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Galatians 2:11-14

March 7, 1999

Text Comment

v.11     Paul’s apostolic authority in action! 

v.12     That is, they said they had James’ authority (the brother of the Lord and one of the leaders of the Jerusalem church; also the author of the NT book). Acts 15:24: “We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you…” That seems the mostly likely interpretation of “from James.” It is possible, of course, that they were in fact delegates from James and the Jerusalem church but abused their commission.

            This picture of Peter in free and easy table fellowship with Gentiles (the imperfect verb is correctly rendered by the NIV as “he used to…” it was his custom or habit) corresponds exactly with what we know of Peter’s convictions from Acts, the convictions God had given him by means of the vision of the sheet being let down from heaven and then the Spirit’s coming upon the Gentile converts at the house of Cornelius the centurion in Caesarea.

            “the circumcision group” = the militants among the Jewish Christians who were offended by this breaking down of the wall of separation and, so, the minimizing of the specifically Jewish character of the church.

v.13     “the other Jews” indicates that before Peter began to draw back, the Jewish Christians in general were practicing table fellowship with the Gentiles believers. The reference to Barnabas is particularly important, not only because he was such a close and valued co-worker of Paul, but because he had been with Paul at the founding of the Galatian churches. The Christians to whom Paul was writing knew Barnabas.

v.14     Some people have wondered why Paul didn’t follow the procedure the Lord laid down in Matthew 18:15 (a private visit, followed by a somewhat less private visit, both before a public declaration). Of course, it is possible that he did. Or, he may have concluded that since the sin was public, the rebuke should be public too. Augustine confesses that he found it difficult sometimes to know whether to follow Matthew 18:15 or 1 Timothy 5:20 (“Those who sin rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest may stand in fear.”) [Ep. 95.3] So typical of the Bible — leaving general principles to be applied to specific cases, with the proper application dependent upon biblical wisdom.

            As an aside, my experience has been that a great many appeals to Matthew 18:15 owe less to a real interest in doing what Christ requires than in distracting attention from the substance of a charge that has been made by concentrating attention instead on violations of procedure. Procedures are important and can be vital to ensure justice. But, we know very well in the late 20th century, how successfully even gross injustice can hide behind a concern for procedures.

            “force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs” = saying to the Gentile believers, by his actions, that if they want to have full fellowship with Jewish Christians, they must adopt a Jewish way of life.

Now, in this context, this bit of history from events in Antioch serves especially to demonstrate the absolute necessity of holding firm to the “truth of the gospel”, so necessary that even Peter must be rebuked for behavior that was inconsistent with that truth, and to demonstrate Paul’s own apostolic authority, such that he felt free to exercise it in reproaching the great Peter himself.

Here is Martin Luther in a characteristic paragraph [LW 26, 106-107].

            “For what is Peter? What is Paul? What is an angel from heaven? What is all creation in comparison with the doctrine of justification? Therefore if you see this threatened or endangered, do not be afraid to stand up against Peter or an angel from heaven. …those men look at Peter’s high prestige; they admire his social position and forget the majesty of this doctrine. Paul does the opposite. He does not attack Peter sharply; he treats him with due respect. But because he sees that the prestige of Peter is endangering the majesty of the doctrine of justification, he ignores the prestige, in order to keep this doctrine pure and undefiled….

            “When it comes to the defense of the truth of the Gospel, therefore, we are not embarrassed to have the hypocrites accuse us of being proud and stubborn, the ones who think that they alone have the truth, those who refuse to listen or to yield to anyone. Here we have to be stubborn and unbending. The cause for whose sake we sin against men, that is, trample underfoot the majesty of someone’s social position or of the world, is so great that the sins that are the worst in the eyes of the world are the highest virtues in the eyes of God. It is good for us to love our parents, to honor the magistrates, to show respect for Peter and the other ministers of the Word. But what is involved here is not the cause of Peter or our parents or the emperor or the world or of any other creature; it is the cause of God Himself. If I refuse to yield to my parents, to the emperor, or to an angel from heaven on this issue, I act properly. Why? Just compare a creature with the Creator! In fact, what are all the creatures in comparison with Him? Like a drop of water in comparison with the entire ocean! Then why should I defer to Peter, who is only a little drop, and ignore God, who is the entire ocean? Therefore let the drop yield submission to the ocean, and let Peter yield to God.”

So far, Luther. You get the point. But I want to treat this piece of history also tonight as an illustration of something else: of the stumble of a godly man.

