Digging Deeper – Galatians – Part 4

Last Sunday Pastor Dave spoke on Galatians 2:11-16. In that passage, Paul describes an incident when he had confronted the apostle Peter (also known as Cephas) publicly about how Peter was relating to Jewish and non-Jewish (Gentile) Christians in the city of Antioch. Peter acted from hypocrisy (‘wearing a mask’) in order to please certain people. And if a prominent leader in the early Church, trained by Jesus himself, could give in to that temptation, who of us is immune?!

There are other lessons about leadership that could be learned from these verses, but that’s not the point Paul is making in his letter to the Christians in Galatia. He uses that episode to illustrate the fundamental equality of all Jesus followers, regardless of their background, when it comes to how they enter a right relationship with God. That idea was central to the ministry and teaching of the apostle Paul, but it wasn’t some innovation on his part. The one who had pioneered bringing the Good News about Jesus to non-Jews was … PETER!

Pastor Dave mentioned a couple of key elements in the backstory, which are found in the book of Acts. Although not specifically referenced in Galatians chapter 2, these events would doubtless have been well known to everyone there in the Antioch church. You can read what happened starting in Acts 10:1. Peter needed a divine push to break with Jewish customs about purity, which would have prevented him from staying in the home of non-Jews or even eating with them. As a result of Peter’s obedience to God, many spiritually receptive people heard about Jesus, were filled with the Holy Spirit and were baptized with water.

Back in Jerusalem among the Jewish believers in Jesus, the initial reaction to Peter was criticism — “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:3, NIV). Peter then proceeds to give a condensed account of what we read in Acts 10. The response is described in Acts 11:18 — When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

Word got around about this paradigm shift. We read two verses later (Acts 11:20) that the first place where the Good News was intentionally proclaimed to Greeks (i.e. non-Jews) was … in the Syrian city of ANTIOCH. (That’s where the later confrontation between Paul and Peter took place.) It was the very idea of equality of Jews and non-Jews before God that had prompted the evangelistic efforts which started that congregation. The Christian leaders in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to check out what was happening. He not only endorsed it, but recruited PAUL to come and help him with teaching the new Jesus followers.

It was that Antioch church that sent out Paul and Barnabas on a missionary journey to what is now Turkey, including the region of Galatia. As a result, more and more non-Jews came to faith in Jesus. Jewish Christians, especially those in Jerusalem, found that hard to swallow. It was one thing to allow evangelism to the non-Jews, but to exempt the new believers among them from following the law given through Moses? That was going too far! That precipitated a gathering of Christian leaders to settle the matter and it’s described in Acts 15:1-35. The outcome was to endorse Paul’s position, that non-Jews did not need to keep Jewish customs in order to be part of the Church. But even after that decision was made, that root issue remained contentious and showed up among the Christians in Galatia, prompting Paul to write this letter.