by Dr. Robert R. Seyda



What confused the Gentile members the most was the fact that Peter associated with them as though he were a non-Jew himself, then, they felt betrayed that he suddenly turned back to his old Jewish ways.  In the face of those who came from James, Peter now appears to be a coward by not standing up for the same truth he preached to Cornelius and the thing for which God chided him in his vision on the rooftop of the Tanner’s house.[1] At that time Peter confessed to Cornelius and his household: “You understand that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit anyone who is not a Jew. But God showed me that I should not consider anyone unfit or say they are not pure.”[2] Lancaster sees a problem with what Peter said. He asks: “Was it unlawful?” He goes on to say that according to the Jewish law of the first century, Jews were not supposed to eat food, even kosher food prepared by a Gentile. The main reason was that Gentiles used food offered to idols, so they did not want to be accused of idolatry.

But when Peter visited Antioch, he saw how much things changed since his visit to Cornelius. Here Jewish and non-Jewish believers fellowshipped together without any restrictions. However, when the group from Jerusalem arrived, apparently they expressed their disapproval of such integration when it came to such things as eating together, because of the fear that the food the non-Jews brought, while it may not be part of any idol sacrifice, it may be of the kind that Jews were forbidden to eat, such as pork.  So, the entourage from James saw the opportunity to introduce the non-Jewish believers to kosher foods and the eating customs of Jews. If the non-Jews did not feel comfortable doing so, then the gracious Jewish believers would allow them to eat their food their way. In other words, Paul really needed no other reason to rebuke Peter than that he wanted to ensure that at the agape meal both the Jews and non-Jews could eat together in peace and not fear they were being discriminated against. And, since this delegation came from James, Peter decided to be a good host and eat with them.[3] I doubt if that was really the case, otherwise, a born and bred Jew like Paul would see it was as well.

Ambrosiaster concludes, no wonder Paul was so upset for what was being communicated to these non-Jewish believers who gave up all their heathen practices to become Christians and joined the spiritual family of Abraham, only to have their freedom taken away and in its place they were given something burdensome and ineffective as far as salvation was concerned.  He goes on to say that Paul shows by clear reasoning that the Galatians were being deceived into keeping laws by which no one is justified before God, even after those who were born as Jews abandoned the law and took refuge in the Anointed One as the true way to be justified. Paul says that no one is justified by the works of the law.  Whoever is justified will be justified by faith, just like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the other saints.[4]

Marius Victorinus, another early church writer, offers his insight by putting these words in Paul’s mouth: These Gentiles stayed true to the Gospel, accepting everything it says about how to live for God by faith, not by obedience to the Law as the Jews were doing. It was Peter and his fellow Jews who strayed from the Gospel, getting badly off-track on their way to reinterpreting Gospel. When Paul saw this, he immediately spoke to Peter in the presence of everyone, asking him why he as a Jew who lived side by side with Gentiles, now attempted to compel the Gentiles to Judaize? In Victorinus’ mind, Paul clearly understood that it was on account of Peter’s fearfulness that the Gentiles he befriended and preach to would be convinced that he was only pretending to be one of them. And Paul does not make such a charge so that Peter would be forced to say: “I was just pretending.”  What, then, does Paul charge him with? You’ve been living with Gentiles and are still living with Gentiles. But for you, it was merely a convenience so that you would be accepted by them as a friend and brother in the Anointed One. However, because of your pretense, many are deceived, therefore, you are guilty of hypocrisy. In fact, by your actions, you are compelling the Gentiles into being Judaized. Nevertheless, in saying this, Paul shows that he also understood Peter’s going along with the visiting Jews only by way of pretense, but he was none the less a hypocrite.[5]

When commenting on this incident, 9th Century Catholic theologian Haimo of Auxerre gives us a clue on the role of baptism during his days in church history. For him, when Paul says, if you, although though a Jew, he is referring to the fact that Peter was a Jew by birth and yet living like a Gentile. This does not mean Peter was worshiping idols, only that he did not believe one could be saved through circumcision but rather through baptism. Likewise, Gentiles were not being saved by circumcision but through baptism.[6] Perhaps, this idea of substituting water baptism to replace circumcision may have been developed earlier in the congregation in order to placate the Jews into believing that they were fulfilling the Law through baptism instead of circumcision in God’s eyes. But it does seem strange that none of Jesus’ disciples were baptized, only Jesus by John the Baptizer.[7]

But later on, during the Medieval period, Bruno the Carthusian offers another view on what Paul was really trying to accomplish by confronting Peter: For him, up to this point, it was enough for Paul to prove that he was not inferior to Peter and the others. Indeed, it was essential that he be their corrector. He emphasizes that no Christian believer should be compelled to adhere to the Law under any circumstances as a means of enhancing their salvation. That’s why he says that the Gentiles should by no means be forced to keep Jewish customs. Not only that, but those who are Jews by birth still follow Jewish manners and customs as part of their Christian faith, do so for no purpose. Therefore, Paul admits that he and other Jewish Christians were Jews by birth, born within the fold of Judaism, always attempting to keep the Law. That even though they were Jews they were still sinners by breaking Mosaic laws, whereas the Gentiles were sinners by breaking God’s laws. Bruno notes that Gentiles broke God’s laws by worshiping idols and practicing witchcraft. But didn’t the Jews do the same in the shadow of Mount Horeb in Sinai? So, in effect, when standing before, Jews and Gentiles were all alike as sinners.[8]

