Tonight we come to the the subject of Peter in Antioch in our series of sermons entitled WARNINGS FOR THE CHURCH. We are going to be looking at Galatians 2 verses 11-16.
This is quite an amazing passage. If the New Testament was made up, you wouldn't have had this passage included. For this is washing the dirty linen of the emerging church in public with a vengeance. Here is Paul having what seems to be a blazing row with Peter the great church leader. If the New Testament was made up, this incident would never have been invented. But it wasn't invented. It was reporting what happened. So we now know much more about Peter in Antioch than we know about Peter in Rome where he was supposed to have been the first Bishop.
The Holy Spirit of God obviously wanted us to know more about Peter in Antioch than Peter in Rome. So we may take it that the issues here are hugely important. I trust, therefore, that you will pay special attention tonight and concentrate on this passage. And I want to be as simple as possible. I am just going to talk first, about PETER, secondly, about PAUL, and, thirdly, and very briefly, about LESSONS FOR TODAY.
There are three questions we need to ask about both Peter and Paul. First, who were they or what sort of people were they? Secondly, what did they do? And, thirdly, why did they do what they did?
So who was Peter? Well, he was a remarkable man. He was the great apostle who was the first to confess Jesus as the Messiah. Then on the Day of Pentecost Peter preached literally to thousands of Jewish people - braving the hostility of the authorities which he kept on doing.
But most importantly for us tonight there was that occasion you read about in Acts chapter 10 when he was in the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius in Caesarea. This was when the Holy Spirit in a very visible way came on non-Jewish people - it was something of a Gentile Pentecost. That was the great demonstration that the new age inaugurated by Jesus Christ with his death and Resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit was not just for the Jews but the whole world.
So Peter knew all about the incorporation of the non-Jewish - or Gentile - world, although he remained the leading apostle for the Jews. Yes, Peter was a remarkable man.
Yet this remarkable man, we are told in verse 11 of our passage for tonight, was "clearly in the wrong". You say, "surely it is impossibe for such a man, having been involved in all he had been involved in, to be 'clearly in the wrong'."
No! it is not uncommon for great men of God, at times, to go completely off the rails. This happened with Aaron as you heard in our Old Testament reading. Aaron had been through all those miraculous experiences in Egypt - including the crossing of the Red Sea and the defeat of the Egyptians. But here he is giving into the people and aiding them in their idolatry. Then there was King David. He went off the rails sexually, when he saw an attractive women naked and decided he wanted to sleep with her. To make matters even worse, she was already married; so he had to have her husband killed. You can jump the centuries and find people like Luther advocating strange views about Holy Communion; Calvin acquiescing in the death of Servetus; and Cranmer, the great English Reformer, under pressure, denying fundamental truth. They, too, were great Christians, but they could be "clearly in the wrong". And what these facts tell us is this - none of them is infallible. The bible alone is an infallible guide and bench mark in the church - not Christian leaders. So be careful about today's leaders and evangelical "gurus". So if that is "who" Peter was, what exactly did he do? We are told in black and white in verse 12:
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.
After that experience in the house of Cornelius his old Jewish scruples had been overcome. He no longer felt any contamination through eating with non-Jewish - or Gentile-Christians - Christians who had not been "circumcised". "Circumcision", as you know, was something the Jews felt to be very important. But as it was painful and embarrassing for adult males to have to undergo this ritual operation, and as these Gentile believers saw that salvation didn't depend on it, the majority naturally decided it was not for them. And Peter accepted that. So he socialized and ate with them without batting an eyelid.
But then (verse 12) "certain men came from James". They were professing Christian believers but with a Jewish background. In fact if these are the people referred to in Acts 15 verse 5 they were Christians from the party of the Pharisees. And they could have been falsely claiming the authority of James (the Christian leader in Jerusalem). In Acts 15 verse 24 James says that they did not have his authority: it was, he said, "without our authorization".
So whether or not these were the very same people, the sort of thing that was going on in the early church at this time, and in Antioch in particular, is clear enough. There were people around pretending to be apostolic delegates saying that salvation depends on circumcision. Acts 15 verse 1 refers to
"some men [who] came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved."
And these folk that Peter was going along with were even more extreme. They taught not only the necessity of circumcision for salvation. They also taught that if you were a circumcised Jewish believer, you shouldn't then have table fellowship with uncircumcised Gentile believers. Nor did it matter to them that these Gentile believers had believed in Jesus and been baptized. There still had to be this separation.
These people, therefore, were preaching a "gospel plus" - faith and Jewish rituals. Always beware of people who preach a gospel plus - people who add to the gospel. And there are people today who add to the gospel. Some say you have to be baptized in a certain way or else you are not a true Christian; or you have to have a certain type of spiritual blessing; or you have to take communion only from the right hands. And these folk can seem so spiritual. The more you add to the gospel the more, superficially, you can seem to be spiritual. But what is taught is very wrong.
So it was such people, such Judaizing teachers, who somehow won Peter to their dreadful and wrongly divisive practices. Peter who had previously eaten with the Gentile believers, now (verse 12) "drew back and separated himself" from them. Of course, Peter may not have taught anything new verbally at this point. But what you do also teaches. Sometimes actions speak louder than words. To go along with these Judaizers and to be in fellowship with them and not to be in fellowship with the non-Jewish believers is to teach something even though Peter may have denied it.
