The next episode in Paul's autobiography presents a painful contrast to the heartwarming expression of unity in the Jerusalem conference. Having just heard about the "right hand of fellowship" extended in verse 9, we now read in verse 11 that Paul opposed Peter to his face in Antioch.
How could such a conflict occur between Paul and Peter after they had reached an agreement to support one another? Some early church leaders (Origen, Chrysostom and Jerome) could not believe that this conflict really occurred. They explained that Paul and Peter must have staged the conflict to illustrate the issues at stake. Augustine, however, interpreted the story as a genuine conflict in which Paul established the higher claim of the truth of the gospel over the rank and office of Peter.
Augustine was right. Paul was willing to endure the pain of conflict with Peter in order to defend the truth of the gospel. To understand the nature of the conflict and the issues involved, we will observe how the drama developed in four stages: (1) Peter's practice of eating with the Gentile Christians, (2) Peter's separation from Gentile Christians after the arrival of the delegation from James because of his fear of the circumcision group, (3) the separation of the other Jewish Christians from Gentile Christians because of Peter's influence, and (4) Paul's rebuke.
According to Paul's report about Peter, before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles (v. 12). In Antioch's fully integrated congregation of Christian Jews and Gentiles, Peter had regularly followed the custom of eating with Gentile Christians. His practice of sharing meals with non-Jewish Christians must have also included sharing the Lord's Supper with them. Undoubtedly his presence at table fellowship with Gentile Christians was taken as an official stamp of approval on the union and equality of Jews and Gentiles in the church. We can imagine that the Gentile believers in the church were especially encouraged by Peter's wholehearted acceptance of them. This picture of Peter eating with Gentiles is consistent with the account in Acts of Peter's visit with Cornelius after he was taught by a special vision not to call anything unclean that God had cleansed (Acts 10:1--11:18). After that vision Peter knew that God approved of his table fellowship with Gentile believers. In fact, to refuse to eat with Gentile Christians would have been to go against the clear revelation he had received from God.
It is difficult to understand how anybody could have persuaded Peter to stop sharing common meals and the Lord's Supper with Gentile believers. But apparently that is exactly what certain men with connections to James did when they arrived in Antioch. Who were these men? Were they actually sent from James? Or were they members of James's circle in the church but without a direct commission from James? Fortunately for them, Paul cloaks them with anonymity. But he seems to lay on James the responsibility for their disturbance in the church in Antioch.
More important than the question of their identity, however, is the question of their message. What did they say that persuaded Peter to separate from the Gentile believers? The only clue we have is Paul's explanation that Peter separated himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group (v. 12).
The circumcision group may be another way of referring to those who came from James--namely, Jewish Christians. But why would Peter fear a delegation of Jewish Christians from the Jerusalem church, since he himself was a "pillar" of that church and had already stood up against extremist factions in that church (see Acts 11:1-18; 15:7-11; Gal 2:9)? It seems much better to interpret Paul's reference to the circumcision group in the same way that we interpret his use of the same phrase in the immediate context. Three times in verses 7-9 the NIV translates the same phrase as "the Jews" in contrast to the Gentiles. So the reference to the circumcision group in verse 12 is simply another reference to non-Christian Jews. But still we have to ask why Peter would fear non-Christian Jews when he had been so fearless in his own proclamation of the gospel to them (see Acts 2:14-41; 3:17-26; 4:8-12; 5:29-32). Our answer to that question must be based on historical information outside of the text and some speculation.
It seems that during the late forties and fifties, Jewish Christians in Judea were facing bitter antagonism from Zealot-minded Jews for socializing with Gentiles. The fierce Jewish nationalism rampant in Palestine at that time led to harsh treatment of any Jew who associated with Gentiles. It is likely that the delegation from James simply reported to Peter that his open and unrestricted association with Gentiles in Antioch would cause (or had already caused) the church in Jerusalem to suffer greatly at the hands of the circumcision group, Jewish nationalists.
If Peter expressed his own reason for separating from the Gentiles in Antioch, he may well have voiced his concern about the detrimental effect his table fellowship with Gentiles had on the Jerusalem church's mission to the Jews. When non-Christian Jews in Jerusalem heard that Peter, a prominent church leader, was eating with Gentiles in Antioch, they would not only turn away from the witness of the church but also become actively hostile toward the church for tolerating such a practice. Confronted by these practical concerns for his home church and its mission to the Jews, Peter acted against his own better judgment. He separated himself from the Gentiles.
All the Jewish believers in Antioch were subservient to Peter's authority and followed his example. As a result the church was split into racial factions: Jews were divided from Gentiles. It is important to note that Paul accuses Peter and the rest of the Jewish believers in Antioch of hypocrisy, not heresy: the rest of the Jews joined him in his hypocrisy (v. 13). Their action was inconsistent with their own convictions about the truth of the gospel. They were more influenced by their common racial identity as Jews than by their new experience of unity in Christ with all believers of every race.
The irrationality of their action is expressed in the verb Paul uses to describe the defection of Barnabas: even Barnabas was led astray (v. 13). Painful disappointment is expressed by that phrase even Barnabas. It is like Julius Caesar's "Et tu, Brutus?" Paul would have expected that Barnabas would remain loyal to him and his gospel even if everyone else turned away. After all, Barnabas, as the first pastor of the church in Antioch, had warmly welcomed Gentile believers. He had worked alongside Paul in that church and in their mission of planting Gentile churches in Galatia. He had stood with Paul in the Jerusalem conference. How could even loyal Barnabas deny the truth of the gospel now? Didn't he of all people know that Gentile believers were to be fully accepted? Yes, he must have known that. But the emotions stirred up in the crisis swept him along to act contrary to his convictions. And so along with the rest of the Jewish Christians he was guilty of hypocrisy: behavior inconsistent with basic beliefs.