You may be aware that fathers of early Christianity were so embarrassed by this episode, it was so hard for them to believe that Peter could have succumbed to weakness in such a way as to betray the gospel at a critical juncture, that a number of them imagined that the Peter named here is not the same man as the disciple and apostle Peter. They supposed that he was another Cephas, one of the seventy-two that Jesus had sent out on a preaching tour during the days of his public ministry. As you can imagine, for years Roman Catholic scholarship favored this interpretation. They didn’t want the first Pope being reamed out by another apostle for a failure to live in consistency with the gospel. However, it is obvious that the Peter mentioned in v. 11 is the same Peter mentioned in vv. 8-9.

Another effort to get round this embarrassment was proposed by Jerome, the great 4th century father. And Jerome claimed the authority of earlier fathers, such as Origen for his proposal. He suggested that Paul actually thought that Peter’s action was justified but, in a plan worked out between them, he opposed Peter publicly in order to soothe the minds of the trouble-makers, since others would have been offended if he had remained completely silent. This interpretation would have Paul guilty of the very hypocrisy he here charges Peter with! In an exchange of letters in A.D. 404, Augustine took Jerome to task for this reading of the text. His crushing objection to Jerome’s idea that Paul was practicing pretense was that, if so, we would never know when any biblical writer means what he says!

The fact is, these interpretations are obviously desperate efforts to avoid an embarrassing admission about Peter. There is no evidence for them otherwise.

[As an aside, let me say that this passage has been put to use by others for insidious purposes through the ages. F.C. Baur, the founder of the Tubingen school of German Higher Criticism in the middle of the 19th century, took this text as the basis for their Hegelian, dialectical reconstruction of early Christianity. (You remember Hegel from school. Thesis — antithesis — synthesis. Well, Peter was the thesis, Paul the antithesis, and early Christianity was the synthesis. And this text was the proof. There was a real difference of opinion between two parties, Peter the leader of one, Paul of the other, and it was resolved in a Christianity that took elements of both into itself.) The problem, of course, with all such views is that Peter is not presented here as Paul’s opponent, nor is he in Acts. He shared Paul’s doctrine and conviction. He just wasn’t living consistently with his own doctrine at this moment. Baur and his followers had to deny a great deal of NT evidence and argue that it was found in the NT only because the NT was written much later than it claims, after the synthesis of the two views had occurred. In other words, the evidence was made to fit the theory.

There is no way round the fact that Peter took a header here in Antioch. He stumbled and stumbled badly. And, what is more, it appears that he stumbled for largely the same reason he stumbled before.

Now, it is true that Peter may well have argued to himself that he needed to take this new tact, to draw back from full fellowship with Gentile believers, for the sake of the tender consciences of some of his more militant Jewish Christian brethren. I don’t deny that Peter may well have framed a justification for his actions in such terms. He didn’t agree with their position, but he didn’t want unnecessarily to offend them, or, even, to make it harder to win converts from Judaism by going public with the fact that the new, expanded church would not be particularly Jewish in form.

But, the fact is, Peter knew better. The Lord had spoken to him as clearly as could be. Peter got the Lord’s point clearly in Caesarea. He had explained it as the Lord’s will to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and they had accepted Gentile freedom as such. For him, at this point, to draw back, was inexcusable — Paul was absolutely right about that — and, almost certainly, is best explained as an act of cowardice, the kind of cowardice that had unmanned Peter once before, the night of our Savior’s betrayal. Peter had a tendency to pusillanimity — a perfect word — to cowardice. That night long before, the Lord had looked at Peter through the window of the high priest’s home and Peter had been stabbed to the heart by his own cowardice and had gone out and wept bitterly. Here, Paul, like Nathan long before, made Peter face his sin, and we may certainly assume, on the strength of Acts 15 and the rest of the NT that Peter recognized his sin and grieved over it with repentance.

Indeed, John Newton, in his comment on this piece of history puts it in exactly these terms [Works, iii, 126]:

            “Strange weakness, incident to the best of men, that Peter, who had first laid aside his prejudices, who had visited the Gentiles by divine direction, had seen the happy effects of his compliance, and vindicated his own conduct so unanswerably upon a late occasion [he means Peter’s defense of his conduct when some Jewish Christians had criticized him for “going into the house of uncircumcised men and eating with them” (Acts 11:1-18)], should now shrink and trifle, expose himself, and grieve his brethren, through fear of those who came from Jerusalem! To be delivered from the fear of man, is a deliverance indeed! It was happy for Peter that he had, in his brother Paul, a faithful friend, who, by a few well-timed words, broke the chain, and set him at liberty.”