Sadly George Carey does not recognize the new missionary bishops sent from South East Asia and Rwanda to re-evangelize and reform the decadent Anglican church in the United States (including John Rodgers who has preached at Jesmond). But at the same time he recognizes a number of heretical American bishops. That is to teach something, even though he may deny it.
And what is worse - such behaviour and such action is catching. Look at verse 13:
The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
Barnabas was such a nice man. He was a pastoral type of man, a sensitive type of man and so not the sort to want conflict. The easy way out for him was to go with the flow. And at this point the flow was to go along with Peter and in the wrong direction. Well, that is "what" Peter did.
But why did be do what he did? Had he forgotten his experience at Joppa and the house of Cornelius? That is unlikely. Paul tells us and it is crystal clear. Look at the last half of verse 12. Paul says he did this ...
... because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.
It is amazing how people will compromise because of fear. And the consequences can be diastrous.
Let's move on now to Paul.
And let's ask those three questions of Paul - who? what? and why? Who was Paul? Well, of course, he too was also a great apostle. While the first part of the book of Acts is about the exploits of Peter, the second part is about the exploits of Paul.
What, then, did Paul do? Look at verse 11 again:
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.
And Paul did this quite publicly. Look at verse 14 where Paul is referring to the other Jews and Barnabas who were also "in the wrong":
When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter 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?"
Paul did not worry about being publicly controversial when, as he says, "the truth of the gospel" was at stake. Nor is this Paul wanting to be an awkward customer. Paul taught more than anyone about peace and unity in the church -
(Rom 12:16) Live in harmony with one another.
(Eph 4:3) Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
(Phil 2:2) [Be] like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.
(1 Thess 5:13) Live in peace with each other.
But Paul would never subordinate the fundamental truth of the gospel to the peace of the church. Nor would he subordinate the fundamental truth of the gospel to his friendship with Peter. He didn't mind being called a controversialist when the fundamentals were at stake. In that he was no different to Jesus.
Do you remember how Jesus had to attack the Pharisees: "You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?" The second half of Matthew chapter 23 is all like that. When there is serious fundamental error there has to be strong speaking and, until there is repentance, division. So Jesus said graphically in Matthew 10 verse 34:
"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword."
And that is why we at this church have taken issue with those who teach or support sexual immorality in the church - and sadly that includes the Bishop of Newcastle. That is what Christ expects and demands of his church if it is to be faithful - look at Revelation 2 verse 2, and 2 verse 20, when you get home. It does mean conflict. It does mean difficulty. And no-one likes that. But when senior leaders like Peter are denying the truth of the gospel, firm action is required. And that is why Paul acted as he did. It was because, verse 14, Peter and the others "were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel".
Now we know that Paul was very relaxed about secondary issues. He never "majored on minors". He didn't want quibbling about words as we saw when we thought about Hymenaeus and Philetus. He dealt gently with people who were in error over secondary matters. For Paul to take such action as he did with Peter must mean that the issue at stake was of No.1 importance. So what is the precise truth that was at stake? It is there in verse 16:
"a man [or a woman] is not justified by observing 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 observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified."
What does that mean? It means this: you are not right with God and so safe for now and for all eternity because of what you do - your being kind and considerate, being faithful in your marriage, being a good citizen, being a good employer, being a good employee or, for these Pharisaic Christians, being circumcised. You can never be good enough for God. And when you are honest you know that.
No! It means that you are right with God and so safe for now and for all eternity because of what Christ has done for you, in your place and your faith or trust in Christ. You don't have to do anything. You just thankfully receive by faith his forgiveness and his Holy Spirit for new life. You see, when God looks at your life, he doesn't see all those things you think up when you want to impress people. He sees the real you.
I was travelling from one end of the country to the other yesterday on a Virgin Train - from Plymouth to Newcastle. At one point - I don't know where we were - there was a town we passed through with a street of reasonably smart houses. But between the back gardens of those houses and the railway line there was a long strip of land, a roadwidth wide, and it was an absolute tip going on for quite a distance. You could see rubbish and rusting cars and other unsavoury junk. From the front of those houses it would have seemed a smart little street. From the railway line it looked awful.
That is something of the way God sees you and me. We see the front. He sees the back as well. But on the Cross Christ took all our junk on himself - all our sin and wrong doing. And if we trust Christ, God sees that junk transfered to Christ. This is a mystery. But as Paul says in the next chapter of Galatians, chapter 3 verse 13:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree [that is the cross]. He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit."
That is so important. You are saved by faith in Christ alone. Yes, then you must live for Christ and you will do that, even if this side of heaven you are less than perfect. But your eternal destiny does not depend on what you do, but on what Christ has done. That, at the end of the day, is what Paul was fighting for - we call it "justification by faith".
Who tonight has never seen that faith alone in Christ is at the heart of Christianity? And you can never be too bad to come to Christ by faith and you can never be too good not to need to come to him by faith. So why not say tonight, "thank you Lord for dying for me so that I might receive that promise of the Spirit; I need your forgiveness and new life now?" What could be simpler? I must conclude.
Thirdly, with LESSONS FOR TODAY.
And they are straightforward and very short. Let me list them:
Great men make great mistakes and good men can follow their example. The fundamental truth of the gospel must take precedence over the peace of the Church. At the heart of the gospel is justification by faith. It is no good just believing the truth, and seeking to preserve it; sometimes like Paul you have to act for its defence. Don't be pressured by people who appear to be spiritual but are adding to the gospel.
agree to differ over secondary issues but be rock solid over fundamentals.