We now approach the heart of this epistle, which, concise as it is, may be regarded as the keystone of the New Testament, for it most conspicuously sets forth and defends the Biblical answer to the fundamental question, “How shall a man be justified before God?” The entire scope of Divine Revelation focuses on the answer: This gives Paul’s reproof of Peter at Antioch very high significance. No issue could be more vital, for on it was suspended the survival or the shipwreck of the early church.
Paul was the man of the hour, specifically raised up by God to meet the Galatian crisis. As in the case of Joseph, of Moses, of Samuel, of David, of Elijah, and of Daniel, the crisis depended upon the work of one, one man called, gifted, equipped, and sent of God to meet the need of his church at this crucial time. That man was Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. God has little use for committees and corporations. His greatest works in the history of mankind have been wrought by single men, men single eyed and strong in the Holy Spirit for the cause of truth. God “called Abraham alone and blessed him.” So Paul was called alone. No capital was behind him; no society, or party was behind him; no religious order was behind him. Even Barnabas had deserted his cause. Like Luther, and Calvin, and Knox, he stood alone in the time of great urgency.
What was it that Paul so boldly and singularly stood for on this occasion? —Justification by Christ alone. Christ and Christ only, as over against and in sharpest contrast to everything outside of Christ and/or in addition to Christ for the justification of guilty sinners, was Paul’s subject. Any other message is another gospel. It was either Christ or nothing. He is all in all in the matter of salvation. There is no such thing as Christ doing his part to save us and us doing our part. We have no part except that of a poor beggar, who empty-handed receives a gratuitous gift of mercy and compassion.
In the verses before us Paul continues to prove the essential independence, both of his gospel and of his apostolic position. That gospel which had been so enthusiastically endorsed by those “pillars” at Jerusalem was, when necessity demanded, asserted even in confrontation with one of those “men of repute.” This episode in which Paul reproved Peter may well have occurred during the interval between the Jerusalem conference and the beginning of the second missionary journey. We are told in the book of Acts that it was then that Paul and Barnabas stayed for some time in Antioch.
Sinners are justified before God freely, by grace alone, upon the merits of Christ’s blood, apart from anything done by them; and they receive this free-justification by faith. This was Paul’s message. This is the message of the gospel (Rom. 3:19-26). This is the doctrine of all true believers.
"But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?" (Gal 2:11-14)
We are not told why Peter visited Antioch at this time; but that is not important. The important fact is that Peter committed an error of conduct so serious that Paul felt constrained to oppose him to his face. Paul did not go about as a whisperer, backbiter, or talebearer. He withstood Peter to his face as a brother trying to correct the error of another brother. He handled the matter publicly, because Peter’s action was public and caused great public harm.
This event does not, in any way, suggest that those things Peter wrote under divine inspiration are lacking in authority, infallibility, and inerrancy. The Word of God nowhere teaches that the men who were used of God to pen the Scriptures were infallible. They were not. They were, like all other believers, sinners saved by grace. The Scriptures they penned are infallible, but not them. However, this single event does completely destroy the Roman Catholic doctrine of the infallibility and supremacy of Peter, and of the pope as Peter’s imagined successor.
Peter was to be blamed. His conduct was totally inexcusable. His behavior was to be condemned. Why? Before the Jews came to Antioch, he had been eating with his Gentile brethren. The reference here is probably to the fellowship meals, or love feasts of the early Christians. It appears that the Lord’s Supper was usually held at the conclusion of these feasts. There were many abuses to which such social meals could lead, as is pointed out in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. In Corinth there was a segregation according to wealth, the rich separating from the poor. In Antioch the segregation that occurred was of an ethnic character, the Jewish brethren separated from their Gentile brothers in Christ.
