Text: Galatians 2:15-21
Date: 08 Apr 2018
When we last looked at Paul’s interesting but difficult letter to the believers in Galatia, the Apostle was trying to deal with the problems caused by a group of people known as Judaisers. During his stay in Antioch Paul had preached the gospel as we understand it today: that Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for our sins. Accepting that He did that for us and subsequently coming to faith in Him leads to our being forgiven by God, as a result of which we receive the gift of eternal life. For Paul there was no other way to come before God: it was all down to faith in Jesus Christ. At some stage some “men from James” had visited Antioch and tried to turn Paul’s message on its head. Prior to their arrival Cephas had happily joined in with church life in Antioch by sharing meals and Communion with Gentile Christians without any complaints. And yet following their arrival he separated himself from that fellowship and sided with the Judaisers. They preached that more was needed, that the people needed to become Jews and obey all the Jewish laws and customs in order to augment their faith in Christ. In other words, they were adding to the gospel and teaching that faith in Christ wasn’t enough. Needless to say this caused a major rift between Paul and Cephas, and it is in the verses that we’ll look at today, 2:15-21, that Paul gives his reasons for disagreeing so strongly with Cephas.
The argument between Paul and Cephas centred on how they, and by default us as well, could be forgiven and become justified before God. We have to accept that we are all sinners and will have to stand before God to be judged. Unless something happens for us to be forgiven for those sins then we already stand condemned. Although Cephas had come to faith in Jesus he now stood alongside these “men from James” and the Judaisers who believed that they would be justified by observing the Law of Moses with all that that meant. They further believed that for Gentiles to become Christians they too needed to adhere to the same pattern. Paul argued vehemently against that view and felt that observing the Law and doing good works would not bring about the justification and salvation that we seek. He firmly believed that the justification and righteousness that he, and so many others, sought could only come through faith in Jesus. He wrote to the Philippians and told them that he didn’t have, “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” (Philippians 3:9). Having studied the Scriptures, particularly Habakkuk 2:4; Paul realised that it is by faith alone that we are saved. Consequently he wrote to the Romans and told them, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ “ (Romans 1:17). It was through studying that verse that Martin Luther reached the conclusion that righteousness before God wasn’t attained as a reward for observing the Law but could only come through faith in Jesus. In that simple act of coming to faith in Jesus Luther realised that our sins were covered and we were counted as righteous in the sight of God.
In the opening paragraph, 2:15-16, we see Paul talking directly to Cephas. These two Apostles came from similar backgrounds in that they were both born as Jews and fully obeyed the Jewish Law in all that it said. The problem was that because they had the Law Jews in general regarded themselves as being special in God’s eyes; they felt that having the Law of Moses meant they were privileged and were “God’s chosen people”. They truly believed that they would be justified simply by following the Law to the absolute letter. They really felt that they were righteous because they were Jews and had the Law whilst Gentiles were sinners simply because they didn’t have the Law and so couldn’t obey it.
Through being with Jesus Cephas learnt differently and came to understand that “by observing the law no one will be justified” (2:16). He learnt the truth of the gospel directly from Jesus as a result of seeing Him face to face, hearing Him speak and observing His miracles. It seems possible that Cephas may well have come to faith gradually rather than having a blinding flash of realisation; after all he had been with Jesus for quite some time. On one occasion Jesus and His disciples were away from the crowds when Jesus started asking who people said He was. The answers included John the Baptist and Elijah although when Cephas, known as Simon Peter, spoke he simply said, “’You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.’” (Matthew 16:15-17) On the other hand, Paul was the zealous persecutor of all those who followed Jesus and at one point seemed determined to eradicate all believers from the face of the earth. That all changed when he had his face to face encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road. He went on to learn the gospel in detail during his three years in “Arabia” where everything was revealed to him by Jesus Himself. These two great men came to faith in different ways whilst achieving the same result. They both accepted that the Law couldn’t save them; the only way to salvation was by coming to faith in Jesus Christ through the grace of God; as Paul made very clear in 2:16 when he said, “we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law...” By referring to “we, too” Paul meant that both he and Cephas had come to that conclusion through their own personal encounters with Jesus. Please forgive me but I must make a brief comment on how people come to faith in Jesus. The late Billy Graham is reported to have commented that he heard an evangelistic sermon from Rev Mordecai Ham and thought, “I didn’t have any tears, I didn’t have any emotion, I didn’t hear any thunder, there was no lightning. But right there, I made my decision for Christ. It was as simple as that and as conclusive.” Different people come to faith in Jesus in different ways and all are valid. Cephas came to faith through being in Jesus’ presence for a long time whilst Paul needed that very dramatic encounter on the Damascus Road before he was convinced. Regardless of the way it happened, both came to faith in Jesus.
Sadly, despite all that, Cephas felt it necessary to side with the Judaisers when the “men from James” visited to insist that the Gentiles needed to adhere to the Law before they could become Christians. It was for that reason that Paul felt it necessary to remind Cephas of what he had learnt from Jesus so that he would come to realise the error of his ways.
