by Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Current Bible commentator Robert Gundry takes this occasion to point out that by Paul facing down Peter, the leading Apostle among the original twelve, it gives us ample evidence that Peter’s status as a celebrity in the congregation did not make one bit of difference to him. As Gundry sees it, the truth of the Gospel mattered more to Paul than celebrity status did. In the first-century culture, eating with someone was another way of accepting each other, even a form of bonding. So, Peter’s eating with uncircumcised Gentile Christians signified his acceptance of them as fellow Christians, even if they did not practice Jewish ceremonial laws.

After all, he hadn’t insisted on the circumcision of Titus when Paul took him up to Jerusalem. This behavior showed that Peter truly did believe in the Gospel of Grace without the inclusion of Mosaic Law. So subsequently withdrawing himself from the table fellowship with Gentile Christians and separating himself away from them constituted hypocrisy, which means, playing a part that doesn’t represent one’s true self.[1] Gundry sums it up by pointing out that this same Peter compromised his relationship with the Anointed One after our Lord’s arrest, by denying three times that he knew Him.

In this dispute, it is the Apostle Peter who carries the major burden of guilt. Even the vision of the sheet let down from heaven on the rooftop was good for only one visit to the house of the Gentile believer Cornelius. Paul saw the hypocrisy involved and rightly confronted the great Apostle Peter.  It would appear that Peter took the criticism with the right spirit. But I wonder if the bias of Peter is still alive today among the brethren, but exhibited in different forms. Are you sure that the person you sit next to in the pew; the person that you serve alongside as an usher or choir member, will treat you with the same open camaraderie when you meet them in their office or their place of business, and will they acknowledge you with the same joy at some social event of their peers? There is no place for such bias in the body of the Anointed One. We were all washed with the same blood; our names were all written down in the same book, and we are all bound for the same heaven.

On another occasion, Paul confessed, “You made me act like a fool—boasting about myself like this. You ought to be the ones writing commendations for me, for I am not at all inferior to these ‘super-apostles,’ even though I am nothing at all. When I was with you I certainly gave you proof that I am an apostle; I never quit doing my best so that many signs and wonders and miracles would be performed among you.”[2] Some psychologists claim that Paul is being very ironic in pointing out how unimpressed he was with Peter, James, and John who allowed themselves to be thought of as “super-apostles.” They suggest this is Paul’s attempt to show that he is equal to them in every way, if not better.

I stood in the lobby of a hotel in downtown Fort Worth, Texas while attending an international convention. I observed high-level delegates sitting and chatting while I visited with a friend.  All of a sudden, I heard shouting. I looked over toward a couch about twenty feet away from where I saw a high-ranking leader yelling at a black valet cleaning up empty glasses and trash from the coffee tables and side-tables. This neatly dressed African-American looked puzzled hearing the minister bark out, “You touched my wife’s leg and I want you to say you’re sorry! You hear me! I said; say you’re sorry for hitting my wife’s leg and don’t ever do it again!”

I instantly felt the urge to do one of three things: either turn away in disgust; go up to the black gentleman and tell him I was sorry for such an outburst; or go over to the high-ranking minister and tell him what a fake Christian he was. Before I could do anything, the kind valet stopped what he was doing and with a calm voice apologized to the minister’s wife, telling her he didn’t mean any harm. He then continued cleaning up, making sure he did not come close to this minister or his wife. By that time, I recovered from my shock, I went directly to the valet and expressed my own apology for the treatment he received and let him know that not everyone in the lobby felt the same way this high-level official did.

I know what you are thinking, why didn’t I challenge this official like Paul confronted Peter. For one thing, there were higher-level officials there who could have spoken out, and maybe later they did so in private. Another thing was, I did not want to appear as some “nobody” taking an opportunity to make myself look important so that I would be patted on the back. The Apostle Paul’s personality is different from mine; he’s certainly an Alpha male, a sort of in-your-face type of guy. He did what came naturally to him. But most of all he did it at the urging of the Holy Spirit. I say that the urge I felt was anger that such a nice gentleman was being treated discourteously by supposed Christian’s full of God’s love.

But to Paul’s credit, it never boiled down to personal issues but only in defense of the Gospel. Here we see Peter traveling from Jerusalem to the city of Antioch to see how Paul and Barnabas and the first Christian congregation outside Judea were doing. At first, Peter made himself at home by sitting down with Paul and the new Gentile converts to eating the agape banquet with them.  Paul, the educated Pharisee that he was, knew that no self-respecting Jew would ever do such a thing unless he was persuaded by a higher power.  So, he was proud of his buddy, the Rock. I imagine that he told the Gentile believers what a great man of God Peter proved himself to be for such humility and genuine the Anointed One-like attitude.

