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Pauls Showdown With Peter

By David Feddes

If you want to be a good Christian, could you possibly go wrong by following St. Peter?
Peter was a personal friend of Jesus. He was foremost among Jesus inner circle of twelve
disciples. His Hebrew name, Cephas, and his Greek name, Peter, both meant rock. Although
hed been born with the name Simon, Jesus had called him Petera rock to build on. Jesus
appointed Peter to be an apostle, a missionary, a leader in the church. How could anyone go
wrong following Peters leadership?
Oh, Peter had made mistakes earlier in his life: he said and did some bad things, and
when Jesus was arrested, Peter sank so low as to deny three times that he even knew the Lord.
But that was the old Peter. Once Jesus rose from the dead and poured his Holy Spirit on the
disciples, Peter became a preacher of astonishing insight and power, a leader who helped guide
the church in the way Christ wanted. The old Peter may have been full of flaws, but the new
Peter was a bold, wise leader, a pillar of the church, someone to count on for sound teaching and
godly example. How could anyone challenge something if Peter himself approved of it? If Peter
believed it, you could believe it; if Peter did it, you could do itright? Not necessarily.
Even though Peter was deeply transformed, even though he was foremost among the
apostles, even though he had been filled by the Spirit of Christ, even though he had led
thousands to faith in Jesus, Peter wasnt perfect. He had become a great Christian, true enough,
but he wasnt infallible, and it was dangerous to assume he was. Peter wasnt always right. In
fact, there was a time in Peters ministry when he committed an error so serious that it might
have wrecked the church entirely if someone else hadnt stood up and challenged him. The Bible
tells about it in the book of Galatians, chapter 2.
There the apostle Paul writes, When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face,
because he was clearly in the wrong (Galatians 2:11). How could Paul say such a thing? Given
Peters stature in the church, how could anyoneeven Pauldare to oppose the great Peter and
say he was clearly in the wrong. But Paul did it. No matter how much Peter had accomplished,
no matter how important his position, he could still be dead wrong.

Peters Error
What was Peters error? Well, believe it or not, Peter started to act like a hypocrite. He
started to drift away from the central truth of the gospel: the truth that Jesus saves people of
every nation and racial background entirely by faith in him. Salvation depends totally on Gods
grace given freely to us in Jesus death and resurrection and his ongoing presence in our lives
and on nothing else. Although Peter knew this, he slid backward and began to act as though it
were not true.
Heres what happened. Peter had been providing leadership for the church at Jerusalem,
which was mostly Jewish. Then he decided to visit the church in Antioch, a city to the north of
Israel. Unlike the church in Jerusalem, which was almost entirely Jewish, the church in Antioch
had many Greeks and other non-Jewish people. These non-Jews (called Gentiles) got to know
Jesus through Jewish Christians who had moved to Antioch, and as a result, the Antioch church
had a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. Among the leading teachers at Antioch were Barnabas and
Paul, Jewish Christians serving as missionaries, who were respected by Jewish and Gentile
Christians alike.

