Stand Your Ground

The Point:  Never compromise when the issue is a matter of biblical right and wrong.

No Compromising the Gospel:  Galatians 2:1-5.

[1]  Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. [2]  I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. [3]  But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. [4]  Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in–who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery– [5]  to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.  [ESV]

[1-2]  In these verses there are three groups of principal actors, each of which plays a distinctive role in the decision of the conference and its aftermath. First, there is the Pauline party, consisting of Barnabas, Titus, and the apostle himself. Second, there are the false brothers who agitated for Titus to be circumcised and later imported their Judaistic tendencies to Antioch itself. This group represented an extreme wing of the Jewish Christian movement. They had strong attachments to the church at Jerusalem, particularly to James. They were obviously zealous, law-observant propagandists who perceived Paul’s law-free gospel as a serious threat to the Christian faith as they understood it. We get a glimpse of their theology from Acts 15:1, where we are told that some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Now some of these same Jewish Christian missionaries or their close fellow travelers also had penetrated the churches of Galatia, spying on the Christian freedom of the new believers there just as they had done before at Antioch and elsewhere. The third party that plays a prominent role in the narrative are the leaders of the Jerusalem church, namely, James, Peter, and John, whose prominence had given them the name pillars. Paul’s main negotiations were with these church leaders, not with his Judaizing detractors, although the close relationship between the pillars and some of their more zealous disciples must have created a situation of great tension for everyone involved. Paul made three important points concerning the motivation for his second visit to Jerusalem. First, he insists that he was prompted to call for this meeting because of a revelation [2]. This is the same word Paul used in 1:12 to describe his epiphany of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Although that experience was a unique, unrepeatable event, we know that Christ appeared and spoke to Paul on other occasions as well [Acts 22:17-21; 2 Cor. 12:1-10]. There is no reason to doubt that Paul is here referring to a similar disclosure related to the special circumstances of his mission to the Gentiles, concerning the growing rift and controversy concerning Paul’s message and its reception throughout the church at large. Paul’s second motivation in convening the conference is succinctly expressed: I went up … and set before them … the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles [2]. There were probably some who were misrepresenting Paul’s gospel teaching so that he found it necessary to explain the true gospel message that he was proclaiming among the Gentiles. What we have in Galatians 2 is a snapshot of the early church grappling with the problems of law and gospel, faith and freedom, historical particularity and evangelical inclusivism. The third motivation for the conference relates to an issue that flows just beneath the surface of the text. Paul made it abundantly clear that the conference was called at his initiative, not that of the Jerusalem leaders. He was not being summoned to headquarters to give an account for his activity. Rather, he himself sought the meeting in order to resolve a crisis that could have led to a major division within the body of Christ. Doubtless this was why Paul asked for a private meeting, not a public hearing, over these matters. We have much to learn from how Paul handled himself in this controversy. Later he would write to the Romans, let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding [Rom. 14:19]. It is always wrong to provoke controversy in a belligerent, un-Christlike manner. Paul sought to avoid such a situation by sharing confidentially with trusted leaders of the church. There are occasions, however, when in order to be faithful to the gospel it is necessary to speak out publicly and even bluntly on matters that cannot be compromised. This Paul would do in his open rebuke of Peter at Antioch. How do we know when to seek private counsel and when to take a public stand? When is it right to swallow our scruples and yield to a fellow Christian on a matter of secondary importance? Conversely, when is it wrong to sit still and keep the peace when our speaking out could make a difference about whether our church or our denomination will remain faithful to the gospel? There is a time to speak and a time to keep silent. Every Christian must seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to know which is appropriate at a given time.

[3-5]  Verses 3-5 constitute a digression in Paul’s narration of his second visit to Jerusalem. This reflects what was likely an actual interruption in his private conference with the Jerusalem church leaders. Paul took with him to the conference a Jewish Christian, Barnabas, and a Gentile convert, Titus. Why did Paul take Titus with him to Jerusalem? Probably Paul deliberately included Titus to have a living example of a Gentile convert on hand when he presented his gospel to the church leaders in Jerusalem. Thus Titus was a test case for the principle of Christian freedom. Here for the first time in Galatians we encounter the issue of circumcision. Controversy over circumcision was not limited to the Galatian context. It dogged Paul wherever he went. Circumcision became more and more prominent as a distinguishing mark of Jewish identity as the people of Israel found themselves in a political environment that grew increasingly hostile. During the period of the New Testament, circumcision was regarded by devout Jews as an indispensable precondition and seal of participation in God’s covenant community. The strictest Jews insisted that even proselytes be circumcised as a rite of initiation into the special people of God. To this group Paul represented a serious threat to the character of the Christian faith, which they interpreted in terms of continuity with the Old Testament law, worship in the temple, and faithful observance of such sacred Jewish rites as circumcision. Thus these Judaizers held that unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved [Acts 15:1]. Paul held that to accept this verdict was to renounce the truth of the gospel, that salvation is by divine grace manifested in Jesus’ completed work on the cross, the benefit of which is received through personal faith in the Redeemer, and that alone. In this case, for a Gentile believer to submit to circumcision is to make Christ … of no advantage to you [Gal. 5:2]. Those to whom Christ is of no value are still under the curse of the law, without God and without hope in this world and the next. Thus the dispute over Titus set the parameters for the crisis in Galatia. It brought into focus an issue that could not be avoided, a matter that would again come to the fore at the Jerusalem Council [Acts 15], the outcome of which was crucial both for the integrity of the gospel and the unity of the church. The treatment of circumcision had become a test of the Christian faith. In historical terms, it must be decided whether Christianity is something other than a new Jewish sect. In theological terms, the decision is whether one’s relationship with Christ is dependent on being under the law, or the relationship to the law is dependent on being in Christ. These false brothers … slipped in to Paul’s private conference with the Jerusalem leaders and sought to disrupt matters over the issue of circumcision. The parenthetical paragraph on Titus and the false brothers concludes in verse 5 with the introduction of two concepts that will dominate the remainder of Galatians: freedom and truth.

