Chelica Hiltunen & John D. Barry
“I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” Gal 2:11 ESV 1
Harsh words coming from a pastor—even harsher considering he was addressing another pastor. The confrontation in Antioch between Paul and Peter over whether or not Jews should eat with non-Jews is puzzling. Why was Paul so angry with Peter, and why is he recounting this story to the Galatians?
To resolve this issue, we need a Bible dictionary and a commentary. Using these tools, we will examine the cultural background and context of Paul’s argument with Peter.
Paul says that “before certain men came from James,” Peter was “eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party” (Gal 2:12). Subsequently, Barnabas, Paul’s right hand in preaching to the Gentiles, also withdrew (Gal 2:13). According to F. F. Bruce’s The Epistle to the Galatians, “the circumcision party” were “Judaizers [or proponents of Jewish practices] within the church (Acts 11:2; Titus 1:10) … the circumcised members of the church” (pg. 131).
But why would Peter and Barnabas stop eating meals with non-Jews when other Jews showed up? A search for “food laws” in The New Bible Dictionary leads us to our answer. Food laws were “distinctions” that reminded “Israel of her special status as God’s chosen people.… Jews faithful to these laws would tend to avoid Gentile (non-Jewish) company, in case they were offered unclean food to eat” (pg. 211). Because of the pressure of Jewish people, who wished to maintain their distinct status, Peter sacrificed church unity. But we still don’t know why Paul would discuss this dispute, at this moment in time, and in this letter. The context of Gal 2 will help us understand his motives.
Peter and James were associated with Jerusalem and the original church (Gal 1:18–19). Because the “men from James” came to Antioch with the authority of the Jerusalem church, they were a threat to Peter (Gal 2:12). Paul uses Peter’s hypocrisy as a case in point to show his authority as an apostle and subsequently make his case to the Galatians that his gospel is “not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:1).
Like those in Antioch who were opposing Paul’s gospel and presenting another one, the Galatians were affirming a different gospel based upon the Law (Gal 3:2).
Paul used the story of his dispute with Peter to show that, like the Jews in Antioch, the Jews in Galatia were hypocrites. Christians are equal before God: “There is neither Jew nor Greek,” everyone is “one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28).
Paul’s confrontation with Peter demonstrated that he is consistent in his belief that Christian Jews and Greek are one in Christ—a belief that the Galatians needed to adopt. Paul’s account of the Antioch episode provides support for his message: “We know that a person is not justified [made right with God] by works of the Law but through faith” (Gal 2:16).
Today, the church across the world can rejoice in the fact that in Christ Jesus we “are all sons (and daughters) of God, through faith” (Gal 3:26).
F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982). Logos.com/BruceGalatians
D. R. W. Wood and I. H. Marshall, New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996). Logos.com/NBD
1. All biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).↩