Galatians 2:11-17: Peter's Visit to Antioch Are the Jews Under Law?

Galatians 2:11‑17  •  19 min. read  •  grade level: 7
“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to (the) face, because he was convicted of evil. For before (the) coming of certain from James, he was eating [making a habit of eating] with (those) of the nations; but when they came, he began to draw back, and was setting himself apart, fearing the ones from the circumcision. And the rest of (the) Jews also dissembled [played the hypocrite] with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away in their dissimulation [hypocrisy]. But when I saw that they do not walk straightforwardly according to the truth of the good news, I said to Cephas in the presence of all: If thou, being a Jew, art living as the nations, and not as the Jews, how (is it) thou art compelling the nations to be as Jews? We, by nature Jews, and not sinners from (the) nations, knowing then that a man is not justified on the principle of works of law, but only by means of faith of Christ Jesus, we also, we have believed on Christ Jesus, in order that we might be justified on the principle of faith of Christ and not on the principle of works of law, because on the principle of works of law, not any flesh shall be justified. If then, while seeking to be justified in [or, in virtue of] Christ, we also ourselves have been found sinners, then is Christ a minister of sin? Far be the thought! [or, No indeed! or, Let it not be!]” ch. 2:11-17.
In our last chapter we saw that though certain Jews from Jerusalem came to the Gentiles at Antioch and tried to compel them to act as Jews, to be circumcised and keep the law, yet the assembly at Jerusalem refused to approve this action and decided that the Gentiles were not to be put under law. The question that now comes before us is: “Are the Jews who are Christians to be kept under law?”
Peter came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. This, we suppose, was soon after the great conference in Jerusalem, of which we have spoken. At Antioch Peter found that the Jewish Christians who lived there ate with the Gentile Christians. According to the law, there were many kinds of food that a Jew was not allowed to eat. (See Lev. 11.) You remember in Acts 10, the Lord sent Peter a vision of a great sheet let down from heaven, in which was every kind of four-footed beasts of the earth and wild beasts (all of which the law forbade the Jews to eat); and a voice came from heaven saying, “Rise, Peter; kill, and eat” (Acts 10:1313And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. (Acts 10:13)). Peter replied, “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” The voice said to him, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common” (Acts 10:13-1513And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. 14But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. 15And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. (Acts 10:13‑15)). The Lord sent this vision three times, and by it taught Peter not only that the Gentiles were not unclean in His sight, but that God had changed the old Jewish law that forbade eating certain foods. The Jews carried this law further, and refused to eat with the Gentiles, in case they might eat some forbidden food. Not long ago a good friend of mine who is a Jew came to tea with me. He sat at the table and talked, but refused to eat anything or even drink a cup of tea. This was the practice of the Jews in the days of Peter and Paul. But in Acts 11:33Saying, Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them. (Acts 11:3) we see that Peter obeyed the Lord and ate with the Gentiles.
When Peter came to Antioch, and found the Jews eating freely with the Gentiles, he knew that this was God’s own order, and he joined them. After a time certain men came from James from Jerusalem.
Peter knew very well that according to the truth of the good news, God Himself had broken down the old “middle wall of partition” (Eph. 2:1414For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; (Ephesians 2:14)), and that this old Jewish law had been done away in Christ. God Himself had revealed this to Peter. Peter knew the liberty that is in Christ Jesus, and he knew that this liberty was of God.
“But on the night Christ was betrayed,
Before the cock crowed twice,
Peter, through fear, his Lord denied
With oaths and curses thrice.
Then should I not, Lord, ask myself
Would I more faithful be?
Would Ito prison and to death
More bravely go than he?
O Lord, my heart is weak, I know.
Thy strength I pray give me,
Or else like men of long ago,
I will dishonor Thee.”
(From the Chinese’)
There are solemn lessons for us in Peter’s life. It is most unlikely you or I would have been any better. Thank God that in such times of extremity, God has found a man to stand in the breach. In days of old God said that He would destroy Israel, “had not Moses His chosen stood before Him in the breach, to turn away His wrath, lest He should destroy them” (Psa. 106:2323Therefore he said that he would destroy them, had not Moses his chosen stood before him in the breach, to turn away his wrath, lest he should destroy them. (Psalm 106:23)). In Ezek. 22:3030And I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it: but I found none. (Ezekiel 22:30) we read: “I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before Me for the land, that I should not destroy it: but I found none.” How terribly sad! The Lord is seeking for one man to be true to Him, one man to stand in the breach like Moses or Paul, but He found him not. Perhaps our day seems like this, as we see the enemy coming in like a flood. (Isa. 59:1919So shall they fear the name of the Lord from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun. When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him. (Isaiah 59:19).) And though we may not have faith or courage to follow these noble servants of old, we may at least “be grieved for the breach” (Amos 6:66That drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief ointments: but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph. (Amos 6:6), margin) that we see all around us today. In Ezek. 9:44And the Lord said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof. (Ezekiel 9:4) we see that the Lord puts His special mark on those who sigh and cry for all the abominations that be done.
