CALLED TO LIVE IN FREEDOM

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NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

by Dr. Robert R. Seyda

PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIAN CONGREGATIONS OF BELIEVERS

CHAPTER TWO (Lesson XXIII)

Writing on the subject of this dissembling of the Jews from the Gentiles in Antioch, Alvah Hovey sees no evidence that Peter invited anyone to join him, not even Barnabas or Paul. It is even possible that Peter got some immediate negative feedback when deciding on that action. But he brushed it off as not really being important at the moment. No doubt he didn’t realize his actions could be used with tremendous effect by zealots for the law, and for a brief period it seemed as if a great wave of Jewish ritualism were about to sweep away the landmarks of the new Christian congregation, as if the “form of godliness” were to take the place of its power, and pretense get the upper hand over sincerity. But by the good providence of God, there was on the ground a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” whose grasp of principles, and foresight of consequences, and courage in asserting the truth, were equal to the emergency. It was for him to wrest the victory from those who must think themselves to be already in full possession of this fledging New Way.[1]

I like the way J. B. Lightfoot (1828-1889) paraphrases this section: “At Jerusalem, I owed nothing to the Apostles who promoted circumcision. I maintained my independence and equality. At Antioch, I was more than an equal. The leading Apostle of the circumcision crowd betrayed the cause of the Gentiles by his inconsistency. He timidly yielded to pressure from the ritualists. The rest were carried away by his example. Even Barnabas, my colleague, the friend, and Apostle of the Gentiles went astray. Alone I stood up in defense of the liberty of the Gospel. This was not done in a corner. The whole congregation of Antioch is my witness.”[2]

In Charles Spurgeon’s (1828-1892) opinion, it must have been very painful to Paul’s feelings to come into open conflict with Peter, whom he greatly esteemed. Yet, for the truth’s sake, Paul bowed to no person, and he withstood even a beloved brother when he saw that he was likely to pervert the simplicity of the Gospel and rob the Gentiles of their Christian liberty. For this, we ought to be very grateful to our gracious God who raised up this brave champion, this beloved Apostle of the Gentiles.[3] Spurgeon was no doubt aware of how difficult it was for any minister to openly confront another minister on what they see as a violation of ethics, virtues, or Scriptural teachings.

August H. Strong (1836-1921), best known for His Systematic Theology, was discussing the problem of those who believe that some portions of the Scriptures were not written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He points out that one of the most inexcusable examples was Peter’s separating himself from the Gentiles at Antioch, which was a practical disavowal of his convictions by separating or withdrawing himself from the Gentile Christians. Here was no public teaching, but the influence of private example. But in this case, God did allow the error to be a final one. Through the agency of Paul, the Holy Spirit set the matter right.[4]

Then Strong goes on to say that the reason Paul resisted Peter at Antioch was “because he stood condemned” But Peter differed from Paul, not in public utterances, nor in written words, but in following his own teachings. Personal defects do not invalidate an ambassador, though they may hinder the reception of their message. So, with the apostles’ not knowing of the time of Christ’s second coming. It was only gradually that they came to understand Christian doctrines in full; they did not teach the truth all at once; their final utterances supplemented and completed the earlier, and all together furnished only that measure of knowledge which God saw needful for the moral and religious teaching of mankind. Many things are yet unrevealed, and many things which inspired men uttered, even though they did not completely understand when they uttered them.[5]

Samuel Pearson (1849)[6] in The Biblical Illustrator carries an interesting comment on the traditional physical attributes of Peter and Paul. He calls it one of the most remarkable events in sacred history. Tradition tells us Paul was a man of small stature, bearing the marked features of the Jew, yet not without some of the finer lines in Greek thinking. His head bald, his beard long and thin; a bright gray eye, overhung by somewhat contracted eyebrows; whilst a cheerful and winning expression of countenance invited the approach and inspired the confidence of strangers. Peter is represented as a man of larger form and stronger build, with dark eyes, a heavily suntanned leathery complexion after spending so much time on the water, and short hair curled black and thick around his temples. At the meeting here mentioned Judaism and Christianity were brought face to face. In verses 14-16 we the case of Gospel versus Law.[7]

Joseph Beet contends that Paul’s use of Cephas to identify Peter was not a slip of the tongue or done in any derogatory manner. Peter was the Greek name by which the Apostle was known among the Gentiles. Cephas was the Hebrew name by which he was known among the Jews. So, in a subliminal way, Paul is talking of the Apostle to the Jews who knew him by his Hebrew name of Cephas. Beet feels that this name, Cephas, was in the local sense and reveals Peter’s influence in the congregation at Jerusalem, to which these other individuals sent by James belonged. This also then reflects the control that James exercised over the congregations in Jerusalem and Judea. But it also served as a way of saying that Paul represented the Gospel of Grace being preached and accepted by the Gentiles, while Peter represented the Legal Gospel as being preached and accepted by the Jews.[8]

