Text: Galatians 2:11-14
Date: 25 Feb 2018
In last week’s sermon we gave took a look to what was thought to be Paul’s third post-conversion visit to Jerusalem. He went there to meet with the people regarded as the “esteemed leaders” at what became known as the Council of Jerusalem. The main purpose of this august gathering was to discuss theological issues that arose from Paul’s work amongst Gentiles as well as the relationship between Judaism and the gospel. At the very end of that sermon I intimated that the relationship between Paul and Cephas may not have been too good and in my closing sentence I suggested that an interesting encounter lay ahead. Today I want to examine the reason this strained relationship existed between these two senior Apostles.
It is important for us to remember that Paul’s biggest problem was with Judaisers. Paul had long battled with such people during his ministry amongst the Gentiles and their activities intensified during his time in Galatia. It is the Judaisers who Paul referred to in 1:6-7 when he talked of the Galatians “turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all”. These people persisted in saying that Gentiles had to become Jews before they could become Christians. By making this demand they undermined the true gospel by suggesting that salvation through faith in Jesus by the grace of God was not enough; the Gentile followers of Jesus Christ needed more and had to follow and obey the numerous Jewish laws, rites and customs which included circumcision and the food laws.
Peter in Antioch
It seems that at some stage during Paul’s time in Antioch the Apostle Cephas made what appears to have been a lengthy visit; the original Greek suggesting that this was not a fleeting visit, the underlying thought being that Cephas had visited in support of Paul’s ministry. The Greek word for “came” in 2:11 actually suggests “had come” with the implication that Peter stayed there a little while. We can deduce from the context that Cephas entered fully into life in Antioch and we know from 2:12 that this included joining with the other Christians, both Greeks and Jews, in the regular church family meals. At no time do we see any mention of Cephas being uncomfortable with this arrangement, the obvious feeling being that he was happy to share with other believers in Jesus Christ. Although it isn’t stated explicitly, a custom amongst Christians was to follow the main meal with the sharing of the bread and wine of Communion. If that was the case in Antioch then Communion would have happily included Greek and Jewish Christians.
Cephas hadn’t always been comfortable in the company of Greek Christians having previously believed that before they could become Christians, non-Jews had to be circumcised and then observe all the Jewish laws, especially the food laws. God disavowed Cephas of this point of view and we can read in Acts 10:9-48 of the vision that Cephas had of a sheet holding “all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air” (Acts 10:12). When God told Cephas to kill and eat these animals and birds Cephas replied, "Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean” (Acts 10:14). God spoke to Cephas again and told him, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean" (Acts 10:15). Following that encounter Cephas understood and happily visited the Greek Cornelius in his house to eat with him. What followed was a very interesting conversation between Cephas and Cornelius the upshot of which was that Cephas admitted that, “I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears Him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). The result of all this was that Cephas accepted that Gentiles could also become members of God’s family and that he, that is Cephas, could eat whatever food was available without regard to Jewish food laws. It was a difficult lesson for him to learn although it is one that seems to have escaped his attention during this visit to meet Paul in Antioch.
Everything seemed to be going well with Cephas’ visit until “Certain men came from James” (2:12). It was this unexpected visit that caused a major and dramatic change in Cephas’ behaviour and attitudes. Who were these men, and was there one man or several? We should also ask, were they sent by James himself or were they his representatives? I did read a suggestion that they were identified as “men ... from James” because they came from the church in Jerusalem and James may not necessarily have been involved in sending them. The next question is of course, why did they visit Antioch? Were they checking up on the Antioch church and the Christians in Antioch? It seems possible that these men were Judaisers who had arrived in Antioch to ensure that Gentile Christians became Jews first. We need to understand that most Christians in Jerusalem were Jews which meant that these men were not necessarily used to associating with Gentiles. Their attitude is yet another example of the ongoing battle between grace and law whereby the Judaisers wanted the law to be applied to Gentiles before they became Christians; the bottom line attitude of these people being that the gospel wasn’t enough, more was needed.
Although it is difficult to understand why, Cephas seemed anxious not to offend these visitors. What was he ashamed of? Having happily associated with the Gentile Christians during his stay in Antioch we read in 2:12 that when these men arrived, “he [Cephas] began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles”. Paul helpfully adds that Cephas “was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group”. The Gentiles with whom Cephas had had fellowship were Christians just as he was and he had seemed comfortable enough in their company before these visitors arrived from Jerusalem. This drawing back from the others would have meant that Cephas no longer ate with the Gentile Christians something which may have brought the added problem that he no longer had Communion with them thus almost relegating the Gentile believers to be second class Christians. This was surely an example of hypocrisy at its height! These men from Jerusalem certainly had a disturbing effect on Cephas and the others since we read that, “the other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy” (2:13a). So bad did the situation become that “even Barnabas was led astray” (2:13b). This change of attitude by Barnabas must have hurt Paul deeply. Barnabas was after all a devout Christian who had stood by Paul in the early days of his ministry and he had sought Paul out in Tarsus before taking him to Antioch where they seemingly developed a strong bond. Following that they had worked together for about 14 years. Now though, he was going along with the activities of these men “who belonged to the circumcision group” (2:12b). Barnabas is described in Acts 11:24 as being, “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith”, so why would he be led astray like that, what was he afraid of?
