Paul’s Showdown With Peter

By David Feddes

If you want to be a good Christian, could you possibly go wrong by following St. Peter? Peter was a personal friend of Jesus. He was foremost among Jesus’ inner circle of twelve disciples. His Hebrew name, Cephas, and his Greek name, Peter, both meant “rock.” Although he’d been born with the name Simon, Jesus had called him Peter—a rock to build on. Jesus appointed Peter to be an apostle, a missionary, a leader in the church. How could anyone go wrong following Peter’s leadership?

Oh, Peter had made mistakes earlier in his life: he said and did some bad things, and when Jesus was arrested, Peter sank so low as to deny three times that he even knew the Lord. But that was the old Peter. Once Jesus rose from the dead and poured his Holy Spirit on the disciples, Peter became a preacher of astonishing insight and power, a leader who helped guide the church in the way Christ wanted. The old Peter may have been full of flaws, but the new Peter was a bold, wise leader, a pillar of the church, someone to count on for sound teaching and godly example. How could anyone challenge something if Peter himself approved of it? If Peter believed it, you could believe it; if Peter did it, you could do it—right? Not necessarily.

Even though Peter was deeply transformed, even though he was foremost among the apostles, even though he had been filled by the Spirit of Christ, even though he had led thousands to faith in Jesus, Peter wasn’t perfect. He had become a great Christian, true enough, but he wasn’t infallible, and it was dangerous to assume he was. Peter wasn’t always right. In fact, there was a time in Peter’s ministry when he committed an error so serious that it might have wrecked the church entirely if someone else hadn’t stood up and challenged him. The Bible tells about it in the book of Galatians, chapter 2.

There the apostle Paul writes, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong” (Galatians 2:11). How could Paul say such a thing? Given Peter’s stature in the church, how could anyone—even Paul—dare to oppose the great Peter and say “he was clearly in the wrong.” But Paul did it. No matter how much Peter had accomplished, no matter how important his position, he could still be dead wrong.

Peter’s Error

What was Peter’s error? Well, believe it or not, Peter started to act like a hypocrite. He started to drift away from the central truth of the gospel: the truth that Jesus saves people of every nation and racial background entirely by faith in him. Salvation depends totally on God’s grace given freely to us in Jesus’ death and resurrection and his ongoing presence in our lives—and on nothing else. Although Peter knew this, he slid backward and began to act as though it were not true.

Here’s what happened. Peter had been providing leadership for the church at Jerusalem, which was mostly Jewish. Then he decided to visit the church in Antioch, a city to the north of Israel. Unlike the church in Jerusalem, which was almost entirely Jewish, the church in Antioch had many Greeks and other non-Jewish people. These non-Jews (called Gentiles) got to know Jesus through Jewish Christians who had moved to Antioch, and as a result, the Antioch church had a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. Among the leading teachers at Antioch were Barnabas and Paul, Jewish Christians serving as missionaries, who were respected by Jewish and Gentile Christians alike.

When Peter came to Antioch, the Christians there welcomed him with open arms. What a joy for them to meet the great apostle from the great church of Jerusalem! It was a joy for Peter, too. Peter himself was Jewish, but he was glad to meet these Christians of different racial background and see their joy in Jesus. Peter encouraged their relationship to Jesus, and he enjoyed many meals together with these Gentiles.

In order to eat with Gentiles, Peter had to ignore the long-standing separation between Jew and Gentile, and he had to ignore laws he used to observe regarding foods that were kosher or not kosher, clean or unclean. But Peter had heard Jesus declare all foods to be clean (Mark 7:19), and the Holy Spirit had taught Peter that “God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation” and forgives the sins of all who trust in Jesus (Acts 10). Peter considered faith in Christ far more important than racial distinctions or kosher laws that had once seemed so important, and so he sat down with Gentile Christians and ate whatever food they were eating. These love feasts expressed a beautiful unity between new believers and long-time Christians, between Jewish Christians and Christians of other nationalities, celebrating the free salvation they had in common through Christ.

