Paul challenges Simon Peter.

Galatians 2.11-16.

Today’s passage is, as the title says, about Paul challenging Simon Peter. Because he had to: Peter had behaved one way when he first came to visit Antioch, but as soon as the legalists showed up, Peter was behaving another way. Paul identified it as hypocrisy—hey, anybody can fall into it with the right kind of peer pressure—although maybe Peter was legitimately swayed by the legalists’ arguments. But either way Peter was profoundly wrong, and Paul had to tell him so.

(And I remind you Paul frequently refers to Peter as Κηφᾶς/Kifás, a transliteration of כיפא/Kifá, Aramaic for “rock”—the original nickname Jesus gave him. Jn 1.42)

Galatians 2.11-16 KWL
11 When Simon Kifa came to Antioch, I personally stood against him, because he was wrong.
12 For before certain people came from James, Kifa was eating with gentiles.
Once they came, he withdrew and segregated himself, afraid of the circumcision party.
13 The other Jews were hypocrites with Kifa; so much so, Barnabas was led into hypocrisy with them!
14 But when I saw they weren’t orthodox with the gospel’s truth, I spoke to Kifa in front of everyone:
“If you Jews live gentile, not ‘Jewish,’ why do you obligate gentiles to live ‘Jewish’?
15 We’re naturally Jews, not gentile sinners:
16 We know people aren’t right with God by working the Law. It’s through trusting Christ Jesus.
We put our trust in Christ Jesus so we can be right with God through a faith in Christ.
Not in working the Law: No flesh is right with God by working the Law.”

I’ll dig into Paul’s reasoning in a moment, but first I gotta tackle a few things. First, how this passage is really, really popular with Christian know-it-alls.

Y’see, they use it to defend their practice of criticizing Christian leaders. ’Cause Peter, they figure, was a significant Christian leader. He’s St. Peter. The guy whom Roman Catholics treat like Jesus’s vice-president. The guy we imagine as heaven’s doorman, letting people in or keeping ’em out, loosely based on Jesus telling Peter he was getting the kingdom’s keys. Mt 16.19 He was Jesus’s best student, the guy with two letters in the New Testament, the guy who preached on the first Christian Pentecost; the guy who first brought the gospel to gentiles, the guy who raised the dead and cured the sick and got miraculously freed from prison. That Simon Peter.

Yeah, after reading the gospels and seeing how Jesus had to correct Peter so frequently, we know the guy wasn’t infallible. It’s why Jesus didn’t designate one vice-president, but 12 apostles. Leaders need an accountability structure. But that structure should consist of mature Christians of good character… and know-it-alls lack good character. They’re proud, impatient, argumentative, and otherwise produce bad fruit. But they justify themselves by pointing to Paul: “He had to correct Peter, and in the same way I have to take leaders down a few notches when they go wrong.”

So what they enjoy about this passage is Paul sticking it to Peter. But “sticking it to him” is not what was going on here. Paul didn’t do this with glee, vengeance, and schadenfreude. He did it because Peter’s behavior was undermining the gospel. He was practicing segregation: Jews over here, “foreskins” over there. Jews were the real Christians; gentiles were still ritually unclean, so they kinda weren’t. You know, everything the Council of Jerusalem ruled against. By his actions, Peter was proclaiming a two-tiered Christianity. But Jesus came to flatten those tiers and eradicate any racism Jews had against gentiles.

By violating the Council, Peter was basically committing heresy. And we gotta 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 Galatians, he commended Paul and rebuked those who twist Paul’s teachings. 2Pe 3.15-16 He appreciated Paul’s correction. Whereas know-it-alls tend not to give a rip about what anyone thinks of them: To them it’s far more important to be right, than maintain and mend relationships.

Rank in God’s kingdom.

The other reason this passage is popular, is this myth Peter was a big important guy in the ancient church, and Paul not so much.

Nowadays we don’t make that distinction. Yeah, Peter was an apostle… and so was Paul. Both were personally selected and commissioned by Jesus. Simon was called away from fishing ’cause Jesus wanted him to fish for people; Saul was called away from fighting the church to growing it. But Christians imagine at the time, Peter was considered the pope, and Paul as a missionary bishop who hung out at Antioch a lot.

That’s not how the ancient church worked. Titles and ranks are human inventions. Jesus doesn’t do titles.

Matthew 23.8-12 KWL
8 “Don’t you be called ‘Rabbi.’ For you, there’s only one teacher. All of you are sisters and brothers.
9 Don’t you call anyone on earth ‘my spiritual Father.’ For you, there‘s only one Father, in heaven.
10 Nor call people ‘my spiritual guides.’ For you, there’s only one guide, Messiah.
11 The greatest of you all, must be the servant of you all.
12 Whoever will lift themselves up will be brought down; whoever will bring themselves down will be lifted up.”