Paul Sent to the Gentiles:  Galatians 2:6-10.

[6]  And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)–those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. [7]  On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised [8]  (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), [9]  and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. [10]  Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.  [ESV]

[6-10]  Having interrupted his narration of the Jerusalem meeting to describe the intrusion of the false brothers and the Titus test case, Paul now resumed the flow of his account he left off at the end of verse 2. Paul wrote these verses with a great care to provide both an accurate and memorable report of the agreement he reached at Jerusalem and a refutation of the slanderous charges made against him by his Galatian opponents. Paul drew a sharp distinction between the false bothers he had just characterized in such a derogatory way [3-5] and the church leaders with whom he had come to Jerusalem to confer. The expression those who seemed need not carry a derogatory connotation. It may simply mean “these people who are acknowledged leaders.” Had Paul meant this term in a decidedly negative way, he would have undercut his own argument, namely, that he and the Jerusalem pillars were, after all, on the same team. The basic drift of the passage points not to opposition or confrontation between Paul and these leaders but rather to their fundamental unity and reciprocity in the shared task of fulfilling the Great Commission. Paul made three additional points about his relationship to the Jerusalem leaders. First, Paul’s opponents had accused him of being a recent convert to the Christian faith. The other leaders had known Jesus from the early days of His public ministry on earth. Paul could not claim the kind of privileged status they enjoyed because he had no such comparable knowledge of Jesus’ earthly life and work. Paul did not dispute the facts in this charge, but he did vigorously deny the inference his opponents drew from them. The risen Christ who appeared to him was none other than the same Jesus who walked the dusty roads of Galilee and died on a Roman cross outside the gates of Jerusalem. Second, Paul uses an idiom, God shows no partiality, which meant in the Old Testament that God does not honor outward symbols of status and privilege but rather true obedience and devotion. Paul used this idiom in his rejection of the exaggerated veneration of the Jerusalem authorities by his Galatian opponents. Paul too respected these Jerusalem leaders; they were his companions, not his competitors, in the work of the Lord. But he could not countenance the kind of distorted devotion his opponents had lavished on these human leaders, for it bordered on idolatry and obscured the truth of the gospel to which both they and Paul were committed. Third, Paul says that the Jerusalem leaders added nothing to his gospel. This continues Paul’s emphasis in Galatians on the supernatural origin of his gospel and the independence of his apostolic calling. Having stated the negative considerations related to what did not happen at his meeting with the Jerusalem leaders, Paul turned (on the contrary) to a description of the positive outcome of the summit [7-9]. The climax of the meeting was the mutual recognition symbolized by the right hand of fellowship and the agreed upon division of labor in the worldwide missionary enterprise. In describing how this decision came about, Paul focused on the one gospel shared by all the participants, the two apostles representing the two spheres of missionary outreach, and finally the three pillars whose affirmation of Paul and Barnabas were crucial to the positive outcome of the conference. James, Peter, and John perceived the grace that was given to Paul. What they recognized and affirmed was something that had already occurred in Paul’s life, namely, the divine commissioning he had received from Christ Himself.

Paul Opposes Peter:  Galatians 2:11-14.