But then an ill wind blew into the gathering. Some additional delegates sent by James from Jerusalem arrived (Maybe it was some of those mentioned in Acts).[3] That’s when Paul saw something that made his hypertension skyrocket. When it came time for dinner these Jewish delegates went off into another room away from the Gentiles to eat. To Paul’s amazement, Peter excused himself from where the Gentiles were eating and went over and joined the delegates who separated themselves. On top of that, then Paul’s friend Barnabas, along with the Jewish members of the Antioch congregation, broke off and went over and joined the Jewish group as well, leaving Paul and the Gentiles to eat alone. I’m sure that almost ruined Paul’s day.

Paul uses a very insightful verb here in Greek for “broke off,” synypokrinomai.  It means to “dissemble, to take apart,” like disassembling a chair or bicycle, especially with group participation. It is a perfect word to describe the actions of Peter’s hypocritical attitude. The congregation at Antioch assembled in unison, now Peter’s action disassembled them into factions. Furthermore, it helps understand how the word Hupokrites (hypocrisy) was used here by Paul.  It refers to an overly nitpicking, hair-splitting, critical, and religiously legalistic type of person.

While hypocrisy was considered a despised moral failure in Jewish literature and teachings, there is the possibility that Paul was aware of how it was viewed in the Greek writings of his day. During Plato’s era, being looked up to stood as one of the chief incentives for displaying moral virtues, and to most men, when your fellowman holds a high opinion of you that is the main motivation for such virtues to be seen. Unfortunately, this often led to the exposure of a certain element of character in which men developed the desire to appear better than they really were in order to win the esteem and admiration of others. Therefore, the Greeks warned that any man could use his ability to easily pretend he was good just by using religious language putting on religious virtues.

They also taught that there was such a thing as unconscious, as well as, conscious hypocrisy.  According to Socrates, conscious hypocrisy is the worst of the two.  In other words, one knows it’s wrong, but does it anyhow. Paul knew Peter was not making an unconscious error. His breaking away from the Gentiles to eat with the Jewish delegates in order to appear pious to them was a deliberate act of discrimination, not one that happened accidentally. No wonder Paul was furious.

When Paul inquired as to what was going on, instead of hearing that Peter and Barnabas were actually trying to teach these Jewish delegates that they could no longer discriminate against Gentile believers; that we are all part of God’s congregation and brothers in the Anointed One, he discovered instead that Peter was actually afraid that these delegates might go back to Jerusalem and tell James that they saw him eating with Gentiles and that would really cause trouble for him when he returned. You talk about an abrupt paradigm shift! Today we refer to this as being two-faced. Even though Paul wasn’t there when Peter denied our Lord three times, perhaps he now understood how it could happen. In the Spirit, Peter was a man of granite, but in the flesh, he was baked mud!

The great reformer Martin Luther was under great stress for his stance against the legalism of the Catholic congregation. He spoke of his circumstances this way: “For defending the truth in our day, we are called proud and obstinate hypocrites. We are not ashamed of these titles. The cause we are called to defend is not Peter’s cause, or the cause of our parents, or that of the government, or that of the world, but the cause of God. In defense of that cause, we must be firm and unyielding.”[4]

Certainly, it is easy to criticize Peter here but think about the times we’ve been weak in the knees. We all know what it feels like to do something we know is not in keeping with what we profess to believe. Everyone relates to the conviction they feel when they end up doing something even unbelievers are asked not to do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wadded up a wrapper or piece of paper while walking or driving and shoved it into my pocket because I knew it was not right to litter. However, I do confess to throwing an apple core out the car window into the countryside because I knew it was biodegradable. Like Peter, we all know what it feels like when social pressure or lack of discipline pushes us to compromise in some way.

In spite of all the commentary and exposition written on this encounter between Paul and Peter, and the apparent disconnect between what Peter did at Cornelius’s house and what he did in Antioch, there is still a sticking point that many Messianic Jews cannot reconcile. As one non-Jewish convert explains it, the traditional Christian interpretation of this passage presupposes that Paul and the Jewish believers with him gave up Judaism and the practice of Torah. So when Paul saw Peter being indecisive on this matter by going back to Jewish dietary laws, he rebuked him for Judaizing – that is to say that Paul rebuked Peter for backsliding from salvation by grace back to salvation by good works.[5] I do not know what traditional Christian interpretation he had in mind, but from my reading and studies, most Evangelical Bible scholars’ interpretation is that Peter was being a hypocrite. In my mind, the only way Jewish kosher laws and feast celebrations become any problem for believers in Jesus as the Anointed One is when they are touted as being necessary to obtain or maximize the salvation one received through Jesus the Anointed One.

[1] Robert H. Gundry: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Location 397-421

[2] 2 Corinthians 12:11-12

[3] See Acts of the Apostles 15:5

[4] Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 36

[5] D. Thomas Lancaster: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit. p.80

About drbob76

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