Have you ever met someone who was a “people-pleaser”? This sort of person tries to be on good terms with everyone, always trying to fit in and do what the crowd is doing. Their personality and preferences change with their environment. Admittedly, I think that various times in life (junior high or middle school, new jobs, etc.) tempt all of us to try and get along with others, even when what they are doing isn’t always the result of good choices.
In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul recounts a time when Peter (or Cephas – the same name in another language) was visiting Antioch. It seems that Peter was fellowshipping with Gentiles (who had been accepted into the Kingdom of God), but then some other guys showed up, and Peter started to back away from the Gentiles.
A commentator [Boles – see reference below] suggests that this is the “old Peter” surfacing again: the one who was afraid in the courtyard where Jesus was being put on trial. This is a temptation that we must still deal with today, when others try to pressure us to do things that aren’t consistent with God’s instructions.
However, we shouldn’t be too quick to judge: Jesus chose Peter to help start the church (see Matthew 16:17-19), and Peter delivered a powerful introductory sermon on Pentecost after Jesus had returned to Heaven (see Acts 2:14-41). We should remember that Peter – and Paul – were human beings, and they made mistakes, even though they were part of God’s plan for the church. Most of Paul’s recorded failures in the Bible are recorded prior to his conversion, but I don’t think that he was perfect after that, either.
So, in verse 14, Paul confronts Peter and challenges him on this subject.
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?
Galatians 2:14 NIV
Galatians 2:15-21 may be a continuation of what Paul said to Peter, or it could just be Paul’s teaching to the Gentiles in the context of this event. Regardless of where the quotation ends, though, this is an important lesson for those who get pulled back into believing that they are saved because of what they do (rather than their faith in what Jesus has done).
The peer pressure on Peter may have been from those who believed that associating with Gentiles was wrong for Jewish followers of Jesus (since Peter was Jewish by birth), since they still felt that Gentile believers were “unclean” (even after God had pronounced them clean – see Acts 10). Or, the crowd Peter was hanging out with may have said that Gentiles weren’t legitimately children of God until they had first become Jewish.
Now, if we put ourselves in the sandals of first-century Jewish Christians, we can empathize with why they were reluctant to associate with Gentiles. The Pharisees had instituted an effort to try and live more pure lives, in order to win God’s favor, and so the emphasis on the separation between God’s chosen people (the Jewish nation being a preserved remnant of that) and everyone else (“Gentiles” or “Greeks”) could have been pretty strong in that culture. It wasn’t wrong for a Jewish person to avoid beliefs that would take them away from the one true God, after all.
However, Paul makes his case with what I think is an interesting contrast in verses 15-16. In verse 15, Paul refers to the Gentiles as “sinful”. Compared to following the law of Moses, the life of a typical Gentile would probably seem quite a bit more sinful to a Jewish person, especially when you consider the traditions of Greek and Roman pantheism. After all, Greek and Roman “gods” were more like super-powered people, with all of the moral shortcomings of human beings, and whose worship often involved sinful practices, over and above the fact that they weren’t real gods in the first place. This might have been what Peter’s visiting friends were saying, to discourage Peter from spending time with Gentiles.
In verse 16, though, Paul acknowledges that even the Jewish person who lives according to the law of Moses doesn’t get to be pronounced right before God (the true God) because of that obedience. He even says that “We who are Jews by birth” know this, and it has been pointed out [Boles] that not only did Peter know this, he actually said as much in Acts 15:9, 11.
Are there places where you and I are like Peter (at Antioch) today? Are there people, places, or programs that we shy away from, which are well within the freedom of living for Jesus Christ, but which are condemned by others who are more legalistic? If so, while being respectful of where we should limit our freedoms for the sake of others (see 1 Corinthians 10:23-33), I hope that we will consider embracing opportunities to worship God and make disciples, even where we previously avoided them.
Sometimes, being too accommodating of others’ preferences (especially when those preferences are contrary to the message of God, and not just areas of temptation that they are trying to avoid) can cause us to miss out on opportunities that God is providing us. Let us not become too accommodating to those who are keeping us from making disciples of Jesus.
From Sunday School lesson prepared for August 8, 2021
- The Lookout, August 8, 2021 © 2021 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- The College Press Commentary, Galatians & Ephesians, by Kenneth L. Boles. College Press Publishing Company, © 1993, p.32-60.