The fact is, we are warned more than once in Holy Scripture against the notion, that we so easily and unwittingly entertain, that having reached a certain place, or conviction, or status, or experience in the Christian life, we may rest on our laurels, and worry no longer about disastrous falls. David was a man after God’s own heart, but in the middle of his devout life, he fell terribly. And here is Peter, after his first fall, after Pentecost, after being delivered from jail by an angel, after performing miracles in Jesus’ name, after being given the vision of the sheet coming down from heaven, betraying the gospel because of his fear of men, or, to put it the other way, his desire to be accepted by certain men.

Now, this is a message to everyone of us — this warning against a self-satisfied complacence that makes us not careful to watch against a fall, and, especially, this warning about the terrible power of that desire to be accepted by others, the power of that fear of the face of men that so unmanned Peter here. We all need to heed this warning in Peter’s fall. But there is a group among us that needs to heed it still more and take it still more to heart.

I am speaking to men and, especially, to young men. If it is true, as it is, that the Bible, when it warns against back-biting and gossiping, regularly speaks to women, it is just as true that when Holy Scripture warns against cowardice it speaks usually to men. Perhaps it is because men have a special calling to be brave, that sin has rendered them particularly subject to cowardice. You young men, then, pay special attention to my words, as we all seek to pay careful heed to the lesson Peter has taught us in that way which must have been bitter as gall to him to remember, as long as he lived.

Christianity is a religion for the courageous. The Bible is full of the most magnificent courage: Moses before Pharaoh, David before Goliath, Elijah on Mount Carmel, Peter and the Apostles in Acts 14:3 [“When the (Jewish) leaders saw the courage of Peter and John…they were astonished.”], and Paul in the teeth of many persecutions. But it is also a religion that has shown up its cowards: Gideon, the disciples at Jesus’ arrest, John Mark on the first missionary journey, Peter on these two occasions, and so on. Church history is littered with both the courage and the cowardice of Christians: the martyrs, Ambrose before Theodosius in A.D. 390, Chrysostom telling the Arian empress Eudoxia in reply to her threats, “I fear nothing but sin!”, the simple gesture of the nobleman, John of Chlum, who held out his hand to John Huss as he was being led away after his condemnation at the Council of Constance, a gesture the authorities could not fail to notice, Luther’s “Here I stand”, the missionaries of the 19th century, facing death at every turn, and so on in matters great and small, on the one hand; and then, on the other, the two great controversies of early Christianity which were spawned precisely by disputes about what to do with Christians who betrayed the faith under the threat of persecution or torture or death and then, when peace returned, wanted back into the church, or this piece of elegant hypocrisy from the Diary of Alexander Brodie, a contemporary of Rutherford and the saints of the Second Reformation in Scotland, in the middle of the 17th century.

In Brodie’s day the government was pressuring men to accept the Episcopalian way, desired by King Charles II, although that same King had promised to preserve Presbyterianism in Scotland. He had reneged on that promise and the boot was beginning to fall on those who refused to submit and give up their Presbyterianism. This was the very beginning of the Covenanter period. And here is one of the Scottish noblemen, Alexander Brodie, talking to himself about the spot that he found himself in.

            “Jan. 20, 1662. My perplexity continues as to whether I shall move now or not, stay or return, hold by Lauderdale [and the Presbyterians] or make use of the Bishop. I desired to reflect on giving titles, speaking fair, and complying. … I apprehend much trouble to myself, my family, and my affairs, from the ill-will of those who govern. Oct. 16. Did see the Bishop, and in my discourse with him did go far in fair words and the like. The 31. James Urquhart was with me. Oh that I could attain to his steadfastness and firmness! But, alas! I am soon overcome; I soon yield to the least difficulty. The 26. Duncan Cuming was here, and I desired to tell the honest men in the south that though I did not come up their length, I hoped they would not stumble at me. [On which remark, Alexander Whyte comments: “In other words, ‘Tell the prisoners in the Bass and Blackness, and the martyrs of the Grassmarket and the Tolbooth, that Lord Brodie is a Presbyterian at heart, and ought to be a Covenanter and a sufferer with his fellows; but that he loves Brodie Castle and a whole skin better than he loves the Covenant and the Covenanters, or even the Surety of a better Covenant.’] The diary continues. Die Dom. I find great averseness in myself to suffering. I am afraid to lose life or estate. I hold it a duty not to abandon those honest ministers that have stuck to the Reformation. And if the Lord would strengthen me, I would desire to confess the truth like them. … I questioned whether I might not safely use means to decline the cross and to ward off the wrath of the Lords and the Magistrates. …Shall I forbear to hear that honest minister, James Urquhart, for a time, seeing the storm is like to fall on me if I do so? What counsel shall I give my son? Shall I expose myself and my family to danger at this time? What is Thy will? What is my duty? [To which Alexander Whyte adds: “And then this able and honest hypocrite has the grace to add: ‘A grain of sound faith would easily answer all these questions.'”]” [Whyte, Samuel Rutherford, 197-198]

