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Paul Called Peter Out - a study of Galatians 2:11-21

When we aren’t living in line with the gospel, someone needs to call us on it.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Galatians 2:11-21

In an early stumble for the church, the Jerusalem leaders did not fully embrace that Gentiles could receive the gospel. Paul called them on their error, and ultimately they repented. Just as importantly, Gentiles did not need to obey Jewish law to be right with God because Jesus had already “paid it all”. Now, we live for Jesus.

If righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. Galatians 2:21

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Fruit of the Spirit Is . . . Patience.

Let’s run this back from last week. What do people think about patience? (Never pray for it, that’s for sure.) Remember that the Bible uses “patience” in an active sense (enduring opposition), whereas waiting is passive. So ask, is there ever a time when patience “runs out”?

That’s what our lesson is about today. Paul had been very patient with the young church as they struggled through the implications of Jesus’ world-changing teachings. But when Jews started separating from Gentiles and even saying that Gentiles needed to behave like Jews in order to be saved, the time for patience was over. Paul had to deal with the matter head-on. But Paul didn’t blow his lid and burn bridges; he handled the disagreement “patiently” by letting the chain of command run its course (this matter went to a full council in Jerusalem, and Paul was deemed correct). How do you know when it’s time to be patient and when it’s time to act? One clear time to jump in act is when a person’s physical and spiritual safety is at risk. Paul wasn’t going to mess around with the truth of the gospel.

Getting “Into It” with the Boss.

Here's a "fun" topic. Have you ever had a big disagreement with the boss? (If not, have you seen such a confrontation?) How did it go? What was the outcome? It can be really unnerving to disagree with a person in authority. If it’s just a little thing, like a different opinion about something minor, does that make a difference? How about if it’s something fundamental, like the direction of the company? People lose their jobs over things like this. And sometimes that’s worth it for your own conscience and credibility.

And sometimes, like in Galatians, the disagreement leads to real change. Keep that in mind.

Christian Relationships and Hypocrisy.

In our passage, Paul confronts Peter with some huge hypocrisy: Peter says that Gentiles can be saved, but he doesn’t want to spend any time with them. How can they be saved and grow in their faith if you don’t build a relationship with them?? And what message does it send them if you don’t want to be around them?

What are ways Christians can be hypocrites in their relationships? You’ll probably get answers like “gossip” and “lying” and so on. But follow up, What are ways Christians can be hypocrites in the relationships they don’t have? By this I mean prejudice—prejudice of any kind (racism, sexism, age-ism, ism-ism, etc.). How is prejudice a hypocrisy. Essentially, if we believe that Christ died for all people and that all people should hear the gospel, then we have no place treating some people differently than others. (This sounds like a Paul thing, but we will hear James say the same thing in his letter.) Our challenge will be to start thinking of ways we treat people differently and to ask God to help us stop that.

This Week's Big Idea: A Timeline for Paul

The parts of Galatians we skipped (1:11-2:10) are kind of boring, but they are indispensable for knowing Paul. They are also a huge source of controversy as scholars try to reconcile them with Acts. I’ll address the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 below. Here are some key events, using the Roman Proconsul Gallio as our foundation. In Acts 18:12-17, Paul stands trial before Gallio. We know from inscriptions that Gallio served as proconsul in that region from July 51 to July 52.

Almost all of these dates are debated.

  • 5 AD—Saul is born in Tarsus as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:3, 22:28; Phil 3:5)

  • 15-20 AD—Saul studies under Gamaliel in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3)

  • 32 AD—Saul is present at the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58, 8:1)

  • 32-34 AD—Saul persecutes the church (Acts 8:1-3; Phil 3:6)

  • 34 AD—Saul is converted on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9)

  • 34-37 AD—Paul “lays low” in Arabia for 3 years (Gal 1:17)

  • 37 AD—Paul travels to Damascus, Jerusalem, and Tarsus (Acts 9:20-29; 2 Cor 11:32-33; Gal 1:17-18)

  • 37-46 AD—Paul lays low in Tarsus where Barnabas finds him (Acts 9:30, 11:25)

The First Missionary Journey 47-48 AD

  • 47 AD—Paul and Barnabas preach in Antioch, send aid to Jerusalem for the famine, then Seleucia and Cyprus (Acts 11:27-30, 12:25, 13:2-4)

  • 48 AD—Preach in Pamphilia, Pisidia, and southern Galatia (Acts 13-14)

