(11) But when Cephas came to Antioch, I challenged him to his face, because he was already condemned. (12) Before certain messengers came from James, he ate with the gentiles, but after they came, he turned back and separated himself, because he was afraid of the circumcision party. (13) And the rest of the Jewish believers became hypocrites right along with him, until even Barnabas joined in their hypocrisy. (14) But when I saw that he was not staying on the correct path guided by the truth of the good news, I said to Cephas in front of everyone, “If you, who are a Jew live like a gentile and not like a Jew, how can you require gentiles to start acting like Jews?” — Galatians 2:11-14
When this little incident took place, Paul had just attended a meeting in Jerusalem in which it had been agreed that the gentiles would not be subject to the various laws of Judaism. Peter was the apostle to the Jews, and preached the gospel to them, and Paul was the apostle to the gentiles.
Peter, however, had already been instructed by God when he preached to the household of Cornelius, that he was to associate freely with gentile believers, and clearly he had been living in that way. The story in Galatians suggests that Peter and Paul were good friends, at least up to this point, and writing later in 1 Corinthians, it looks like they were reconciled again. So the story has a good ending, even if this little fragment of it does not.
Now you can look at this story from two sides. First, let’s consider it from Peter’s point of view. I’m going to try to fill in the background from other information, but I think it’s fairly accurate. Antioch was a church that had both Jewish and Gentile believers, and they commonly ate together. I would assume that the celebrated communion together, which in those days would be more of a common meal than the ritual of today. Peter, working in Antioch and probably on evangelizing Jews in the city, goes along with the standard arrangements in that church.
But Peter’s mission is to the Jews. The messengers who came from James probably didn’t say anything nasty about Paul. Notice that Paul doesn’t actually challenge them. They may have simply suggested that eating with gentiles was going to threaten Peter’s influence among the Jews and make it harder for him to make converts. Thus Peter probably took his actions for what seemed to him very good reasons, and ones Paul might well have approved of. (20And I became to the Jews as a Jew, so that I might gain Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law, not myself being under the law, so that I might gain those under the law. — 1 Corinthians 9:20) But as so often happens, others went along, and soon there was a major separation in the church.
Second, look at it from Paul’s point of view. To him the gospel message meant that God was breaking down all these barriers, that we wouldn’t be separated into classes and alienated groups, but that all would be one in Jesus (Galatians 3:28). So what he saw happening was one of the nicest representations of the good news about Jesus, the Antioch church, being split apart, and all because Peter had to make a big deal about food laws.
Now I think I’ve made both of these men look pretty reasonable. At least they have what appear to be plausible reasons for their behavior. Each could accuse the other of compromiseâ€”Paul of compromise of the evangelistic mission to the Jews and the food laws, and Peter of the reconciling nature of the gospel.
So what should guide? Well, Paul puts the right thing front and center: â€œI saw that he was not staying on the correct path guided by the truth of the good news . . .â€ is what he says of Peter.
And it’s a simple as that. When you have to decide between various practices and principles, you simply have to hold both options up to the gospel. Which of these actions is more in accordance with the good news of Jesus Christ?
With that question, you will find you can settle many difficult decisions.