Paul has been establishing his authority and the legitimacy of the Good News that he first preached. We now get to a story that demonstrates the point that Sha’ul is making, and the most important section of the letter.[i] At first, I did not realise how important this section was, until I was into the third page of commentary on a single verse. This section sets out the main theme of the entire letter and establishes the arguments that Sha’ul will make throughout the rest of the letter.[Read Gal. 2:11-21][ii]
The Antioch Incident with Peter
(Vs. 11-13) The letter to the congregations in Galatia was written after Sha’ul’s first missionary trip in Acts 13. Therefore, this entire story about Peter occurs after Peter visited Cornelius in Acts 10.
There in (Acts 10:27-28, 34-35) Peter tells Cornelius, “You yourselves know that it is not permitted for a Jewish man to associated with a non-Jew or to visit him. Yet God has shown me that I should call no on unholy or unclean.” Peter then goes on and says, “I truly understand that God is not one to show favoritism, but in every nation the one who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him.” Peter then returned to Jerusalem and related this entire event. When he arrived, “those of the circumcision took issue with him, saying, ‘You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them!” (Acts 11:2) But where in the Tenach does it say that Jews should not eat with Gentiles? It does not. And while there is nothing in the Talmud that says that Gentiles themselves are common or unclean, there are many passages that state that the products and practices of Gentiles would make a Jewish person ritually unclean.[iii] This is not the consistent message of the Talmud, but it is not hard to see how Peter would draw the conclusion that the Gentiles themselves were unclean.
This is the backdrop of the story we read in (Gal. 2:11). Peter had succumbed to the pressure of “those of the circumcision” and stopped eating and fellowshipping with the Gentile Believers. Sha’ul watched as most of the other Messianic Jews followed Peter, and a major schism between the Jewish and Gentile Believers began. Sha’ul saw this as a serious hypocrisy that was out of step of the Good News and had to be immediately addressed. So Sha’ul confronts Peter publicly. Public confrontation is not the recommended approach that Yeshua teaches in the Gospel of Matthew. There Yeshua gives us three steps to restoring a relationship when someone has sinned against us.[Read Matt. 18:15-17]
- We are first to go to that person privately, one-on-one. Peter will later quote the Proverb that “Love covers a multitude of wrongs.” (1 Pet. 4:8)
- If this does not work, we are to take two or three others to help mediate,
- As a last resort, we are to take the matter before the entire congregation,
- If all this fails, then we are to treat the person as an unbeliever; this means to still love them, but not with fellowship with them.
It is possible that Paul had never read the Gospel of Matthew …. it probably had not yet been written. In reality, Paul was overcome with the danger of Peter’s actions. Especially since Peter was influencing all others to follow him away from the Good News, that God’s acceptance of all people was based upon trusting faithfulness and not ethnicity. Peter was now being influenced by “those of the circumcision” who had come to Antioch. We learn from Acts 15:24 that these people claimed to be from Jacob, but actually had no authority to speak on behalf of the Apostles.
(Vs. 14-16) Sha’ul’s method for confronting Peter is also very wise. Instead of simply calling out the error, and bringing correction, Sha’ul asks a direct, but leading question, “If you—being a Jew—live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Commentators disagree as to when the conversation with Peter ends, and when the teaching for the congregations begins. David Stern believes that the conversation with Peter extends through to verse 16.[iv] Regardless, Sha’ul’s question allowed Peter to come to the realization of his error. It also reminds us of the questions that Yeshua asked Peter, at the end of the Gospel of John, questions that were designed to bring repentance and restoration.
Sha’ul uses this conversation with Peter to lead into the most important premise of the letter to Galatia. (Vs. 16) “Yet we know that a person is set right not by deeds based on Torah, but rather through putting trust in Messiah Yeshua [the faithfulness of Messiah Yeshua]. So even we have put our trust in Messiah Yeshua, in order that we might be set right based on trust in Messiah and not by deeds based on Torah—because no human will be justified by deeds based on Torah.” (Ps. 14:3; 53:3; 143:2; Eccl. 7:20.) David Stern points out that the word for faith, as used by all the New Testament authors, is the concept of trusting faithfulness.[v]
I prefer the second option of interpreting this verse, that we have been made righteous by the faithfulness of Yeshua. We have then responded to that faithfulness by choosing to trust in Yeshua and be faithful to Him. He was faithful to Adonai (Heb. 3:2) even to the point of death on the cross. And we are called by Yeshua in the book of Revelation (2:10, 6:9, 13:10) to be faithful until death.
In (Vs. 17) we find a very familiar criticism of God, although it is usually stated a little differently. The argument that Sha’ul makes goes like this: Since we are followers of Yeshua, and we are obviously sinners, therefore Yeshua must condone sin. Sometimes this question is phrased this way: If we say that God created this world, and this world is obviously filled with evil, therefore either God is evil, or a good God does not exist. To all these arguments, Sha’ul exclaims, “May it never be!” These conclusions are the farthest from Sha’ul’s mind, and they do not necessarily logically follow the premises.
The next argument goes in another direction. The previous argument deals with whether or not the Good News give licence for sin. The argument in (Vs 18) is that if Sha’ul were to attempt to leave his trust in Messiah and go back and seek justification by keeping all the Torah, he would only prove the fact that he is indeed a sinner. Sha’ul speaks of this in the letter to the Romans (Ch. 7). There he states that the commandment that was meant to be life was found to cause death because of the sin that dwells in us.
Both in Galatians and in Romans, the solution is the same. We are crucified with Messiah and it is no longer us who lives, but Messiah who lives in us. The good life that we now live, is because Adonai has made us forensically righteous, meaning that God has cleared away all the guilt of our past sins, and has given us a new human nature that is inclined to obey God rather than rebel against Him.
The application is simple; it is the simple Good News. We must trust in Yeshua; we must ask to be united with Him in His death, so that we can also be united with Him in resurrection life; and we must continue to live day-to-day by the same trusting faithfulness that Yeshua, the Son of God had.
[i] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Rev. Ed., Vol 11, Robert Rapa, pg. 581.
[ii] All Scripture quotations are taken from the Tree of Life (TLV) version unless otherwise noted.
[iii] The Jewish New Testament Commentary on Acts 10:28, David Stern, pg. 258.
[iv] The Jewish New Testament Commentary, David Stern, pg. 530.
[v] The Jewish New Testament Commentary on defining pistis as trusting faithfulness, David Stern, pg. 538.