This account ranks high as one of the most shocking and saddest scenes in our New Testament. In its fuller context you may scratch your head at Peter’s behavior, his bad leadership, and his hypocrisy. How bad was Peter’s fall?
Martin Luther ranks this fall with some of the worsts ones in Scripture. In his Lectures on Galatians (1535), Luther’s Works he writes:
Samson, David, and many other celebrated men who were full of the Holy Spirit fell into huge sins. Job (3:3ff.) and Jeremiah (20:14) curse the day of their birth. Elijah (1 Kings 19:4) and Jonah (4:8) grow tired of life and pray for death. Such errors and sins of the saints are set forth in order that those who are troubled and desperate may find comfort and that those who are proud may be afraid. No man has ever fallen so grievously that he could not have stood up again. On the other hand, no one has such a sure footing that he cannot fall. If Peter fell, I, too, may fall; if he stood up again, so can I.
Luther’s comfort helps but indirectly comes with a somber warning for us all. Even the greatest of men and women can and will fall and regularly. When they do, they can stand up again! But, far better to avoid a fall like this altogether.
So, how far was this fall? How serious was Peter’s sin? Answering this question unlocks why this story is here. Why this story opens up Paul’s main point. What you and I need to learn. The gospel records Peter’s history of mess ups.
- Peter walks on water, gets distracted and sinks.
- Peter affirms Jesus as the Christ only to try and prevent him from going to the cross. Jesus says get behind me, Satan.
- Peter sees the glory of Christ, along with Moses and Elijah, takes control, turning this into a three temple building project.
- Peter tries to prevent Jesus from washing his feet.
- Peter promises never to deny Christ, only to deny him three times cowering to a servant girl.
- Peter leaves the ministry to go back to fishing, discouraged by Christ’s death on the cross.
Peter’s sins are amazing occurring over and over again, all met with full restoration by the Lord. That said, this one comes later. This sin comes in Peter’s later stage of ministry when his influence as a leader is highest. And this perhaps makes this mess up the worst of them.
In fact, Paul, from a leadership standpoint is indirectly holding Peter responsible for what’s happened Galatian churches (cf. Gal. 3:1).
The sobering reality is: If Peter can stumble like this, so can we.
Prop: Paul explains his confrontation in Four phases
1. Bold confrontation (v. 11)
Understanding some context will help fill this story out. First, this scene isn’t time stamped so we don’t know how long it was between the Jerusalem Council and Peter’s arrival in Antioch. We also don’t know how long he was there. What we do know is that it was a long trek walking from Jerusalem to Antioch (nearly 500 miles, 18 days). So this was a sacrifice and new territory for Peter, being the founding church in a Gentile region. The way verse 11 begins, makes this a continuation of what had just happened. The “But when” immediately connects this event to the Jerusalem Council event. Meaning, not too much time had passed.
For Peter, one of the “pillars,” to come was like having a celebrity pastor join the fellowship. Paul and Barnabas were co-pastoring Antioch and as missionaries established this new wave Galatian churches in lower Asia Minor.
Based on his personal history with Jesus Christ and his leadership with establishing the early church through preaching, for Peter to come would have been a massive privilege! The picture is that of Peter, at first, dropping his guard and joining in with the fellowship. Peter’s love for these believers must have been powerful hearing their new found faith in the same Lord! Peter would have shared personal experiences he had had with Jesus and all the while laying down his prior adherence to Old Testament dietary laws etc. Peter was freely eating their kinds of foods. Then something happened warranting a decisive confrontation.
Paul’s confrontation was to say the least bold both in terms of how he confronted and to whom he confronted. Remember, this is Peter. This is the leader of leaders in the early church. Paul is undeterred. His authority was based on the Truth and he knew he needed to go right to the source and nip this in the bud. Though others were culpable, Peter was the ringleader.
The nature of confrontation was personal where Paul was speaking directly in Peter’s “face” or “presence” or “countenance.” Second, Paul did this out in the open, “before them all” (v. 14). This was beyond a private setting confrontation, as in the early stages of Matthew 18 or Galatians 6:1. As we shall see the public scale on which Peter was sinning and the level of leadership he was as an Apostle warranted this kind of confrontation.
1 Timothy 5:19-20 give clear instruction here. Public leadership calls for a stricter confrontation a leader’s sin affects the whole church.
Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.
Again, one larger theme continues to resurface in these first two chapters of Galatians. This is Paul having authority as an Apostle. Where does Paul’s authority lie? As we shall again see, it is always found in the Word of God, the gospel. Paul standing up to Peter yet again proves the only source of authority.
I regularly hear people question whether or not I think you have to have a seminary degree before you can truly know Scripture or can truly be used of God! My answer is always NO! God’s Word speaks of study not degrees. I’m for seminary but listen I first preached when I was 18. I learned to preach before I really learned to study. Your boldness should always flow from the Word! Not personality and not some kind of theological status.
Suffice to say, Paul was not in doubt as to why or what he did. Peter “stood condemned” knowing what he had done. The truth had brought about profound and conclusive clarity.
So the question remains, “How did things come to this?” “What brought us to this point?”
2. Gradual compromise (v. 12)
Peter’s compromise was gradual. Like most egregious sins they start small, growing into patterns, and if not curtailed end with significant compromise. This all began when James, another “pillar” in the church at Jerusalem sent “certain men” to follow on after Peter.
James again, the half-brother of Jesus, converted upon seeing Christ raised. He who authored for many their favorite New Testament book, called James. James who in there wrote, “For we all stumble in many ways” (Jas. 3:2), and because of whom James sent, this could be a clear example of this!
