Clash of the Titans - Galatians 2:11-21
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It was the American comedian Groucho Marx who made the celebrated quip that he would never join a club that would have someone like him as a member. Typical Groucho you may say. But what is often not realised is that he made that remark after he had been refused entry to a country club on the grounds that he was Jewish. I guess there are few things in life which are as painful as being excluded because you are considered somehow inferior. I remember being driven a long a particularly beautiful stretch of coastline near Cape Town. My friend, a white South African minister pointed it out to me and said, "Do you realise it wasn’t all that long ago that that beach was for white’s only." He said that with more than a hint of shame and apology in his voice for the evils of apartheid. Apartheid is a suitably ugly word for an ugly practice. But did you realise that very early on in the life of the church, the gospel was nearly shipwrecked as it almost ran aground on the jagged rocks of a spiritual apartheid? True! It wasn’t just a matter of theory either- some people thinking there was a first class and second class citizenship in the kingdom of God- but it showed itself in practice by excluding people from fellowship meals- even holy communion. And we read all about it and how disaster was averted in Galatians chapter 2. And I want us to look at this very sad and crucial passage under three headings: apostolic resistance; apostolic action and apostolic argument.
First of all we have an example of what can be called apostolic resistance or why Paul wouldn’t buy the big issue. What is the big issue? Well, as we saw last week in chapter 2 and verse 4, back in Jerusalem false Christians had infiltrated the ranks of the church who were dead set on introducing a form of spiritual apartheid far more pernicious and certainly more enslaving than anything a political party could devise. So what were they up to? Well, first they were teaching that real Christians must keep the Jewish law and the Galatians had obviously started to buy into that-4:10 ‘You are observing special days and months and season and years’ – he is talking about special Jewish festivals.
Well, you say, what’s the problem with the odd festival or two? But of course it never stops there does it? The religious rigorist always presses for more – so in the second place it was being argued that to be properly related to God, that is declared to be in a right relationship with him -‘justified’ -one had to keep the whole law and be circumcised 5:2 ‘I Paul tell you that if you let yourself be circumcised Christ will be of no value to you’ and then in verse 4 ‘You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ.’ As far as Paul is concerned to go down the route of works religion is to throw away your salvation because what in effect you are saying to God is ‘I will save myself thank you very much. I will come to you by my efforts not your mercy. You can give me a hand up by rules but I will not receive a hand out by grace,’
In the third place these people were trying to set Christian against Christian, which, of course is what any form of apartheid does- it is divisive. So Paul writes in 4:17, ‘Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want to do is to alienate you from us…’ Now it seems to me that part of the background to this passage in chapter 2 is this attempt by the false teachers to play off the Galatian Christians against Paul. And you can well imagine how they would have gone about it. "Look" they would say, "We have the great apostle Peter on our side, and even Paul’s former right hand man, Barnabas. Why Peter saw the light that there is a superior track to follow by eating only kosher food and becoming more of a purist than this fellow Paul. Didn’t you know that Peter refused to eat with non-Jewish Christians- Gentiles- because he realised that the law still had force? Of course Paul didn’t like it, he wouldn’t would he? He is far too lax and liberal. But then again Paul is not an apostle on the same level of Peter. At least Peter was with Jesus during his earthly ministry. So, who are you going to follow: this Johnny- come -lately- Paul or Mr original himself-Peter?" That is why Paul mentions this incident. Paul isn’t wanting to rubbish Peter but he is wanting to put the record straight. He is wanting to use this tragic event as a teaching aid to reinforce his point- namely, that there is only one gospel which saves and one people which is saved- the church. There aren’t too tracks- a superior Christian-Jewish one and an inferior Gentile one- the one Gospel saves both Jew and Gentile.
Which brings us to the apostolic action vv 11-14 or why Paul clashed with Peter. 11When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. 12Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. 14When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
Now what is that all about? Well, the standard interpretation is that a group of strict Jewish Christians came to Antioch- a church which was a Jewish-Gentile mix- and was pushing the Jesus plus the law line, which included the need for circumcision-hence them being called ‘the circumcision party’. They had come from the Jerusalem church, headed up by James. Under pressure from these purists, Peter who up till now had happily eat non-kosher food with Gentile Christians, turned into a nervous Nelly, afraid that somehow news of his non-kosher habits might get back to Jerusalem and so damage his reputation and authority amongst the more conservative wing of the Jewish church. And so Paul had to challenge him publicly that this was inconsistent, what he calls ‘hypocrisy’ in v 13 ‘play acting’ that is, appearing all paly with Gentiles one minute and then being all Jewish the next.
