That Time Peter Blew It (Galatians, Part 17)

Galatians week 7

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?” 

Who is Cephas?

Cephas is Peter, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples and one of the original apostles.

Why does Paul tell this story?

Paul tells this story to demonstrate that the gospel which he preached—that acceptance into God’s family and kingdom was open to all peoples and didn’t require one to become a Jew, be circumcised, make sacrifices, or observe the Hebrew dietary restrictions—was authoritative over everyone, even those with a special appointment from God to be his apostles.

Remember that Paul’s opponents were claiming that Jews and Gentiles still needed to be separated, and that to truly follow Jesus you had to become Jewish. They were arguing that Paul’s gospel was deficient and were perhaps implying that because he wasn’t a real apostle—he hadn’t been part of Jesus’ original Twelve—what he taught couldn’t be believed. Perhaps they suggested that the real apostles—Peter, James, John, and the others—taught a different gospel than Paul did.

But in answer to this, Paul tells this story to show that the gospel he preached to the Galatians even had authority over people like Peter. Remember what he said in Galatians 1:8? “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” Even if Peter the apostle should be false to the gospel, we might imagine him adding, that doesn’t change anything of what I taught you.

By the way, it’s possible that the Galatians had already heard about this little fiasco from Paul’s opponents, and that the opponents had tried to use Peter’s actions as proof that God still made a distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Perhaps they said something like this: “Look, even Peter wouldn’t eat with Gentiles. And Peter was Jesus’ closest disciple, don’t you think he’d know what God wants from us? You can’t trust Paul when he tells you that you don’t have to live like Jews to follow Jesus.”

So perhaps one reason Paul tells this story is to “set the record straight” about what happened, and to show that Peter’s actions were not to be imitated, but rebuked.

Shouldn’t Paul have followed Matthew 18:15-17 and rebuked Peter in private?

No, for two reasons. First, Peter’s sin was public, it was serious, and it was leading others astray. Therefore, Paul’s rebuke was necessarily public in order to set the record straight and to serve as a warning for those who had followed Peter’s example.

Second, Peter was a prominent leader in the church—perhaps the most prominent leader, as Jesus’ closest disciple and the leader of the apostles. In 1 Timothy 5:20, Paul told Timothy that when an elder was caught in sin, Timothy was to “rebuke him in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear”. Peter’s position as an apostle meant that his error carried huge consequences (in this case, his sin caused all the other leaders to follow him and sin as well), and he didn’t have the luxury of being quietly rebuked in the corner and being spared the embarrassment of a public confrontation.

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