Earlier this week, my younger sister Kaylen — who is naturally a very competitive and fiery person — was complaining to my mom and I about a teammate of hers who wasn’t wanting to continue training with her even though their track season had been cancelled. She didn’t understand how the individual in question isn’t motivated enough to continue running and training.
But the difference between Kaylen and her teammate is that Kaylen loves running; her teammate does not. So I said, “Kay, you can’t expect someone who isn’t like you to behave like you and want the same things you do.” This reminded me of the confrontation between Paul and Peter in Galatians 2:14. So I decided to study Galatians 2:11-16 in order to gain a full understanding of the context surrounding this point in Paul’s rebuke.
Literary and Historical Context
Galatians is widely recognized as the first book to be written in Paul’s first missionary journey and a favorite of the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. This journey to Galatia first took place at approximately A.D. 47-48. During this journey, Barnabas was traveling alongside Paul. The location of the missionary journey was South Galatia, but the people to whom the letter is addressed were debated between early church leaders and is now debated between modern scholars. [Note: this is one of the main causes for the debate on the chronology in which Paul’s books are written.] Of the two arguments, the North Galatian theory holds that the term “Galatia” is used in reference to the ethnic group of Galatians located in North Galatia. Whereas the second South Galatian theory implies that “Galatia” is used to address churches in the Roman province of Galatia located in the south. Though the North Galatian theory was held by early church fathers and reformers, the South Galatian theory is likely the most accurate interpretation of the text. This is due to reasons surrounding the route of Paul’s first missionary journey in relation to the personal manner that Paul speaks in the letter and the thrice mentioned accompaniment of Barnabas.
Assuming the South Galatian theory as truth, the stories written Galatians take place on Paul’s journey from Antioch — where the incident with Cephas (the Apostle Peter) occurred.
Paul writes to the Galatians about his relationship with the Jerusalem Christians. He recounts the interaction he had with Paul in Antioch on account of the debates surrounding circumcision as a necessity for salvation. [Note: This situation aligns with the events of Acts 11:28-30.] He describes how he was traveling initially in order to speak privately with a group of esteemed Jewish leaders in Jerusalem so that he could share the same message he preached among the Gentiles and make sure his message wouldn’t be falling on deaf ears.
But upon his arrival with Barnabus and Titus, who was Greek and uncircumsised, opposition came in the form of Judaizers: those who insisted that believers of all races must follow Jewish law in order to receive salvation. Ultimately, readers learn that the individuals who interrupted the meeting actually had plans to take Paul and his comrades as slaves — but Paul defends the gospel he preached in Antioch, despite this knowledge. He states that he did this because he was determined to preserve the truth of the message for the Galatians.
Paul speaks to the Galatians about this situation because of the Galatians’ forgetfulness of Paul’s teaching: “salvation by grace.” After Paul had left the area of Galatia, false teachers came in and started to reiterate a false necessity for Mosaic law in order to receive salvation. So he writes this letter and brings up the rebuking of Peter in order to remind them of the truth that once set them apart as Christian disciples as opposed to Judaizers.
Galatians 2:11-21 showcases the popular effect that Judaizers had on the people of Jerusalem. When Paul visits Peter (who was the first Bishop) in Antioch, he wastes no time in pointing out how Peter has become a hypocrite. Up until the influence of conservatives from Jerusalem, Peter had often eaten with Gentiles both as a disciple of Jesus and as an individual.
Now, do not be confused. Eating with Gentiles as a Jew was an act that was frowned upon in popular society during this time. We see multiple instances in which Jesus was criticized for eating with people different than him in the apostles.
Peter was the appointed leader of the circumsised (Jews) and he was indeed born of Jewish blood. So what he did in Antioch was not seen as a scandal in the eyes of the public — but this may be the very reason why Paul uses this situation as an example for the Galatians.
According to Paul, Peter had distanced himself from Gentiles not out of divine command but out of fear for his reputation among the “circumcision group.” Because he had stopped associating himself with Gentiles, the Jews around him joined in the hypocrisy — Barnabas was even sucked into it. When Paul saw these things, he publicly addressed Peter.
Paul says: “If you, although you are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you try to force the Gentiles to live like Jews [through the law of Moses]?”
Though some may read this quote and come to the conclusion that Paul is calling the Gentiles — the very people he is called to lead — bad. But upon reading other translations such as the NIV, the NET, The Message, the ASV and the NLT, it is obvious that Paul is not using the term “Gentiles” as an example of people who exclude others. Paul is simply using it in order to point out the irony of forcing circumcision (an outdated custom of believers) when Peter himself is acting as a nonbeliever. By doing this, he not only sets Peter on the right path of leadership, but he sets the record straight on the debate of circumcision for non-Jewish believers.
Paul explains the excusal of circumcision through walking through the covering of Mosaic law by the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Paul says, “a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law.” And through this, all believers are made equal by the blood of Jesus Christ.
This is the lesson that is to be taught to the Galatians and it still resonates with audiences today. As believers, we are not called to follow the standards set by those around us — whether that be popular society as a whole or even a hard headed denomination. We are called to do what is pleasing in the eyes of the Lord.
So often believers get caught up in the small rules and regulations of the Bible. It has caused multitudes of separations between denominations and even individual relationships between members of the church. But the underlying truth is that Jesus has covered all of our uncleanliness and sin.
There is no such thing as a sinless being aside from Jesus. We have all either lied, cheated, stolen, or committed some other sin whether we remember it or not. But I believe that even if I stole something as a child — I would receive salvation as long as I put my faith in Christ. The same goes for the Mosaic law and even the most extreme of the Ten Commandments
The number one thing that believers are called to comes from the mouth of Jesus Christ. He says, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
As long as believers love the Lord, recognize Jesus as the Son of God and love neighbors as themselves, they will freely receive salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus. Therefore, the Jews of Antioch had no place to judge their Gentile neighbors, the people who interrupted Paul’s meeting with the Jerusalem leaders had no authority, the Galatians had no reason to require circumcision and people today do not need to condemn people different than them in order to gain the salvation of Christ. We have all been covered. We are all equal. We should behave as such.