Paul confronts Peter

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Paul is staying in Syrian Antioch just before his third missionary journey. During the spring Holy Day season of 53 A.D. the apostle Peter visits the city. Since his vision and experience with the conversion of Cornelius in 38 A.D., Peter has lived in free and unrestrained intercourse with the church's Gentile converts. He regularly meets and eats with them in social friendship. This was all to change, however, when his behavior causes Paul to confront him in public.

At this time certain Jewish brethren also came to visit Antioch and Paul. Scripture states they were "from James" who presided over the Church at Jerusalem (Galatians 2:12). Whether they were really sent on some mission by James or not, they brought with them their old Hebrew repugnance against social intercourse with the uncircumcised.

Peter, when Jews from Jerusalem showed up in the city, began to vacillate in his convictions. In weak compliance with their prejudices, he "withdrew and separated himself" from those whom he had treated as brethren and equals in Christ (Galatians 2:12). This was noticed by Paul who felt the need to respond.

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Earlier in his life Peter had first asserted his readiness to follow his Master to death but then denied Him through fear of a servant. We find the same thing in this example, where after publicly protesting against the notion of making any difference between the Jew and the Gentile (Acts 15:9 - 10), Peter contradicts his own principles. He "drew back and separated himself from the Gentiles, being afraid of those of the circumcision party" (Galatians 2:12). He was giving his approval of introducing, yet again, a spiritual caste system into the church. This brought him in direct conflict with Paul.


Apostles Peter and Paul
Apostles Peter and Paul
Master Mateo, 1168 - 88

Such conduct excited in Paul the utmost indignation. Peter was not simply yielding a non-essential point through a tender consideration for the consciences of others. Nor was this proceeding a prudent and innocent accommodation to circumstances for the sake of furthering the Gospel, like Apostle Paul's conduct in circumcising Timothy at Iconium (Acts 16:3).

Peter was acting under the influence of a contemptible and sinful motive which feared man. His behavior was giving a strong sanction to the very heresy which was threatening the existence of the Church. Nor was this all. Other Jewish Christians, as was naturally to be expected, were led away by his example. Even Barnabas, the chosen companion of Paul, who had been a witness and an actor in all the great transactions in Cyprus, in Pisidia, and Lycaonia, even he was "carried away" with the dissimulation of the rest (Galatians 2:13).

When Paul was a spectator of such inconsistency, and perceived both the motive in which it originated and the results to which it was leading, he would have been a traitor to his Master's cause, if he had hesitated to rebuke Peter "in the presence of them all" (Galatians 2:14).

It is evident from Apostle Paul's expression that it was on a public occasion, likely during the annual Spring Holy Days (e.g. Days of Unleavened Bread), that this open rebuke took place. The scene, though slightly mentioned, is one of the most remarkable in Sacred History. It is, therefore, at least allowable to mention here that general notion of the forms and features of Paul and Peter which has been handed down in tradition, and was represented by the early artists.

What did they look like?

Apostle Paul is set before us as having the strongly marked and prominent features of a Jew, yet not without some of the finer lines indicative of Greek thought. His stature was diminutive, and his body disfigured by some lameness or distortion which may have provoked the contemptuous expressions of his enemies. His beard was long and thin. His head was bald. The characteristics of Paul's face were a transparent complexion, which visibly betrayed the quick changes of his feelings and which invited the approach and inspired the confidence of strangers.

It would be natural to infer, from his continual journeys and manual labor, that Paul was possessed of great strength of constitution. But men of delicate health have often gone through the greatest exertions. His own words on more than one occasion show that he suffered much from bodily infirmity (2Corinthians 12:7, Galatians 4:13, 14).

Peter, unlike Paul, is represented to us as a man of larger and stronger form, as his character was harsher and more abrupt. The quick impulses of his soul revealed themselves in the flashes of a dark eye. The complexion of his face was pale and sallow. His had the short hair, which is described as entirely gray at the time of his death, curled black and thick round his temples and his chin.

Believing, as we do, that these traditional pictures have probably some foundation in truth, we gladly take them as helps to the imagination. And they certainly assist us in realizing a remarkable scene, where Judaism and Christianity, in the persons of Peter and Paul, are for a moment brought before us in strong antagonism.

Rebuked publically

The words addressed by Apostle Paul to Peter before the assembled Christians at Antioch contain a full yet condensed statement of the Gospel.

If you (Peter), being a Jew, are living like the Gentiles, and not according to Judaism, why do you compel the Gentiles to judaize?

We who are Jews by nature - and not sinners of the Gentiles -

Knowing that a man is not justified by works of law, but through the faith of Jesus Christ, we also have believed in Christ Jesus in order that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by works of law; because by works of law shall no flesh be justified.

Now then, if we are seeking to be justified in Christ, and we ourselves are found to be sinners, is Christ then the minister of sin? MAY IT NEVER BE! . . .

I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness is through works of law, then Christ died in vain (Galatians 2:14 - 17, 21, HBFV).

Though the sternest indignation is expressed in this rebuke from Paul, we have no reason to suppose that any actual quarrel took place between the two Apostles. It is not improbable that Peter was immediately convinced of his fault and melted at once into repentance. His mind was easily susceptible of quick and sudden changes. His disposition was loving and generous and we should expect his contrition, as well as his weakness, at Antioch, to be what it was in the high priest's house at Jerusalem.

Yet, when we read the narrative of this rebuke in Paul's epistle, it is a relief to turn to that passage at the conclusion of one of Peter's letters, where, in speaking of the "longsuffering of our Lord" and of the prospect of sinless happiness in the world to come, he alludes, in touching words, to the Epistles of "our beloved brother Paul" (2Peter 3:15).

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