• The Bible Studies for Life lesson for Nov. 3 focuses on Galatians 2:1-14.
Although Jesus had commissioned the disciples to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth, the early church did not immediately embrace its worldwide mission. Early Christians saw themselves not as a new religion but as the fulfillment of Judaism. Even after Pentecost, the early church primarily remained a Jewish movement. It took an angelic visit and a heavenly vision for Peter to begin to comprehend that in Christ, God was reconciling all people to himself (Acts 10:34). As God worked through his people, the church began to share the gospel with non-Jews as well as Jews.
The assimilation of Jews and Gentiles into a united church was not without its problems. For Jews, faithfulness to God always had meant keeping the law. This adherence to the law was what separated Israel from the nations around them and kept them unique as a people. It was more than just national identity; faith, family, business practices, household routines and dietary practices all revolved around keeping the law. Gentiles did not share this traditional or historical background. In addition, many accepted Gentile practices were repugnant to Jews. Did Gentiles have to first follow the law in order to follow Christ?
Free from the Law
For Paul, the answer was an emphatic “no.” From the very beginning, Paul preached salvation was found by faith in Christ alone. He recognized what God had done in Christ was to free both Jew and Gentile from following the law. The law was a tutor and guide designed to point out the impossibility of earning God’s favor by self-produced righteousness (Romans 7:7-8; Galatians 3:23-25). Even the Jews failed to keep the law. Following Christ meant leaving a sinful past behind and pursuing the holiness of God, but righteousness was a result and not a means. Righteousness is not earned by following the law. God declares believers righteous in Christ, and we learn to walk accordingly.
Peter, James, John and the leaders of the Jerusalem church agreed with Paul and endorsed his ministry (Galatians 2:8-9). Despite this support, some groups within the church believed the only path to God was through Judaism. These Judaizers sometimes followed in Paul’s wake, teaching new believers they had to convert to Judaism and be circumcised in order to be saved. Although this group taught a false doctrine, they still had influence. As Paul describes in Galatians 2, they even influenced Peter.
Paul and Barnabas had been ministering in Antioch, and Peter came from Jerusalem to see how things were going in this first Gentile-focused church. God had revealed to Peter he should not call anyone impure or unclean (Acts 10:28). Peter’s practice was to eat and fellowship with Gentiles, but after a group arrived from Jerusalem, Peter began to separate himself again and eat only with Jews. Other Jews followed his example, and even Barnabas stopped eating with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-13).
It’s not clear why Peter stopped eating with the Gentiles. He may have been trying to avoid conflict with the Jerusalem contingent. Historical events also may have influenced Peter. The 40s were a time of great nationalistic Jewish fervor. There was an increasingly restless desire to throw off the chains of Rome and celebrate independent Jewish rule. Against this background, Peter and the Jewish leaders of the church may have been under pressure to prove themselves to be true Jews faithful to the covenant.
Paul publicly confronted Peter’s hypocrisy. Paul recognized more was at stake than just eating meals together. For Jews such as Peter, eating with Gentile believers communicated acceptance and fellowship. Refusing to eat with Gentiles indirectly forced Gentiles to become Jewish, because the only way Gentiles could fellowship with Jews would be to become obedient to the law. Paul pointed out the flaw in Peter’s logic. Peter recognized he had the freedom to live as a Gentile. How could Peter then force the Gentiles to live like the Jews? By appearing to side with the Judaizers, Peter’s actions placed an additional burden on Gentile believers and put an obstacle in the way of Gentiles following Christ (Galatians 2:14).
Like Peter and the Judaizers, sometimes we make the mistake of believing people have to become like us in order to follow Christ. When they don’t, we put up barriers to fellowship. We welcome them into our buildings without welcoming them into our hearts. Then we wonder why so many people who walk in the front door of our church seem to find the back door so easily. The unwritten rules we put in place can keep people from following Christ.
Let’s hold one another accountable. Christ died so all people could live by faith in the Son of God. Let’s resolve to be more concerned about the souls of men and women than our own reputations. That may mean taking the risk of speaking out to people we love and respect in order to take a stand for the gospel. Paul was resolved there should be no barriers in the way of the Gentiles following Christ. We should share in that resolution. The gospel is worth fighting for.