  • 49 AD—Travel to the Jerusalem Council then back to Antioch (Acts 15; Gal 2:1?, 2:11-14)

The Second Missionary Journey 49-51 AD

  • 49 AD—Paul and Barnabas split over John Mark; Paul travels with Silas through Syria, Cilicia (Acts 15:40-41)

  • 50 AD—Add Timothy, traveling through Galatia and northern Asia Minor (the vision about Macedonia) (Acts 16:1-10)

  • 51 AD—Travel through Macedonia (Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea) and Greece (Athens, Corinth) (Acts 16-18)

  • 51-53 AD—Paul remains in Corinth for 18 months (includes trial before Proconsul Gallio) (Acts 18:11-17)

  • 53 AD—Paul travels to Ephesus, Jerusalem, and Antioch (Acts 18:18-22)

The Third Missionary Journey 53-56 AD

  • 53 AD—Paul travels through Galatia, Phrygia, Asia Minor (Acts 18:22-23)

  • 53-56 AD—Spends three years in Ephesus (Acts 19)

  • 56 AD—Travels through Macedonia, Greece, and back along the coast to get to Jerusalem (Acts 20-21:14)

  • 57 AD—Is arrested in Jerusalem (Acts 21:15-23:22)

  • 57-59 AD—Two trials in Caesarea (Acts 23:23-24:27)

  • 59 AD—Third trial and appeal to Rome (Acts 25-26)

  • 60-62 AD—Paul is imprisoned in Rome (Acts 27-28)

  • 63 AD—Paul is released and continues missionary work (Implied)

  • 67 AD—Paul is arrested again and executed (Church tradition)

Now, what in the world do we do with all of this? Teacher's tip: don't give out a timeline (unless it's to a data-lover). Timelines are boring to most people. If you have access to one of those cool map sets, just display the routes of Paul’s missionary journeys.

Here’s the question we talked about last week: did Paul write Galatians to the first churches he visited on his first journey? If so, then he probably wrote Galatians before the Jerusalem Council, and that brings up the question of what visit to Jerusalem Paul was talking about in Galatians 2:1. He said this was 14 years “later”. Many assume he meant his first visit to Jerusalem, which would put this visit in ~51 AD, long after when I say the Jerusalem Council happened. That’s a potential problem. Others assume he meant after his conversion, which would put this visit around ~48 AD. (Of course, a “margin for error” of 1 or 2 years is fine for dates that we’re piecing together from 2,000 years ago).

Why do those dates matter? I'll tell you at the end. Basically, it just means the difference between the apostles accepting the Gentiles quickly, or Paul really having to fight for their inclusion. The earlier Gal 2:11-21 took place, the less it is Paul grandstanding and more it is Paul defending the true gospel. The meaning of the chapter is not affected, but it helps us understand the kind of conflict that was going on in the background (was it theological? cultural? racial?).

Our Context in Galatians

There’s one verse I want to point out that we skipped over: “For I did not receive the gospel from a human source and I was not taught it, but it came by a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Gal 1:12) If Paul is speaking the truth (which he is), then that means he has the same authority that the Apostles do. Paul goes on to explain that he spent time with those very apostles—likely having theological discussions—and the gave him personal approval. What else do Paul’s enemies want? A signed note from Jesus?

Paul gave as detailed a timeline of his life post-conversion as we find in the Bible. That’s because he wanted the Galatians to be able to fact-check him. Is Paul telling the truth? Does his timeline add up with his claim that he received his gospel from Jesus? Or is he just making it all up as a rogue Jew who wants to cause problems for the church by bringing in a bunch of yucky Gentiles? Paul wanted to make sure that the Gentile audience in Galatia both trusted him and the gospel he preached. Paul was teaching things that no Jew had taught in public, so everyone needed to make sure he was right.


Part 1: Confronted by Truth (Galatians 2:11-14)

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood condemned. For he regularly ate with the Gentiles before certain men came from James. However, when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, because he feared those from the circumcision party. Then the rest of the Jews joined his hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were deviating from the truth of the gospel, I told Cephas in front of everyone, “If you, who are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel Gentiles to live like Jews?

Help your class understand the magnitude of what Paul did here. This would be like a pastor standing up in a Billy Graham conference and calling Billy Graham a hypocrite (for whatever reason). This is Peter! And that’s precisely why Paul had to do it—what Peter said and did carried real weight. By pulling away from the Gentiles, he was sending the message that they were second class. (1) Paul couldn’t allow that—those were his people and he had to stand up for them. (2) More importantly, Paul was right and Peter was wrong (as Paul so clearly says here). The way we treat people indicates what we think their worth is to Jesus. And didn’t Tim Batchelor do such a great job explaining how every human soul is priceless in last week's sermon? For us to treat anyone in a second-class way is to sin against God, who made them in His image.