The second paragraph is extremely difficult to understand. Remember that these “men from James” were suggesting that the Gentiles couldn’t be real Christians since they didn’t follow the Jewish Law and had not been circumcised. They also argued that since Christians still struggled with sin their faith couldn’t have been enough. They then stretched this argument to suggest that if such people were still sinners then that meant that “Christ promotes sin” (2:17b) and therefore was a “minister of sin”. Consequently the work of Jesus in making them right with God didn’t make them right enough; more was needed.
Paul was obviously disgusted by that comment and replied quite forcibly, “Absolutely not!” (2:17b). Paul’s attitude was quite simple; we seek to be justified through our faith in Jesus Christ and not through any works of our own. Yes, we do still sin even though we have been justified by Christ but this is because we are weak human beings and not because Jesus is a “minister of sin”. Martin Luther puts it this way: “A Christian is not somebody who has no sin, but somebody against whom God no longer chalks sin, because of his faith in Jesus Christ. This doctrine brings comfort to consciences in trouble”.
Paul continued his argument with the intriguing comment, “If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a law-breaker.” (2:18). What can he possibly mean by that? When he spoke of rebuilding what he destroyed he was referring to reverting to obeying the Law as a means to salvation or as a way to augment the salvation that he had already received. These Judaisers from Jerusalem believed that by following the Law they would actually reduce sin in their lives. Paul believed the exact opposite since he believed that by placing themselves under the Law again they were making any sin worse than ever. He also believed that the work of Jesus on the cross of Calvary was sufficient and nothing else needed to be done; after all, Jesus had said as He hung there dying, “It is finished” (John 19:30). I believe Jesus meant that His work was done, nothing more was needed. What these “men from James” seemed to be saying was that Jesus dying on the cross wasn’t good enough and that believers needed to be circumcised and eat kosher food. That sounds to me to be a great insult to God and the work of our Saviour and something that must have infuriated Paul beyond belief.
It is in the third and final paragraph that Paul really makes clear what he believes. What Paul has to say in 2:19 seems very strange and may be difficult for us to comprehend. However, prior to his conversion it seems that Paul had thought that by keeping the Law God would accept him and he would be justified by his actions. Following his encounter with Jesus he came to realise that it was the Law that made him guilty before God rather than justified before God. Because he had this sense of guilt Paul didn’t feel that keeping the Law was the answer and that ultimately the Law had killed him. However, by coming to faith in Jesus Paul renounced the Law so that it no longer had any hold over him; he now belonged to Christ. Unfortunately it seems that these “men from James” didn’t think in the same way. As far as they were concerned they were still under the Law and truly believed that by keeping the Law they would be accepted by God. They knew of Jesus but whether or not they truly believed in Him seems unlikely. The sad thing is that they additionally believed that any Gentiles coming to Christ also needed to accept and adhere to the Law. It was this thinking that made Paul so angry and caused this major split with Cephas.
It is in 2:20 that we see Paul’s very clear explanation of how he sees justification and salvation and it is all down to his faith in Jesus Christ. Just read those words in 2:20 and think about them carefully; Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” He goes on to add, “I live by faith in the Son of God.” He says something similar in Romans 6:6 where he we read, “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with”. This may not be too easy to understand but by coming to faith in Jesus as Saviour we identify ourselves with His crucifixion and our old, sinful self dies with Him. That means that our old self is no longer alive because we have Christ living in us. Paul expands on that thought in Romans 6:8 when he says, “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” What Paul is saying there is quite simple, if we died with Christ then, since He rose from the dead and is alive today, we too are alive in and with Him. To Paul, that is how we are justified and how we receive our salvation. We come to faith in Jesus and thus accept that He died to pay the price for our sins.
Paul acknowledges in 2:21 that this is all down to “the grace of God” and adds that “if righteousness could be gained through the Law, Christ died for nothing”. That was the inference behind what the Judaisers were saying; they believed that righteousness could be obtained through observing the Law of Moses and by saying that they were more or less implying that “Christ died for nothing”. It is hardly surprising that Paul accused Cephas, the “men from James” and the Judaisers of hypocrisy. By believing what they believed, these people were clearly not “acting in line with the truth of the gospel” (2:14).
Whilst Cephas and Barnabas among others had turned away from the “truth of the gospel”, Paul stood firm in his belief in justification by faith through the grace of God. For him, by dying on the cross of Calvary, Jesus fulfilled all that was needed for believers to be justified; nothing more was needed, no matter what the Judaisers may have thought and said.
This was quite some argument between Cephas, the “men from James” and Barnabas on the one side and Paul on the other. Paul was justifiably furious with what had happened in Antioch and with what the Judaisers had said and done. He had always preached the “gospel of truth” to the Gentiles and they had accepted Jesus by placing their faith in Him. Now, these “false believers [who] had infiltrated [their] ranks” (2:4), were doing their utmost to undo all that Paul had preached and taught. More importantly they were basically saying that Christ died for nothing. As we can deduce from his comments in 2:1-10, Paul had little time for “those esteemed as leaders” (2:2) and so confronted Cephas over his actions. In that confrontation Paul laid out very clearly what he believed; believers are justified by faith in Christ alone and nothing else is needed. That was the essence of the gospel as far as Paul was concerned and it is still the essence of the gospel today.
 Quoted in Guzik, David, Verse by Verse Commentary Galatians & Ephesians, Enduring World Media: Ventura, CA, 2007, page 34