The Life And Letters Of Peter, 11
Old Habits Are Hard To Break
I remember years ago when I first developed an ulcer. I had been taught that any preacher worth his salt would memorize all the scriptures in his sermons and that the more scriptures he quoted the better. Furthermore, a good preacher should never refer to his notes but maintain perfect eye-contact with his audience. I spent so many hours every Saturday memorizing that I got an ulcer! I went to the doctor who ran down a laundry list of the things that could cause my difficulty. When he mentioned coffee I said, "That's enough. I know what's wrong." I was drinking coffee to stay awake to do all that memorizing! The solution seemed simple enough. Quit drinking coffee. Have you ever tried to quit coffee "cold turkey?" I had horrific sick headaches. I learned what everyone who's ever tried to quit drinking coffee or smoking or cussing or any other bad habit has learned . . . that old habits are hard to break. Peter had some trouble breaking some old habits of his own. Our text is Galatians 2:11-14.
11But when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; 12for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. 13And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. 14But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?
You may remember that in last week's lesson, after Peter was set free from prison he "went to another place." (Acts 12:17) Now we learn what one of those places to which he went was. It was Antioch of Syria. And it led to a serious confrontation between himself and Paul. Verse 11 provides a summary of the confrontation between the two apostles. It's told from the perspective of Paul, of course. "But when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed." The word "but" refers the reader back to verses 1 through 10 where it was acknowledged that Paul would preach to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews. That was while both men were in Jerusalem. But during that visit of Paul to Jerusalem some tried to "compel" Titus to be circumcised. (verse 3) We call these individuals "the Judaizers." They were Jewish Christians who believed that Gentiles had to come into the kingdom by way of Moses and the Synagogue. Without circumcision a Gentile convert was not complete. So these "Judaizers" tried to enforce their brand of religion on Titus, a Gentile convert. But Paul would not stand for it. More than a surgical procedure was at stake. "The truth of the gospel" was in jeopardy. Since that meeting in Jerusalem Paul has returned to Antioch where he and Barnabas have been working together. Before long Peter came to Antioch as well. (verse 11) Antioch was the appropriate city for a "blended congregation" of both Jews and Gentiles. It was a melting pot of ethnic groups. And the church there was Paul's sponsoring congregation for his missions to the Gentile world. But when Peter came to Antioch Paul "withstood him to the face." This confrontation was both personal and public. (cf. verse 14) Paul's reason for confronting Peter? "He was to be blamed." Literally it means, "He was condemned." He was condemned by the inconsistency of his own actions of the sin of "hypocrisy." (verse 13) What could Peter have done that would provoke Paul to accuse him of "hypocrisy?"
Verse 12 provides us with a striking contrast between the old Peter and the new Peter . . . a true contradiction. The New Peter's behavior is described in verse 12a. "Before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles." The reference here may be to both common meals and communion meals. Of all places it would be Antioch. And of all people it would be Peter. You'd expect that if Jews and Gentiles were to enjoy table-fellowship, it would be at Antioch! Table-fellowship meant so much in the ancient world. If you ate with a person, you accepted that person. You had a close, intimate relationship. So the most likely place for Jews to eat with Gentiles would be the cosmopolitan city of Antioch. And you'd expect that of all Jewish Christians Peter would be the most likely to eat with Gentiles. Remember his vision on the rooftop in Joppa? He learned that "God shows no partiality." (Acts 10:34) Remember his behavior at Caesarea? He not only entered the home of Gentiles, but he "ate with them." (Acts 11:3) And remember Jesus' declaration about meats? It's thanks to Peter that we know about it. "Jesus declared all foods 'clean.'" (Mark 7:19) Yes, Peter seems to have learned his lesson well. No wonder that when he came to Antioch he was in the habit of eating with Gentiles. But something changed. And that change is described in verse 12b. "But when they came (i.e. the 'certain men from James'), he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision." Now this is the James we met in our last lesson. He was the half-brother of Jesus and author of the book of James. He was the preeminent leader of the Jewish wing of the church at Jerusalem and was very zealous for the law. Just read his letter some time! Well, "certain men" came from James. They may have come to Antioch to investigate the rumors of Peter's "loose" manners. Such conduct as Peter's threatened the evangelization of Jews. They would be less likely to convert if they knew they were giving up their zeal for Moses. And such conduct as Peter's may even have endangered the lives of Jewish Christians. In the mid-40's, according to F.F. Bruce, great pressure was being put on Jews to avoid any association with Gentiles. It had become dangerous to have any association with them. So what did Peter do when these messengers from James came to Antioch? He "withdrew and separated himself" from the Gentiles with whom he had been eating. He retreated from the progress he had made and began practicing "apartheid." He informally "excommunicated" his Gentile brothers. And why did he do such a thing? Luke says that he was "fearing those who were of the circumcision." That is, he was afraid of the "certain men" who'd come from James and others like them. Remember . . . Satan knew Peter's buttons. He'd feared the Jews the night he denied Christ. He bowed to "peer pressure." And now he was doing it again . . . for fear of the Jews.
