As you would remember, Paul has been laying out the case for his apostleship and his gospel. As he demonstrated in the first chapter of Galatians, his apostleship was not a human appointment, and his gospel did not come from human teachers. Rather, he had been called by God, he had been appointed by the Lord Jesus Christ, and he had been given his gospel by heaven itself. Most of the time after his conversion had been spent in Damascus and Arabia, well away from Jerusalem. A mere fifteen days had been spent in Jerusalem, in the company of Peter.

In the second chapter, he recounted the events of his second visit to Jerusalem, also referred to in Acts 11:27–30 and Acts 12:25. There, in the Judaists’ heartland, he had confronted the very issue they raised – circumcision – and won the debate. Furthermore, the “pillars” in Jerusalem – Peter, John and James – accepted his divinely ordained mission to the Gentiles, agreed with the content of his gospel, and endorsed his activities.

D. His gospel vindicated in Antioch (2:11–16)

But Paul has another story to tell. He narrates events in Antioch, his home ecclesia; events that were still fresh in his memory. The Judaists, disturbed by their confrontation with Paul in Jerusalem, and his preaching activities in Galatia, had come to Antioch. There they had pressured Peter and other Jews, even Barnabas, to step back from full fellowship with the Gentiles. Paul, standing entirely alone, had resisted their teachings. Challenging Peter publicly, he had demonstrated the fundamental error of the Judaists, and won Peter over to his understanding of the gospel and its implications for fellowship.

1. The Judaists draw Peter and others away (2:11–13)

11_But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. 12_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. 13_And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation.

Saul returned to Antioch buoyed by his successful meetings with the leading brothers of Jerusalem, and especially by the wholehearted endorsement and goodwill of the apostles. It cannot have been long after that the Spirit spoke, and Barnabas and Saul set out on that momentous first missionary journey that brought the gospel to Cyprus and Galatia. Returning eventually to Antioch, “from whence they had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled,” they gathered the whole ecclesia together, and “rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles” (Acts 14:26–27).

“And there they abode long time with the disciples,” Luke adds (14:28), implying that, after their great adventure, Paul and Barnabas settled back into the joyful routine of preaching and teaching in Antioch.

At some point Peter, who had been compelled to leave Jerusalem by Herod’s personal campaign against him (12:17), also arrived in Antioch. Paul would have warmly welcomed his one-time host and his enthusiastic and effective partner in the gospel. Peter entered into the full and uninhibited fellowship with his fellow-believers that was characteristic of the united ecclesia in Antioch, eating “with the Gentiles”, as Paul notes in the next verse.
The peace of the ecclesia was about to be disturbed, however. The Judaists were no doubt still sore about Paul’s steadfast refusal to circumcise Titus on his visit to Jerusalem (Gal 2:3–5), and annoyed by the support that he had received from Peter, James and John, and other influential brethren (2:6–10). But the events of the first missionary journey concerned them deeply. To have this gospel of grace taught in Antioch was one thing. It was another thing entirely to have Paul travelling the roads of the Roman Empire, spreading that gospel far and wide. When Mark, the young Levite, left Paul and Barnabas halfway through the mission and returned to Jerusalem with his version of events (Acts 13:13), they resolved to tackle this poison, as they saw it, at its source. They must go to Antioch.
The first Paul knew of their moves was when “certain came [to Antioch] from James”, the acknowledged leader of the Jerusalem ecclesia in Peter’s absence (12:17). Actually, they did not come from James at all, as James himself was later at pains to put on record (15:24). But they certainly claimed to come from James: and it is possible that at the time of writing this letter that Paul was still uncertain about whether the claim was true or false. He may not have been able to verify that it was false until he arrived in Jerusalem for the Conference that followed upon these events.

Be that as it may, Peter experienced a sudden change of heart. Faced with these brethren, and the apparent policy of James and the Jerusalem ecclesia, for whom they claimed to speak, he stopped eating with his fellow-believers who were Gentiles. “He withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision.” In a culture where a shared meal is the essence of fellowship, the refusal to share a meal was a potent insult, and amounted to the withholding of fellowship. His change of heart erected an instant barrier between him and his fellow-disciples.

