Paul’s challenge to Peter reminds us that the critical issue is not so much “who” is preaching, but “what” is being preached. Even the apostle Peter must be confronted when he falls into doctrinal error. Fortunately, Paul rescues Peter from very serious consequences including condemnation from the brothers because of his own hypocrisy. By the time of the Jerusalem Council, held shortly after Paul composes his Galatian letter, Peter and James are both in agreement with Paul. The issue is the content of what is preached (justification by faith alone), and the standard is fidelity to the gospel revealed by Jesus.
The Success of the Gentile Mission Raised Questions
As new churches were established in Gentile areas north of Palestine, one pressing question needed to be addressed. How were Jews and Gentiles to get along with one another in these new churches? This was especially the case in Asia Minor where Jews lived in many cities among large Gentile populations. Jewish Christians remained steeped in Jewish life and culture. No doubt, they struggled with the fact that recent Gentile converts had different sexual mores, ate things Jews did not, and who, when pressed about matters of the law may have asked, “who is this Moses fellow you keep talking about?” How would close fellowship between Jewish believers and “unclean” Gentiles in Galatia and Antioch be seen back in Jerusalem? The dicey relationship between Jew and Gentile meant that a collision between the weak-willed Peter and the iron-willed Paul was at some point inevitable. In verses 11-14, Paul demonstrates that even apostles must have their doctrine and conduct checked in the light of Scripture, specifically the revelation of Jesus about the gospel.
Moving on from recounting his second post-conversion visit to Jerusalem, Paul tells the Galatians how he was forced to confront Peter to his face when the latter had caved in to pressure from messengers from James possibly claiming they were sent by the Jerusalem church. This confrontation likely occurred not long after Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch after their prior visit to Jerusalem. As N. T. Wright points out, it is easy to overlook the fact that the reason why this seems so vivid in Paul’s account is because these events had taken place quite recently .
There is a noticeable progression in Paul’s recounting of his relationship with Peter, especially in light of the burgeoning Gentile mission undertaken by Paul, Barnabas, and others. Paul describes being Peter’s guest for fifteen days during his first trip to Jerusalem post-conversion (Galatians 1:18-20). Then, he speaks of Peter as a fellow apostle when recounting his second trip to Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1-10), before, finally, describing a confrontation with Peter when the latter falls into serious doctrinal error (Galatians 2:11-14). While it is difficult to know how much of this is a word for word account of what Paul said to Peter and how much is a summation, what follows amounts to a major confrontation between the two men over the ground and meaning of the doctrine of justification.
The Men from James
We know from Luke’s account in Acts that Gentiles and Jews previously enjoyed table fellowship together in Antioch (where Paul and Peter later have their confrontation). Both groups participated in the Lord’s Supper as one body, with Peter apparently approving of the practice. In Acts 10:9-48, we read of Peter’s vision and visit to the Gentile Cornelius’ home, where the Holy Spirit told Peter that “all foods were clean.” From these events Peter concluded, “truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34). As recounted by Luke, the Gentiles were baptized and received the Holy Spirit, just as occurred with the Jewish believers. At first Peter saw Jew and Gentile on an equal footing before God. A common faith in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and the Son of God who died for their sins who was then raised from the dead produced a remarkable fellowship between Jew and Gentile, who, otherwise would have little if anything to do with each other. That is, until “certain men came from James.”
Professor Bruce thinks these men “from James” who arrived in Antioch were trying to convince the Jewish brothers of something along the lines of “we in Jerusalem hear that those of you in Antioch are in the habit of practicing regular table fellowship with Gentiles.” This practice was causing great concern among the Jewish brethren in Jerusalem who feared such close associations might make efforts to evangelize Jews much more difficult. This was also a time of increasing Jewish militancy against their Roman occupiers. About this time, the Romans crucified several prominent leaders of the zealots in Palestine. With such tensions in the air, any Jews, including Peter, who fraternized with Gentiles and adopted Gentile ways were increasingly seen by the fellow Jews as traitors, fraternizing with godless and unclean Gentiles.
Under such circumstances we can see why men like James, Peter, Barnabas, and the Jewish believers in Antioch, would be greatly troubled by too close an association with Gentiles. The churches had enjoyed a time of peace and numerical growth, but now trouble was brewing. The Jerusalem church was worried. The issue at hand was not simply a question of how Gentiles join the church–through faith in Israel’s Messiah, not by embracing Jewish customs and practices as claimed by New Perspective on Paul [NPP] proponents. Since NPP advocates understand the matter as a question of “who is in the church?” the answer given is that all believers are children of Abraham, including Gentiles. Therefore it is wrong for the agitators to seek to exclude Gentiles merely on ethnic and cultural grounds.
Rather, the underlying issue was the question of how Jews understood the role of human effort in justification.