When Peter came to Antioch, the Christians there welcomed him with open arms. What a
joy for them to meet the great apostle from the great church of Jerusalem! It was a joy for Peter,
too. Peter himself was Jewish, but he was glad to meet these Christians of different racial
background and see their joy in Jesus. Peter encouraged their relationship to Jesus, and he
enjoyed many meals together with these Gentiles.
In order to eat with Gentiles, Peter had to ignore the long-standing separation between
Jew and Gentile, and he had to ignore laws he used to observe regarding foods that were kosher
or not kosher, clean or unclean. But Peter had heard Jesus declare all foods to be clean (Mark
7:19), and the Holy Spirit had taught Peter that God does not show favoritism but accepts men
from every nation and forgives the sins of all who trust in Jesus (Acts 10). Peter considered
faith in Christ far more important than racial distinctions or kosher laws that had once seemed so
important, and so he sat down with Gentile Christians and ate whatever food they were eating.
These love feasts expressed a beautiful unity between new believers and long-time Christians,
between Jewish Christians and Christians of other nationalities, celebrating the free salvation
they had in common through Christ.
But then something happened. A new group of men came from Jerusalem to Antioch.
They believed in keeping Jews and Gentiles separate. These new arrivals were devoted to strict
observance of Jewish rituals and practices, and they had no use for anyone who didnt feel the
same way. They didnt realize that the ceremonial requirements of Moses had been pointing
ahead to the Savior and that these things were binding only until the coming of the Messiah.
They didnt see that with the coming of Jesus, the old rituals were left behind for a more direct,
personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus. Although they saw Jesus as the promised
Messiah, they didnt believe Jesus alone was enough to save you. They thought you were saved
by faith in Jesus plus being circumcised, observing strict laws about food and drink, and various
other rituals and regulations from the law of Moses. So they insisted that before Gentiles could
be saved or included in fellowship with Jewish Christians, they had to be circumcised and
become like Jews. Maybe you know Dr. Seusss story, The Sneetches.
Now the star-belly Sneetches had bellies with stars,
while the plain-belly Sneetches had none upon thars...
The star-belly Sneetches would sniff and theyd snort:
Well have nothing to do with the plain-belly sort.
That was the attitude of the group arriving in Antioch from Jerusalem: Well have nothing to do
with the uncircumcised sort. These menknown as the circumcision partyhad ties to James,
a brother of Jesus and a leader in the Jerusalem church. The Bible doesnt say James himself felt
this way, but the fact that these men could claim an association with James made it all the more
tempting to go along with them.
And thats what Peter did: he went along with them. Peter didnt want to risk upsetting
these elitists. Instead, he backed away from his friendship with Gentile Christians and stopped
eating with them, acting as though he wasnt their brother in the Lord after all. In Galatians 2 the
apostle Paul says,
I opposed [Peter] to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men
came from James, [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began
to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who
belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that
by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

When someone prominent goes wrong, other people are affected. Peters problems werent his
alone. As a leader, his action had a ripple effect. Other Jewish Christians in Antioch thought so
highly of Peter that they followed his lead. Even Barnabas, a great missionary and teacher in his
own right, a long-time friend and encourager of the Gentiles in the Antioch churcheven
Barnabas felt hed better do what Peter did, and so he turned his back on his Gentile friends and
violated the gospel.

Standing Up for the Gospel

It was a critical moment in the history of the church. What if every last person had said,
Peter is the leaderhe cant be wrong? In that case, the gospel would have been twisted into a
message where you couldnt be saved by faith in Jesus unless you also observed various laws,
rituals, and regulations. The door to Gods kingdom would have been slammed in many faces.
But one man refused to follow Peters lead. One man had the God-given insight to see the
problems with Peter and the God-given courage to stand up to him. That man was the apostle
Paul. Paul writes,
When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to
Peter in front of them all, You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not a Jew. How
is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
We who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners know that a man is not
justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith
in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law,
because by observing the law no one will be justified.
...I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.
The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave
himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained
through the law, Christ died for nothing! Galatians 2:14-21
Paul stood up for the gospel. Those words of Paul set Peter straight and set the church of Jesus
back on the right course.
That critical moment wasnt the last time the church has been tempted to give up the
gospel of salvation by Gods grace alone through faith in Christ alone. This problem has risen
again and again throughout history. Another especially critical moment occurred in the early
1500s. That was a time when the good news of salvation by faith in Jesus was almost buried
under rituals and regulations heaped up by church officials. They said Jesus was necessary for
salvation, but he wasnt enough; you also needed various church ceremonies and traditions, plus
a lot of your own efforts and special payments of money, in order to be saved. To make matters
worse, the highest official in the church establishment, the popethe man who claimed to be St.
Peters successorwas saying these things, and many people thought that whatever the pope
said had to be right.
But one man, a German monk named Martin Luther, stood up and said the pope was
wrong. He said the church was out of line with the gospel and needed to change. On October 31,
1517, Luther launched a protest against church errors. He began a recovery of the gospel which
eventually became the Protestant Reformation. In essence Luther did what Paul had done so
many years earlier. He dared to stand for the gospel of grace when almost everyone else was
putting laws and rituals ahead of Christ. Luther dared to challenge the whole church hierarchy
and the pope himself.