How many Christians turn out like that — though much less honest with themselves about their cowardice and their hypocrisy. They are the “what will people say?” kind of folks, always gauging the opinions of others and suiting their behavior to match. [Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood be Shed, 89-90] Too many of them may find themselves in Dante’s third circle of hell, among that

                                                                                    …dismal company


                                    Whose lives knew neither praise nor infamy;

                                    Who against God rebelled not, nor to Him

                                    Were faithful, but to self alone were true.

Young men, who is to say that the day will not come in your lifetime when such courage will be called for again. Who can possibly deny the possibility when our society is traveling so rapidly the road it has been taking these last years? And will you stand, or will you fear too much to be different, to lose the regard of the enemies of the Lord, to be counted a fool for Christ’s sake, or to endure suffering and loss?

Well, the answer to that lies very much in what courage you learn to practice now! You know how hard it is for you to make your decisions strictly according to the Word and the Will of God! You know how much you crave to be accepted and admired by others — men and women. You know how you take your cue from others in respect to the music you listen to, the clothes you wear, the programs some of you watch or want to watch, and so much more. Are you, at the same time, doing as much and as often the other thing: choosing to do or say something, to wear or listen to something, simply because you believe it would please God for you to do so! Are you building into the habit of your life this practice of going against the grain, against the customs and habits of your generation precisely to build that readiness to act against the grain into your character?  You practice conformity often enough. Are you also practicing courage, non-conformity, a kindly, but definitely Christian indifference to what others think, especially your peers, if only you might be faithful to Christ? Are you readying yourself to be sure that your not going to spend your life doing what Peter did in Antioch, squandering your opportunities to live in line with the truth of the gospel? I tell you straightaway, if you are not doing such things now, chances are far too high that you will not do them later, and you will spend your entire Christian life letting the world tell you what to do and what not to do. A pathetic life for a Christian man!

And, of course, we must rid ourselves of the silly notion that the test of our courage will come in the form we desire and expect. It is more likely to come in matters mundane and worldly, appropriate to our age and our culture — clothes, music, customs of dating, choices of schools and careers, and a thousand other things like that — than some grand crisis of persecution when it is either curse God or die! The devil would much rather have you a Christian worth little or nothing than a martyr.

Francis of Assisi, you remember, wanted to be a knight and show his courage on the field of battle. But his test came in a very different way. You remember how the story goes, at least as it is told by the medieval biographers. One day, outside of Assisi on horseback, Francis saw coming toward him, his fear. Not in the form of the lances and banners of some enemy army. He saw his fear coming toward him in the form of a leper, white and horrible in the sunlight. But in that moment Francis was no Peter in Antioch. He got off his horse, he threw his arms around the leper, and gave him what money he had. Eventually, he got back on his horse and rode on, we don’t know how far; but it is said that when he looked back, he could see no figure in the road. It was the beginning for him of one of the bravest lives ever lived in the world.

Remember, as C.S. Lewis put it in The Screwtape Letters, xxix, 137-128:

            “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty or mercy which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”

Is it in your heart to say right now: “I will be faithful to my Lord come wind, come weather. If I ever fail him as Peter did, I will be as bitter over my failure as he was. But, I intend to be faithful, however much courage that will take, however much willingness to lose the regard of others that will require, however out of step with my peers I must be.” I hope it is in your heart to say that. And if it is, I assure you, there are already in your life opportunities to make good on that pledge and to demonstrate that courage in your Christian life is not simply an ideal, but a characteristic you are already building into your behavior.

Do you want this to be said of you, what Samuel Rutherford said in a letter to a friend who had been brave to suffer for Christ?

            “You are many ways blessed of God, who have taken upon you to come out to the streets with Christ on your forehead, when so many are ashamed of him, and hide him (as it were) under their cloak, as if He were a stolen Christ.” [Letters, CXVI, 235]

If you do, put Christ on your forehead right now and every day! The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?