Peter's actions might not have been so bad, had Peter not had such a strong influence on others. Verse 13 describes his influence. "And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy." "The rest of the Jews" are the Jews in Antioch who'd been following his lead by eating with non-Jews. Peter was a natural leader. Besides that, Jesus had made him an apostle. What better person to encourage the Jewish Christians in Antioch to eat with Gentiles? But when he "withdrew" from the Gentiles, he influenced the same people. "The rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him." That is to say, they acted inconsistently with their convictions and professions. In fact "even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy." You remember Barnabas of course. The apostles had changed his name to reflect is character. He was an "encourager." He generously gave up his possessions to help feed the poor. He encouraged the apostles in Jerusalem to accept Saul of Tarsus when they were afraid his conversion was not genuine. And he accompanied Paul on his mission to Galatia where this very issue had been raised. The last man on earth you'd expect to "play the hypocrite" in this matter was Barnabas. This may help us to better understand the split between Paul and Barnabas that happened a little while later. It's as if Paul is saying, "The defection of Barnabas was the last straw." "Even Barnabas was carried away."
Verse 14 describes the actual confrontation between the two men.
"But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, 'If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?'"
Observe first of all what Paul "saw." He "saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the Gospel." It literally means that they were on the wrong road. The road they were on would lead to a denial of the universal scope of the Gospel. It would hinder the conversion of the Gentiles. It would lead to two churches . . . one Jewish and the other Gentile. A lot was at stake in Peter's behavior! Next, observe what Paul "said" before everyone. "If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?" By eating with Gentiles, Peter was living "in the manner of Gentiles." He may actually have been ignoring the Mosaic distinctions between meats. Could it be that Peter had been eating pork? But by withdrawing from them he was compelling "Gentiles to live as Jews." Young Gentile converts, and there were many of them in Antioch, were easily swayed, especially by someone so influential as Peter. Peter, unintentionally, was using "peer pressure" to force the Gentiles to become Jews by accepting circumcision. Otherwise, he would no longer eat with them. Truly, "the truth of the Gospel" was at stake. Peter had broken his habit of bigotry at Caesarea, but old habits are hard to break. He still need help. And that help came in the form of a very bold rebuke from a fellow-Apostle.
It would be nice to hear this story told by Peter to see his side of the issue. But he never mentions it in his writings. This passage, however, is remarkable because it shows that these men were human. They made mistakes. They sinned. They even disagreed. But whatever rift Peter and Paul experienced seems to have been mended. In his second letter, written several years after this incident, Peter commended Paul's writings. He wrote, "Consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you." (2 Peter 3:15) He called Paul "our beloved brother." He acknowledged that the Lord had given Paul "wisdom." And in the next verse he even referred to Paul's writings as "scripture." A lesser man might easily have carried a vendetta against Paul the rest of his life. Not Peter. Obviously their division at Antioch was mended. And it was because of "the spirit of Christ" which was in both of them. We all need a "beloved brother" like Paul who will dare to call us out when we're in the wrong. And we ourselves need to be like Peter and be willing to learn from our errors and mend our ways.