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 XXVI)

David’s son Solomon must have listened closely because he too passed on similar principles: “For the Lord gives wisdom. His words contain much learning and understanding. He makes wise thoughts available for those who are right with Him. He is there when needed for those who live right. He watches over the highway of holiness and keeps those who walk on it safe from mishaps. They will understand what is right and good, and right from wrong, and always know what they should do.”[1] Solomon goes on to say that this will make people’s heart, soul, and thinking safer. It will not be easy for anyone to mislead such a person. As long as you stay on the right path you’ll walk with confidence. But if you try to take a shortcut, everyone will end up knowing about it.[2]

But Paul is careful to make sure that the Galatians understand that only the Gospel sets the standard of what is right and what is wrong; what is good and what is bad; what is permissible and what is not permissible. He told the Romans that the Anointed One helped him understand that everything in itself is innocent. But if a person thinks something is not innocent, then to them it is not permissible.[3] This is also why Paul warned Timothy to be aware of those who say “Don’t get married,” or “Don’t eat this or don’t eat that.” Everything is permissible to believers as long as it does not violate the Word of God. So be thankful and make use of whatever God makes available to us. However, if we do not find it in the Word of God and we wouldn’t feel comfortable praying and giving thanks to God over if before we use it or get involved, then it’s best to leave it alone.[4]

These principles are what motivated Paul to confront Peter when he decided to go back to his old way of thinking and separated himself from the Gentile believers in Antioch so he could eat with the Jewish members and the delegation from Jerusalem. Paul may have taken his rebuke of Peter right out of the Torah where it says that while you should not be impolite to someone from your own country, don’t say anything impolite to those in whose country you live just because they are not Jews.[5] In other words, Peter entertained no reason to be inhospitable to his fellow Jews visiting from Jerusalem, but don’t use them as an excuse to be discourteous to the Gentiles there in Antioch.

Not only that, but Paul hoped that Peter would take the words of King David and apply them to himself. When some of David’s subjects pointed out what he did wrong, he said, “Let those who are doing what God says is right admonish me and speak strong words to me in kindness. It is like oil on my head. I don’t want to pull my head away. I have too always been against those things that are done wrong and against those who do them.”[6] To put it another way, Paul was hoping that Peter would also see that what he did was wrong and accept Paul’s rebuke like oil on his head.

Solomon also offered advice on how a person ought to respond when reprimanded for doing what they know is wrong. For Solomon, receiving a stern rebuke from a friend while others are watching is far better than when they decide not to do it because they love you too much. That’s because any embarrassment caused by a friend’s reprimand is a sign that they will stick by you, while compliments from someone who really doesn’t like you is like garbage.[7] Besides, what Paul was doing to Peter is exactly the same thing he instructed Timothy to do.[8]

I’m sure Paul wondered if Peter remembered what he said to Roman Captain Cornelius when he was sent there by God to share the Gospel, “You know it is against our Law for a Jew to visit a person of another nation. But God showed me I should not say that any person is off-limits. That’s the reason I came as soon as you sent for me.[9] Later on, when Peter returned to Jerusalem after his visit to Cornelius’ household, he told the story to the congregation in Jerusalem. Especially the fact that after he preached the Gospel to them, they were all filled with the Holy Spirit just like the Apostles in the Upper Room on the day of Pentecost. That’s when Peter said he thanked God for giving new life to the people who are not Jews. This new life is being sorry for one’s sins and turning away from them toward God.[10]

So that’s what upset Paul when he saw how Peter seemed to forget all about this and turned his back on the Gentiles the way he did. Furthermore, in their meeting in Jerusalem earlier, Peter himself stood up and rebuked those in the assembly who insisted that converted Gentiles should follow Jewish laws and customs: Why do you test God by putting too heavy a load on the back of the Gentile believers when it proves to be too heavy for our fathers or for us to carry, Peter scolded them.[11] This is what led to the letter being written excusing them from such requirements. And now Peter seems to have complete memory loss of these things.

After reading verse fourteen, it seems that early church scholar Tertullian just can’t get Paul off his mind. So, he again refers to the heretic Marcion who accepted the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians wherein he rebukes other Apostles for “not walking uprightly according to the truth of the Gospel,” as well as accuses certain false apostles of perverting the Gospel of the Anointed One in Galatia. So Marcion seems to think that Paul employs this same technique he practiced in destroying the character of all other Apostles and their gospels in order to establish his own Gospel, thereby taking credit away from them. But then, even if he censures Peter and John and James, who were thought to be pillars in the congregation, it is for an obvious reason.