It’s possible that Barnabas was initially reluctant to go along with all this. However, the pressure on him must have increased and led him to “go with the flow” and follow Cephas and the others in their hypocrisy. He may have gone along with them just to keep the peace and stay with the group rather than any deep seated theological reason. Despite all that whilst we see Paul attacking Cephas over his attitude, there is no mention of him condemning Barnabas.
I suspect that there may be Christians who are like Barnabas. The begin by being totally devout followers of Jesus and when in the company of other Christians they create the right impression by saying and doing the right things. However, when they are amongst non-Christian friends or work colleagues they too go with the flow and join in with the coarse language, jokes and behaviour that seems to abound in the modern age. It is all too easy to fall into that trap simply because it makes for a peaceful life. However, what does it say about our faith and our daily walk with Christ? It can’t really help can it?
I should imagine that Paul was apoplectic with rage at what was happening right in front of him. People he knew and trusted as fellow Christians were now turning to what he regarded as “a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all” (1:6-7). All of this was happening in public and so Paul decided to tackle Cephas head on in public. We know from 2:14 that Paul didn’t do this in private but in front of everyone else. He wanted all those present to know how he felt and that he wasn’t afraid to stand up to such an “esteemed leader” as Cephas. He told Cephas quite bluntly that what he was doing was not in line “with the truth of the gospel”, Paul’s absolute red line. He accused Cephas of hypocrisy. In the original Greek a hypocrite was someone “who puts on a mask” as in the case of an actor. With the arrival of these men from Jerusalem, Cephas and the others were now acting as if they weren’t Christians at all. Paul didn’t mince his words and wanted Cephas to be aware of exactly how he felt. He even went so far as to accuse him, by implication, of trying to force Gentile Christians to become Jews as a prerequisite to becoming Christians. The implication of that should be obvious; Cephas was seemingly suggesting that faith in Jesus Christ wasn’t enough for salvation. Having looked at 2:1-10 relating to the Council of Jerusalem it seemed as if this argument had already been dealt with; very obviously it hadn’t! It was at this point that Paul, in 2:14, pointed out that they, that is Cephas and the Judaisers, weren’t acting in accordance with “the truth of the gospel”. I can just see the anger on Paul’s face and hear it in his voice as he told Cephas in front of everyone that, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” (2:14). Paul was very obviously identifying Cephas as being just another Judaiser despite his position as someone who was apparently “held in high esteem” (2:6). This must have been quite some confrontation but given the actions of Cephas, one that needed to be had.
The Judaisers felt that faith in Jesus Christ by the grace of God was not enough for anyone to be assured of salvation which is why they suggested that more was needed. Nothing much has changed and although the major Protestant faiths don’t go so far as to suggest that more is needed they don’t always go out of their way to help new Christians. Let me give you some examples of what I mean.
Someone wanting to pass through the waters of baptism is following a wonderful act of obedience; however, wonderful though it may be it is not necessary for salvation. It is a sign of love and obedience to Jesus Christ Who also went through baptism despite the protestations of John the Baptist. Unfortunately there were, and may still be, some churches who said that you had to be baptised before you could become a Member or share in the bread and wine of Communion. There are also those churches who demanded a “letter of commendation” from the home church of visitors before they were able to share in Communion. These people may well have been Christians for many years but without that all important letter they could not meet around the Lord’s Table. It used to be the case that non-Anglicans visiting an Anglican church were denied the opportunity to take Communion even if they were regular communicants at their own church, although I don’t believe that to be the case any more. Not only that but Anglicans visiting another Anglican church also needed a “letter of commendation” from their Vicar before they were allowed to share the bread and wine. All of these rules were made by humans and have little or nothing to do with “the truth of the gospel”. The rules concerning the act of sharing the body and blood of Jesus Christ at the Communion Table should be between a believer and God. Paul states that very clearly in 1 Corinthians 11:28-29 and we are wrong if we go against that guidance. It is of course possible that things have changed although I suspect that there may still be some churches that do follow this pattern of activity. As far as I’m concerned such activities are simply trying to add to the gospel and are not totally recognising or acknowledging the grace of God.
In the case of Cephas and his actions we have to wonder what affect this had on other believers. They had been told that faith in Jesus Christ was enough and yet here was an “esteemed leader” from Jerusalem telling them that more was needed. Not only was Cephas involved in this disgraceful act but Barnabas was also seduced into following suit. He was very well known amongst the believers in Antioch and so I’m sure that they would have been truly shocked to see him meekly following the example of Cephas.
What we have here is a clash between two of the big beasts of Christianity. On the one hand we have Cephas, the disciple with the chequered history but now a leader of the church in Jerusalem. On the other hand we have Paul, the one-time ultra zealous persecutor of followers of Jesus. Both were well respected within their own circles and looked up to as great Apostles, Pastors and Preachers. How sad then to see the change in Cephas’ behaviour when Judaisers arrived from Jerusalem. Cephas, who had previously happily had fellowship with Gentile believers, suddenly turned the other way and started to advocate the very “perverted gospel” that Paul had been battling against. Even Paul’s closest friend Barnabas turned away from Paul and towards the Judaisers something which must have caused Paul a great deal of sorrow. The behaviour of Cephas could very easily have damaged the spiritual lives of all those in Antioch who knew and respected him. We all need to avoid following on that path and stay true to the gospel of Jesus Christ as advocated by Paul.
It is vital that Christian leaders stick to the only true gospel and are not tempted to move towards a version of the gospel that is perverted and puts forward other philosophies. Salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ by the grace of God; there is no other way and nothing else is needed.