A Commentary by John Stott

 Galatians 2:14-16.  2). The conduct of Paul.

a). What Paul did.

Verse 11: Paul ‘withstood’ (AV) or ‘opposed’ (RSV) Peter ‘to his face’. The reason for Paul’s drastic action was that Peter ‘stood condemned’. That is to say, ‘he was clearly in the wrong’ (NEB). Not only so, but Paul rebuked Peter ‘before them all’ (verse 14), openly and publicly.

Paul did not hesitate out of deference for who Peter was. He recognized Peter as an apostle of Jesus Christ, who had indeed been appointed as an apostle before him (1:17). He knew that Peter was one of the ‘pillars’ of the church (verse 9), to whom God had entrusted the gospel to the circumcised (verse 7). Paul neither denied nor forgot these things. Nevertheless, this did not stop him from contradicting and opposing Peter. Nor did he shrink from doing it publicly. He did not listen to those who may well have counselled him to be cautious and to avoid washing dirty theological linen in public. He made no attempt to hush the dispute up or arrange (as we might) for a private discussion from which the public or the press were excluded. The consultation in Jerusalem had been private (verse 2), but the showdown in Antioch must be public. Peter’s withdrawal from the Gentile believers had caused a public scandal; he had to be opposed in public too. So Paul’s opposition to Peter was both ‘to his face’ (verse 11) and ‘before them all’ (verse 14). It was just the kind of open head-on collision which the church would seek at any price to avoid today.

b) Why he did it.

How is it that Paul dared to contradict a fellow-apostle of Jesus Christ, and to do it publicly? Was it because he had an irascible disposition and could not control his temper or his tongue? Was he an exhibitionist, who enjoyed an argument? Did he regard Peter as a dangerous rival, so that he leapt at the opportunity to down him? No. None of these base passions motivated Paul.

Why then did he do it? The answer is simple. Paul acted as he did out of deep concern for the very principle which Peter lacked. He knew that the theological principle at stake was no trivial matter. Martin Luther grasps this admirably: ‘he hath here no trifling matter in hand, but the chiefest article of all Christian doctrine…. For what is Peter? What is Paul? What is an angel from heaven? What are all other creatures to the article of justification? Which if we know, then are we in the clear light; but if we be ignorant thereof, then are we in most miserable darkness.’

What was this theological principle that was at stake? Twice in this chapter the apostle calls it ‘the truth of the gospel’. This was the issue in Jerusalem (verse 5), and this was the issue again in Antioch (verse 14). Paul ‘saw’ this. Notice the spiritual perception into the fundamental issue which he claims – that Peter and the others were not ‘walking straight’ (literally, verse 14) according to the truth of the gospel. ‘The truth of the gospel’ seems to be likened to a straight and narrow path. Instead of sticking to it, Peter was deviating from it.

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Galatians: Calling Christian Leaders. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.