Not in Step with the Gospel (Galatians, Part 18)
This week we continue exploring the book of Galatians using a question-and-answer format.
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 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. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 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?”
In what way was Peter’s (Cephas’) refusal to eat with the Gentiles “not in step with the truth of the gospel”?
First, Peter was implying that human effort was the deciding factor for who gets into God’s kingdom. (When he withdrew from the uncircumcised, non-Jewish law abiding Gentiles, he was suggesting that because they had not fulfilled Requirements A, B, and C, they were not yet members of God’s family. They should not be treated as full-fledged members of the Christian community, he implied, because they had not “paid their dues”.)
But when Jesus taught or spoke about the kingdom of God, he showed us that human effort absolutely is not what gains us entry into the kingdom. On the contrary, being welcomed in is a gift that God gives to those who don’t deserve it. For example, in Matthew 20 Jesus taught that the kingdom of heaven is like a man who hires workers for his vineyard and pays the guy who works one hour (and the easiest, coolest hour of the day at that) the same amount of money as the guys who worked for twelve hours in the same field. And in Luke 23, when the thief on the cross (who certainly has not “paid his dues”) begged Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus told this criminal “today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Second, Peter conduct was “not in step with the gospel” because it contradicted Jesus’ claim that “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” On the one hand, Jesus says to these Gentiles, “come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest,” but on the other hand Peter says, “You can come to Jesus if you want to, but first you will have to fulfill Requirements A, B, and C (and many others) of the Jewish law.” Jesus removes barriers to following him, but it seems like Peter wants to create them.
Third, Peter has actually become like the Pharisees whom Jesus regularly condemned. Jesus chastised them in Luke 23 by saying, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders. . . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.” This is essentially what Peter is doing to the Gentiles. He is pretending as if they must keep the Jewish law in order to belong to the people of God—an impossible task, even for those who are taught the law from birth! Remember in Acts 15, when the apostles were debating whether they should let the Gentiles into the church without making them keep the Jewish law? Peter himself had protested against those who wanted to make the Gentiles keep the law and said, “Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” In other words, he says, “Why are you trying to make it so dang hard for people to get into the kingdom?” But yet here in Galatians 2, that’s exactly what he is doing. But Jesus offers us a place in the kingdom for free, as Peter said in his conclusion to his Acts 15 sermon: “But we believe that we [Jews] will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [Gentiles] will.”