This same commentator goes on to point out that the Gentiles in their worship involved the flesh through offerings, sometimes human sacrifices and earned money through temple prostitution.  Meanwhile, the Jews also employed sacrifices, but only animal offerings, and earned money through rites and rituals involving purity.  So, bringing both sides together to accept Jesus as the One who fulfilled the need for all sacrifices, and that all these other things were no longer needed or effective, was a task to no doubt often brought sharp disagreements. This gave a reason for Medieval commentator Robert of Melun to opine that Paul made it clear that we are justified by faith and not by works of the Law. For those things that we firmly trust in by faith we also love with the same certainty, that is, people are surely justified by love. The works of the Law are brought about by fear and for the sake of temporal rewards. The precepts of the Law are capable of restraining only the hand, however, not the will; this means that exterior actions do not justify inward doubt. The Apostle, therefore, holds that these things are opposed to one another: namely, justification by the Law against justification by faith.[9]

Early church theologian Thomas Aquinas offers an interesting description of being a sinner. He says: “It is one thing to sin and another to be a sinner. For the first names an act, but the second a readiness or habit of sinning.” This is why the Scriptures are in the habit of calling the godless and those loaded down with the heavy burden of sin, sinners. No doubt, that is the reason why the Jews, therefore, being egotistical on account of having the Law, and as it were, restrained from sin by it, called the Gentiles worse sinners, living as they were without the Laws’ restraint and being prone to sin. When, therefore, the Apostle says that the Jews were not Gentiles sinners, he means they were the type of sinners found among Gentiles.[10] In other words, once a person is delivered from the bondage of sin, they are no longer referred to as sinners, but children of God. Do God’s children sometimes sin by being disobedient to His Word and His Will? Certainly, but John says: “If we say that we do not sin, we are fooling ourselves, and we are being untruthful. But if we confess that we sinned, God will forgive us. We can trust God to do this. He always does what is right. He will make us clean from all the wrong things we did.”[11]

Martin Luther makes an interesting comment here when he says that Paul was comparing the Law on earth with the Gospel in heaven. That way we call the righteousness of the Gospel heavenly, and the righteousness of the Law earthly. So, while Peter was obeying the earthly Law concerning food and drink, he was violating the heavenly Gospel of all things being pure unless they conflict with one’s conscience. So that raises the question, did Peter side with the James’ delegation because of his conscience, or was it a case of him showing bias for the Jewish contingent and contempt for the Gentile membership? Paul knew what it looked like to him and he confronted Peter about it. Luther goes on the suggest that Peter wasn’t really responding to any compunction of conscience, rather he decided to pretend to be Jewish on the matter of food and drink which was very hypocritical.[12]

Reformer Calvin sums up the Protestant view by pointing out that the truth of the Gospel is used here by Paul, in the same way, he used it before and is contrasted with those disguises by which Peter and others concealed its beauty. In such a case, the struggle which Paul maintained must unquestionably be a serious issue. They were perfectly in harmony with the Gospel. But since, putting all doctrine aside, Peter yielded too submissively to the Jews, he was, therefore, accused of being out of line. There are some who apologize for Peter on other grounds because by being the Apostle to the Jews he bound to be especially concerned about their salvation. However, they do admit that Paul did right in pleading the cause of the Gentiles. Still, it is foolish to defend what the Holy Spirit by the mouth of Paul already condemned. This is not something for ordinary people to figure out, it involves keeping the Gospel pure and holy.[13]  So Paul was not so much interested in putting down Peter, as he was in lifting up the Gospel.

But Calvin makes this point: When looking at Paul’s discipline of Peter at Antioch for siding with the Jews to the determent of the Gentiles, we must see the difference between disciplining a person in the pulpit and the people in the pew. We are told by Jesus as well as Paul himself that we must first try to discuss the matter in private.[14] But when it comes to those who do not take the first correction to heart and continue to show disobedience, then Paul says that they should be rebuked in the presence of all.[15] So this may be a clue as to why Paul chose to confront Peter in front of everyone. But at the same time, what Jesus said was not dealing with private sins, but open and public sins. That’s why we must understand what Paul mentions here in verse as a rebuke due to open sins for which Peter got scolded once before.[16] [17]

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

[2] Ibid. 10:28

[3] D. Thomas Lancaster: On Galatians, op. cit., pp. 84-87

[4] Ambrosiaster, ibid.

[5] Marius Victorinus, op. cit., loc. cit.

[6] Haimo of Auxerre: The Letter to the Galatians (Medieval Bible Commentary series), op. cit., loc. cit.

[7] See John 4:1-2

[8] Bruno the Carthusian:  The Letter to the Galatians (Medieval Bible Commentary series), op. cit., loc. cit.

[9] Robert of Melun:  The Letter to the Galatians (Medieval Bible Commentary series), op. cit., loc. cit.

[10] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit.

[11] 1 John 1:8-9

[12] Martin Luther: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 38

[13] John Calvin: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[14] Matthew 18:11-15

[15] 1 Timothy 5:20

[16] Acts of the Apostles 10:11

[17] John Calvin: Institutes, op. cit., Vol. 4, Ch. 12, p. 1258

About drbob76

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