Well may we Gentiles today thank God that He found one man in those days of old to stand in this breach. Peter had failed, and even Barnabas, who had stood so bravely with Paul in Jerusalem, had turned aside through fear; and Paul is left to fight the battle single-handed. It reminds us of Shammah in 2 Sam. 23:11, 1211And after him was Shammah the son of Agee the Hararite. And the Philistines were gathered together into a troop, where was a piece of ground full of lentiles: and the people fled from the Philistines. 12But he stood in the midst of the ground, and defended it, and slew the Philistines: and the Lord wrought a great victory. (2 Samuel 23:11‑12). All the people of Israel were afraid and ran away as the Philistines came, but Shammah stood in a piece of ground full of lentils, and he defended it all alone, single-handed: “and the Lord wrought a great victory” (2 Sam. 23:1212But he stood in the midst of the ground, and defended it, and slew the Philistines: and the Lord wrought a great victory. (2 Samuel 23:12)). Even so was it in these days at Antioch. It seemed as though either the Gentiles must be as Jews, or else there must be a terrible division in the Church, with a Gentile church on one side and a Jewish church on the other. It seemed as though the false teachers had triumphed.
Do not suppose because a man is a leader or honorable or highly esteemed that he must be right and that it is right for us to follow him without examining his path for ourselves. All at Antioch, Jews and Gentiles, must have known that Peter had made a mistake. Either he never should have eaten with the Gentiles, or else he should have continued to eat with them after the men came down from James. Peter had publicly sinned and had drawn away others after him in this sin. Paul therefore publicly rebuked Peter in the presence of all.
Notice first that in Jerusalem at the conference it is apparent that Paul and Peter are on an equality. The false teachers who had come to Galatia had said Paul should have received his authority as an apostle and his teaching from Peter: but now it is shown that Peter is not his superior.
In Jerusalem it was decided that the Gentile believers should not be put under the Jewish law. Now at Antioch the question has been forced on the conscience of the Christians: are the Jewish believers still to be held under the Jewish law?
Now, in the presence of all, Paul rebukes Peter: “If thou, being a Jew, art living as the nations, and not as the Jews, how is it thou art compelling the nations to be as Jews?” Peter’s own conscience told him this was all true. And Paul continues: “We, by nature Jews, and not sinners from the nations, knowing that a man is not justified on the principle of works of the law, but only by means of faith of Christ Jesus.” “Sinners from the nations” was the way the Jews looked at the Gentiles. The Jews believed they were better than the Gentiles, and Paul uses to Peter the old words which showed forth the natural pride of heart that refused to acknowledge “there is no difference” (Rom. 3:22, 10:12). Peter knew this was true. He knew well that whether it was a matter of sin before God or salvation without works by grace alone, there was “no difference.” His own scriptures, Psa. 14, had told him all this. There he read in his Hebrew Bible: “They are all together become stinking.” Psa. 14:33They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one. (Psalm 14:3) (margin). (See also Rom. 3:22, 2322Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: 23For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; (Romans 3:22‑23).) But when he set himself apart, as he had just done, he was acting on the same old principle that the Jews were better than the Gentiles and could trust to their own works for salvation.
Paul continues: You know “that a man is not justified by works of the law” (vs. 16). Why then, Peter, are you seeking to put yourself under the law? Did you not say in Jerusalem that it was a yoke neither we nor our fathers were able to bear? You know that a man is only justified by the faith of Christ Jesus. You know there is no other way. Why, then, are you seeking to add works of the law?
Paul does not make it clear whether he said to Peter everything he wrote down to the end of this chapter; but quite possibly he did so. He continues, pointing out to Peter how he, and Paul, were justified. If any man had ground of being justified by works of law, certainly Paul had. He tells us this himself: “If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more” (Phil. 3:44Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: (Philippians 3:4)).