It hurt Paul to see them compromising in their attitudes toward other believers. And yet as Paul himself “became all things to all men,” that he might gain all, it was possible that Peter also might have adopted the same plan as Paul’s of practicing somewhat different from what he taught.[12] In Tertullian’s mind, he sees one hypocrite – Paul, accusing Peter of being a hypocrite just like himself. In that case, they should be friends as hypocrites!

Speaking of Tertullian’s dislike for the way Paul handled this situation, it might be to our advantage if we visit some of what church history says about Tertullian. He received something of a mixed reaction in many Christian circles. They recognized him as a significant thinker and a major contributor to the Doctrine of the Trinity. But in his later years, he became associated with a movement known as Montanism[13] and seems to have separated himself from the church. In a theological work by the Christian Roman philosopher Lactantius written between 303-311 AD, we read where he said that Septimius Tertullianus proved to be skilled in the literature of every kind; but not competent in to express himself eloquently, not being a polished speaker and mostly unknown. As a result, he did not make himself very well-known.[14]

Augustine of Hippo gives his reasoning by explaining that it proved necessary for Paul to say this to Peter in front of everyone so that by rebuking Peter’s everyone might see the error that Peter made. It would not be as useful to correct Peter in private for an error he made out in public. There was the danger of Peter telling others something he said, that he knew he didn’t say. Augustine then adds that out of wanting to be faithful and show love, Peter was entirely willing to accept this rebuke from a junior shepherd for the good of the Antioch congregation. Moreover, it was by being rebuked by Paul that Peter offered a more admirable and difficult example to imitate.

Augustine admits that it is easy to see what we want to correct in others, but it must not be done by censure and criticism. However, it is not so easy to see what ought to be corrected in ourselves and then be willing to be corrected even by ourselves, let alone by another. Here Augustine sees in Peter’s action a great example of humility, which is the most valuable Christian character because by humility love is preserved. For nothing violates love more quickly than unbiased prejudice.[15]

Chrysostom tries to decipher Paul’s question to Peter: “If you, being a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, why are you compelling the Gentiles to live like a Jew?”  As Chrysostom sees it, the Jews were the ones guilty of hypocrisy, not the Gentiles. It was the Jews who were carried away together with Peter, not the Gentiles. So why did Paul include the Gentiles here instead of concentrating his remarks on what Peter and the isolationist Jews were doing? And why does he accuse Peter alone, when the rest of the Jews were just as guilty as he was?

Chrysostom gives his own answer to this cryptic statement. As he sees it, Paul’s object was to remove any suspicion of bias from his rebuke. To blame Peter for observing the Law meant being censured by the Jews for his boldness towards their Apostolic Teacher. But by taking the side of the Gentiles Paul makes it easier to accept what he is saying so that the Gentiles are the ones who felt offended, not the Jews.[16]  In other words, by Paul speaking on behalf of the Gentiles and directing the fault toward Peter alone, it became a personal matter between the two instead of a group matter, pitting the visiting Jews against the Gentile members of the Antioch congregation.

Ambrosiaster, a fellow early church writer of that same period in church history adds another factor. He believes that Paul lashed out only at Peter because the others would get the message from the one who was their chief.[17]  This leaves no doubt concerning the error Peter made by segregating the non-Jewish members of the Antioch congregation from the Messianic Jews who came from Jerusalem.  Ambrosiaster goes on to note that Peter cut himself off from Gentiles with whom he lived like a Gentile, but he went even further and using his example as a way of persuading the Gentiles to Judaize themselves because he was so afraid of what the Jews back in Jerusalem would say. As a result, the Gentiles really didn’t know what the truth was. For this early church commentator, it was incredulous that by his actions Peter was strongly suggesting that these non-Jews adopt Jewish ways.

[1] Proverbs 2:6-9

[2] Ibid. 10:9

[3] Romans 14:14

[4] 1 Timothy 4:3-5

[5] Leviticus 19:17

[6] Psalm 141:5

[7] Proverbs 27:5-6

[8] 1 Timothy 5:20

[9] Acts of the Apostles 10:28

[10] Ibid. 11:18

[11] Ibid. 15:10

[12] Tertullian: Ante-Nicene Fathers, op. cit., Bk 4, Ch 3, p. 628

[13] Montanism was an ascetic Christian sect that put great emphasis on prophecy, founded in Phrygia by the priest Montanus in the middle of the 2nd century.

[14] Divine Institutes: Ch. 1

[15] Augustine’s Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit.

[16] Chrysostom, Homilies on Galatians, loc. cit.

[17] Ambrosiaster: Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit.

About drbob76

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