The way we should most want to be seen by others is as having our identification “in Christ.” That is what really counts. All the other things that we may be – racially, socially, professionally, financially, whatever-ly – all of that is rather meaningless compared to being identified with Christ in his death and resurrection.
Solomon said in the book of Ecclesiastes that there is a time to speak and a time to remain silent. Circumstances determine which course is wisest. Even Jesus did not speak out on every occasion against everything that he knew was wrong. A modern-day maxim says that one should pick his battles wisely.
In today’s reading, we encounter a historic situation where the Apostle Paul chose to pick a battle – with none other than Peter. Wow! Saints Peter and Paul in a dust-up! Readers of the Scripture seem to more often remember the occasion in the book of Acts where Paul had a serious conflict with another giant of the early church – Barnabas. And look – Barnabas shows up in this passage today. He is on Peter’s side of the equation and standing justly in the firing line also for the verbal tongue-lashing Paul lays on Cephas (Peter).
Antioch was a great church in the earliest days of the worldwide spread of the gospel. There were Jews and Gentiles and all sorts of diversely-gifted people in this local family of faith. If you know the story of Acts, you know that Peter certainly understood that the message of Christ was not an exclusively Jewish truth. It was the Good News of the final work of Christ that had benefit for all peoples, Jewish and Gentile. Peter openly associated with Gentiles in Antioch, that is, until a group from Jerusalem (“from James”) came to be with them. Among these were those who were of a “circumcision group” – meaning that they had not yet accepted the full message of the Gospel of grace abounding, and they were hence still of an opinion that the only way one could be right with God was to believe in Jesus AND still keep the Law.
The stiff, traditional, old-timer, “we’ve never done it that way before” group in the early church were the believers in the church in Jerusalem – very predominately Jewish. Apparently, they also were quite intimidating. I imagine that Peter knew many of them well from the days of following Christ, the passion week, and the resurrection appearances and Day of Pentecost. Even Barnabas was caught up also with Peter in separating themselves off from fellowshipping and eating with the numerous Gentiles populating the church family in Antioch.
For Paul, this was an unacceptable situation that had to be confronted. It was a physical evidence of an insufficient understanding of the work of Christ and the very nature of the Gospel. This segregation failed to see that the message of the cross was not merely the latest Jewish thing, it was a totally new work of God for all people. In Paul’s mind, what was at stake and what needed to be clearly affirmed was the very issue of justification – that it was a work of grace and not at all a work of the Law.
Some of Paul’s arguments in this passage are difficult to understand, but the essence is that any combination of the Law with belief in Christ was a total mixing of oil and water.
I have always loved verse 20, having memorized it as a young boy as a favorite verse. Paul says he is identified with Christ in his death, being so loved by the Lord that Christ is worthy of Paul’s whole life being dedicated to serving him in faith. And that is the stuff of highest priority and value.
Paul Opposes Cephas – Galatians 2:11-21
11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before 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. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas 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?
15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.
19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”