[11]  But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. [12]  For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. [13]  And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. [14]  But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?"  [ESV]

[11-14]  The Pharisaic teachers forbade any observant Jew from having table fellowship with anyone outside of the covenant of Israel. Many of the Palestinian Jews who entered the Christian community came like Paul from a strict Pharisaic background. If Gentiles were to be accepted into the Christian fellowship at all, it could only be on the basis of their strict adherence to the Mosaic law. For the strictest Jewish Christians this meant that all Gentile Christian males must be circumcised else they would lack the divinely ordained seal of the covenant. When Peter came to Antioch, he found Jewish and Gentile believers eating together at the same table, and he freely joined them in this practice. Three interrelated events precipitated the confrontation between Peter and Paul: the arrival of the Jerusalem delegation, Peter’s withdrawal from common table fellowship, and the wholesale defection of Barnabas and other Jewish Christians. Who were the men came from James whose coming to Antioch put Peter under such pressure? It is likely that these men were zealous members of the ultra-right wing party within the Palestinian movement. Acts 15:24 indicates that these men did not have the approval of James and were not representing him. These men were shocked when they saw how freely Peter was sharing table fellowship with uncircumcised believers in evident disregard for the usual practice of Jewish Christians at home. We do not know what, if anything, they said to him about this matter; perhaps their very presence was sufficiently intimidating to lead Peter to withdraw from eating with the Gentile believers. As if Peter’s pressured withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentile believers was not enough, all of the other Jewish Christians at Antioch were swept along with him in this shameful playacting. At this point Paul inserted what is perhaps the most poignant line in the entire epistle, even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. Paul’s sorrow and embarrassment over the defection of his close friend and colleague was still a painful memory as he related it to the Galatians. The fact that even Barnabas could be pressured to yield over the issue of table fellowship indicates both the strong influence exerted by the legalistic Jewish Christians and the loneliness of Paul’s resistance to their demands. Verse 14 is an extended explanation of what Paul had already stated as the climax of the Antioch incident: he opposed Peter to his face because Peter was clearly in the wrong. Paul used two very strong words in his public condemnation of Peter and the other Jewish Christians at Antioch who had separated from their Gentile brothers and sisters: hypocrisy and not in step with the truth of the gospel. Here is the brunt of Paul’s charge against Peter: He should have known better! Peter was not guilty of an honest mistake, nor was there any evidence that he had changed his mind about the extension of salvation to the Gentiles, a truth revealed to him by a special revelation. Peter had donned a mask of pretense; he was shamefully acting a part contrary to his own true convictions. What Paul rebuked was the inconsistency of his conduct or his Christian walk. Paul had to confront Peter publicly because the issue at stake was not merely a personality clash between the two apostles but rather the truth of the gospel and the unity of the church. The importance of the issue is seen when Paul asks the question: how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews? The word force is precisely the same term Paul used earlier in this chapter [2:3] to describe the demands of the false brothers for Titus’ circumcision. What was so insidious in the separatism of Peter and his associates was the fact that they were acting as if their Gentile Christian brothers and sisters were still sinners while they, because of their ritual purity and obedience of the law, stood in a different, more favorable relationship to God. Yet Jews and Gentiles alike had been redeemed by the same Christ, regenerated by the same Holy Spirit, and made partakers of the same fellowship. Who then could dare say they should not come to the same table to partake of the same Lord’s Supper just as already they had been baptized into the name of the same one triune God? In summary, what lessons can we learn for today from this vivid account of Paul’s confrontation with Peter at Antioch? Let us look at three practical truths we can apply from this passage to the life of the church today. (1) Great leaders can fall. There was every reason for Peter to resist the pressure to compromise his convictions in the face of pressure. He had been in the intimate circle of Jesus’ closest disciples. He was a primary witness to the resurrection. He had witnessed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. He had even been used by God as the instrument of evangelistic breakthrough to the Gentiles. Yet in a moment of crisis he failed and by the force of his example led many others astray as well. Paul’s warning to the Galatians is clear: what happened to Peter can happen to you! In recent years the church of Jesus Christ has witnessed the downfall of many greatly gifted and highly visible leaders. Their lapse is not only a matter of personal tragedy but also a blight on the body of Christ. May God help us to test every message we hear by the touchstone of His Word and save us from exalting any human leader above measure. (2) God’s grace means no second-class Christians. Throughout the history of the church, and especially in missionary settings, the sharing of a simple meal has often symbolized the unity and fellowship implied in the message of salvation through Christ. Racism of any brand in any culture is incompatible with the truth of the gospel. Later in Galatians [3:26-29] Paul would spell out the implications of Christian unity in terms of the promise of grace fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Any religious system or theology that denies this truth stands in opposition to the new creation God is bringing into being. (3) Standing for the gospel can be a lonely business. When the crisis became more intense, Barnabas sided with Peter in the confrontation with Paul. The Apostle to the Gentiles stood alone on behalf of the gospel.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Who were the three groups of principal actors in 2:1-10? Who were these false brothers and why were they causing such problems for the early church? What important decision was made at the Jerusalem meeting concerning the meaning of the gospel?

2.         What was the key issue in 2:11-14? Why did Paul think that this was important enough to justify confronting Peter publicly? What lessons can we learn from this incident?

3.         Think about this statement: ”the price of theological integrity and spiritual vitality is eternal vigilance.” Do you see a need for this “eternal vigilance” in your church and denomination? In the church’s witness to our world?


Galatians, Timothy George, NAC, Broadman.

Galatians, Leon Morris, Inter-Varsity.

The Message of Galatians, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

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