Let’s be clear: There is such a thing as rank in God’s kingdom. Jesus said as much when he referred to greatest and least in his kingdom. Mt 5.19 But when James and John bar Zebedee asked to be placed in those greatest positions, Jesus said he doesn’t assign the seating Mk 10.35-40and he didn’t tell them who gets those positions. Because that’s none of our business. Follow Jesus; stop worrying about who gets to be valedictorian.

And we’re certainly not to assign ourselves these positions. Jesus is the Master, we’re the students. Some are good students, some are lousy students, but only one guy is the boss of us, and that’s Jesus. Earthly rank is a human invention, and letting earthly rank intimidate us is a devilish invention. As far as we Christians are concerned, we’re to judge everyone equally and fairly, and treat everyone with respect and kindness. No matter their title, education, job, wealth, race, gender, age, anything.

Problem is, humanity has historically been obsessed with rank. Because we covet power. Those who have any title or position of superiority, wanna remind everyone they have it. Those who covet rank, remind everyone too: They’re hoping once they reach that position, people will still respect them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been rebuked for referring to pastors by their Christian names instead of “Pastor.” Even by guys who aren’t my pastor.

So all the Christians who say, “Oooh, Paul stood up to Peter,” have fallen prey to this idea of ranks in the church. But why shouldn’t Paul stand up to Peter—particularly when Peter’s wrong? D’you think Peter wanted to be wrong? To stay wrong? Iron’s gotta sharpen iron!

Contrary to many a dramatic sermon, Paul’s rebuke wasn’t “speaking truth to power,” nor was it any kind of power struggle like we imagine when we overlay today’s organizational charts on top of ancient Christian relationships. Jesus flattens those tiers too. If Peter and Paul had forgotten this, the Holy Spirit is quick to remind us of it. More: Rank has nothing to do with whether Paul was right. Right is right. Rank changes nothing. If anything, rank has a way of making right things wrong, for power so easily corrupts. It’s why God prefers to work with humble people.

Don’t blame James.

Another common mistake we find among Christians is to blame James, of all people, for exacerbating the problem with the legalists.

At this point in history, Jesus’s brother James was in charge of the Jerusalem church, and in many ways was considered the first among equals in the entire church. (According to tradition it’s because James was a lot like his brother; and good on him.) And Paul had just written in the previous paragraph how James had taken his side in opposing the legalists. Paul, plus several people from Antioch, had gone to Jerusalem to submit the gospel he preached to James, Peter, John, and the Jerusalem elders, just in case he was wrong. And Paul got their confirmation. Ga 2.1-10 James approved of what Paul taught. James declared gentiles should have no extra rules hindering them from turning to Jesus. Ac 15.13-21 James was on Paul’s side! And Paul on James’s. And both on Jesus’s.

Yet more legalists had come to Antioch, and Paul described them as “certain people came from James.” Ga 2.12 As a result too many interpreters—probably reading this verse out of context, unaware Paul had just written he and James were on the same side of this issue—leap to the conclusion James was behind their legalism. He was not. In his first letter John had described certain people as “went out from us, but they were not of us.” 1Jn 2.19 KJV Much the same way, these legalists had come from James’s community, but they didn’t at all reflect James’s views.

People also presume James and Paul were at odds because of some very weird interpretations they have about what faith does. They believe Paul taught we’re saved by faith not works, and James taught faith and works are the same thing (for faith without works is dead, y’know Jm 2.17). So they imagine Paul and James actually oppose one another… but because these same people tend to claim the bible has no contradictions, what they also tend to do is downplay James’s teachings, and avoid his letter so they can avoid the controversy.

Thing is, Paul never taught we’re saved by faith. ’Cause we’re not. We’re saved by God’s grace, and only God’s grace. He does all the saving. We either receive his salvation or we reject it, like a drowning person who either accepts a lifeguard’s help or pushes her away. Accepting God’s salvation means we trust God to save us; we have faith. This does not mean our act of faith saved us. It justifies God saving us, but it’s still not the same as salvation. Insisting it’s totally the same thing, only means you‘re a moron. But, sad to say, plenty of us Christians are morons. And these morons presume when Paul wrote we’re not saved by works (true), it means faith must therefore not be a work (false); so when James wrote faith has to have good works as a component (very true), he’s contradicting Paul (totally false). They’ve mixed up some very basic ideas, and it’s led ’em astray. And it invents a spat between Paul and James which never existed.

So don’t blame James for these 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.

The Law doesn’t save. Never did.

