“When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?…. if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing.” (Galatians 2:11-14, 21 NIV).
The fight with Peter
Peter was embarassed. No doubt about it. He had screwed things up again. Eating with Gentiles and breaking bread with them as if they were equals, friends, brothers was not kosher with this group. These men came from James and apparently James was getting tougher on the Gentile Christians, requiring them to follow Jewish ways.
Peter remembered the discussions years ago when they had all gotten together to discuss the problem in the first Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). Many of his Jewish brothers believed that a Christian needed to be a Jew first and therefore be circumcised to be part of the covenant of God with the Jewish people under Moses, under the Law. At that time, James had made a decision without making a decision.
“It is my judgment,” James had said, “that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (Acts 15: 19-21 NIV).
From his discussions with Paul, Peter knew that he disagreed with almost everything that James had said except for the comment about sexual immorality. But what was Peter to do? James had left the door open for Jewish Christians to insist that circumcision was necessary to become part of the church. And now the circumcision group was here in Galatia in strength seemingly representing James, the head of the church.
“Excuse me, uh, I’m just, um…..” Peter mumbled as he picked up his food and utensils and started to move away.
“Where are you going?” Paul asked.
“I’m just…….uh….I can’t stay….ah ..I mean….” Then Peter just shut up and moved over towards the other group in an alcove apart from the rest. He looked hard at Barnabas and indicated with his head that he should join him. The people around him, Gentile brothers, and friends all, lowered their heads in shame and averted their eyes, some moist, some angry. But Peter hardened his face and did what he had to do.
But even Peter was shocked at what happened next.
Paul had been watching and now he stood up and all the eyes in the room turned to him, Jews and Gentiles alike. Paul always had a commanding presence and it served him well.
“Peter,” he said in a loud voice. “You are a hypocrite and you are trying to make hypocrites out of all of us.” The room was completely silent as Paul glared at him. Peter was caught off guard and now was at the mercy of Paul’s righteous anger. Clearly Paul was not going to let this go.
“You act like a Gentile when these men are not around,” Paul said sternly. “But when they show up, you reject your Gentile brothers and want to pretend that you are a Jew again. Whose side are you on?”
Peter could not say a word. It felt like he was back in that courtyard so many years ago and he was denying his Lord all over again. Paul was right and he knew it.
“If we are going to live under the law and try to be righteous that way, then Christ died for nothing …..and you know it.”
Peter sat down right where he was, and Barnabas as well. But Paul wasn’t done.
“I don’t care who you are,” Paul was talking to everyone now, especially the Judaizers who came from James. “If even an angel comes down from heaven and preaches any other gospel than the gospel of righteousness by faith, it does not come from God. Did you receive the Spirit by observing the Law or by believing what you heard? Are the miracles that God has done among you the result of following the Law? By no means! It is by faith that we are made righteous and it is by faith that we receive the Spirit and the right to become Sons of God.”
Peter sat there in stunned silence. His mind was back in the house of Cornelius when God had first taught him the lesson that what He has declared clean, no man may declare it unclean (Acts 10). Jesus, himself, had said that he had fulfilled the law. He remembered it clearly.
Now he was truly ashamed. It was time to make things right. Peter stood up and went back to his place and Barnabas followed suit. Within a few minutes, the room was abuzz with the sounds of clinking forks and subtle laughter as the group got back to the business of living in the richness of the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Admittedly, this story is a piece of fiction but it gives some life and imagination to what might have happened. The story in Galatians 2 is enticing and I always wondered what actually happened after Paul confronted Peter in front of everyone. One thing I know for sure, Paul believed that this was an issue of immense importance and that it was a denial of the gospel itself. I wonder if we are so fervent about the gospel or whether we even understand the gospel enough to recognize it when it is being denied. A good question.
Now let’s go back to the Book of Romans and pick up where we left off. Paul was introducing himself to the Romans and also saying something to them about his ministry. In fact, the next few words are considered by many to be an accurate summary of what the entire book of Romans is all about.
“I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:16,17 NIV).
Why would Paul talk about being “ashamed” of the gospel (or not)? What does that have to do with anything? Well, in the context of the “outward” battle with traditional Jews, these Christians (Jews and Gentiles alike) stood firm in their faith that Jesus is the Messiah and that they had received the Holy Spirit and now lived in a righteousness that comes by faith.
But what Paul is saying is that there is also an “inside” battle within the church against a more subtle heresy coming from the circumcision group that seems to have gained power at least in the church in Jerusalem. Paul is saying that he is not ashamed of standing up to Peter. He is not ashamed of taking Timothy to Jerusalem during the Passover. He is not ashamed of consorting with Gentiles and abandoning his Jewish culture. He is not ashamed of becoming a prisoner and being taken in front of kings and emperors to give a defense of his actions and beliefs. He is not ashamed of the gospel for it is the POWER of God to save everyone – Jews and Gentiles alike.
Perhaps we can’t relate to Paul’s context for standing up for the gospel but that doesn’t change the fact that we still need to do so even today. Sometimes we need to stand up for the gospel “within” the church and sometimes “outside” the church. Let me give you an example.
The very next words that Paul writes are a source of great shame and embarassement to many Christians today. Most people just skip over these words like they don’t exist. “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness…” (Romans 1:18 NIV). The wrath of God? Who talks about the wrath of God anymore? It’s all about the love of God. “For God so love the world….” (John 3:16 NIV).
Whatever happened to sin? If you talk about sin in most churches they would consider you one of those “hellfire and brimstone” types and ignore you (or perhaps throw you out). But the concept of sin is essential to the gospel according to Paul. What are you going to do about it? Are you ashamed of the gospel? Do you understand what is essential to the gospel and what is not? If you don’t understand the heart of the gospel, how can you accurately discern the truth from falsehood, especially in the church. And that difference makes all the difference in the world. The power of God is not in a false gospel only in the truth of righteousness by faith in Christ. It is the difference that either transforms lives or leaves people in the misery of their sins.
I once decided to stand up against an abusive preaching elder in our church and do it in public. He was clearly in the wrong and was denying the gospel but I was thrown out anyway (and my family). Some reconciliation was attempted later on, but this elder would not confess that his actions were not biblical and that he was clearly denying the gospel. He remained an elder. I had to go. But I am not ashamed of standing up for the gospel of Christ, even publicly when necessary, even if it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to.
And, more importantly, God is not ashamed of me, whether I handled it the right way or not.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God….
Lord, I want to stand up for your gospel, warts and all. I am not ashamed to be called a Christian even when my classmates think I’m crazy for not believing in evolution. I am not ashamed to pray in restaurants and I am certainly not ashamed to call myself a believer even on a first date with a great looking guy. You are first in my life, now and always. I want to understand your gospel better. Help me to know your heart so that I am always aware of the spiritual battles around me. Don’t let me lead any Barnabas, any fellow church member, any collegue, any friend or family astray. Let me be an influence that brings people to the gospel not keeps it from them. In your name I pray. Amen.