A Commentary by John Stott
Galatians 2:11-16. Paul clashes with Peter in Antioch.
This is without doubt one of the most tense and dramatic episodes in the New Testament. Here are two leading apostles of Jesus Christ face to face in complete and open conflict.
The scene has changed from Jerusalem, the capital of Jewry, to which the early verses of this chapter belong, to Antioch, the chief city of Syria, even of Asia, where the Gentile mission began, and where the disciples were first called ‘Christians’. When Paul visited Jerusalem, Peter (together with James and John) gave him the right hand of fellowship (verses 1-10). When Peter visited Antioch, Paul opposed him to his face (verses 11-16).
Now both Paul and Peter were Christian men, men of God, who knew what it is to be forgiven through Christ and to have received the Holy Spirit. Further, they were both apostles of Jesus Christ, specially called, commissioned and invested with authority by Him. They were both honoured in the churches for their leadership. They had both been mightily used by God. In fact, the book of Acts is virtually divided in half by them, the first part telling the story of Peter and the second part the story of Paul.
Yet here is the apostle Paul opposing the apostle Peter to his face, contradicting him, rebuking him, condemning him, because he had withdrawn and separated himself from Gentile Christian believers, and would no longer eat with them. It was not that Peter denied the gospel in his *teaching*, for Paul has been at pains to show that he and the Jerusalem apostles were at one in their understanding of the gospel (verses 1-10), and he repeats this fact here (verses 14-16). Peter’s offence against the gospel was in his *conduct*. In J.B.Phillips’ words, his ‘behaviour was a contradiction of the truth of the gospel’.
We must investigate this situation, in which these two leading apostles were at loggerheads. In particular, it is important to note what each apostle did, why he did it and with what result. We shall begin with Peter.
1). The conduct of Peter (verses 11-13).
a). What he did.
When Peter first arrived in Antioch, he ate with the Gentile Christians. Indeed, the imperfect tense of the verb shows that this had been his regular practice. ‘He…was in the habit of eating his meals with the gentiles’ (JBP). His old Jewish scruples had been overcome. He did not consider himself in any way defiled or contaminated by contact with uncircumcised Gentile Christians, as once he would have done. Instead, he welcomed them to eat with him, and he ate with them. Peter, who was a Jewish Christian, enjoyed table-fellowship with the Antiochene believers, who were Gentile Christians. This probably means that they had ordinary meals together, although doubtless they partook together of the Lord’s Supper as well.
Then one day a group arrived in Antioch from Jerusalem. They were all professing Christian believers, but they were Jewish in origin, indeed strict Pharisees (Acts 15:5). They came ‘from James’ (Gal.2:12), the leader of the Jerusalem church. This does not mean that they had his authority, for he later denied this (Acts 15:24), but rather that they *claimed* to have it. They posed as apostolic delegates. On arrival in Antioch they began to preach: ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’ (Acts 15:1). Evidently, they went even further than that and taught that it was improper for circumcised Jewish believers to have table-fellowship with uncircumcised Gentile believers, even though the latter had believed in Jesus and been baptized.
These Judaizing teachers won a notable convert to their pernicious policy in the person of the apostle Peter. For Peter, who had previously eaten with these Gentile Christians, now withdrew from them and separated himself. He seems to have taken this action shamefacedly. As Bishop Lightfoot says, ‘the words describe forcibly the cautious withdrawal of a timid person who shrinks from observation’.
Tomorrow: Galatians 2:11-13. The conduct of Peter. b). Why he did it.