. By far, Peter was the elder in the faith over Paul and his experience in Christianity dated to its very onset. If it could be said that there was any human instrument used in establishing the faith on the earth, up to this point, that distinction would have to be given to Peter. Peter was the speaker on the Day of Pentecost. It was Peter’s shadow that touched the infirm along the streets of the city and they were healed. 

Yet Paul does not hesitate a moment in opposing him to the face. Why? “Because he stood condemned” and “acted hypocritically.” His deportment was wrong and, in behaving as he did, he had sinned; there was no question about it. There is no indication given anywhere in the New Testament that Paul was out of order. If it seemed to the Galatians, and if seems to us, that he had acted improperly, it is because they did not, and we do not, understand biblical etiquette. I see nowhere in Scripture, from David to Hezekiah that this was not the manner of treating sin or wrong behavior of any kind. Paul instructed Titus, “Rebuke them sharply” (Tit.1:13). A high percentage of what we have heard concerning submission to leaders is not Bible truth.

Is Paul gossiping and defaming Peter by putting this incident in writing, not only for the Galatians to see, but all the world up to this present time? Some would say, “Please Paul, it’s okay for you to expose a doctrinal error, but leave people out of it. At least, don’t name them.” No, Paul has a positive purpose, because by exposing Peter and his sin, he is awaking the Galatians, so that they can see that they are, not only guilty of committing the same sin, but continue to walk in that sin. It is the sin of fearing man and following his self-styled religion. Changing behavior to fit the circumstances, is what is called situation ethics in our days. By relating this incident, Paul hopes to show the damning consequences of it. He also mentions the Christian Jews, who followed Peter’s leadership, and even names his own partner, Barnabas.

Not only did Paul rebuke an elder, but he did so publicly before all. Speaking particularly of elders, Paul instructed young Timothy to continue the practice: “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Ti.5:19-20). It is through this teaching that Paul aims to transfer the Galatians’ fear of men over to the fear of God. He wants them fully aware of their present condition. They have been deceived and are in serious trouble!

We may know nothing about Judaism, but we have plenty of experience, when it comes to the fear of man. Similar situations happen today, always with new details and circumstances, but the fear of man, and the rewards that men offer, remain as the root problem. Too seldom are these things thoroughly dealt with. I have seen too many, in the face of a failure in leadership, who at first, become alarmed. They shift to a lower gear, recover quickly, then encourage themselves to pick up speed, disassociating themselves from the sin. This will never do!

They must come to a full stop, put their spiritual pretentions in reverse, until they come to the place where the sin was first committed… even if they must go way back to their supposed conversion! From that point, they need to take a good look around to see how much of their life and practice has been based on the Bible. Whatever has been outside of Scripture, for those things, confession and repentance must take place, before they will be able to make any real progress. 

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article called, “The Bible Puts Man in His Place”, and in it, I quoted a noted authority on religion and sectarianism, George Erdely: “In the beginning of the Christian church… there were no delicate leaders, who needed to be talked to aside, so as not to jeopardize their ‘authority’” Erdely further states, concerning Paul’s rebuke of Peter, that Paul “is bringing the matter to light in a letter to the Galatians before the entire church, as an example, in order to build and warn against the same error. The Bible gives sufficient evidence that Peter recognized his error and submitted to the Scriptures.

What was the maximum authority among those who personally saw Jesus? The truth of the Bible. These passages demonstrate that at the beginning of the Christian church there were not authoritarian leaders, who were offended whenever there actions were questioned. The conversation was frank and direct and there was liberty to speak clearly. The truth of Scripture was the maximum authority and everyone, including the apostles, submitted to it. We must be careful for those, who do not follow this rule, because in truth, a classic sign that an organization has converted into a cult is when, in practice, the leaders are considered a higher authority than the Bible. A noted university professor explains this fact very well in his book, A Study Concerning the Sects: ‘A sure sign that we are in the presence of a cult, is where the maximum authority in spiritual matters rests on something other than the Holy Scriptures.’”

“The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe” (Prov.29:25). Paul called those, who came up from Jerusalem under the authority of James, the circumcision party. Peter, Barnabas and other Jewish Christians in Antioch changed their behavior in their presence. The fear of man works contrary to faith in God (see Heb.13:5,6). It sets a trap that brings its victim into man-service and there, he will be kept in bondage. To fear God is to be free of the fear of man; that brings safety and freedom. Up until this time, everyone had been enjoying liberty in Christ along with the newly converted Gentiles. This change was inexcusable and hypocritical. Imagine how it left the Gentile believers befuddled and offended. 