The sudden collapse of Peter’s convictions was bad enough: but “the other Jews dissembled likewise with him”. Suddenly they all pretended to keep themselves apart, pretended that they had always kept themselves apart. It was nothing short of hypocrisy, and with terrible implications for the future of the ecclesia.
Paul rebukes Peter, and brings him back to the gospel (2:14–16)

14 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, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? 15_We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, 16_Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

It seemed that only one man in the whole ecclesia was clear about the logic of the gospel, and that man was Paul. “I saw that they walked not uprightly, according to the truth of the gospel,” he remembers. They knew the truth of the gospel, but they were not walking according to that truth. Their behaviour toward their brethren who were Gentiles denied the all-sufficiency of the cross. It implied that other things – circumcision, for example; but circumcision was only the beginning – needed to be added to the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ for it to be an effective salvation. Although they would have indignantly denied this proposition, their actions affirmed it. Their false actions implied false beliefs.
Establishing a clear and consistent linkage between our values, our beliefs and the way we live is one of life’s great challenges: and we do not always succeed. Sometimes the consequences can be devastating for other people looking on, as here. The gospel of God’s grace is built upon the fact that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is all-sufficient for forgiveness, righteousness and salvation. We must never allow ourselves to be confused about that fundamental truth.

Among the crowd of dissemblers one man was principally to blame, and that man was Peter the apostle. His early capitulation to the newcomers and their demands had triggered the wave of falling dominos. Paul saw that the situation might be reversed. If Peter were to recognise that he had been wrong, the confidence of other Jews would also be restored.

But if we picture a gung-ho Paul sailing into Peter at a public meeting, then surely we have the wrong picture. No doubt Paul attempted to address the situation privately, as the Lord instructed (Matt 18:15–17). Only when he saw that the battle was almost lost; when even Barnabas, his kindred spirit and trusted partner, indeed, his fellow-missionary to Galatia had begun to waver; when all other avenues for resolving the problem had been closed off : only then did Paul see a public confrontation as his only option.

How hard it would be for him to criticise publicly this great servant of Christ, the leader of the twelve, the custodian of the gospel keys, who had followed his Lord to prison, if not yet to death! He owed a personal debt of gratitude to Peter, who had generously taken him in when other apostles were not at all sure about him (Gal 1:18). And it was not that long since they had amicably divided the work of preaching between them, and Peter had shaken hands with him in a solemn a rmation of their joint service in the gospel (2:9–10). But when a public confrontation became necessary, Paul did not waver: “I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed” (v 11).

His first question exposed Peter’s pretence. “If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?” Until the new arrivals from Jerusalem, Peter had lived happily and comfortably among the Gentiles, keeping company with them, and sharing their food. Although a Jew, he had lived “after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews,” who traditionally kept themselves from any contact with Gentiles, as Peter himself had observed at his first meeting with Cornelius (Acts 10:28).

But abruptly, he had stepped back. To maintain fellowship with him, his Gentile brothers and sisters were now compelled to “live as do the Jews”, accepting circumcision, preparing and eating only kosher food according to strict rules, observing the many pedantic regulations, “the traditions of the elders,” that governed cleanliness and ritual purity, keeping the Sabbath and a myriad of holy days; and a host of other customs, most of them traditional rather than divine. If Peter had quite happily lived in a Gentile way, how could he now compel his Gentile fellow-believers to live in a traditional, law-bound, Jewish way?

And Peter knew full well that there was no theological justification for his actions. “We,” said Paul: “you and me, Peter: we are Jews by birth. We have genealogies that go back to Abraham. We are not sinners of the Gentiles.” What a loaded phrase! This was a meeting of the whole ecclesia, Jew and Gentile. It was “before them all”. Undoubtedly Paul used that phrase for its shock value, and no doubt it profoundly embarrassed Peter.
The Jews liked to think of themselves as the righteous race, and of all the nations, the ethnon, “the Gentiles,” as sinners. It was a gross self-deception, of course. The Law was not given to them because they were righteous, but precisely because they were lawless, disobedient, ungodly “sinners” (1 Tim. 1:9). As a whole, the nation was a generation of adulteresses and sinners (Mark 8:38). And it was “sinners” – the Jewish authorities, including the Pharisees and the Sadducees – who had arrested and crucified the Lord (Matt 26:45; Mark 14:41; Luke 24:7). The superior righteousness of Jewry was an illusion, as Peter well knew. There was no justification whatever for this distinction.