It is sometimes frightening to see how otherwise sane and sensible people can be swept away by emotions in the midst of a church crisis. In the heat of the conflict they lose all sense of perspective and proportion.
We should never underestimate the emotional power of national pride and racial ties. We should not be surprised that the Jewish Christians in Antioch put their own Jewish interests above the welfare of the church. Throughout the history of the church, conflicts and divisions have occurred because Christians have been more deeply influenced by their national interests or racial identity than their Christian convictions. Whenever we identify ourselves as American Christians, or British Christians, or Chinese Christians, or German Christians, we must be aware that being American, British, Chinese or German may easily become more important to us than being Christian.
Peter's response to the delegation from Jerusalem and his withdrawal from the integrated fellowship of the church has been exonerated by some who think he was appropriately sensitive to the demands of his own mission to the Jews and was simply accommodating himself to those he was trying to win to Christ. If Paul himself could "become all things to all men" to win some to Christ (1 Cor 9:19-22), then why was it wrong for Peter to follow the same principle of accommodation when he adapted himself to the preferences and sensitivities of his home church?
From Paul's perspective, however, Peter's action was not accommodation for the sake of the gospel; it was compromise of the essential truth of the gospel. And on that basis Paul was willing to confront Peter with the inconsistency and hypocrisy of his actions. This confrontation was not just a power struggle to see who would maintain control of the church. Paul did not assert his authority as an apostle directly appointed by Jesus Christ or as one of the senior leaders of the church in Antioch. Nor did he appeal to the authority of the decision of the Jerusalem conference (vv. 7-9). Paul's refusal to follow Peter's example as all the other Jewish Christians did and his open rebuke of Peter were based solely on the standard set by the gospel: When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all . . . (v. 14).
Paul had the spiritual discernment to rise above the emotional trauma of the crisis: he saw the terrible consequences of Peter's action. Peter had contradicted the gospel. The gospel proclaimed that salvation for both Jews and Gentiles was by way of the cross of Christ and union with Christ. But Peter's separation from table fellowship with Gentile Christians implied that salvation for Gentiles required strict adherence to the law and incorporation into the Jewish nation. No doubt Peter would have denied that he meant to communicate this requirement to the Gentile believers. But how else could his action be interpreted? The Gentile believers could not help but conclude from Peter's withdrawal that they were lacking something, that they were unacceptable outcasts. If they wanted to enjoy fellowship with Peter and the mother church in Jerusalem, they would have to become Jews. Their experience of salvation would be incomplete until they became Jews and observed the Jewish law. Gentile believers would have seen these implications of Peter's action even if Peter did not.
Since the consequences and implications of Peter's action were so destructive to the unity and spiritual integrity of the church, Paul had no choice but to confront Peter in front of them all to prove that his action was wrong. A public confrontation is not pleasant. It can easily degenerate into a no-win situation. Usually there is a loss of face for all concerned. For that reason it is natural to avoid public confrontation at all costs. But when a leader avoids public confrontation with one who is causing others to lose their faith in the completeness of God's grace expressed in the gospel of Christ, the cost is the loss of their experience of God's grace. Paul was not willing for the church of Antioch to suffer that terrible loss.
Paul led Peter back to his own deepest convictions by asking him a question: "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?" (v. 14). By his practice of eating with the Gentile believers when he came to Antioch, Peter had already demonstrated that even as a Jew he had complete liberty to live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. In other words, Peter had already made it clear that his convictions permitted him to be free from Jewish food regulations. But now his separation from table fellowship with the Gentile believers forced Gentiles to follow Jewish customs. So while Peter, a Jew, had the freedom to live like Gentiles, his recent act of separation from Gentiles robbed them of their own freedom to live like Gentiles! They were being forced to live like Jews if they wanted to remain in the same church with the Jewish Christians. Actually, the verb that the NIV translates as to follow Jewish customs would be more accurately translated as "to become Jews." For the Gentiles would have to do more than follow a few Jewish customs; they would have to become Jews in order to have table fellowship with Jewish Christians who were following Jewish law.
To put it simply, Peter's separation had violated his own conviction that the racial division between Jews and Gentiles should not exist in the church. As a consequence of his separation, Gentiles were not admitted to table fellowship with Jews in the church. And the only way for them to gain admission was to become Jews.
If we feel that Paul was unnecessarily harsh or rude for rebuking Peter in public, we need to recall that the freedom of all Gentile Christians and the whole future of the Gentile mission was at stake. What if Peter's separation had set a precedent for the future so that all Gentile Christians really were required to become Jews? From a human perspective, such a precedent would have spelled the end of the Gentile church. It is not conceivable that Gentile churches could have been planted or would have grown if this requirement would have been enforced. And furthermore, if the division along racial lines had been allowed, the church would never have been able to exhibit a new humanity unified by faith in Christ, which transcends the racial and social divisions in the world. The truth of the gospel would be negated by such division.
We need to be encouraged by Paul's courageous stand to take our own stand against Christians who repeat Peter's mistake in the church today. The church today is divided in many places along racial and social lines. A list of such divisions would be too long to enumerate. We must not allow them to continue. The consequences for the clear proclamation of the gospel are disastrous. Divisions in the church negate the truth of the gospel. Let us boldly take our stand to heal those divisions now.