Phil. 3:44Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: (Philippians 3:4) (and the verses that follow). But Paul reminds Peter that “we also, we have believed on Christ Jesus, in order that we might be justified on the principle of faith of Christ and not on the principle of works of law.” Peter and Paul themselves have no hope of being justified by works. They also had “become stinking.” There is no difference. Whether it is Paul or Peter, whether it is Jew or Gentile, whether it is Galatians or Chinese, there is no difference: we all have sinned; and the only hope of every one of us is Christ Jesus, and only faith in Him. Why then, Peter, are you adding your own works? Why are you separating yourself as if you are better than they? Do you not remember your own Old Testament, that in Psa. 143:22And enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified. (Psalm 143:2) it says: “In Thy sight shall no man living be justified” (on the principle of works of law)? These are mighty arguments that everybody knew were true: these are in fact the great arguments and the great theme of this epistle.
Paul continues: If, then, while seeking to be justified in virtue of Christ, we also ourselves have been found sinners, is Christ a minister, or promoter, of sin? If you have done right, Peter, in setting yourself apart from the Gentiles and putting yourself in this way under the law, then it is quite evident that you were all wrong when you ate with the Gentiles: and Christ was a promoter of sin when He, by His Spirit, told you to do so: and it was all wrong that “what God hath cleansed” (Acts 11:99But the voice answered me again from heaven, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. (Acts 11:9)) (Acts 10:1515And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. (Acts 10:15)) we may not call common. This is what is implied in Paul’s words.
But Paul still continues: “For if what I threw down, these things again I build, I demonstrate myself a transgressor.” ch. 2:18. It was Peter himself who had first opened the door of the good news to the Gentiles, had first thrown down the middle wall of partition. It was Peter himself who had first eaten with them. It was Peter himself who had defended this action when they “of the circumcision contended with him” (Acts 11:22And when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, they that were of the circumcision contended with him, (Acts 11:2)) regarding it. It was Peter himself who had begun. Now Peter changes all his course. He had been throwing down the ceremonies of the Jewish law. He had been throwing down the middle wall of partition. Now he is building up this wall, and throwing down the freedom of Christ. And so, if he is right now, he clearly demonstrates to everybody that he was wrong before; he demonstrates himself a transgressor.
Paul goes on (we do not know if he still is speaking to Peter, but we suppose so): “For I, by means of law have died, in order that I shall live to God. With Christ I have been crucified: but I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me: but (the life) which now I live in (the) flesh, in (virtue of) faith I live, the (faith) of the Son of God, the One having loved me, and having given up Himself on behalf of me.” ch. 2:19, 20.
All the law can do to a sinner is kill him: and “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:2323For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; (Romans 3:23)). Peter was a sinner, and if he put himself under law, all it could do was to kill him. Paul says plainly: “I by means of law have died to law.” The law had killed Paul, and now it had no further power over him.
Recently a man was executed for murder. Not long afterward it was proved that this man was guilty of other murders; but the law had no power whatever to say or to do anything to him. The law had already killed him for his sin; and now by the law he is dead to the law, and the law is powerless to touch him.
This is the position of each one of us. The law has already condemned each one of us to death, and “with Christ I have been crucified.” The death sentence has not only been passed on each of us—“all the world... guilty before God” (Rom. 3:1919Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. (Romans 3:19))—but in Christ it has been carried out. He, the sinless One, has been crucified, and “with Christ I have been crucified.” So the law is completely powerless to touch me. It has nothing further to say to me. It has killed me, and that is all it can do. Now, I have died “in order that I shall live unto God.”
Notice again (as in ch. 2:4), it is not “that I might live unto God” (vs. 19) (with a doubt), but “that I shall live unto God.” The law had killed Paul, and yet he lives. Christ had taken all the punishment on Himself: so Paul’s death was but the death of “the old man,” Saul the Pharisee, and this was a very great gain. The law had killed him, but Christ had died instead of him: now, Paul being dead, the law can do no more—it has dominion over a man only as long as he lives. (Rom. 7:11Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth? (Romans 7:1).) We are each of us associated with Christ in His death and in His resurrection; so He has become our life: “With Christ I have been crucified: but I live, no longer I but Christ lives in me.” So I am dead both to the flesh and to the law. There is no condemnation for me since Christ has taken it. (Rom. 8:11There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Romans 8:1).) He took all my sins and bore them upon the cross, abolishing them by His death. I am free, not only from the guilt of my sins, but from the power of sin in the flesh. (See Rom. 8:1-31There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. 3For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: (Romans 8:1‑3).) For the believer, the “old man” is crucified with Christ (see Rom. 6:66Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. (Romans 6:6) and Gal. 5:2424And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. (Galatians 5:24)) that the body of sin might be annulled, or made inactive.
