Paul challenges Simon Peter.

by K.W. Leslie, 30 March
Galatians 2.11-14 KWL
11 When Peter came to Antioch, I personally stood against him,
because he was being in the wrong.
12 For before the coming of certain people from James,
Peter was eating with gentiles.
When they came, Peter was withdrawing,
and separating himself—afraid of the circumcised.
13 The other Jews acted like hypocrites along with Peter,
so even Barnabas himself was led astray by their hypocrisy.
14 But when I saw they aren’t consistent with the gospel’s truth,
I told Peter in front of everyone,
“If you, a Jew, act like a gentile and not like a Jew,
how can you force the gentiles to be like Jews?”
  • “How Paul remembered the Council of Jerusalem.” Ga 2.1-5
  • “Paul and the apostles of note.” Ga 2.6-10
  • Simon Peter is an apostle of note. He’s the first in every list of the Twelve because he’s Jesus’s best student—the first to declare Jesus as Messiah, the only one who tried walking on water, the first to realize there’s no one else worth following, the one who renounced him yet came back to him. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Peter’s also the guy who spoke at the first Christian Pentecost and led thousands to Jesus; he cured the sick, raised the dead, and brought the gospel to gentiles. Two of Peter’s letters are in our bible, and the gospel of Mark is likely based on his personal recollections. Not for nothing do Roman Catholics consider him the head apostle, and are eager to claim their pope now sits in Peter’s seat. (Pope Francis would more humbly claim he certainly tries to.)

    But if you’ve read the gospels, you know Peter wasn’t infallible. None of us are.

    Paul wasn’t either, and would be the first to say so. 1Co 15.9, Ep 3.8 But here Paul tells of the time he had to stand up to Peter… because Peter was getting mixed up with the hypocrite faction in his church.

    In this passage Paul refers to Peter as Κηφᾶς/Kifás, a Greek form of the Aramaic nickname Jesus gave to Simon bar John: כיפא/kifá, “stone” or “rock.” Jn 1.42 The KJV renders Kifás as “Cephas,” and some Christians have either got the idea Cephas is some other apostle, or try to read something into Paul’s switch from Πέτρος/Pétros, “Peter,” in Galatians 2.7-8, to Kifás in verse 9 and afterwards. Why the switch? Some speculate Peter somehow fell from grace. But that’s rubbish: Pétros is Greek for “stone,” same as kifá is Aramaic for “stone.” It’s just Simon’s nickname in different translations, and Paul’s audience knew both translations. They’re interchangeable names. That’s why I translate ’em both as Peter.

    Peter didn’t fall from grace, because God doesn’t work like that. Peter only stumbled. He behaved one way when he first came to Antioch, Syria; then as soon as certain legalists showed up, Peter behaved another way. Paul correctly identifies this as hypocrisy. And it can happen to anyone. Sometimes because we have no backbone, and bend with every passing fart. Sometimes because we never learned how to resist peer pressure, or can’t withstand how much of it we’ve encountered. Sometimes because we heard some really clever, but really deceptive, arguments. My guess is it’s this last one—but regardless of the reason, Peter fell into hypocrisy. And Paul had to tell him so.

    The anti-authoritarian interpretation.

    This passage is way too popular with a certain kind of Christian. They like to use it to defend their practice of defying and criticizing Christian leaders.

    Y’see, they figure Peter is a significant Christian leader in the ancient church. Which he was. Catholics treat him like Jesus’s vice-president. Popular culture imagines him as heaven’s doorman, letting people in or keeping ’em out—loosely based on Jesus telling Peter he was granted the kingdom’s keys. Mt 16.19 He’s the Simon Peter… and Paul got to slap him down like Will Smith slapped Chris Rock. These folks share the attitude of Smith’s son Jaden: “And that’s how we do it.”

    Yes, leaders need an accountability structure. It’s why Jesus designated the Twelve, not a pope. Our structures should consist of mature Christians of good fruit and good character. Whereas anyone who eagerly volunteers to take down leaders have no such good fruit. They’re proud, impatient, argumentative, and produce bad fruit. But they justify themselves by pointing to Paul: “He had to correct Peter—and in the same way, I gotta take our leaders down a few notches whenever they go wrong.”