Sad to say, the pope didnt respond to rebuke the way Peter did. Peter listened to Paul,
but the pope didnt listen to Luther. He rejected Luthers criticism, and church officials opposed
Luther fiercely. Many sneered at Luther, saying it was ridiculous to think that the pope and the
whole church hierarchy could be wrong while one German monk was right. But Luther was
right, just as Paul had been right centuries earlier. Luther insisted on the final authority of Gods
Word above the authority of any man, no matter how important that man might seem. Luther
insisted on salvation through faith in Christ, not salvation through a host of church-imposed
rituals and regulations. And as a result, the door to Gods kingdom, which had been almost
totally blocked off by legalism and error, was opened wide to many people.
Now, I mention Luther and the Reformation, not to bash Roman Catholics or to make
Protestants feel superior, but to call people of every background to faith in Jesus alone, trusting
the authority of Gods Word alone. Every church and every individual must constantly be
reforming and returning to the gospel truth that a man is not justified by observing the law but
by faith in Jesus Christ. The core of Christianity is not rules and rituals but a personal
relationship where Christ lives in me and I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and
gave himself for me. Christianity is Christ! A right standing with God and a personal
relationship with him come through faith in Christ, and Christ alone. That is the gospel!

Reasons to Confront
But were often in danger of forgetting that and acting as though it isnt true. This
happened to St. Peter himself, and if it could happen to him, it could happen to any of us.
Peters problems began when he started fearing other people more than he focused on
Jesus. He had been enjoying meals with Gentile Christians, but when some very strict and pious
people came to town, people who believed that salvation requires more than faith in Jesus, Peter
was afraid of making a bad impression on them, so he stopped sharing meals with his Gentile
friends. How often doesnt something similar happen to us as well? Were so afraid of what
certain people might think of us that we forget to ask what Jesus himself thinks, and before we
know it, were denying the gospel and making other thing matter more than Jesus. At that point
we need to be challenged and confronted.
When Peter went along with the legalists who denied salvation through faith in Christ
alone, Paul knew that he couldnt just stand by and let it happen. Its hard to confront someone
else, especially someone as important and respected as Peter, but Paul knew he had to do it for at
least four reasons.
The first reason was that Peter was rejecting Gentiles whom God had welcomed. This
was devastating to those new Christians. They had believed Jesus died for them, but now Peter
was refusing even to eat with them. Gods Spirit had come to live in them, or so they thought,
but what were they to think now that a leading pastor and representative of the Lord wouldnt
associate with them? How confusing and distressing that must have been for them! For the sake
of those Gentiles, Paul had to oppose Peter.
Pauls second reason was that Peter was also hurting fellow Jews. By acting as though the
old regulations and legalities mattered more than faith in Christ, Peter was corrupting many
Jews, even a wonderful missionary like Barnabas. And so Paul, himself a Jew, had to oppose
Peter for the sake of Jews who were being misled.
Pauls third reason was that Peter was hurting himself. Peter was violating his own
identity as someone who had left behind reliance on Jewish law and was depending entirely on

Christ crucified and risen to be made right with God. Peter was being a hypocrite, and hypocrisy
left unchanged destroys the soul. And so, for Peters own wellbeing, Paul opposed him.
Pauls fourth and most important reason for opposing Peter was that Peter was denying
the grace of God and dishonoring the Lord Jesus. If the old regulations could save people, then
why did Jesus die? If we could make ourselves right with God through our own efforts, then why
did Jesus pour out his precious blood? Paul thundered, I do not set aside the grace of God, for if
righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! (Galatians 2:21) Away
with such a thought! For the sake of Christ and the glory of God, Paul had to oppose Peter.
So, then, it wasnt nastiness or a desire to fight that led Paul to take his stand. He did it
for the sake of the Gentiles, for the sake of the Jews, for the sake of Peter himself, and for the
sake of the Lord Jesus.]No matter how prominent Peter was, he was wrong in this case. He stood
condemned, and Paul had to confront him.

