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 XXIX)

Anglican theologian and Bishop of Durham, England, J. B. Lightfoot takes Paul’s admonition that Peter was not walking upright as a reference to a “line of direction,” not the intended goal. Lightfoot also questions whether or not what Paul says here about his confrontation are verbatim or did he just summarize it for the sake of keeping it short? Lightfoot also notes that the Greek adjective hamartōlos (KJV “sinners”) that Paul uses next in verse fifteen and later in verse seventeen as part of this narrative, marks the language of one Jew speaking to another. Lightfoot also noticed that by the end of this chapter Paul’s thoughts and language drifted away from Peter and the confrontation in Antioch to the Judaizers in Galatia. No doubt, that’s because it was on Paul’s mind as he responded to what he saw Peter doing.[1]

Paul’s stand here for the truth is reminiscent of Luther’s stand not to recant at the risk of losing his life. This is also seen in the life of John Hooper (1495-1555), Anglican Bishop of Gloucester, a Protestant reformer who was sentenced to be burned at the stake by Queen Mary the First, because of his stand against the Roman Catholic Church. So, a gentleman from his parish was sent to try and talk him into recanting and save his life. He told Hooper, “Life is sweet, and death is bitter.” But Hooper replied, “The death to come is more bitter, and the life to come is sweeter. I am come to the end of this life and am willing to die because I will not deny the truth, I previously taught you.” When he was brought to the stake to be burned, a box with a pardon from Queen Mary in it was set before him. But the determined martyr cried out, “If you love my soul, throw the pardon away! Do you hear me, if you love my soul throw the pardon away![2]

Joseph Beet, one of England’s top theologians writing in the Methodist and Wesleyan tradition points out that it wasn’t only the Gentile Christians who were under pressure, but Gentiles in general. Since many Jews were wealthy merchants and owned many slaves, even they felt compelled to comply with being circumcised in order to obtain and even keep their positions. In fact, in one story about Roman statesman, Lawyer, and Philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero who responded to the call for help from the Sicilians because of the plundering and extortion perpetrated by Gaius Verres, a Roman magistrate who was notorious for his misgovernment of Sicily, including extortion of local farmers and plundering of idol temples. So, Cicero decided to arrest him and put him on trial. In the process of calling witnesses, there was a freed slave named Cæcilius who the Sicilians wanted to call as a witness. Cicero was told that Cæcilius submitted to Jewish practices. Cicero asked somewhat bewilderingly, “What do Jews to do with swine?” This meant that Cæcilius was a Gentile to whom Jews paid little attention. But it also raised the question of why this Gentile practiced Jewish rites, rituals, and ceremonies?[3] While the question never got asked, it does suppose that Cæcilius did so in order to find favor with the Jews.

Beet’s point is that such persuasion by the Jewish majority was not a new thing. And once it took hold it was hard to get rid of. Another thing that Beet points out is that Peter’s previous conduct among the Gentiles was certainly in harmony with his convictions and, therefore, considered part of his normal lifestyle. So why all of a sudden was he acting abnormally? That was the whole point of Paul’s argument. In other words, “Peter, this is not like you! You don’t usually act this way? Why are you going back to what you used to be?” That’s all it took. Peter knew that Paul’s words were hurtful but true and it hit him very hard. And reading it now in the letter, the Galatians were also feeling its full force, in spite of their contrary action. As far as Paul was concerned, it was official. The Mosaic restrictions on food and drink for Christian believers were no longer binding.[4]

British Bible scholar Benjamin W. Bacon made the comment that there was no question of the Apostle Paul being charitable here, but there is a question of what principle was it based on. For a Christian Jew to eat with a Christian Gentile was either right or wrong. Which was it? In light of the Gospel, it was right, but if it’s based on who is or who is not present at the time, it’s wrong. It was downright embarrassing that a Gentile convert to Christianity was treated like a brother earlier, but now that some Jews arrived from Jerusalem, they are being treated as outcasts.[5] As Bacon put it, The whole point of Paul’s charge lies in the fact that it is a failure on Peter’s part not to stick with the fundamental spirit of the Jerusalem agreement of mutual non-interference. It would be hard to argue against this atrocious act on Peter’s part as nothing less than his clinging to his Jewish mode of life among Gentile believers in order to persuade them to adopt it as their own.[6]

Arno Gaebelein stated that when Peter refused to eat with the Gentiles he went back to the law and was thereby attempting to be justified by works; he was building the law again. But, previous to that, he abandoned the law as a means of justification before God and he believed in Jesus the Anointed One to be justified by faith before God, not by the works of the law. Peter knew that “by the works of the law no person is justified.” By building the system of the law again, which he gave up as unable to justify him, he made himself a transgressor, because he abandoned it in order to feel more comfortable with the delegation from Jerusalem. If Peter were to say that the Anointed One led him to do this – was the Anointed One then a minister of sin? In no way! In fact, it was the doctrine of the Anointed One that convicted him in giving up the Law; for in building it again and going back to it he acknowledged that he was wrong when he rejected it earlier as a means of justification. This is the argument of these verses.[7]