But there is a serious problem with that interpretation. It doesn’t quite match up to the picture we have of Peter in the Book of Acts. This is the Peter who was hauled before the top Jewish leaders and threatened with flogging but who nonetheless declared that it was right to obey God rather than men and kept on proclaiming Jesus anyway. This is the Peter who having had a revelation from God that he must not adopt the old Jewish line of calling ‘unclean’ what God had called clean and then went on to proclaim the Gospel to the Roman solider Cornelius- a Gentile, rigorously defending his actions before the rest of the apostles and the hardliners in the Jerusalem church. Not exactly Mr Wimp is he? This is the Peter who is thrown into prison knowing he could face the same fate has John’s brother James- death -and will not give an inch. So why on earth should he suddenly cut and run all because a group of the very same people he had defied back in Jerusalem should turn up on the doorstep? It just doesn’t make sense.
No. A much better explanation would be this: the ‘certain men from James and the circumcision group of verse 12 were not the same people. The fact that it says certain men who came from James suggests that they came with his approval, so they are hardly going to be false teachers. Also the term ‘circumcision group’ could simply mean ‘non-converted Jews’- the type that had chased Paul out of Thessalonica. And of course it would be those who would be raising the pressure in terms of persecution on the Christian believers back in Jerusalem. Historically this was a time when militant Jewish nationalism was on the rise. So bearing in mind some of the wise pastoral advice which James gives at a later date, as we see in Acts 15 about Gentiles being careful to be sensitive to the Jewish Christians, might not the scenario be something like this? James sends a delegation to Peter in Antioch with news of the increasingly difficult situation for the Christians in Jerusalem. He urges Peter to be careful and act discretely so as not to give the impression that there is a complete overturning of the Jewish law. Peter occupies an important position. And so with all the right motives in the world, Peter, together with Barnabas, decide to withdraw from having meals with Gentiles-just for a while. The decision is a purely pragmatic one. He is not saying they are superior or that there are two ways of salvation-but for now, let’s play it cool. Here, the circumcision group he fears is the militant non- Christian Jews back in Jerusalem and he ‘fears’ them taking it out on fellow believers at home, so Peter and Barnabas play safe and tone down their actions. Can you see?
And of course that makes it all the more harder for Paul to confront. Peter is acting sincerely. Peter’s motivation is love- to take of the persecution off the brethren in Jerusalem. It is not a permanent arrangement. Neither is Peter being heretical teaching ‘you must become a Jew to be saved’ as the false teachers were saying. So what is the problem? Isn’t Peter doing what Paul himself said he did back in 1 Corinthians 10 ‘becoming all things to all men so that some might be saved’ being flexible so that one moment he will act like a Jew and only eat kosher food and at other times act like a gentile and dine out on a pork pie? What is your problem Paul- is this not a case of the kettle calling the tea pot black? You are the one being the hypocrite.
Hardly. You see, Paul is not allowing short term pragmatism or even ill judged principle determine the right course of action- for him it is the Gospel. Paul has the foresight to see where this will lead and it must have broken his heart to see his dear friend Barnabas led astray too-v 13, as well as be alarmed that Peter could have judged things so badly. For a start the Antioch church was split by this action- especially if the church did gather for fellowship around meals which would have included the Lord’s Supper. One church met as Christian gentiles, the other as Christian Jews. This is what is meant by the word being banded around today- ‘schism’. Now what does that say about the Gospel which is meant to bring all types of people together-male /female, Jew /Greek, free and slave into a new family where such distinctions are irrelevant? Why, it is to denial of the Gospel. It proclaims to a watching world that the old divisions which were introduced by the Fall still matter and that the Gospel is powerless to do anything about them. But there is even more at stake than that. What message is Peter’s action sending to the non-Jewish Christians (and as we say ‘actions speak louder than words’)? Well, to those who are not aware of the political niceties back in Jerusalem, the message which comes over loud and clear is that to be an observant Jew is the better road to travel-after all it is what Peter does. And if by his actions Peter is in effect ‘forcing’ non-Jews to follow Jewish customs (v 14) it is simply a matter of time before they go the whole hog and end up with circumcision. In other words- a gospel plus, Jesus plus the Jewish law. And in this for all his sincerity, Paul makes no apologies for declaring Peter to be ‘clearly in the wrong’ –v 11.