    So Paul facing Peter is what they especially love about this passage. But Paul didn’t do this with glee, vengeance, and schadenfreude. And y’notice Peter had time to establish a behavior of withdrawing and isolating himself from the gentile Christians: Paul didn’t stand up to him right away! He was likely hoping Peter would snap out of it, or heed the Holy Spirit and stop treating gentiles like second-class Christians. No fruitful Christian wants to pick a fight if we can help it. I know, I know; some of you are gonna insist we sometimes have to pick a fight, ’cause evil needs to be stopped. True. But do we want to fight?—and the human eagerness to fight is a work of the flesh, folks. Justify it with “righteous” excuses all you want; it’s still carnal.

    Paul had to challenge Peter because his behavior was undermining the gospel. Peter was practicing segregation: Jews over here, “foreskins” over there. ’Cause Jews were real Christians… and gentiles were still ritually unclean, so they kinda weren’t. You know, everything the Council of Jerusalem ruled against. And Peter was at that council, defending gentiles! Ac 15.7-11 But that’s how far peer pressure can corrupt you. It can make you flip-flop like any politician desperate to keep his donors happy.

    I should point out: By acting like there’s a two-tiered Christianity, Peter was basically committing heresy. And we have to object to heresy. Not drive heretics out of the church—you wanna drive Simon Peter, of all people, out of Jesus’s church?—but to kindly, gently explain to them how they’ve gone wrong, and convince ’em to go right.

    And by all accounts Peter repented and corrected himself. In his own second letter, written about a decade after Paul wrote Galatians, he commended Paul and rebuked those who twist Paul’s teachings. 2Pe 3.15-16 Peter appreciated Paul’s correction. Whereas anti-authoritarians tend not to give a rip about what anyone thinks of them: To them it’s far more important to be right, defeat their opponents, and drive them away naked and bleeding, than maintain and mend relationships.

    Don’t blame James.

    Another common mistake we find Christians teaching about this passage, is they blame James for encouraging legalism. “Before the coming of certain people from James,” Ga 2.12 Peter was interacting with gentiles just fine; afterwards he wasn’t. Preachers sometimes act as if James was the catalyst; as if he’s the head legalist, and these guys were just doing as James taught.

    Again: James presided over the Council of Jerusalem; he’s the one who declared gentiles don’t have to become Jews before they could be Christian. He didn’t share the views of these people who came from him! If anything, they left James because they didn’t agree. They couldn’t abide what James taught… so they went to Antioch to see if they could get make any headway at that church.

    Paul just stated in the previous verses that James was among the “apostles of note” who approved of the gospel he taught. Ga 2.2, 9 These guys were on the same page. The heretics from Jerusalem were not. Yet because they “came from James,” too many interpreters—pulling this verse out of context, unaware Paul had just written he and James were on the same side—leap to the conclusion James has something to do with their legalism. He did not. In his first letter John described certain people as “went out from us, but they were not of us.” 1Jn 2.19 KJV That’s what this is. These legalists had come from James’s community, but they didn’t at all reflect James’s views.

    People also presume James and Paul are at odds, because of some very weird interpretations about what faith does. Y’see, they claim we’re saved by faith. We’re not saved by works, obviously. Yet James teaches in his letter that faith and works are kinda the same thing: Faith without works is dead you know. Jm 2.17 So in their minds, Paul teaches faith, and James teaches legalism.

    It’s very weird listening to these people, because even though they claim the bible is inerrant, they treat James like a second-class book, and downplay any contradictions it has with their theology. But they’re entirely wrong about being saved by faith: We’re not! We’re saved by God’s grace. We’re only justified by faith, but God does all the saving. He saves us. Not our faith. Not what we deliberately choose to believe, and act upon. Which is, as James kinda makes obvious, a good work.

    The folks who claim we’re saved by faith, have clearly mixed up sola fide with sola grazia. They don’t understand how salvation works, but insist they do, and it’s leading them and others astray. They’re in denial that faith is a work, and unwittingly push works. It’s why so very many of ’em go full legalist.

    And it’s why they’ve invented a spat between Paul and James which doesn’t exist. Never existed.

    So don’t blame James for the legalists which showed up in Antioch. They might’ve claimed they came in James’s name, but they’re as phony as the Christians who claim Jesus’s name yet don’t follow him at all.