Peter knew that the distinction of meats was now laid aside, as well as the distinction of Jew and Gentile, and that nothing, meats or men, was common or unclean of itself (Acts 10:28-48; 15:8-11). The Lord had taught him plainly that we are not under the law, but under grace in this gospel age, because Christ has fulfilled the law. He knew that even Jewish believers were no longer obliged to keep the law. Certainly, then the Gentiles, who were never given the law, were not obliged to keep the law.
In spite of Peter’s clear understanding of these things, when some men came from the church at Jerusalem, of which James was the pastor, Peter ceased to eat with the Gentiles, who were also believers. It may seem to some that Peter did nothing so terribly wrong. After all, all he did was this: When he saw his Jewish friends coming, Peter simply got up from the table and stepped away from the Gentile brethren, hoping that none of the Jewish brethren would smell the pork chops on his breath. But his action was horrible in its implication. Behaving as he did, Peter hypocritically implied that there is still a distinction between meat and drinks, clean and unclean, and between Jew and Gentile. He acted out of cowardice, fearing the wrath of the Jews (The wrath of Jewish believers!). When Peter got up from the table and walked away from the Gentile brethren, though he apparently said nothing orally, he spoke loudly by example and led others in his error, even Barnabas (v. 13).
There are some obvious lessons we ought to learn from this. First, the Word of God shows us again and again that the best of men are only men at best, sinful, weak, inconsistent, and full of faults. When left to ourselves, even briefly, there is nothing we would not do and justify ourselves in doing. A noble Noah may be found in a drunken stupor. A faithful Abraham may be found asking his wife to lie and play the harlot because of fear. A righteous Lot may be found choosing to dwell in Sodom. A devoted David may be found committing adultery and murder to cover it. Peter was no exception. Neither is the one writing or the one reading these lines. Let us ever recognize this fact. It will help to make us behave graciously toward our fallen brethren and help to keep us from being severe in our judgment concerning one another.
Second, we need to be aware of the fact that if we seek to please men, we will fail in obedience to our God (Pro. 29:25). It is impossible to serve two masters. If we are ruled by the will and glory of God, we cannot be ruled by either the fear of men’s frowns or the hope of their favor. If we are ruled by the fear of men, we cannot be ruled by the fear of God.
Third, we must constantly be aware of the great influence of our behavior upon others. The common proverb, “Actions speak louder than words,” is as true as it is common. We are responsible for the influence we have upon others by our example. None of us, I am confident, have any idea how powerful our example is in its influence over others, especially when the example is evil. Parents, teachers, and pastors must be constantly aware of this fact. None of us live as an island. Everything we do influences those around us. The world’s politicians, for the most part, have forgotten this, and have by their displays of greed and moral bankruptcy led the people under their power to lives of utter debauchery. Sadly, I fear, the same must be said of parents, teachers, and preachers around the world in this dark, dark age. Let all who fear God mark the trend of the day and resolve to lead all who are influenced by us by example as well as by word, for Christ’s sake.
Paul saw immediately what Peter was doing. And saw that his implications were intentional. His implications were that the law is still the rule of life for believers and that God’s saints are to be compelled to live by it (v. 14). This was totally contrary to the true gospel of the grace of God (Rom. 6:14-15; 7:4; 10:4; Col. 2:16-23). There is no room in the kingdom of grace for the bondmen of the law. There is no place in the household of faith for the whip of the law. Believers are motivated and ruled by the constraint of Christ’s love, gratitude for his grace, faith in Christ, and the glory of God (2 Cor. 5:14; 8:8-9; 1 John 3:23; 1 Cor. 10:31). In the gospel there are no prohibitions about eating and drinking (1 Tim. 4:4-5). In the church of God there is no such thing as Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:13-22; Gal. 3:28). Peter had lived like the Gentiles; but now he was, by his action, saying that the Gentiles should live like the Jews. This was inconsistent and obvious to all. Therefore Paul rebuked him publicly (1 Tim. 5:20).
Matthew Henry wrote, “Paul having thus established his character and office, and sufficiently shown that he is not inferior to any of the apostles, no, not to Peter himself, from the account of the reproof he gave him he takes occasion to speak of that great fundamental doctrine of the gospel – that justification is only by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the law.”