But then something happened. A new group of men came from Jerusalem to Antioch. They believed in keeping Jews and Gentiles separate. These new arrivals were devoted to strict observance of Jewish rituals and practices, and they had no use for anyone who didn’t feel the same way. They didn’t realize that the ceremonial requirements of Moses had been pointing ahead to the Savior and that these things were binding only until the coming of the Messiah. They didn’t see that with the coming of Jesus, the old rituals were left behind for a more direct, personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus. Although they saw Jesus as the promised Messiah, they didn’t believe Jesus alone was enough to save you. They thought you were saved by faith in Jesus plus being circumcised, observing strict laws about food and drink, and various other rituals and regulations from the law of Moses. So they insisted that before Gentiles could be saved or included in fellowship with Jewish Christians, they had to be circumcised and become like Jews. Maybe you know Dr. Seuss’s story, The Sneetches.

Now the star-belly Sneetches had bellies with stars,

while the plain-belly Sneetches had none upon thars…

The star-belly Sneetches would sniff and they’d snort:

“We’ll have nothing to do with the plain-belly sort.”

That was the attitude of the group arriving in Antioch from Jerusalem: “We’ll have nothing to do with the uncircumcised sort.” These men—known as the circumcision party—had ties to James, a brother of Jesus and a leader in the Jerusalem church. The Bible doesn’t say James himself felt this way, but the fact that these men could claim an association with James made it all the more tempting to go along with them.

And that’s what Peter did: he went along with them. Peter didn’t want to risk upsetting these elitists. Instead, he backed away from his friendship with Gentile Christians and stopped eating with them, acting as though he wasn’t their brother in the Lord after all. In Galatians 2 the apostle Paul says,

I opposed [Peter] to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

When someone prominent goes wrong, other people are affected. Peter’s problems weren’t his alone. As a leader, his action had a ripple effect. Other Jewish Christians in Antioch thought so highly of Peter that they followed his lead. Even Barnabas, a great missionary and teacher in his own right, a long-time friend and encourager of the Gentiles in the Antioch church—even Barnabas felt he’d better do what Peter did, and so he turned his back on his Gentile friends and violated the gospel.

Standing Up for the Gospel

It was a critical moment in the history of the church. What if every last person had said, “Peter is the leader—he can’t be wrong”? In that case, the gospel would have been twisted into a message where you couldn’t be saved by faith in Jesus unless you also observed various laws, rituals, and regulations. The door to God’s kingdom would have been slammed in many faces. But one man refused to follow Peter’s lead. One man had the God-given insight to see the problems with Peter and the God-given courage to stand up to him. That man was the apostle Paul. Paul writes,

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, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

“We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.

…I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”             Galatians 2:14-21

Paul stood up for the gospel. Those words of Paul set Peter straight and set the church of Jesus back on the right course.

That critical moment wasn’t the last time the church has been tempted to give up the gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone. This problem has risen again and again throughout history. Another especially critical moment occurred in the early 1500s. That was a time when the good news of salvation by faith in Jesus was almost buried under rituals and regulations heaped up by church officials. They said Jesus was necessary for salvation, but he wasn’t enough; you also needed various church ceremonies and traditions, plus a lot of your own efforts and special payments of money, in order to be saved. To make matters worse, the highest official in the church establishment, the pope—the man who claimed to be St. Peter’s successor—was saying these things, and many people thought that whatever the pope said had to be right.

But one man, a German monk named Martin Luther, stood up and said the pope was wrong. He said the church was out of line with the gospel and needed to change. On October 31, 1517, Luther launched a protest against church errors. He began a recovery of the gospel which eventually became the Protestant Reformation. In essence Luther did what Paul had done so many years earlier. He dared to stand for the gospel of grace when almost everyone else was putting laws and rituals ahead of Christ. Luther dared to challenge the whole church hierarchy and the pope himself.

