When Paul Opposed Peter (a meditation)

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. ~ Paul, Galatians 2:11

Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia (a region in modern day Turkey which then included towns such as Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe) is perhaps the harshest that he wrote still preserved as scripture. He minced no words with them because they bought into a teaching that required their men (largely from a population of Gentiles, or nations that did not practice ritualistic circumcision) to be circumcised to truly be right with God. This was an affront to the gospel preached by him, Peter, John, and other early missionaries and disciples of Jesus, which said: the work of Jesus alone saves and this is ours by faith.

To add “works of the Law” to this message, whether to fellow Jews or the Gentiles, was to proclaim a different gospel—a message that wasn’t really a true gospel about Jesus. A message Paul opposed so strongly that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he proclaimed preachers of faith in Jesus plus circumcision to be accursed, or under God’s condemnation (1:8).

Yet in the town of Antioch, Paul found Peter (Cephas) playing the hypocrite in this regard. As the leader of the apostles and a “pillar” of the early church, Peter and other church leaders in Jerusalem gave the charge that the Gentiles had no need to be circumcised or be brought under the Old Testament Law in any other way in order to be saved (2:9-10, cf. Acts 15). So Paul, Barnabas, and others went out with this message of Christ alone.

At the same time, Peter lived by his freedom in Christ to also not be bound to the Law as a Jew. When he was with the Gentile believers in Antioch, he ate and associated with them, along with other Jews, until a group showed up who still valued circumcision as a necessary ritual. Then, out of fear, Peter and the others withdrew from the Gentile disciples and refused to associate with them any longer (2:12-14).

So Paul got in his face and rebuked him.

Within the theological backgrounds that led to this moment, we see accountability among leadership. Though the church is to have leaders, foremost, of high character (see: Acts 6, 1 Timothy 3, and Titus 1), they are still imperfect people who struggle with sin and sometimes walk in hypocrisy. But no leader should stand above rebuke.

Despite his status, Peter acted contrary to the gospel and needed someone to point him back to the right path. Paul, though elsewhere calling himself the least of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15), was willing to do just that. We don’t know if Paul was bold at first sight or if he, like Peter and Barnabas, felt fear and so had to take time to reflect and pray. We do know that Paul did what was necessary because the gospel was that important.

The entire letter to the churches of Galatia keeps pointing to this point: Jesus is superior to the Law and salvation comes only through him and not adherence to the Law. He went so far to exclaim that he wished those who pushed circumcision as a requirement of righteousness would have the knife slip on themselves (5:12). So Paul would not be dissuaded.

Church leaders need other leaders and the churches in which they serve to keep them accountable for their character and their message (see also: 1 Timothy 5:19-25). Thus, leaders need to be humble and willing to submit to correction where they have erred. Likewise, leaders need to be bold in the gospel and willing to take a stand upon God’s word, even if no one else will. After all, the gospel about Jesus is still that important.

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

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