Cyril Emmet notes that Paul’s condemnation of Peter is based on the essential character of Christianity, not on any agreement made previously in Jerusalem by the Council. Peter’s prerogative included stating that it never crossed his mind to try and force the Gentiles to copy him by eating only kosher foods. It was a case of showing hospitality to the visiting Jewish delegation from the Apostle James. But this would prove to be a superficial argument. Paul envisioned the possible consequences on how the Gentiles viewed their place in the Antioch congregation while Peter looked at the possible repercussions from the Jewish contingent in the Jerusalem congregation. It contained all the possibilities of telling the Gentile believers in Antioch that they existed on a lower tier as member of the Body of the Anointed One. Paul went to great lengths to persuade Gentiles that they were equal in every way to any member of the Anointed One’s body, be they Jew or Gentile, and he wasn’t about to let Peter ruin that.[8]

Lutheran scholar Paul Kretzmann says quite a bit about this incident. But the crux of what he said was that Peter’s conduct was a public offence and scandal and may be particularly noticeable at the common meals associated with the celebration of the Holy Communion. Paul, therefore, with the Eighth Commandment in mind, did his duty without flinching: he spoke to Peter face-to-face, in the presence of those against whom he was sinning. Paul was concerned about the truth of the Gospel; for the conduct of Peter and the rest was casting reflections upon those whom God pronounced clean in the Anointed One. They would not be standing up for what they truly believed while going around in circles pretending that they are walking a straight line. It would be an attempt to evade an honest answer with an insincere plea of only doing what was the nice thing to do, all these are things which do not harmonize with the Christian love which the Gospel presupposes in a life of sanctification.

Paul’s rebuke, therefore, was short and to the point. Peter was a Jew, and thus it is natural for him to live as a Jew, to observe the customs and forms laid upon the Jews of old. But now he deliberately left this accustomed practice and lived after the manner of the Gentiles associated with the terms of absolute equality, which was perfectly right and proper for him to do, since he knew that no contamination would result. Now, however, that he withdrew in such a pretentious manner from this association, he was really exerting severe pressure on Gentile converts to adopt the Jewish mode of life, for they could not but conclude that, after all, the Jewish manner of living must be holier and better. Paul’s point was well taken, as Peter’s silence also admitted. It didn’t bother Paul that Peter lived after the customs and manners of the Gentiles and at times following Jewish customs. But he condemns Peter for withdrawing and separating himself, when the Jews came, from the foods brought by the Gentiles. By this withdrawal, he induced both Gentiles and Jews to believe that the heathen manner was not permitted while the Jewish was necessary, although he knew that both were free and permitted. This type of attitude and action could rightly identify Peter as no better than a cowardly hypocrite.[9]

Philip Ryken shares a similar story to what happened here in Antioch. He said this tragic example comes from the history of the Southern Presbyterian congregation prior to the Civil War. In those days it was customary for Presbyterian elders to give their parishioners tokens signifying that they were eligible to participate in the Lord’s Supper. Sadly, in some congregations, African slaves were not given the customary silver token, but one made of base metal. Nor did they allowed them to receive the sacrament until all the white congregation members were served. This was a divisive and prejudicial way of handling a sacrament that God intends to signify our union together in the Anointed One. Whether the elders believed the Gospel or not, their actions clearly denied it. What message is in this for us. What will people interpret from our actions and interactions with others? How well do our friendships, our dinner invitations, and our ministry partnerships demonstrate our commitment to the unity and community we enjoy in the Anointed One? Are our actions in step or out of step with the Gospel? Are we following in the footsteps of the Anointed One or starting our own path of righteousness?[10]

Modern Bible scholar Robert Gundry adds that it also makes Paul’s denunciation of Peter a criticism of those in Antioch who were led astray by his example and indirect criticism of the distorters of the Gospel who are leading astray the Galatians. Apparently, it was well-known that although Peter was circumcised as all Jewish male babies were, yet he wasn’t living in accordance with the rest of the Mosaic ceremonial law. So, Paul’s question, “How is it that you’re trying to force the Gentiles to Judaize?” points out his hypocrisy of and portrays his withdrawing himself from Gentile Christians, uncircumcised as they were, as an attempt to force Judaism on them, starting with circumcision, even though Peter himself wasn’t practicing Judaism. Examples like this carry great force, especially when they’re set by prominent leaders of the Church.[11]

[1] J. B. Lightfoot: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 241

[2] H. J. Foster: The Biblical Illustrator, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 48 (Kindle Locations 4503-4507).

[3] Plutarch’s Lives: Cicero, translated by Bernadette Perrin, Published by William Heinemann Ltd, London, 1919, Cicero, para. 7:3, p. 97

[4] Joseph Agar Beet: On Galatians, op. cit., pp. 47-48

[5] F. H. Farrar in The Biblical Illustrator, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 48 (Kindle Locations 4485-4486)

[6] Bacon, Benjamin W: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 66.

[7] Arno Gaebelein: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.,

[8] Cyril W. Emmet: On Galatians, op. cit., pp. 19-21

[9] Paul E. Kretzmann: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.,

[10] Ryken, Philip Graham. On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Locations 1076-1080

[11] Robert H. Gundry: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Locations 429-454

About drbob76

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