But that was then. How does this relate to our situation today? The overarching principle is that when the Gospel is at stake nothing is more important-nothing. That includes so called unity-Paul was willing to risk a breach with Peter and the Jerusalem church if they fudged on this one because the long term future of the church was in jeopardy as well as people’s salvation. So it is today. Let me give you one example from the Church of England. In light of the government’s legislation on civil partnerships, the house of Bishops has issued a pastoral statement. Amongst other things they say: ‘Lay people who have registered civil partnerships ought not to be asked to give assurances about the nature of their relationship before being admitted to baptism, confirmation or communion. Issues in Human Sexuality made it clear that, while the same standards apply to all, the Church did not want to exclude from its fellowship those lay people of gay or lesbian orientation who, in conscience, were unable to accept that a life of sexual abstinence was a required of them and instead chose to enter into a faithful committed relationship.’ - i.e. have gay sex’ It then goes on to say that ministers cannot refuse the baptism of children of those who have entered into such a partnership. That means I could be disciplined by the Bishop for a. asking whether someone is in an active gay relationship if they want to become a church member and b. disciplined for refusing to baptise them or any of their children while they remain in such a relationship. Now as we have seen, the Gospel is inclusive, anyone can become a Christian, but there are conditions- namely, repentance and faith- turning away from sin and turning to Christ which as Jesus makes plain means following his commandment- and he is very clear that sex is for heterosexual marriage. But can you see what the implications are? First, God’s standards are thrown out the window by the Bishops- they know better than he does. Secondly, people’s eternal destiny is being put at risk because the Bible makes it very clear that to persist in all forms of sexual immorality- homo or heterosexual- means there is no entry into the Kingdom of God. Christ came to save us from that. At this point we have to say, as did Paul with Peter-the Bishops are clearly wrong. They need to repent and get in line with the teaching of the Gospel. It is because Paul loved these Gentiles and we are to love all people, that we cannot short change them by teaching or doing anything which will bring them into the Lord’s judgement instead of his tender mercy.
So what of the apostolic argument or the reasons why Paul did what he did: vv 15- 21.
Very briefly Paul deals with two sets of questions. First, how we are and how we are not put right with God or to use the technical term – be justified. It is not by observing the law-v 16. Legalism is the search for innocence, not forgiveness, being able to point to what I have done and say ‘I am good enough’. It is solely concerned with self- explaining self, exalting self- justifying self. The problem is it does the opposite, the law ends up condemning self. When God gave the law to Israel they were meant to keep all of it and they like we failed. So the law is meant to cause us to look for someone who can rescue us from the law’s accusing finger. Who is that someone? Why Christ of course-v 16 and 17 we are justified by ‘faith in Jesus Christ.’ Jesus kept the law perfectly on my behalf. He also took upon himself the law’s penalty-death-on my behalf. So as I trust in Jesus, God as it were looks at me through the filter of his Son and sees me as he sees him-perfectly righteous. That is the Gospel.
The second set of questions Paul deals with is how we are and how we are not to live as Christians. It is not by being a law keeper-v 17. 17"If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. 19For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.’ Paul is saying something like this: If it is the case that the Old Testament law is still in force, then obviously those who have turned to Christ are terrible transgressors for they have forsaken trying to keep the law by trusting in Christ instead. If some people having done that now tries to reintroduce the law (rebuild it) that simply reinforces the point- they should not have trusted Christ for salvation in the first place they should have kept on with the law. If that is so then Christ might be accused of promoting sin by turning people away from God’s law to trust in him instead. Paul says in v18, ‘no way’. In fact because Christ kept the law, and also paid its penalty, then as I trust in what Christ has done for me, I have in effect died to the law – its demands have been satisfied and my moral debt has been cancelled because the price has been paid on the cross. So far from promoting sin, Jesus deals with sin. Do you see?
So, if we not to live as a law keeper, then how are we to live? Well, as a Gospel believer –v20 ff ‘20I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ There is the true story of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister visiting an old people’s home and going from room to room. She came across an elderly lady who showed no sign of recognising who this esteemed visitor was, so Margaret Thatcher said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ ‘No dear’ replied the old lady, ‘but if I were you I would ask the matron, she usually knows’. As Christians we are not to forget who we are. As believers in Christ, the person we were before conversion is in God’s sight dead-‘crucified with Christ’. We are given not just some external principles to follow- a law, but a new personal power within- Christ. So we are to live by putting our trust in him, not in ourselves, drawing on the power he provides to walk in the way he directs. And lets face it says Paul-v 21, if it were even remotely possible to get to heaven by being good, then why on earth did Christ come to die?
There is to be no spiritual apartheid in God’s church- we are one people, believing in one Gospel, united around one Saviour and that is to be protected at all costs.
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