But the issue went deeper. As Peter would also well remember, his Master was often accused of eating with sinners (Matt 9:10–13; Mark 2:15–17; Luke 5:30–32; 15:2; 19:7), indeed, of befriending them (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34, 37). There was a good reason for this. It was the publicans and admitted sinners, above all, who listened to the Lord (Luke 15:1). It was probably from Peter that Paul had learned these facts. Certainly he had received a copy of the gospel of Mark, ‘the Gospel according to Peter’. Yet to befriend and eat with – not sinners, actually, but those who had come to God from among the nations – these were the very things Peter was now refusing to do! He was certainly not following his Master in these fellowship decisions.

But it went deeper still. It was Peter’s heartfelt confession of his own status as a sinner – “Depart from me; for I am a man, a sinner, O Lord” (Luke 5:8, same word: it is an adjectival noun) – that had moved Jesus to assure him and his partners, “Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men” (v 10). So his work as an apostle was founded on the recognition that he was himself a sinner, unworthy of the Lord’s presence, but graciously invited to contribute to his purpose. This Peter had forgotten. But the issue went deeper yet for Peter had also forgotten one of the greatest moments of that apostleship. When he had been moving, slowly but uncertainly, toward the call of the Gentiles, going down to the Greek-speaking coastal regions, healing the lame, raising the dead, staying with Simon the ritually unclean tanner, in his ritually unclean house: it was then that the Lord had called him to communicate the gospel to Cornelius and his household. He had prepared Peter for this big step by a vision in which Peter had been invited to kill and eat unclean animals. He had steadfastly refused to comply but three times he had been told, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common” (Acts 10:15–16). God had told him that when the messengers of Cornelius should come, he should go with them, “doubting nothing” (v17,20). He had barely stepped inside Cornelius’ house when he told the assembled company, “Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (v 28). And he began his presentation of the good news with the words, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (v 34–35). this, too, Peter had forgotten.

Peter’s lapse had been a truly monumental lapse and we may be sure that the more he thought upon his behaviour, the more distressed he would become. If such a great apostle can slide so easily back into traditional prejudices, can forget the example and teaching of his Master, can forget the circumstances and insights of his own calling and forgiveness, and the great revelations of God in the course of his work for Christ – let us beware, lest we be swayed from our foundational understanding of the grace of God in Jesus Christ by the false representations of men. Truly, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). That is the gospel in a sentence.

But back to Paul’s argument. We might paraphrase it in this way: “Despite the fact that we are by nature Jewish, not Gentile sinners, Peter, we both know that a man is not made righteous by himself, but by God; and not by compliance with the Law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ. That is why we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be made righteous by God on the basis of that faith, not by complying with the Law. Nobody, “no flesh,” Jew or Gentile, can make themselves righteous by complying with the Law. Righteousness is always the gift of God.”
It sounds repetitive, but that is how Paul put it. There is something akin to triple underlining in this passage. Three times he uses the negatives ‘not’ and ‘no’ to deny that salvation is by the Law. Three times he affirms salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. In the face of such emphatic negative and positive statements, there is no room for doubt.

And the implications were equally clear, although Paul does not spell them out. “Therefore,” he might well have continued, “the traditional rules you have made so much of – apparently, that is: for we both know that you are really just putting on a show for the visitors – are utterly pointless.”

Poor Peter! How humiliating to be exposed and corrected in this way! How humiliating to have to back flip yet again, and embrace his Gentile brothers and sisters as before! Yet he knew that Paul was right, absolutely right. Far from mounting phony arguments to shore up his position, far from excusing himself or justifying his actions, far from resenting what Paul said, or the way in which Paul had gone about things, he accepted that he was wrong.

Wisely, Peter now took a back seat in the debate. It was Barnabas and Paul, Luke tells us, who had “no small dissension and disputation” with the troublesome visitors (Acts 15:2). But when it came time for the matter to be tried in Jerusalem, Peter was first on his feet: and his speech quoted Paul at several points, a sure sign that he had recognised his error, and now, with new clarity and certainty, wholeheartedly endorsed the great principle of salvation by grace and righteousness by faith for all, regardless of race.

Even more remarkably, Peter’s affection and respect for Paul were undiminished. Years later, when Paul was dead, and Peter was about to die, he spoke movingly of “our beloved brother Paul” and “the wisdom given unto him”, and “the other scriptures”, which now included Paul’s collected letters (2 Pet 3:15–16).

The true greatness of a man is not seen in the fact that he is always right, and never wrong. Rather, it is seen in the fact that when he is shown his error or his fault, he acknowledges it honestly and unreservedly, and amends his thinking and his life. When we find ourselves in such a position, as inevitably we must do from time to time, may God give us the wisdom and the humility to respond as Peter did.