But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned…” (Gal 2:11)
When Simon Peter journeyed to Antioch, he must have discovered a reality different from his ministry context in Jerusalem and Judea. The leadership there was multi-cultural (Acts 13:1) and the make-up of the church appears to have been predominantly Gentiles.
Peter was familiar, of course, with the passion of new believers and the excitement that accompanies their incorporation into the church. He had seen many thousands brought into the kingdom in Jerusalem and Judea (Acts 21:20). Those thousands were Jews, zealous for the law.
Make no mistake, Peter understood perfectly that Jesus’ kingdom extended to the Gentiles. That vision of a sheet lowered from heaven provided a lesson Peter would never forget. He understood that God doesn’t play favorites (Acts 10:34).
So what was the problem? What caused Peter to withdraw from table fellowship with the Gentiles?
It was the arrival of some of the brethren from Judea. Apparently, these Christ-followers of Jewish background held to their pre-conditioned assumptions. The shape of the new thing had not sufficiently displaced their old reality. Their old wine-skins had not yet burst…and Peter was their pastor, their apostle. The pressure must have been great because even Barnabas was led astray (Gal 2:13).
So Peter, the rock, let himself be squeezed into their mold. He held himself aloof from the Gentile believers and ate only with the Jews.
Well, tenacious Paul, with not a hint of concern for the Jerusalem pecking order, springs into action, rebuking the leader of the twelve to his face. For Paul, breaking table fellowship over the issue of ethnicity (including language, culture, religious background, etc.) violated the very heart of the gospel. He would not tolerate it.
For us who live in the contemporary atmosphere of the immigration ban and many other expressions of ethnic tension, the lesson is that the gospel does not merely include and embrace other ethnicities and cultures. The gospel, by its very nature, must include and embrace all ethnicities and cultures. Therefore, the church (our churches) must include and embrace all ethnicities and cultures. Anything less is sub-gospel, or perhaps even anti-gospel.
The Last Supper with Twelve Tribes by Hyatt Moore
Paul’s passionate rebuke of Peter means that the inclusion of the nations is more than a “nice outcome.” It is at the core of the gospel! It is an imperative, not an option. If every Christ-follower is not of equal value at the foot of the cross, then it is not the real deal. Paul is prepared to go to the mat for this. The same conviction pours out again and again in his letters. “The dividing wall is broken down.” The true children of Abraham are those who share the faith of Abraham. There must be no distinction.
But there is another lesson not to be missed. Before Peter bids good-bye to this world, he pens his own epistles in which he makes a passing reference to Paul.
Notice the deference: Peter reasons that Paul’s letters contain many things that are hard to understand which the “ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). Peter could have taken one last jab, right? He could have said “Paul makes simple things hard to understand, so leave it to me (i.e. the “real apostle”) to make it clear.” No. For Peter, Paul’s writings are on the same level as other Scripture. They are worth the struggle to understand and defend against unstable minds.
Peter’s journey to Antioch held a tough rebuke for him. But he must have accepted it with grace, without a hint of bitterness towards Paul. No vindictiveness. No veiled self-promotion at the expense of a fellow apostle.
It was a missionary conflict for posterity. The apostles left us with two gems of authentic servant-leadership. Paul gives us the all-nations determination of the gospel and Peter gives us the authenticity and humility of a true shepherd of the sheep. He accepted correction. We, the church, would do well to ensure that we also build on that apostolic foundation.
By Mike Kuhn, World Outreach ITEN Missional Theology Specialist
If you have a heart for displaced people, we’d encourage you to read Mike’s book, Finding Hagar. In it is a powerful “reminder of God’s abundant grace towards all people at a time when there is much division and animosity towards the descendants of Hagar.”