Paul was very, very bold in his reaction to Peter. (And see my comments below for what I think about James’s role in this.) But note that even Barnabas—a hero of the faith—was also pulled astray. This must have been a real, real challenge. I think of the first churches to integrate or to start an ethnic church service or to minister to illegal immigrants. We all know it’s the right thing to do, but we also know that other “elements” associated with the Christian church will raise hell (you know what I mean). Read any online comment section under a big story about a multi-racial church event and you’ll see.

But I can get closer to home. A while back, we had a visitor who was dressed real, real rough. That person received a number of ugly stares the whole time he was here. What message did that send? “You’re not welcome in my church.” The classic novel In His Steps (“What would Jesus do?”) is based on a church who had shunned a jobless man only to learn that he died a few days later. (But most “pastor disguises himself as a homeless person" internet stories are fabricated.) Ask your class how we can fall into the same trap as Peter and Barnabas, then ask how we can keep that bias out of our life.


Aside: Is James a Bad Guy?

The answer, I believe, is no. The James that we’re talking about in our passage is the half-brother of Jesus and the leader of the church in Jerusalem (in the heart of Judaism). The passage makes it sound as if James sent people to tell Peter to distance himself from the Gentiles. That sure sounds bad. Your Lifeway material explains this by saying that James didn’t actually send those people but that they came on their own from his church (his very Jewish-leaning church). That explanation does make sense, and it also lets James off the hook.

I know of two other explanations for what James is doing. (1) James is mostly okay with this Gentile agreement that he made with Paul, but he thinks that Paul should be the one in contact with Gentiles, not Peter. Peter is the “face” of the Jewish-Christian church, and he needs to “stay in his lane”. I’ve seen things like this happen in America (i.e. it’s okay for Christians to make friends with such-and-such group, but my pastor doesn’t need to do that). Or (2) James is actually under a great deal of pressure from the Jewish community in Jerusalem—so much pressure that he fears for his church. He sends for Peter to back away from the Gentiles not because he has forgotten his agreement with Paul but because he’s looking out for himself and his church members. A bit cowardly.

Neither explanation is terribly flattering to James, but I think both are plausible. I lean toward (2). But again, your leader materials suggest that James did not send the troublemakers at all; that’s also possible.

Refresher on Peter, Paul, and James

It’s been a while since we’ve covered Acts, so this may be worth a refresher. You should remember that Peter was the central figure in the beginning of Acts. He was the primary voice, and what he said carried weight. Luke used Peter’s encounter with Cornelius to kick off a new mission to the Gentiles (Acts 10-11), and then we have Peter’s miraculous escape from prison on Acts 12. Sandwiched in there (Acts 11:19-30) is a critical mention of the church in Antioch. Some unnamed believers, who had been scattered by the persecution from the Jews related to Stephen’s stoning, shared the gospel with Greeks. Those Greeks (Gentiles) responded. Jerusalem sent Barnabas (who picked up Paul on the way) to Antioch to see what was going on. Barnabas and Paul taught in Antioch for a year. The new church in Antioch sent Barnabas and Paul off on the First Missionary Journey (Acts 13-14). And that launches us into the Jerusalem Council (15).

The Jerusalem Council is a turning point in Acts. That’s the last we hear from Peter (or James). The focus shifts entirely to Paul. James remained the leader in Jerusalem for a long time, but the future of the church was with the Gentiles.

A common theory is that Peter went to Antioch when he escaped from prison, and that’s when the events of Galatians 2 took place. Then, after the Jerusalem Council, feeling very convicted about the role he played, he continued as the “apostle to the Jews”, preaching throughout Judea. However, at some point he bought in to the Gentile mission and traveled to Rome where he was eventually killed. (But those unnamed Jews are the true heroes…)


Part 2: Justified by Grace (Galatians 2:15-18)

We are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners,” and yet because we know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we ourselves have believed in Christ Jesus. This was so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. But if we ourselves are also found to be “sinners” while seeking to be justified by Christ, is Christ then a promoter of sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild those things that I tore down, I show myself to be a lawbreaker.

