“But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, live after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compel thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews”? (Gal. 2:11-14)
Here we have a sad and troubling report of the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter in conflict! I am sure that some will find this shocking and disturbing. It seems unthinkable that two of the great heroes of the faith – “Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” – would engage in heated controversy and division! And yet, it happened and it still happens today, even among good Christian men and ministries.
To find an answer to the question, “Why do good men disagree?” – is not easy in every case. We know that most controversies are generated at an emotional level and are, therefore, avoidable. We are reminded, “If it be possible,” we are to “live peaceably with all men” (Rom 12:18). However, there are times when disagreement and separation is necessary. We are to “Fight the good fight of faith” (1Tim. 6:12). One such time was Paul’s confrontational disagreement with the Apostle Peter.
At the Jerusalem Counsel (Acts 15), the questions, “What is the Gospel?” and “What must a person do to be saved?” were settled. According to Dr. C. I. Scofield, “Dispensationally, this is the most important passage in the New Testament. It gives the divine purpose for this age and for the beginning of the next” (Page 1169). A transition was taking place.
(For further explanation, see my tract: “Have You Made the Transition?” God was shifting gears! A change was taking place because of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ!” Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Rom 10:4). If that means anything, it means that neither Jews or Gentiles have to keep the Jewish Law to be saved or holy! Salvation comes by “faith” in the faithfulness of Christ (Gal. 2:16, 20) and holiness comes by, “walking in the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4). We are free from the Mosaic Law! We are “dead to the Law” (Gal. 2:19). We are not bound by all those laws and ceremonies.
At this first church council a great fight took place because the Judaizers wanted to enslave the Gentile converts to their legalism (Acts 15:5). According to Galatians 2, Paul defended “that Gospel” which he preached (Gal. 2:2) – specifically the gospel which “was not according to man, for he had not received it from any man; he had not been taught it,” but had come to him by a direct “revelation” given to him “by Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-17). Concerning this gospel he warned, “Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8).
At the same time, James, Peter and John, (the “Pillars” of the Jerusalem Church) “extended the right hands of fellowship to Paul and Barnabas” to verify the authenticity of Paul’s Gospel being sent to the “heathen” and to re-affirm Peter’s apostolic authority to preach the Gospel to the Jews.
Both Paul and Peter had an active and fruitful ministry. They had labored for considerable time under the Scriptural guidelines set forth in Acts 15 and Galatians 2. Both believed in the oneness of Jews and Gentiles who believed in Christ. Peter testified, “God, which knows the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, as He did unto us; and put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8-9).
However, by the time Peter comes to the Antioch Church, which was composed largely of Gentiles, Peter played the part of a coward and a hypocrite because of “fear of them…the circumcision” (Gal. 2:12). He believed one thing but behaved in a contrary manner. He “walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel!” (Gal. 2:14). This is what ignited the controversy between Paul and Peter! The very barrier that once stood between both Jews and Gentiles – once removed by the finished work of Christ – was in danger of being rebuilt (Gal. 2:18).
Lesson: The church cannot be run on legalism and be Christian in the Biblical sense of the word! Though we are sympathetic to, and can understand the pressure and intimidation brought to bear on Peter, and others – he even seduced Barnabas to frustrate the Gospel of God’s Grace (Gal. 2:13).
Peter was wrong and was to “blame.” Truth cannot be compromised without conflict. In this sad incident we learn that it is better to follow Paul than Peter. Peter stumbled and wobbled on occasion in his spiritual life and his example is a reminder that we all are “smeared with the same stick!” We need to “walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise” (Eph. 5:15).
Thankfully, Peter recovered from this strong censure of the Apostle Paul (2 Pet. 3:15-16) and serves as an encouragement to all when the finger of “blame” is pointed at us – there is hope and grace of our recovery, too!