To me, this is one of the most shocking set of verses in the entire Bible. Let’s go over what it says (and doesn’t say), and then we’ll wrestle with some of the implications.
Remember the whole purpose of this letter/epistle. Some false teachers had been teaching that in order to be righteous before God, you needed more than faith in Christ; you needed to follow the Law of Moses as well, specifically re: circumcision, the Sabbath, the dietary laws, and the holy days.
Let me take a moment here to clarify what the issue was not. There are Messianic Jews, who because of their culture/background and because of the people they’re trying to reach (fellow Jews), actually hold to the standards mentioned above: They practice circumcision, they worship on Saturdays, they keep to the dietary laws, and they observe the holy days (like Yom Kippur). Are they wrong? Are they sinning? I don’t think so. Some confused individuals among them might have slipped into the legalism which Paul was fighting, but officially—to my understanding as an outsider—they’re using this as a means to reach other Jews (as Paul did), and they see themselves as justified by faith in Christ alone (or faith in Yeshua the Messiah, as they'd call him). They see following the customs of their fathers as a way of pointing to Yeshua and glorifying him, not as a means of righteousness before God.
But today’s passage describes—what appears to me—one of the greatest and most insidious dangers the early church faced. I’m a little surprised there’s not more attention paid to it than there is. Let’s let this sink in for a moment. When Paul is talking about “Cephas,” btw, he’s referring to Peter. Yes, that Peter. The leader among the twelve. The one who was the main spokesman for the church on Pentecost, the one who preached a sermon in which 3000 people stepped forward to proclaim faith in Jesus. This is the one who officially opened the door to the Gentiles in Acts chapter 10, and who gave a stirring defense of his actions in chapter 11. Ponder that last sentence again please.
But here we see a different Peter. He was fellowshiping with Gentiles just fine in Antioch, eating with them, visiting and staying in their houses, etc. But then certain men came “from James” (possibly only claiming to be from him), and they believed that you did need to follow Mosaic Law to be right with God (completely contra the official findings of the first church council). And Peter. . .gave in to cowardice. There’s no more charitable way to interpret vs. 12: “he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.” So he started distancing himself from Gentile believers and avoiding them in order to placate the Judaizers.
Mentioned also in this passage is Barnabas. I’ve mentioned before that one of my favorite heroes in the Bible is this guy, one of my unsung heroes. He introduced and vouched for the newly converted Paul before the church, and he accompanied Paul on several mission trips. I thoroughly believe he’s one of the most underrated characters noted in the Scriptures.
What’s one of my favorite sayings from Alistair Begg? “The best of men are men at best.” Peter had faced down dangers much graver than this: Criticism from pseudo-believers who were preaching heresy? Really?! This is the man who stood before the Sanhedrin, and when they told him to shut up about Jesus, told them point-blank “We must obey God rather than human beings"?!
But he had—in this case—listened to his fears and acted in a shameful way. He'd preached and taught the Good News for years, and now he was living publicly in a way that denied what he’d been proclaiming.
Peter knew better than this. Peter was better than this. But he put on a false front, a “mask” (remember, that’s what hypocrisy literally is) in order to impress these jokers. And he wasn’t alone; he dragged other good men into it. Peter had incredible authority and credibility based on being an apostle—rivaling Paul in prominence—and his behavior could start a chain reaction which could cause incomprehensible harm to the work of the Kingdom. Barnabas—the aforementioned hero—had been caught up in this reprehensible behavior. If he could fall into this, how many more could?
When someone of this much prominence—a titan of this stature--acted this way, it would take another titan to do something about it. So Paul bravely called him on it. Publicly.
Here’s what I glean from this:
· To delve a little more deeply into the implications of this story, we need to understand that although we believe the Scriptures are without error, that in no way means that the men who wrote the Scriptures were without error in their personal lives. Paul still struggled with sin in his life as he was writing the epistles which are part of the New Testament. No one (save Christ) is sinless in this world. When Peter was writing (what we know as) First Peter and Second Peter, the Holy Spirit was overseeing it to make sure his writings didn’t contain any errors. That infallibility didn’t extend to personal decisions he made outside that process of writing Scripture.
· We can’t be afraid to call out leaders who are publicly spreading error, especially on nonnegotiables like the Message of salvation by faith in Christ plus nothing. If they aren’t called to account, they'll bring others down with them. Count on it.
· Fear can make a good man do reprehensible things. Why did Peter give in to this? Fear of what other people think. It goes back to what we discussed yesterday: You can make pleasing people your priority, or you can make pleasing God your priority, but you can’t do both. They’re incompatible. C. S. Lewis said “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.”
So what about you and me? Do we give in to fear of what other people think, or do we fear our Father’s frown and long for his smile? Which will it be?
Father, I invest way too much energy and thought into worrying what others think, when there’s only One whose opinion counts, or at least should. Please forgive me when I do this, and help me refocus on what’s really important.
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