Time to repeat Paul’s argument:

Galatians 2.14-16 KWL
14B “If you Jews live gentile, not ‘Jewish,’ why do you obligate gentiles to live ‘Jewish’?
15 We’re naturally Jews, not gentile sinners:
16 We know people aren’t right with God by working the Law. It’s through trusting Christ Jesus.
We put our trust in Christ Jesus so we can be right with God through a faith in Christ.
Not in working the Law: No flesh is right with God by working the Law.”

There’s some question as to how much of this passage was stated in public to Peter and the Antioch church, and how much is just him expressing the idea in more detail in Galatians. Obviously chapter 3 is addressed to the Galatians, so Paul has to have stopped addressing Antioch before then. And I figure he stopped addressing Peter after verse 16, ’cause he stops addressing Jews in specific, and starts addressing “we who strive to be right” Ga 2.17 —meaning Christ-followers in general.

Okay. In 2.15, Paul points out he and Peter are φύσει Ἰουδαῖοι/fýsei Yudéhi, “Judean by nature,” meaning naturally Jews—since neither of them were born in Judea, but they’re both Israeli. This as opposed to ἐξ ἐθνῶν ἁμαρτωλοί/ex ethnón amartolí, “sinners from the gentiles.” It’s not meant as a slam on gentiles, though many have taken it this way. It’s meant to make the point he and Peter grew up with, and are therefore wholly familiar with, how the Hebrews’ relationship with God is meant to work. Whereas gentiles, who didn’t grow up under Law, bible, temple, and Pharisees, hadn’t had the practice of the Law drilled into them since childhood, and shouldn’t be expected to near-instinctively live by it.

But what Paul and Peter also understood is the Law has nothing to do with salvation. Salvation came first. First God saves us, then we adopt the righteous lifestyle he lays out for us. Ep 2.8-10 Same as when God first saved the Hebrews from Egypt, then gave ’em the Law. Salvation didn’t come by Law, for not even Abraham had the Law, much less knew it. The Hebrews weren’t saved by Law; nobody’s saved by Law. That’s not its purpose. Never was.

Yeah, this is a whole 180-degree turn from what people think ancient Jews believed. Too many preachers still claim Jews were legalists. Weren’t Pharisees legalists?—wasn’t that Jesus’s whole beef with them? Nope. Jesus’s objection is to their loopholes. Pharisees claimed to follow the Law, but used their traditions and elders’ rulings to break it all the time, yet tell themselves and others they were totally right with God. Jesus’s objection was they didn’t follow the Law enough. In fact Jesus told his own students, including us,

Matthew 5.20 KWL
“I tell you, unless morality abounds in you, more than in scribes and Pharisees,
you might never enter the heavenly kingdom.”

If we claim to follow God, but willfully ignore his will, or even teach it doesn’t matter, you don’t actually trust him. Insisting no, you really do, despite breaking God’s commands right and left, is pure hypocrisy. And you know how Jesus feels about hypocrites.

Why do Christians insist Pharisees were legalists? Because we love our loopholes just as much as Pharisees loved theirs. Because we rely on cheap grace, same as they did. Yet we gotta explain why the Pharisees annoyed Jesus so much… so we point to the instances in the gospels where Pharisees commit any form of legalism (i.e. when they object to Jesus breaking their customs, or curing people on Sabbath) and claim they were nothing but legalists. And ignore the fact we Christians can be just as legalistic when we wanna be judgmental… and just as Law-breaking when we wanna get away with sins.

Dispensationalists will even claim Jews were saved by Law. That because of Jesus, everything changed; God stopped being Pelagian, ditched his old system of works righteousness, and replaced it with grace. And that’s not true either. More than once Paul made it clear nobody was ever saved by good deeds or good karma; it’s always been grace. God never changed his method of salvation. The only thing that’s new, is now we know how he achieved the salvation of humanity: Through Jesus.

And this, Peter particularly knew. ’Cause it’s the very same gospel Peter preached to gentiles.

Acts 10.43 KWL
“All the prophets testified about this Jesus.
Everyone who trusts him receives sin-forgiveness through his name.”

So… what’s with Peter embracing legalism? Well if you’ve ever been surrounded by legalists, you’ll notice their deal is to try to make people feel guilty. You sinned (as we all do); this makes baby Jesus cry; you don’t want that, do you? Every sin you commit, is one more sin dumped upon Jesus’s back on the cross. You made him suffer. You drove God away. And so on, making us feel filthy and unclean. Who’d wanna feel like that? Not Peter. Not anyone, really.

Legalists figure it’s all for the best: It motivates people to behave. But it means our motivation to get right with God has nothing to do with trust, with grace, with wanting to be close to God. In fact people regularly jump to the conclusion we’re too filthy to ever get clean, and abandon God in despair. And that is why legalism is heresy.