"We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid. For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God." (Gal 2:15-19)
The verb “justify” is in the passive voice, thus, literally, it is “to be justified.” It occurs here for the first time in Paul’s epistles, and no less than three times in one verse (v. 16). Justification is not something we do. It is something done for us and given to us freely. It is the gracious act of God, whereby, on the basis solely of Christ’s accomplished mediatorial work, he declares the sinner just. The work was done by the decree of God in eternity (Rom. 8:29-30). Yes, all God’s elect were in the purpose of God justified from eternity, by the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world. Our justification was obtained by Christ when he died at Calvary as our Substitute. He was delivered unto death by the sword of divine justice because of our sins imputed to him, and raised again by the glory of God because of our justification accomplished by his sacrifice (Rom. 4:25). Faith in Christ does not accomplish justification, but receives it as the free grace gift of God (Rom. 5:1, 10-11; 8:1, 30, 33; Tit. 3:7). Faith in Christ is not a condition upon which justification is granted, but one of the many, blessed fruits of justification accomplished. It is not our faith that justifies us, but Christ who is the Object of our faith.
Justification is a judicial act of God. It does not come as the result of man’s effort (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 3:11; 5:4). It is not even the result of faith (Eph. 2:8). It took place when Christ satisfied the demands of the law as a Substitute for his elect (Rom. 3:24; 2 Cor. 5:21; Eph. 1:7). Man can never earn it. He only receives it by faith. And even the faith by which we receive it is the gift of God’s grace (Eph. 2:8). “Man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.”
Because we are justified by Christ alone, (by the faithful obedience of Christ unto death as our Substitute), we have no obligation to the law. We are dead to the law. This is not a license to sin (17; Rom. 6:1-2, 15; 7:7). It is the blessed liberty of grace. We dare not return to the law, as Peter did by his abhorrent symbolic behavior. To do so is to return to its curse and condemnation (v. 18).
The law of God can never give life. It only deals out death. It can never produce holiness. It only stirs up sin. The law brings the knowledge of sin, and condemns it (Rom. 7:7-9). The law was our schoolmaster unto Christ. Once we have come to Christ in faith, the law has no power or authority over us (Gal. 3:24).
I have a very good friend in North Carolina, Robert Spencer. He and I became good friends just a few years ago, after I ran into him and his wife (Lib) in an elevator. He was then President of the International Lions Club, on his way to one of their meetings. I was on my way to fulfill a preaching engagement in the same town. I had known Bob many years earlier as “Mr. Spencer.” He was my sixth grade school teacher. I was a young rebel, constantly in trouble. Mr. Spencer, on many occasions, with the complete authority of the State (and of my parents), inflicted pain on my posterior because it was his job to do so, to bring me to maturity. In those days I dreaded his presence and feared his wrath. Now, he is my friend. I look forward to seeing him and always enjoy his presence. Even if he thought about whipping me today, he would not dare. He no longer has any authority or the power to do so. So it is with the law. Once the sinner has come to Christ, the law has no more dominion over him (Rom. 6:14-15; 7:4; 10:4).
"I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God" (Gal. 2:19; Rom. 6:7; 7:4; 2 Cor. 5:15). We are not dead to the law that we might live unto ourselves, but unto our God, for his glory. And if we would live unto God, we cannot live unto the law. We must never return to it in any way, to any degree, for any reason; not even to appease and win the favor of weaker brethren, as Peter did at Antioch (Rom. 7:1-4). We trust Christ alone for salvation (Rom. 10:1-4). He alone is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). To return to the works of the law is to deny him altogether (Gal. 5:1-4).
Thy works, not mine, O Christ,
Speak gladness to this heart;
They tell me all is done;
They bid my fear depart.
What Jesus is, and that alone,
Is faith’s delightful plea;
It never deals with sinful self
Nor righteous self, in me.