The Lessons Of Peter And Paul At Antioch

The Lessons Of Peter And Paul At Antioch

Friday’s Column: Brent’s Bent

Brent Pollard

As a free moral agent, Simon Peter had the same capacity for sin as the rest of us. And Peter sinned despite being an apostle. We recall Peter’s most famous blunder on the night of Jesus’ mock trial (Luke 22.60-62). Or perhaps we remember Peter sticking his foot in his mouth on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17.4-6). But there was another occasion on which Peter’s fallibility demonstrated itself. According to Galatians 2.11-14, Peter allowed his fear of the Judaisers rule his heart and stopped associating with Gentile Christians: 

“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of some men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and separate himself, fearing those from the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, ‘If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’ (NASB)” 

Paul labels Peter a hypocrite. Remember how Paul reminded Peter that he lived as a Gentile rather than a Jew, referring to his life in Christ, in whom we make no such distinctions (Galatians 3.28). Indeed, a hypocrite is someone whose true character contrasts with the image he presents to the world. And unfortunately, Peter was guilty of doing such at the moment. Peter didn’t want the Judaisers, a zealous sect of Christians who believed Gentiles should first convert to Judaism before becoming candidates for Christian conversion, to know he had no problem freely associating with Gentile Christians. He preferred instead to maintain the charade of one whose first allegiance was to Moses’ Law.  

When we allow fear to rule our hearts, we make poor decisions. Peter should have considered the role of fear in his past failures. Fear caused Peter to sink instead of walk on water as he had done for a few steps (Matthew 14.28-30). Peter took his eyes off Jesus and looked at the boisterous waves, exacerbating his fear rather than alleviating it. Fear drove Peter to deny the Lord three times before the rooster crow because he feared the consequences of admitting he was the Lord’s disciple rather than accepting the repercussions of that admission (Mark 14.31). But God does not want us to be concerned about what might happen. Instead, he desires that we put our trust in Him, cast our cares on Him, and make decisions that glorify Him. And once we develop perfect love, it casts out such fear (1 John 4.18).  

But did Paul have to rebuke Peter publicly? Yes. Peter had sinned publicly. There was no point in following the guidelines provided by our Lord to take such an erring brother aside privately (Matthew 18.15-16). Plus, Paul knew his judgment sound by having also received the revelation of Jesus Christ. Peter’s sin was spreading itself as cancer among the brethren of Antioch (cf. 1 Corinthians 5.6-7). Had Peter’s choice affected him alone, that would have been one thing. But Peter had a position of influence. He was an apostle. Therefore, he influenced other Jewish Christians to act hypocritically, including Paul’s future missionary journey companion, Barnabas.  

Did Peter resent Paul for so doing? I don’t imagine anyone enjoys having another rebuke him. Though referring to persecution, the Hebrews’ writer nonetheless says discipline can be painful. Despite this, a Christian understands that discipline trains him to become more fruitful (Hebrews 12.11). However, Peter must have known the words of Solomon that the one later favors a rebuker rather than the flatterer (Proverbs 28.23). Peter could, on reflection, appreciate what Paul had done for him. And that Peter bore no ill will for Paul is seen in the fact that Peter refers to Paul as a “beloved brother” in 2 Peter 3.15. 

Thus, Peter teaches us by example both positive lessons worthy of emulation and types of behavior we need to avoid, such as in Galatians 2. We should not allow our fear of what others think or our esteem for others to cause us to deviate from the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. And Paul teaches us that when someone sins publicly, and we know this because of God’s Word, we should nip that error in the bud since sin will act as leaven, permeating the body of Christ.     

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