Suppose you take a pig from the mud and filth in which it enjoys living and, as Peter suggests (2 Peter 2:2222But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire. (2 Peter 2:22)), you wash it. You put a pretty ribbon around its neck and bring it into the best room in your house. You give it a list of rules, telling it what it must do and what it must not do in order to keep clean. Now suppose that pig sees outside your fence a pond with mud and filth: what will it do? Will it remember the rules you have given it, and say, No, I must not go into that mud? No, “the sow that was washed” (2 Peter 2:2222But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire. (2 Peter 2:22)) returns to her wallowing in the mire. The pig is not subject to these rules, neither indeed can be. (Compare Rom. 8:77Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. (Romans 8:7).)
You see that it is a hopeless matter to reform this pig, so you do the only thing you can: you kill it. Now the pig no longer has any desire to wallow in the mire. Then you take a living lamb, pure and clean, without spot or blemish (compare 1 Peter 1:1919But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: (1 Peter 1:19)), and you take this living lamb and put it inside the dead pig, so that now the pig has the lamb for its life. Now the pig loathes and abhors the filth and the mud. The other pigs think it strange that this pig does not run with them to enjoy the mud and filth (compare 1 Peter 4:44Wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you: (1 Peter 4:4)), and they speak evil of it. They say, This is not a true pig; it has not the nature of a pig. They speak right, for this pig has a new nature. The spotless lamb is its life; it delights to be clean and to keep away from filth of every kind, for that is the nature of the lamb.
It might be that this pig would fall into the mud, but it will never be happy until it is out of the filth and made clean again. The pig with the life of a lamb inside it does not practice being filthy: on the contrary, it hates it. (See 1 John 3:99Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. (1 John 3:9) JND.)
This is a feeble picture of what Christ has done for us. He, the spotless Lamb of God, is our life. Just as it was not the pig that lived, but the lamb lived in it, so “I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me.”
Christ has redeemed us, and now we are not put back under law to which we have died. Our salvation now depends entirely on Christ, and so there is no uncertainty about it. The flesh still is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. (In ch. 5 we will see the struggle that still goes on between it and the Spirit of God dwelling in us.) But now by faith the believer reckons himself to be dead, crucified with Christ: and Christ risen has now become our life. Christ lives in us, and we can thus reckon ourselves to be dead to sin (Rom. 6:10, 1110For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. 11Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:10‑11)) and alive unto God in Jesus Christ our Lord. So, the life which now I live in the flesh, I live in virtue of faith, the faith of the Son of God, the One who loved me, and gave Himself up to death for me.
“The faith of the Son of God” (vs. 20): this means the faith which I have in the Son of God. Just as when I say I have the love of God in my heart, it may mean God’s love to me, or my love to God. The power of that new life must come from my faith in Christ.
The expression “the faith of the Son of God” (vs. 20) has caused difficulty to some. They say it must mean the faith exercised by the Son of God. This is not so. This expression with “of” is the genitive case in Greek, and it may be either subjective or objective genitive. That means that the noun following “of” may be either the subject or the object of the verb idea in the noun before “of.” Take, for example, the expression “the love of God” (Eph. 3:1919And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God. (Ephesians 3:19)). This may be subjective and mean “God loves me,” that is, the love of God to me, as in Rom. 8:3939Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:39). Nothing can “separate us from the love of God.” Or it may be objective and mean my love to God, as in 1 John 5:33For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous. (1 John 5:3): “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments.” In this passage in Galatians the expression is certainly objective: my faith in the Son of God gives me the power of the new life.
“I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness (is) by means of law, then Christ has died for nothing.” ch. 2:21.
Peter had set aside the grace of God by his action. It seemed a small thing merely to refuse to eat meals with the Gentile believers, for there was no suggestion that they refused to eat the Lord’s supper with them. But turning aside this way from the truth led Peter into deceit and hypocrisy: by it, he made Christ a minister of sin. He set aside the grace of God, and he made Christ die for nothing. The Galatian assemblies had also set aside the grace of God and chosen law instead. They also made Christ die for nothing.
Those men and women today who seek to add the law or anything else to the death of Christ, do these very same wicked things. They also set aside the grace of God and make Christ die for nothing. It may seem a small matter to say, “I believe in Christ, and try to keep the law.” “I believe in Christ and do the best I can.” “I believe in Christ, and seek to live by ‘the golden rule’.” All these statements, which we hear so often, in reality are trying to add something to Christ and His work on the cross, and put those who say them into the very same position as the false teachers, Peter, and the Galatian assemblies.
“‘Tis the look that melted Peter,
’Tis the face that Stephen saw,
’Tis the heart that wept with Mary,
Can alone from idols draw
Draw and win, and fill completely,
Till the cup o’erflow its brim.
What have we to do with idols,
Who have companied with Him?”