Cyril Emmet points out that the phrase in verse twelve concerning Peter that “he did eat with the Gentiles,” (KJV); “he used to eat with the Gentiles,” (NIV), contains a Greek imperfect verb synesthiō which shows that it was a regular practice of his to eat with Gentiles when he visited them. Peter’s vision taught him that he needed to put away his old habits and no longer treat the Gentiles as being unclean and the fool they ate as unclean.[9] This helps us see then that when the delegation sent there by James arrived, Peter decided to eat with them instead of the Gentiles.[10] So it is no wonder Paul called Peter by his Hebrew name, Cephas. The Aramaic Version makes it plain that Peter was already in Antioch eating with the Gentiles before the group sent by James arrived. It reads: “Before men from James came, he ate among the Gentiles. But when they came, he separated himself, for he feared those who were from the circumcised group.”[11]

Philip Ryken. in his folksy way. tells us that James sent the “James gang” to Antioch not just to check on how well they were doing in response to the letter that the Council sent earlier, but to check up on Peter. Their motivation was no doubt that these Jewish Christians in Antioch became extremists and were all in with their Gentile brothers. As former Pharisees, the “James Gang” were strict Jewish conservatives when it came to the traditions of their roots. They merely Christianized their Jewish rites, rituals, and ceremonies. Once they arrived, they noticed how lax Peter was when it came to old traditions. He was almost behaving like a pagan! There he was, sitting down with unwashed, uncircumcised Gentiles. They were surprised that roasted pork was not on his plate. But by the time they got through dressing Peter down for his conduct, he did an about-face. So, at the next meal, he went with the Jewish contingent to the other side of the fellowship hall. It was pure peer pressure that caused him to do it.[12]

Ronald Fung also paints a picture to help us understand the reason for this meal and how it inadvertently played a role in the dispute. During his visit to Antioch, Peter sat at the table and ate with the Gentile Christians, as Barnabas and the rest of the Jewish Christians in Antioch were doing. The expression “taking his meals” no doubt includes a reference to participation in the Lord’s Supper – the Eucharist and the community love-feast were closely linked together,[13] – would however restrict all meals exclusively or even primarily to the Eucharist, and this might unduly narrow the meaning of the original verb, which is quite general, and is not in accord with the equally general expression “live… like a Jew,” in verse 14b.

Fung continues to point out that these verses show that at the time of Peter’s visit it was already an established custom in the Antioch congregation for Jewish and Gentile believers to enjoy free table-fellowship with one another, apparently on an equal footing which knew no conditions or restrictions. The impression is given by our text thus goes against the assumption which is sometimes made that the fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians was facilitated by mutual consideration, with the Gentile believers continuing to keep a group of minimal rules such as the “precepts of Noah[14] which they already followed. Peter at first sat at the table and ate with the Gentile Christians, as Barnabas and the rest of the Jewish Christians in Antioch were doing.

Fung then states that the text further implies that Peter came into a situation which he found neither unusual nor uncongenial. By eating freely with the Gentiles Peter on his part was in effect declaring the Christian Jew as well as the Christian Gentile to be free from the law. That Paul found Peter’s behavior thoroughly agreeable (as verse 12a implies) indicates that the two Apostles were one in their general attitude towards the incorporation of Gentile Christians into the congregation. This happy state of togetherness was disrupted, however, when “certain persons” came from James.[15]

Here we also see how a small group can have such an impact on others that they feel impelled to join them. This not only comes from such simple things as what day of the week should be given to fasting but also to the interpretation of Scripture. That is how branch groups are formed and even the beginnings of cultism. All of this sometimes so cleverly cloaked by their acceptance of all the orthodox beliefs of Christianity, but put their twist on the interpretation of several doctrines. Almost all religious cult leaders were at one time part of orthodox Christianity. But they broke away because of what they call their “revelation of a deeper understanding” of the subject. Nonetheless, if it does not harmonize with the teachings of the Anointed One and the Apostles, it is to be called anathema.

[1] Hovey, Alvah: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 31.

[2] J. B. Lightfoot: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 238

[3] Charles Spurgeon: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[4] Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology, op. cit., Vol. 1, p.441

[5] Ibid. p. 395

[6] Author of, A Book for Advancing Christians, The Book Seller, A Newspaper of British and Foreign Literature, January 6, 1895, Religion and Theology, by Messrs. Kegan Paul, Tribune and Company, p. 884

[7] Ryle, J.C.; Exell, Joseph; MacLaren, Alexander; Moody, D.L.; Spurgeon, Charles. The Biblical Illustrator – Vol. 48, (Kindle Locations 4196-4201)

[8] Joseph Beet: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., p 46

[9] Acts of the Apostles 10:9-16

[10] Cyril Emmet: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 19

[11] Andrew G. Roth: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[12] Ryken, Philip Graham: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., (Kindle Location 1022-1031)

[13] See I Corinthians 11:20-22, 33ff

[14] Genesis 9:1-17

[15] Ronald Y. K. Fung: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 106-107

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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