When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 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. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
Oh, my! What a text, quite unique in the New Testament, for this one text gives us a view into the interaction among the Apostles, a view that shows one apostle (Paul) bringing another Apostle (Peter) up short in front of witnesses. This may dispel the notions of some that everything in the early church was wonderful and harmonious, it wasn’t, and it also shows us a much deeper view that I would call “covenant priorities.”
Imagine Peter in harmony with and among the Gentiles, and then drawing away from them when a high-level group of Jewish Christians come from Jerusalem. Remember that under the Law of Moses, Jews did not eat with Gentiles, so in front of these Jewish brothers, Peter now treats Gentile brothers as mere Gentiles with all of the disdain of the Law, with the result that the New Covenant is not given priority over the Old… even Barnabas was “led astray.”
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?
The confrontation begins; Paul threw down the gauntlet in verse 14. You don’t live like a Jew, and then when your Jewish friends come by, you revert to Jewish customs wanting to force Gentiles to follow them too. In the New Covenant, those “customs” are over.
“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 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.
Consider this statement of Paul’s for a moment: He is making the assertion that the New Covenant is superior to the Old Covenant. Even a Jew must be justified by faith in Christ, for the Old Covenant could never bring about forgiveness of sins. Under the old system, being born a Jew meant that you had been born as one of God’s chosen… the dirty nasty Gentiles were the sinners, the Jew was God’s own, but the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ had changed the entire dynamic of relations between Man and God.
“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! If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.
Anticipating an obvious question, Paul provides the answer. For most of us, this question and answer might be a bit of a puzzle, so let’s look more closely. When Paul said “…we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners…” he means that if a Jew goes from God’s chosen to being just another saved sinner by their faith in Christ. Thus, clearly this whole concept of the New vs. the Old Covenant was earth-shattering for the Jewish psyche of the time. The very idea of equality with Gentile dogs was unthinkable for them; it ran against everything they had ever been taught or believed. Even now, it surprises not only Jews, but also many Christians, who still seek to hold onto certain aspects of the Law of Moses. Paul, being the most educated of the Apostles was able to grasp the one fact that most others, then and now miss… There is no concept of eternal life in the Old Covenant. It isn’t mentioned, it isn’t promised. Forgiveness and justification are also not present, for the Law could only promise atonement; never forgiveness or justification. These require that sin be entirely “taken away” and atonement neither does that, nor does it promise that. Therefore, Pau makes his answer: If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker. In other words, if he were to rebuild the Old Covenant Law, after having torn it down in favor of New Covenant justification, he would be a serious lawbreaker indeed.
“For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 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. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!
And with these memorable and often quoted words, Paul closes his case… and his story. Christ’s death on the cross was the fulfillment of the Law, and we also, by our faith in Christ died with Him on the cross. We are dead to sin, dead to the Law and alive in Christ, by the power of His resurrection from the dead. Never again will we place our trust in our ability to follow the law or the old traditions, for if they could save anybody, then Jesus died for nothing. We know from Peter’s letters, that this made an impression on him, and in chapter 3, we will see how Paul uses this story to teach the Galatians.