In verses 11 to 14, Paul describes a particular incident that occurred between himself and Peter (or Cephas). Peter was, of course, one of the chief followers of Jesus, and was virtually head of the Church in Jerusalem in Paul’s day. Well, the incident was an unpleasant affair. They had a very strong difference of opinion. Some might call it an argument, but it was more like a confrontation.
Paul saw that something which Peter had done was very wrong and was threatening to deeply divide the young Church. Peter, for his part, did not seem to have realised the seriousness of his action.
It was absolutely necessary therefore that Paul confront him publicly on the issue. Paul, as we saw in our previous studies, was very anxious to ensure that the truth of the Gospel not be undermined or in any way compromised. If, in this instance, it meant taking on the great Peter, then that’s what he would do!
Remember, we are talking about Paul and Peter, two of the foremost of Jesus’ followers, disagreeing about a fundamental issue. Paul knew that if this was not cleared up immediately, the error would flood into the Church and go right down through history.
Well, the events went something like this: Peter was a Jew. Most of Paul’s converts were Gentiles (non-Jews). Peter knew only too well that God accepted non-Jews just as freely as He accepted his own race.
We know this from the record of Peter’s experience (recorded in Acts 10 and 11), when God showed him that he was to preach the Gospel to a Gentile by the name of Cornelius. If you read the story, you will see that Peter had a lot of trouble getting used to the idea!
After this experience, Peter’s conclusion was: ‘Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality...’ God doesn’t have favourites. In other words, God does not make the distinction between races and cultures as we do.
On this occasion which Paul speaks of, Peter had been associating with a group of Gentile Christians and had been enjoying fellowship with them, when suddenly he withdrew from them.
Apparently he did this because a group of men had come who belonged to the ‘circumcision party’—that group of Jews who taught that faith in Jesus was not enough and that anyone who wanted to be a Christian had to go through a Jewish ritual in order to be classed as a true believer.
Now, of course, the Gentiles Peter was with at the time had not been through this ritual. So, rather than being embarrassed by being seen with these non-Jews, Peter withdrew from them—he stopped associating with them.
In verse 12, Paul says that Peter ‘feared the circumcision party’. In other words, Peter had come to place more importance on his relationship to a group than on standing firm for the truth of the Gospel.
In verse 13, Paul says that in this attitude Peter ‘acted insincerely’. And if that were not enough, his stand influenced many of the other Jewish Christians, so that they followed his example and withdrew from the Gentile Christians also.
Stop for a moment and think about this. This same attitude exists today in our churches. Some say you have to be baptised in a particular way, otherwise you haven’t been ‘done’ properly, Others insist that you worship in a particular way or dress according to a certain style or code. Others say you must go through their particular ritual if you are to be counted as part of their fellowship.
The principle is the same as that which Paul denounced in Peter and his friends. See verse 14. ‘They were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel.’ The same terrible error that Peter made, we make today when we insist that other believers conform to our group’s way of going about things.
In so doing, we have lost sight of the fundamental issue: we belong first and foremost to Christ. Our salvation depends entirely upon Him and His grace. and not on the observance of any rituals or in conforming to someone’s set of standards or rules or laws.
Read what Paul says to Peter in the last part of verse 14. Peter was guilty of hypocrisy and of having a double standard.
Take great care that you do not fall into the same fatal trap! It is so subtle and can happen so easily. Perhaps you might stop right now and think of the ways in which this could happen to you—at home, at school. or in your church and what your attitude and belief should be in order to avoid it.