Sad to say, the pope didn’t respond to rebuke the way Peter did. Peter listened to Paul, but the pope didn’t listen to Luther. He rejected Luther’s criticism, and church officials opposed Luther fiercely. Many sneered at Luther, saying it was ridiculous to think that the pope and the whole church hierarchy could be wrong while one German monk was right. But Luther was right, just as Paul had been right centuries earlier. Luther insisted on the final authority of God’s Word above the authority of any man, no matter how important that man might seem. Luther insisted on salvation through faith in Christ, not salvation through a host of church-imposed rituals and regulations. And as a result, the door to God’s kingdom, which had been almost totally blocked off by legalism and error, was opened wide to many people.

Now, I mention Luther and the Reformation, not to bash Roman Catholics or to make Protestants feel superior, but to call people of every background to faith in Jesus alone, trusting the authority of God’s Word alone. Every church and every individual must constantly be reforming and returning to the gospel truth that “a man is not justified by observing the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.” The core of Christianity is not rules and rituals but a personal relationship where “Christ lives in me” and “I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Christianity is Christ! A right standing with God and a personal relationship with him come through faith in Christ, and Christ alone. That is the gospel!

Reasons to Confront

But we’re often in danger of forgetting that and acting as though it isn’t true. This happened to St. Peter himself, and if it could happen to him, it could happen to any of us.

Peter’s problems began when he started fearing other people more than he focused on Jesus. He had been enjoying meals with Gentile Christians, but when some very strict and pious people came to town, people who believed that salvation requires more than faith in Jesus, Peter was afraid of making a bad impression on them, so he stopped sharing meals with his Gentile friends. How often doesn’t something similar happen to us as well? We’re so afraid of what certain people might think of us that we forget to ask what Jesus himself thinks, and before we know it, we’re denying the gospel and making other thing matter more than Jesus. At that point we need to be challenged and confronted.

When Peter went along with the legalists who denied salvation through faith in Christ alone, Paul knew that he couldn’t just stand by and let it happen. It’s hard to confront someone else, especially someone as important and respected as Peter, but Paul knew he had to do it for at least four reasons.

The first reason was that Peter was rejecting Gentiles whom God had welcomed. This was devastating to those new Christians. They had believed Jesus died for them, but now Peter was refusing even to eat with them. God’s Spirit had come to live in them, or so they thought, but what were they to think now that a leading pastor and representative of the Lord wouldn’t associate with them? How confusing and distressing that must have been for them! For the sake of those Gentiles, Paul had to oppose Peter.

Paul’s second reason was that Peter was also hurting fellow Jews. By acting as though the old regulations and legalities mattered more than faith in Christ, Peter was corrupting many Jews, even a wonderful missionary like Barnabas. And so Paul, himself a Jew, had to oppose Peter for the sake of Jews who were being misled.

Paul’s third reason was that Peter was hurting himself. Peter was violating his own identity as someone who had left behind reliance on Jewish law and was depending entirely on Christ crucified and risen to be made right with God. Peter was being a hypocrite, and hypocrisy left unchanged destroys the soul. And so, for Peter’s own wellbeing, Paul opposed him.

Paul’s fourth and most important reason for opposing Peter was that Peter was denying the grace of God and dishonoring the Lord Jesus. If the old regulations could save people, then why did Jesus die? If we could make ourselves right with God through our own efforts, then why did Jesus pour out his precious blood? Paul thundered, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21) Away with such a thought! For the sake of Christ and the glory of God, Paul had to oppose Peter.

So, then, it wasn’t nastiness or a desire to fight that led Paul to take his stand. He did it for the sake of the Gentiles, for the sake of the Jews, for the sake of Peter himself, and for the sake of the Lord Jesus.]No matter how prominent Peter was, he was wrong in this case. He stood condemned, and Paul had to confront him.

