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, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?
So why did Paul find it necessary to rebuke Peter? Paul said he was to blame! For what though? For preaching circumcision as a requirement for salvation? No, for as we have seen he never preached that Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to be saved. Rather for going back from the revelation he had received from God, in Acts 10 & 11, by compelling the Gentiles to live like the Jews Thus implying that circumcision is a necessity for fellowship, which by further implication makes circumcision necessary for salvation.
E1.1 No Longer Common
The OT law on clean and unclean foods is very clear. We read of it in Lev. 11. In those commands God clearly sets out what can be eaten and what cannot, He lists the basic principles and groups of animals that can and can not be eaten. There are various reasons why God made this distinction, but the one relevant for our study is found after the list is given of the allowable and forbidden. We read the overall summary and its purpose.
Ye shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creepeth, neither shall ye make yourselves unclean with them, that ye should be defiled thereby. For I am the LORD your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. For I am the LORD that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. This is the law of the beasts, and of the fowl, and of every living creature that moveth in the waters, and of every creature that creepeth upon the earth: To make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten.
By eating those animals which were allowed and not eating those forbidden Israel would sanctify themselves, that is set them selves apart for God. They would under the OC find acceptance from God, but the idea of clean and unclean spread to that of the company people kept. The Jews of the 1st century in particular were very strict and applied the principle to keeping company with Gentiles. The very strict ones would consider themselves unclean even if they entered a Gentile building eg. Jn.18:28
Readers of the New Testament know what separation Pharisaical Jews made between themselves and heathens. It will be readily understood, that every contact with heathenism and all aid to its rites should have been forbidden, and that in social intercourse any Levitical defilement, arising from the use of what was “common or unclean,”
Sketches of Jewish Social life : Alfred Edersheim Chapter 2
It must be remembered that all this was done in order to find acceptance with God. We in the NC know that all these rituals were only a shadow of the true and have many typical meanings attached to them. However, the Jews under the OC did not know that, and they thought that these acts of observance actually bought and brought favour with God. Such was the mindset in those days.
The vision to Peter in Acts 10 was unmistakable and clear, God had told him that He had cleansed the ‘common meats’ and so they were no longer forbidden. Peter understood what God was telling him as soon as the party from Cornelius had arrived, and that is he was not to call the Gentiles unclean.
And he said unto them, 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.
So no longer were the Gentiles to be unclean, Jews were no longer forbidden to keep company with them, such distinctions had been abolished. Peter had learned a vital truth, and it is this truth that he went back from.
E1.2 The fear of man
Peter was at Antioch and there ate with the Gentiles, but certain men came from James and when they appeared Peter, separated himself from them. The underlining Greek implying that this was not a one-off incident, but rather a pattern of behaviour that Peter was engaging in. What was he thinking? We are told that he feared the Jews! Peter’s character before new birth is well known, that is: impetuous and fearful, Here it seems that, because of fear, Peter jumps into an act of folly and falls back into the walk of the flesh.
Let’s look at one incident in the gospels that shows Peter’s natural character:
…. And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. …. And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth His hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased. Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.
Jesus walks on the water, Peter in his impetuous manner asks permission to do the same. After he is bidden he does so, but then when he sees the waves round about him he fears and doubts and falls. This is a picture of what happened in Gal.2. Peter when he saw the waves, as it were, of those from Jerusalem, he feared and began to sink. Doubts arose and he began to compel the Gentiles to be Jews, in order to be accepted.
We can not know what was going through his mind, but here is one possibility: James was well respected (just consider these scriptures Acts.12:17;15:13;21:18) and Peter was resident in Jerusalem before moving to Antioch, so he was well acquainted with the people from there. When he met those from James (though not actually sent by him) Peter could easily have thought of how it would look to the church, and James in particular, at Jerusalem if they found himself eating with Gentiles! So he separated from the Gentiles. He made the Gentiles to live like the Jews, and caused others too to dissemble and follow his lead.
We then have these downward steps .
1. Fear of men
2. Moving away from the revelation of God
3. Walking in the flesh
4. Laying down burdens for others
5. Causing others to follow the error.
No wonder Paul found it necessary to rebuke Peter!
It starts with fear! Afraid of what others may say or think. Had Peter forgotten the scriptures, or what he heard the Lord say whilst on earth?
The fear of man bringeth a snare: but whoso putteth his trust in the LORD shall be safe.
And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
Peter had defaulted to his natural flesh behaviour, for it was this fear of men that brought his denial of the Lord Jesus those three times. Why was he fearful? Because of what others may think? Of loosing his reputation? We’re not told but the truth is any thing that brings fear of man is not right. We are to beware lest our natural inclinations lead us to fear men and experience a snare being wrapped around us and ending up in bondage.
Peter moved away from the revelation God gave to him before visiting Cornelius, fear seemed to rob him of that which he was taught of God. Peter then began to compel the Gentiles to walk as Jews, and because of his standing amongst the early church, others including Barnabas were carried away! Peter’s actions began to set a precedent, thus bringing in a distinction between Jews and Gentiles, which God had done away with This made something other than Christ the condition of fellowship, in other words trying to gain acceptance by an outward law. Thus it became a tradition of the elders, and made the word of God of no effect, and making the gospel message a false one – one based on the flesh and not of the Spirit.
It is so easy to condemn Peter and say he should have known better, but scripture is not given for us for that purpose, rather it is given for our instruction in righteousness. So what we have here is a pattern of what can happen when legalists get amongst God’s people. Even those seemingly right with God can be led astray and cause others to do so as well. What happened to Peter is there as a warning to us all! And it will happen with us too: once allowed the fear of man will drown out what God has said, by the storms of inward turmoil, we will then begin to sink , like Peter, and we then will not be able to walk aright before God.
It is an interesting question that we could all ponder: if our big mistakes in the Christian faith were written in a book for millions to read, analyse and past comment on, how would we feel? Yet that is what has happened to Peter. The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to pen these words as a warning to all his people for all times. Yet if we leave it there we will not have the complete picture.
At the Jerusalem conference Peter gets up to say this:
And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as He did unto us; And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.
He had been restored and was now proclaiming the gospel he had perverted for a short time! There is no record of any of the other apostles holding this against Peter; it had been dealt with and forgiven, and they moved on. Oh, that we would be as gracious so that when a brother/sister repents of a sin we put it behind and never hold it against them. Sadly, that it is not so in many cases. It is sad to reflect that often when Christians fall, and genuinely repent those around say they accept the repentance, but remain suspicious of them, and will never fully trust them again! It’s a good thing God doesn’t deal with us like that!
But Peter too was gracious.
And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.
The aged apostle calls Paul, their beloved brother, even though he had recorded Peter’s failing in Galatians one of, if not, the earliest epistles to be written! The grace and forbearance of these men of God, is an example to us all!