Be True to the Gospel
Sunday School Lesson for June 8, 2003
Background Passage: Galatians 2:1-21
Focal Teaching Passage: Galatians 2:11-16
A Confrontation Over the Gospel (2:11-15)
Here we learn of a very serious theological confrontation involving two apostles, Paul and Peter (note the context in 2:1-10 for additional details). Following the Jerusalem meeting with the "pillars" of the church (2:9), where the issues of circumcision and the proclamation of the gospel to Gentiles were debated, Paul encountered Simon Peter in the city of "Antioch." It soon became apparent that Peter was, in effect, living two radically different lives when it came to his relationship to the Gentile Christians. At times, he would "eat with" them (perhaps implying both regular meals and the Lord’s Supper), giving the clear impression that he fully accepted the Gentile believers as brothers in Christ and, furthermore, that he understood the essential unity found in the gospel of salvation by grace through faith. Yet, at other times, when in the company of "certain men from James" (Jewish members of the Jerusalem church who regularly fellowshipped with James), Peter would "withdraw" from his Gentile friends and "hold himself aloof." What is interesting is the reason that Peter acted in such a duplicitous way. He was not motivated by any moral or spiritual convictions, but by his own fear of "the party of the circumcision"—those troublemakers or "false brethren" (v. 4) who had infiltrated the church with a perverted ‘gospel’ of salvation by law keeping.
When Peter ("Cephas") and Paul eventually met at Antioch, Paul "opposed him to his face," and confronted his hypocrisy head-on! This language indicates that Paul sternly corrected Peter in a public setting (cf. 2:14). This was no private dispute between two brothers in Christ, but an official act of public reproof. That such action was needed is indicated in verse 13 where we learn that other Jewish believers had "joined him in his hypocrisy." Note that Paul mentions "Barnabas," one of his most trusted and beloved ministerial colleagues, as one of the Jewish believers who was "carried away" by this shameful behavior.
Here we discover the content of Paul’s rebuke of Peter and the other hypocritical Jewish believers. In general, they were "not straight forward about the truth of the gospel." This may mean that their profession of the gospel of Christ—that salvation and liberty from the tyranny of the Law is freely given to all who repent and believe, regardless of ethnicity or other such factors—and their conduct did not match. We might say in modern parlance that they did not "walk their talk." Consequently, Paul publicly challenged Peter—"in the presence of all"—and exposed his faulty behavior.
Paul’s direct challenge to Peter (v. 14) was in the form of a pointed question regarding his sinful practice of living "like the Gentiles" on one hand, and then compelling the Gentiles "to live like Jews" on the other. In other words, Peter would at times enjoy freedom from the Law’s ceremonial commands, especially those related to the food laws, and, in this regard, would be like the Gentiles who were not so restricted (cf. 2:12 where Peter would freely "eat with" with his Gentile brethren). However, in the presence of certain Jewish leaders, Peter changed his stance and insisted that his Gentiles brothers conform to the ceremonial regulations of the Mosaic Law and, in essence, "live like Jews." Timothy George explains the seriousness of this situation:
What was so insidious in the separatism of Peter and his associates was the fact that they were acting as if their Gentile Christian brothers and sisters were still sinners while they, because of their ritual purity and obedience of the law, stood in a different, more favorable relationship to God .
One can readily understand why such a public rebuke by Paul was necessitated. The very heart of the gospel message was at stake. Peter’s behavior had compromised the fundamental sufficiency of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as God’s only way of saving sinners. By means of his conduct, Peter had become just as guilty as the Judaizers ("the party of the circumcision") who insisted that circumcision and other such rituals were needed in order for one to be made right with God.
In verse 15, Paul reminded Peter, and the other likeminded Jewish believers, that though they were Jews "by nature" (enjoying many advantages and privileges as the covenant nation), and not so called "sinners from among the Gentiles," they had no hope of salvation through the Law. In this regard, there is no distinction between the Jew and the Gentile. Both need salvation, and this, as will be powerfully set forth by Paul below, can be found only in Jesus Christ.
A Statement of the Gospel (2:16)
The confrontation with Peter, and specifically, the assumption by the Jews that God saves those who are obedient to the Law, set the stage for Paul’s most explicit declaration of the gospel of salvation by grace. Below is a brief line-by-line examination of this verse:
Evangelical Christians must ever guard against the temptation to turn faith itself into one of the "works of the law." Saving faith is a radical gift from God, never a mere human possibility (Eph. 2:8-9). Faith is not an achievement that earns salvation anymore than circumcision is. Rather, faith is the evidence of saving grace manifested in the renewal of the heart by the Holy Spirit [196, italics added].
To summarize, then, we might say that the gospel that Paul boldly proclaimed and courageously defended is one of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in the work and righteousness of Christ alone, as announced in the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone. The inclusion of the word "alone" in this formula is essential if we are to grasp the full weight of the uniqueness and sufficiency of God’s way of salvation.
Key Themes for Reflection and Application
One: The fallibility of all men—First we see that even apostles can be wrong, and can act in ways that bring dishonor to God. Men of the stature of Peter are still sinners in need of the mercy and forgiveness of God. What are some of the direct implications of this fact?
Two: Courage to stand for the truth and wisdom to know which battles to fight—Our passages reveals that there is a time and place for confrontation. While not every issue is worth fighting and dying for, the gospel of salvation by grace through faith is non-negotiable.
Three: A gospel for sinners—There is no gospel that saves righteous people. Think carefully about the implications of this statement, both for our evangelism and our own Christian piety.
Four: Christ’s active obedience and salvation by works—Before Christ died for our sins, He lived for us in perfect holiness. Often this aspect of Christ’s work is not fully appreciated or understood. Think of it this way: Christ came to earth and perfectly obeyed the Law of God on our behalf. His life of sinless obedience to the Father, and His atoning death and bodily resurrection, actually secured our salvation. Thus, in one very real sense, we are indeed saved by works—but not by our works, but by those of Christ!