A Commentary by John Stott
Why did Peter create this disastrous breach in the fellowship of the church in Antioch? We have already seen the immediate cause, namely that ‘certain men came from James’ (verse 12). But why did he give in to them? Are we to suppose that they convinced him that he had been doing wrong to eat with Gentile Christians? This cannot be so.
Let me remind you that only a short time previously, as is recorded in Acts 10 and 11, Peter had been granted a direct, special revelation from God on this very subject. He had been on the roof-top of a house in Joppa one afternoon when he fell into a trance. He saw in his vision a sheet let down from heaven by its four corners, containing an assortment of unclean creatures (birds, beasts and reptiles). He then heard a voice saying to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ When he objected, the voice went on: ‘What God has cleansed, you must not call common.’ The vision was repeated three times for emphasis. From it Peter concluded that he must accompany the Gentile messengers who had come from the centurion Cornelius and enter his house, which action was unlawful for him as a Jew. In the sermon that he preached to Cornelius’ household he said: ‘Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality.’ When the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles who believed, Peter agreed that they must receive Christian baptism and be welcomed into the Christian church.
Are we to suppose that Peter had now forgotten the vision at Joppa and the conversion of the household of Cornelius? Or that he now went back on the revelation that God had given him then? Surely not. There is no suggestion in Galatians 2 that Peter had changed his mind. Why then did he withdraw from fellowship with Gentile believers in Antioch? Paul tells us. He ‘separated himself, fearing the circumcision party’ (verse 12). ‘And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely’, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity’ (verse 13). The Greek word for ‘insincerity’ is ‘hypocrisy’, which means ‘play-acting’. This is what they were doing. They ‘played false’ (NEB).
Paul’s charge is serious, but plain. It is that Peter and the others acted in insincerity, and not from personal conviction. Their withdrawal from table-fellowship with Gentile believers was not prompted by any theological principle, but by craven fear of a small pressure group. In fact, Peter did in Antioch precisely what Paul had refused to do in Jerusalem, namely yield to pressure. The same Peter who had denied his Lord for fear of a maidservant now denied Him again for fear of the circumcision party. He still believed the gospel, but he failed to practise it. His conduct ‘did not square’ with it (NEB). He virtually contradicted it by his action, because he lacked the courage of his convictions.
c). What happened as a result.
We have already noticed that the ‘rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity’ (verse 13). ‘Their dissimulation’, comments Lightfoot, ‘was as a flood which swept everything away with it.’ Even Barnabas, Paul’s trusted friend and missionary colleague, who had stood firm with him in Jerusalem (verses 1,9), now gave way in Antioch. This is important. If Paul had not taken his stand against Peter that day, either the whole Christian church would have drifted into a Jewish backwater and stagnated, or there would have been a permanent rift between Gentile and Jewish Christendom, ‘one Lord, but two Lord’s tables’. Paul’s outstanding courage on that occasion in resisting Peter preserved both the truth of the gospel and the international brotherhood of the church.
Now we leave Peter and turn to Paul.