Bedrock Principles
In that confrontation we see some bedrock principles that apply in every age. One
principle is that the final authority for faith and life is the gospel message, not any man, no
matter who he is. No matter what Peter or Barnabas or other leaders might say or do, the truth is
the truth. As Paul put it, they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, and that
meant they were wrong. Luther and other Reformation leaders emphasized the same principle
when they insisted on Scripture alone, rather than the authority of the pope or church officials, as
the final authority. Gods Word is infallible; people arent.
Still today there may be people who assume their pope or patriarch or preacher is perfect,
and thats a mistake. We must always look to the Bible as the final authority. But keep in mind
that theres more than one way to ignore the Bible in order to follow human authority.
Overemphasizing the authority of church leaders is one way; another way (more common these
days) is to overemphasize the authority of secular researchers. For many people, phrases like
Studies have proved or Scholars have found or Surveys show mean that something is
gospel. If it contradicts the Bible, they assume it means the Bible is wrong. But thats basically
the same the old mistake of placing human authority above the authority of Gods Word. If even
Peter could be wrong, you can be sure that scholars and researchers who dont know Christ at all
can go very far wrong. So let the gospel message taught in Scripture alone be your final
Another bedrock principle of which Paul reminded Peter is that a right standing with God
depends on Gods grace alone and comes to us by faith alone in Christ alone, so that God alone
gets the glory. Salvation isnt Gods grace plus a bit of law and ritual; its Gods grace alone. Its
not faith plus certain deeds; its faith alone. Its not partly Christ and partly me; its Christ alone.
And so God doesnt get just part of the glory; all the glory goes to God alone.
Paul reminded Peter, A man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus
Christ (Galatians 2:16). Paul made much the same point when he later told the Roman church,
To the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as
righteousness (Romans 4:5). This principle of justification by faith alone was central for Luther
and other Reformers. Indeed, Luther called it the thing by which the church stands or falls.
Now, it might be objected that such an approach makes people more wicked. If salvation
doesnt depend at least partly on my own works, wont I become more wicked than ever? This
was an objection Luther and the Reformers often faced and an objection the apostle Paul often
faced. In fact, if youre a preacher and nobody ever raises this objection to your preaching, you

probably arent preaching the gospel. The biblical gospel of salvation as a free gift, earned for us
entirely by Christ and received by faith alone, inevitably raises this objection from some people.
To those who wondered, Does the teaching that we sinners are justified in Christ mean
that Christ promotes sin? Pauls answer was, Absolutely not. Jesus died to pay the penalty for
our sins and bring us forgiveness, but if you think that means faith in Christ alone makes us sin
more than ever, think again. After all, says Paul, Christ didnt just die for me; I died with him--
my old sinful nature was dealt a death blow at the cross. Not only that, adds Paul, the Christ who
died for me now lives in me, transforming my life by the power of his Holy Spirit. I have been
crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live
by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. A right standing with God
depends on faith in Christ alone, and day-to-day living depends on Christ within us, not our own
Paul stood up to Peter and the others and reminded them of these things, and they knew
he was right. They knew this was the gospel they had learned from Jesus. They had strayed, and
they were grateful to be called back to the gospel truth which united them with God and with
Gods people of every nationality.
Still today this is the gospel that can unite you with God and with all his people. This is
the gospel of the Bible, the gospel of Jesus, the gospel of the apostles and Reformers, the only
true gospel there is. Believe it, and rejoice in it.

Father God, thank you for the gospel. Thank you for sending your Son Jesus to die for us
and to live in us by his Holy Spirit. Thank you for giving us a permanent record of the gospel
message in the Bible. Thank you for raising up courageous Reformers to challenge the church to
turn away from its errors and to return to the truth of the gospel.
Lord, help your church throughout the world today, and help its leaders. Some are
genuine servants of Christ but have somehow gone wrong, as Peter did. Give other believers
courage to challenge them in the authority of the gospel, and help mistaken leaders to humbly
accept correction.
Other church leaders do not know you at all, Lord. They are leading people down the
wrong path. Protect people from these leaders errors, and put an end to their influence.
Help pastors and missionaries and all Christians to be faithful to the gospel. Keep the
good news ringing forth clearly in the words and actions of your people, so that many who are
not yet saved may believe the truth and experience Christ living in them. For Jesus sake, Amen.

Originally prepared by David Feddes for Back to God Ministries International.