Bedrock Principles

In that confrontation we see some bedrock principles that apply in every age. One principle is that the final authority for faith and life is the gospel message, not any man, no matter who he is. No matter what Peter or Barnabas or other leaders might say or do, the truth is the truth. As Paul put it, “they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel,” and that meant they were wrong. Luther and other Reformation leaders emphasized the same principle when they insisted on Scripture alone, rather than the authority of the pope or church officials, as the final authority. God’s Word is infallible; people aren’t.

Still today there may be people who assume their pope or patriarch or preacher is perfect, and that’s a mistake. We must always look to the Bible as the final authority. But keep in mind that there’s more than one way to ignore the Bible in order to follow human authority. Overemphasizing the authority of church leaders is one way; another way (more common these days) is to overemphasize the authority of secular researchers. For many people, phrases like “Studies have proved” or “Scholars have found” or “Surveys show” mean that something is gospel. If it contradicts the Bible, they assume it means the Bible is wrong. But that’s basically the same the old mistake of placing human authority above the authority of God’s Word. If even Peter could be wrong, you can be sure that scholars and researchers who don’t know Christ at all can go very far wrong. So let the gospel message taught in Scripture alone be your final authority.

Another bedrock principle of which Paul reminded Peter is that a right standing with God depends on God’s grace alone and comes to us by faith alone in Christ alone, so that God alone gets the glory. Salvation isn’t God’s grace plus a bit of law and ritual; it’s God’s grace alone. It’s not faith plus certain deeds; it’s faith alone. It’s not partly Christ and partly me; it’s Christ alone. And so God doesn’t get just part of the glory; all the glory goes to God alone.

Paul reminded Peter, “A man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16). Paul made much the same point when he later told the Roman church, “To the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). This principle of justification by faith alone was central for Luther and other Reformers. Indeed, Luther called it the thing by which the church stands or falls.

Now, it might be objected that such an approach makes people more wicked. If salvation doesn’t depend at least partly on my own works, won’t I become more wicked than ever? This was an objection Luther and the Reformers often faced and an objection the apostle Paul often faced. In fact, if you’re a preacher and nobody ever raises this objection to your preaching, you probably aren’t preaching the gospel. The biblical gospel of salvation as a free gift, earned for us entirely by Christ and received by faith alone, inevitably raises this objection from some people.

To those who wondered, “Does the teaching that we sinners are justified in Christ mean that Christ promotes sin?” Paul’s answer was, “Absolutely not.” Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins and bring us forgiveness, but if you think that means faith in Christ alone makes us sin more than ever, think again. After all, says Paul, Christ didn’t just die for me; I died with him–my old sinful nature was dealt a death blow at the cross. Not only that, adds Paul, the Christ who died for me now lives in me, transforming my life by the power of his Holy Spirit. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” A right standing with God depends on faith in Christ alone, and day-to-day living depends on Christ within us, not our own power.

Paul stood up to Peter and the others and reminded them of these things, and they knew he was right. They knew this was the gospel they had learned from Jesus. They had strayed, and they were grateful to be called back to the gospel truth which united them with God and with God’s people of every nationality.

Still today this is the gospel that can unite you with God and with all his people. This is the gospel of the Bible, the gospel of Jesus, the gospel of the apostles and Reformers, the only true gospel there is. Believe it, and rejoice in it.

PRAYER

Father God, thank you for the gospel. Thank you for sending your Son Jesus to die for us and to live in us by his Holy Spirit. Thank you for giving us a permanent record of the gospel message in the Bible. Thank you for raising up courageous Reformers to challenge the church to turn away from its errors and to return to the truth of the gospel.

Lord, help your church throughout the world today, and help its leaders. Some are genuine servants of Christ but have somehow gone wrong, as Peter did. Give other believers courage to challenge them in the authority of the gospel, and help mistaken leaders to humbly accept correction.

Other church leaders do not know you at all, Lord. They are leading people down the wrong path. Protect people from these leaders’ errors, and put an end to their influence.

Help pastors and missionaries and all Christians to be faithful to the gospel. Keep the good news ringing forth clearly in the words and actions of your people, so that many who are not yet saved may believe the truth and experience Christ living in them. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.