The Gospel Tears Down Divides (2:11-21)

Bible Passage: Galatians 2:11-21

Galatians 2 tells of two meetings between Paul and Peter, with Barnabas present on both occasions. Both meetings were in the context of pressure from those insisting that following the Jewish law was necessary for Gentile believers. The first meeting (v1-10) took place in Jerusalem, and Paul and Peter were of one mind. The second meeting is the focus of today’s sermon. It took place in Antioch and this time there was a confrontation between them.

Note, in verse 14, Paul’s words to Peter are quoted. As quotation marks are not present in the original Greek, the translators needed to make a judgment call where the quotation starts and finishes. Some interpreters believe the quotation runs all the way from verse 14 to 21, and given the seamless flow of thought in these verses this seems likely to be the case. 

Peter’s Hypocrisy: The presenting issue in the conflict was table fellowship. Peter (Cephas) had travelled from Jerusalem to visit the Antioch church, and at the start of his visit he ate together with Gentile believers (there is the record of a vision from God in Acts 10 teaching him not to consider certain foods or ethnic groups of people as unclean). However, when a group of other came from Jerusalem, Peter stopped eating with Gentiles because he was worried about how those in the circumcision faction would react. As a leader in the church, Peter’s actions carried a lot of weight, and other Jewish believers, including Barnabas, also stopped eating with Gentiles.

The issue at stake here is a very important one. The gospel completely breaks down all ethnic and social divides. Under the law there was a sharp distinction between Jews and Gentiles, but at the foot of the cross we are all equal. When we introduce distinctions or hierarchies into Christian practice and only associate with certain kinds of believers then we are acting in contradiction to the gospel. For Peter and the others, the primary driver here was fear of man. We must extend gospel fellowship to all believers, regardless of what divides others might want us to uphold.

Paul’s Response: On seeing the way Peter and Barnabas were acting, Paul confronted them. His response here is very instructive in a number of ways:

Firstly, Paul could see clearly the gospel implications of the situation. Whereas others were swept up in the pressures created by the different factions, Paul’s mind was on how their actions hindered or helped the gospel. We should all aspire to develop such clear gospel thinking that it becomes the framework through which we can determine what needs to happen.

Secondly, he spoke to Peter face to face. It would have been easy for Paul to complain to others, or to start agitating against Peter, but instead he spoke to him directly and clearly and explained how he saw the issue. Peter’s words at the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 show that he had accepted Paul’s argument.

Thirdly, he brought the issue up publicly. Not every dispute needs to be resolved in public, but because this was a circumstance where a leader had acted in front of others in a way that undermined the gospel, there was a need to have the discussion in front of others and use it as a teachable moment to clearly articulate the gospel.

Gospel, Law and Faith: In Paul’s speech to Peter and the others (taking all of v14-21 to be that speech), he points out how ridiculous it is to expect Gentiles to adhere to the Jewish law, when even Jewish believers such as Peter and Paul do not adhere to the law, but are instead justified by faith in Jesus.

Refusing to eat with Gentiles would be in effect rebuilding the very law that they have worked so hard to tear down through their preaching, as they have instead pointed people to the gospel. As believers we are dead to the law, and alive in Christ. It is through faith in him, and by his indwelling presence that we now live. So we must not return to the old distinctions and divisions.

These verses are quite dense and complex, but they are a strong warning against trying to return to a way of life based on the law. As Christians, faith in Jesus is not merely how we start but is also how we go on.

Potential Applications:

  • The gospel tears down divides between people. Ask people to think about which believers they might be reluctant to have table fellowship with them and challenge them to repent of this.
  • How do we react when we see other believers acting in ways that undermine the gospel? Can we follow Paul’s example in being clear, bold and direct where we need to be?
  • Invite people to consider any ways they are living according to law rather than by faith in the Son of God.