Peter and the Jews were acting out a crooked lie: “Their conduct was not in step” (in step… Greek, straight-footed), contrary to the straight truth of the gospel. They are being dishonest and deceptive. Because of Peter’s high position, he was leaving a strong impression on the Gentiles to practice Judaism… that is, the practice of separation between Jews and Gentiles. The conclusion would be: If Peter still practices Judaism, as a Christian, then we must practice it also, to be separated from the people of the world. It would set them up for the teaching of circumcision, in order to live a separated Christian life. That is the sign that separated the Jew from the rest of the world. Barnabas had been working among the people of Antioch, and his following of Peter, along with the other Jews, added tremendous weight to the error.

Chapter 2:15-21 “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 
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. 
But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 
For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. 
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in (or of) the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”

What would have happened to the future church if Paul had not made this firm stand for the gospel? What if the legalistic party from James had prevailed that day and had been sent out from Antioch into the mission fields of the world? Where would we be today? Paul continues his rebuke of these Jewish visitors to Antioch and reminds them of the pure truth of the gospel. In the language of the Jews, he talks of their pretended superiority, seeing themselves as the people of God, who follow His laws. They have always considered the world, outside the circle of Jews, to be sinners.

Then, he speaks to them as Christians, who know the claims of the gospel, which teaches that no Jew, any more than a Gentile, is justified by keeping the law. They have all sinned and come short of the glory of God. Justification comes by putting their trust in the sinless One, the only One who perfectly kept the law. Without Christ, the Jew is as lost as the Gentile. Therefore, they must cast themselves upon Jesus in full faith, totally abandoning hope in their justification through their attempts at keeping the law. They must hope in the perfection of Christ, in order to be just before God, covered with His righteousness. No human being has been justified in any other way.

What happened in Antioch was no minor issue and Paul goes on to show the gravity of it. In the council meeting in Jerusalem, Peter asked this question: “Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers now we have been able to bear?” He saw how God had put His stamp of approval upon Gentiles, who believed, without the works of the law, but because of their faith in the gospel. Without showing any distinction, He poured His Spirit upon the Gentiles, exactly as He poured Him upon Jews. Peter saw that, when the Judaizers demanded that the Gentiles should keep the law, it was an offense against the God, who had sealed them with His Spirit. Peter effectively tore down law-bound Judaism. By his actions in Antioch, he was rebuilding it.

Paul saw that Peter was contradicting his own claim of salvation only in Christ. His legalistic need to fulfill the law of separation between Jew and Gentile, in effect, gave the impression that Christ had left him under sin still to be atoned for by the keeping of the law. If that is the case, then Peter transgressed, when he tore it down in the first place. That, at least, is what he was manifesting in the eyes of the Gentile believers. Is this serious? It is immensely serious. He is, in fact, nullifying the grace of God towards salvation, showing that we also must keep the law, in order to be saved. It is to deny everything that God had freely provided for him.

In the next chapter, Paul will teach that the law has its purpose and that is to bring us to Christ (3:24). The law of God determines what is sin and what is not sin: “Through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Ro.3:20). (This is the reason that the law of God is absolutely essential in evangelism to prove that the individual is a sinner. No other standard can do this.) Because we have not kept the law, we stand guilty before God and the sentence is death. Therefore, “I died to the law.” Either I die under the law or I must die to the law by laying claim to the gospel by faith. That is the only way that I can live before God.

The condemnation by the law drives us to the cross of Christ. What Paul states in verse 20 is not theory, but spiritual reality. If I go the cross, there I will see myself crucified with Christ. I identify with His death. He took my death sentence and, because I identify with Him, I died. How then can I try to keep the law, if I have died? Warren Wiersbe comments: “To go back to Moses is to return to the graveyard!” Paul’s life ended there on the cross, as ours did, if we have taken the way of the cross! Then how is it that we still live? It is the life of Christ within our fleshly bodies.

In this text, I believe it is a mistake to say that we live by faith in the Son of God. The context is telling us that we have died and Christ lives within us. Therefore, we cannot live by our faith, but by His faith. Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John makes this truth so evident: My peace I give to you… that My joy may be in you… abide in My love”   (Jn.14:27; 15:9,11), and here, “I live by the faith of the Son of God.”

Where Mark 11:22 commands, “Have faith in God”, it can just as well be translated, “Have the faith of God.” It is a Hebrew expression, speaking of faith in the superlative sense… the strongest faith. Human faith can never save; saving faith must come from God. This is of vital importance! It is the difference between a humanistic, false salvation and a genuine work of God. “Faith comes through hearing and hearing through the word of Christ” (Ro.10:17). It only comes from God and only comes through the word of God.

It is impossible to mix grace and the law. The legalist cannot be a Christian. Paul tells us here that the keeping of the law nullifies grace. Peter’s actions said, “Grace is not sufficient. We need the law.” Paul’s inspired revelation by the Holy Spirit says, “If righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” 


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