To make a long story short, the Judaizers were telling these new Greek Christians that they had to act like Jews. This is very similar to 1800s British missionaries teaching converts “proper manners” and punishing them for behaving in ways “uncouth”. It’s also similar to churches today confusing their “traditions” with the gospel and teaching their young people that there’s only one right way to do church.

Here’s the problem with every attitude like that (including the Judaizers’): we know that no human behavior can justify us before God (that’s why Jesus died), so making such demands is truly dangerous. Either (1) we are calling Christ insufficient (which is why we would also have to try to keep the law in order to be saved), or (2) we are admitting that the entire gospel of grace is a mistake. (When we “rebuild” the law, we’re admitting that the law was right.)


Part 3: Crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:19-21)

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 comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

Try to save as much time as you can for these last few verses—they are truly life-changing. Paul takes this very negative event and turns it into a brand-new look at what it means to be a Christian. Christianity is not about what we do or do not do; it is entirely about what Christ has already done. By trying to keep the law, Paul had ruined himself. But when he met Jesus, he learned that his pursuit of self-righteousness was unnecessary—and so he “died” to the law by casting his fate on Jesus. He would henceforth only be concerned about what Christ had done, not what he had done.

But Paul took this to an extreme most of us can only dream of. Paul so identified himself with Christ that he no longer thought of his life as Paul’s but as Christ’s. While Christ lives in every Christian, Paul was actively “moving out of the way” so that Christ could be the one making the decisions in his life. How? By living entirely through the gospel (like “what would Jesus do?” all the time)—as Paul says it, “by faith”.

To live “by faith” doesn’t mean “close my eyes and expect God to fix my life” but “open my eyes and see the world as God does and follow the pattern Jesus left for us”.

And shouldn’t we follow Jesus and trust Jesus? Think about what Jesus did for us. What did any of these other teachers do for us? And Paul concludes with the negative application: if these Judaizers are right, and we do need to follow the law to be saved, then Jesus didn’t have to die, and the entire foundation of Christianity disappears.

You’ve seen the bumper sticker God Is My Co-Pilot? Well, that’s not how Paul sees it. Rather, God is Paul’s pilot, and Paul is paying close attention from the passenger seat. If your class knows the MercyMe song “So Long, Self”, it illustrates this idea pretty well. If we really want to live a life that matters, our life needs to have less of us in it and more of Jesus. Jesus changes the world; we don’t.

I see 4 pretty easy applications to choose from: (1) Do we treat our faith as a “do as I say, not as I do?” thing? (2) Do we let our prejudices affect how we share the gospel? (3) Do we actively set ourselves aside to live from Jesus’ perspective? (4) Do we really know Jesus as our Savior in the first place? If the answer to any of those questions is no, you need to identify one step to take this week to change that. Talk as a group how you can encourage one another to live more for Jesus and less for self. (And then pray toward that end.)


Closing Thoughts: Which Jerusalem Visit Is Paul Talking About?

In Galatians 2:1-10, Paul talks about a visit in which he took Titus to Jerusalem to discuss a situation in which some Judaizers had been telling Paul’s churches that they had to observe the Jewish law if they wanted to be saved.

That sounds a whole lot like the very important “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15 in which both Peter and James publicly denounce the idea that Gentiles also have to obey the law of Moses in order to be saved. In fact, all of the Lifeway material I can find on the subject gives the suggestion that Galatians 2 and Acts 15 are talking about the same event. (compare Acts 15:1 with Gal 2:12). They will look at the differences between the two descriptions and say that Paul and Luke (Acts) wrote from different perspectives, so they just included different details.

That’s fine, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I believe that Galatians was written before Acts 15, so it can’t be the same event. And that actually makes more sense to me. In Galatians, Paul talks about a private meeting, and he makes no mention of a public declaration from the apostles. And unless Paul was using Peter and James from an earlier example (i.e. Gal 2:11-21 took place before Gal 2:1-10), this would make them look really bad.

Here’s what I think happened. On one of his visits to Jerusalem (perhaps the famine relief visit), Paul had a private meeting with the apostles, explained what was going on the with the Gentiles, and they acknowledged him. Then, perhaps in response to the letter to the Galatians, the apostles in Jerusalem got a whole lot of pressure from their Jewish acquaintances—so much so that they sent word to back down, (maybe even just to change perception) which Peter did. This is the reason why the Jerusalem Council was called. Paul helped them see their hypocrisy, and that’s why Acts focuses on Paul after chapter 15.

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