Being short of details, we don’t know why he sent them or if James was clear on the fact that they were still part of “the circumcision party” (v. 12). There’s no indication James sent them to intervene on Peter. Communication about such things would not have been easy. However, being part of the “circumcision party” meant they were not true believers, requiring “circumcision” and general law-keeping as requisite for salvation. They were who Paul earlier called “false brothers” (v. 4).
From our perspective as Christians it is probably difficult for us to grasp how Peter could side with these men. Wasn’t this all cleared up by now? Bear in mind that for Peter and for the entire church this was a massive transition. For us, we find ourselves based in New Testament Christianity that as roots two millennia deep.
We haven’t faced ceremonial dietary laws, what to eat or sacrifice, who we can marry or not based on ethnicity in terms of our relationship with God. However, Peter and James had. Their tradition then as Jews was twice that in terms of the history of the Law.
For Peter to have fellowship with Gentiles, and with the “nations” was radical. And his digression, according to the Greek verbs was gradual and incremental. He was “drawing back” and “separating” over their influence.
This “circumcision party” would have reminded Peter of the covenant Moses made with God when the Jews crossed Jordan into the promised land. Passages like Exodus 23 and Deuteronomy 7 commanded separation from pagan customs, foods, intermarrying, and idolatry. They may have cited Daniel and his three friends who “would not eat the king’s meat” (Dan. 1).
Still, why wouldn’t Peter discern what to do especially after the Jerusalem Council. Remember who was addressed there. The Gentiles. They were called to abstain from certain things and foods “polluted by idols” and from “sexual immorality” (Acts 15:20). Who were not addressed were the Jewish Christians, and especially those who still believed they should keep the Law. Where was Peter supposed to land in terms of his own conscience? This became a slippery slope for him. Even though Peter should have worked through all of this after seeing the three visions on Simon the tanner’s roof and experiencing Cornelius, the centurion’s, radical conversion, he was nevertheless still vulnerable (Acts 10).
What’s amazing is what made him vulnerable. His fear! This is something we should relate to. Peter wouldn’t have been concerned for his physical safety as if the Sanhedrin was coming for him. He was “afraid” of losing face. This was prideful fear. Peter’s leadership position was in jeopardy, at least in terms of Jerusalem and at this stage his position meant more to him then these new converts in Antioch.
Peter’s offense? In a word, “Indifference.” Peter didn’t make a public announcement not to eat with the Gentiles. No, he just fading out of their space. Passivity! So hurtful!
This is so counterintuitive to gospel boldness. Passivity! This is the opposite of 1 Timothy 1:7, “God has not given us a spirit of fear…”
3. Widespread repercussions (v. 13)
Sin on a broad scale always has ripple effects. What is the sin? Hypocrisy. Repeated twice in verse 13 this term originates from the Greco-Roman play actors who wore masks taking on the look and mood of certain characters.
For a Christian, this is a believer who has gospel convictions but is acting as if he doesn’t. The scene is set when you see the different groups represented now. You have believing Gentiles and Jews and unbelieving Jews, “false brothers” (cf. v. 4). Verse 13 introduces Jewish believers in Antioch who were being steered away by Peter.
What’s more significant is Barnabas. He who accompanied Paul on the first missionary journey, who lead the Gentile Galatian churches to Christ. This is another layer of quick compromise – Barnabas “was led astray” or “drifting” by their hypocrisy.
This is a picture of the power of temptation. Peer pressure draws people away from what they know to be true. Sin clouds judgment and people’s sin will influence you.
1 Corinthians 15:33 says, “Bad company corrupts good morals.”
4. Truth-based reasoning
Paul’s confrontation was bold but it’s important to understand that Paul wasn’t angry. There’s no hint of this especially how Paul spells this out in verse 14. Yes, Paul was public and personal with Peter but Paul was also reasonable.
Paul begins with straight up observation. He “saw their conduct” (v. 14). Paul literally making a “sweeping” observation that their conduct was not “walking in a straight line with the truth of the gospel” (v. 14). Notice Paul’s baseline for discerning right from wrong. Paul’s baseline was the truth and literally the gospel – what he spells out in verses 15-21.
Verse 16 summarizes his point, “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (v. 16).
At the end of verse 14 Paul rehearses Peter’s story back to him. Paul reminds Peter that he, as a Jew, had been “living like a Gentile” – living like the rest of the nations. And “not like the Jews” (v. 14).
Then Paul centers every back to legalism. Paul’s asking, “how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Paul’s chief concern was for the newest believers. Yes, Peter had swayed the Jews and Barnabas but what Paul’s concerned with were the Gentiles.
The word “force” was used in verse 3 – the “false brothers” wanted to “force” circumcision onto Titus and now Peter’s acting like them!
Peter’s hypocrisy had digressed from “indifference” to legalistic influence! Causing new believers to question themselves! Peter’s passivity was a powerful “force” against the gospel.
It’s easy to underestimate our influence especially when it’s passive. Passivity can really be poison in the home and church.
This is why we need the church. The Body of Christ. Our authority is found in Scripture but healthy Scriptural accountability comes from having other people around you!
So what happened when Paul took this stand?
Based on 2 Peter 3:15-16 Peter came to his senses!
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.
Peter loved Paul, admitting “the Lord had given Paul wisdom” and “inspired what Paul wrote as Scripture” (2 Pet. 3:16).
Paul was bold and God saw him through! The temptation to give in to passivity must have been great. Like Peter it would have been easy for Paul to just let all this go and be passive.
“Why didn’t he do that?” The Truth! And it’s work in people’s lives!