“I I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and give Himself for me.” Galatians 2:20.
Consider the movements leading up to our passage. In the salutation/introduction Paul (and all the brethren with him) writes that our Lord Jesus Christ “gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of God our Father.” Is Christ able to do this? Is our Father able to accomplish His will? If so, as Paul will demonstrate, God will do it apart from the Law. Yes, the Law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:21 - 4:7), but we have now “died to the Law” (2:19) that we “might live to God”.
After the introduction Paul introduces a severe warning; “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel...some who are disrupting you want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!”
Paul foregoes his practice of a salutation of blessing and thanksgiving in order to get right to the point; Christ gave Himself to redeem us from the present evil age and the Galatians are being deceived with another gospel. This is not a doctrinal deviation that is of minor importance, this is not a case of immature thinking, this is not a situation that can be made right with gradual persuasion, this is not something that is “better caught than taught” - the situation is so dire that Paul twice writes that let anyone who preaches another gospel “be accursed!”.
Then from 1:11 - 2:10 Paul reminds the Galatians of his own testimony and history with the church, especially with the apostles in Jerusalem. God gave Paul the Gospel and the apostles in Jerusalem affirmed Paul’s ministry and its content. Then we come to the hinge of Galatians, the door that Paul will swing open to deal with the false teaching that is leading the Galatians back into bondage:
“But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of 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? We are Jews by nature and not sinner from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.
“But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be! For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself a transgressor. For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God…”
Peter comes to Antioch to encourage the church and things go well, he enjoys fellowship with non-Jews, he eats with them, shares life with them. Then a group from Jerusalem arrives, a group that apparently thinks that Christians, or at least ethnically Jewish Christians, still need to observe the Law in order to be righteous before God. Peter fears these people so much that he stops eating with the Gentiles, and the fear is so great that not only do the rest of Jews in Antioch follow Peter’s example, but even Barnabas, who God had used to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles, “was carried away by their hypocrisy.” Fear invaded the organic life of the Church of Jesus Christ; fear attacked the Gospel of Grace and Liberty in Christ. Fear can make us seek righteousness and acceptance under the Law, fear can drive us from organic life with one another in Christ, fear can enslave us...particularly the fear of what others think. Perhaps this is why Paul makes a point of writing, “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ” (1:10). If we fear what others think we will conform to the religious laws and traditions that others insist on using as benchmarks of righteousness and acceptance.
It is a rare person who cannot feel the pressure from others to seek righteousness under the Law, or under other laws and traditions. We do not know whether Paul faced this temptation or not, we do not know whether he struggled with whether or not to go along with Peter. I think it is fair to suggest that Paul wrestled with what to do, that he considered the risk of doing nothing and the risk of speaking out - and perhaps especially the risk of speaking out “in the presence of all”. The Gospel was at stake here, not only the Gospel in Antioch, but the Gospel for the world - for Peter’s actions were making a statement that would be spread elsewhere; Paul must speak out; for the church in Antioch, for the church in other regions, for the church in future times, for the sake of Peter, for Paul’s own sake, and for the sake of Jesus Christ.
We are probably deceiving ourselves if we minimize the pressure to conform to peer pressure regarding the Law and trappings of the Law.. Who wants to be associated with the idea that we no longer live under the Law? Paul was accused of suggesting that since we no longer live under the Law that anything goes (Romans 6:1-2; 15 - 17) - but he withstood these accusations and maintained the Gospel of Grace in Christ. We often seek compromise, with one foot in grace and one foot in the Law, we often seek to accommodate the Law to avoid accusations - to be pragmatic. If we do these things then let us take ownership of them, but let us not attribute these attitudes and actions to Paul, for Paul is clear that we have died to the Law and that we are now married to Jesus Christ.
“For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor” (Galatians 2:18). Returning to the Law makes us transgressors, for no one can obey the Law - the Law can only bring condemnation and manifest sin - the very opposite of the Gospel of Grace. Do we fear to believe this because we fear what others will think and say?
While Peter’s response to Paul’s rebuke and correction is not recorded, I think it is safe to conclude that Peter acknowledged the truth of Paul’s words and repented; I also think Peter realized what was at stake. We know from Peter’s history that he had the God-given capacity to acknowledge his sin and his wrong thinking and to repent, to grow, and to move on. Paul had the courage to speak, Peter had the courage to hear and to repent - for both Peter and Paul realized there was something transcendent at stake, they both knew they had to put Christ and others before themselves.
Do we have the courage to speak? Do we have the courage to listen? Do we have the courage to act? Are we eating at the Table of the Gospel of Grace?