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Walking Straight Toward Gospel Truth

Resident Faculty, Dennis E. Johnson   |   July 1, 2005   |   New Testament, Galatians   |  Type: Articles

Simon Peter often seems like the irrepressible, spontaneous classmate in school who eagerly and consistently volunteered the wrong response to the teacher’s questions. His mistakes bring invaluable correction to us all. In the last Evangelium we surveyed three instances in the Gospels and Acts in which the Apostle Peter resisted his Master with the self-contradictory reply, “Never, Lord!” (1) We listened in amazement as Peter acknowledged Jesus’ supreme authority by calling him “Lord,” and in the same breath flatly contradicted Jesus’ word: “You will never suffer rejection and violent death!” (Matt. 16:20) “You will never humiliate yourself by washing my feet!” (John 13:8) “I will never violate the dietary boundary that separates Israel from the Gentiles—not even at your command, Lord!” (Acts 10:14)

Galatians 2:11-16 records a fourth occasion on which Peter contradicted his King, this time not in words but in action. Although this fourth act was less blatant than a spoken “Never, Lord!,” it was even more culpable than its predecessors. Paul bluntly labels Peter’s action “hypocrisy,” and condemns it as a contradiction of the very truth of the Gospel itself. Paul’s severe diagnosis of his fellow apostle’s behavior reveals to all of us both the motive and the norm that must control our thoughts, words, and deeds in our every interaction with others: the gospel of Christ. It also warns us by showing how easy it is for gospel-contradicting influences such as pride and insecurity to work their way into our hearts and generate behavior at odds with the faith we profess.

What did Peter do in Galatians 2?

Peter’s fourth “Never Lord!” action happened after God had already shown Peter in the Spirit’s descent on Cornelius and his friends that Israel’s kosher menu and the Gentiles’ exclusion from the people of God had both been rendered obsolete by the overflow of God’s grace in Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection (Acts 10:1-11:18). Peter had been practicing his conviction that God now welcomes Gentiles as Abraham’s children through faith alone, by dining at the non-kosher table of his Gentile siblings in Christ. Peter had not only enjoyed Cornelius’ hospitality for a few days (Acts 11:3) but had also been sharing the meals of the church at Antioch (Gal. 2:12).

When “certain men came from James,” however, Peter pulled back from his association with Gentile Christians. He returned to the kosher diet that the Mosaic Law mandated for Israel. This action sent the implicit but clear signal that the Gentiles’ full inclusion in the community of God’s covenant was still contingent on their submission to circumcision, dietary regulations, and adherence to all the Law’s commandments. Without a word Peter’s action shouted, “Never, Lord!” to the gospel itself.

Furthermore, the timing and circumstances of Paul’s confrontation with Peter compound the seriousness of Peter’s action. It occurred at Antioch of Syria, the home of a thriving Gentile Christian community (Acts 11:20-21). From Antioch the Holy Spirit had sent out Barnabas and Saul to bring the good news of Christ to Cyprus and to the cities of central Asia Minor, in the southern portion of the Roman province of Galatia (Acts 13:1–14:28). To the churches planted in these cities Paul writes his epistle to the Galatians. Moreover, in a private interview, Peter, along with John and the Lord’s brother James, had endorsed Paul’s and Barnabas’ evangelistic mission to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:1-10) . (2)

Peter’s withdrawal from his association with Gentile Christians denied the gospel of Christ, a reality emphasized by Paul’s description of Peter’s spiritual stagger: “They were not walking straight toward the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). The verb Paul has chosen appears nowhere else in the New Testament or the Greek translation of the Old Testament, but it is used by other ancient authors. Our English versions translate it variously, some retaining the walking metaphor and some not: “walk uprightly” (KJV), “be straightforward about” (NASB; mg. “progressing toward”), “act in line with” (NIV), and “conduct in step with” (ESV). Because Paul often employs the common Old Testament symbol of “walking” to refer to one’s whole pattern of behavior, (3) I am persuaded that he intends to bring to mind the picture of one reeling or stumbling off the straight, safe pathway that leads to divine grace in Christ.

Whether or not the metaphor retained its visual punch when Paul employed it, the main point remains. Paul evaluated Peter’s behavior by a single criterion: Do our actions and motives “line up with,” flow from and fit the gospel of Christ crucified and risen, who freely lavishes forgiveness and his righteousness on every believer of every race? The gospel of Christ should control all that Christians do.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ

Christ’s cross shockingly displays the common guilt of humanity and the deserved liability to God’s curse that all ethnic groups share, despite the variations in our ancestry and cultures. Likewise, Christ’s cross wonderfully declares that guilty people, whatever their backgrounds or performance record, are welcomed, washed, approved, and accepted for Jesus’ sake alone, by faith alone. Peter and others (including even Barnabas, to Paul’s dismay) implied by their withdrawal that one’s own adherence to circumcision, dietary or other Mosaic regulations places a person on a superior footing with God. This was nothing less than a betrayal of the cross. “For if righteousness were through Law, Christ would have died uselessly” (Gal. 2:21).

Galatians 2:11-16 reveals Paul’s constant reflex of bringing every ethical issue confronting Christ’s followers back to the touchstone of the gospel itself. Having entered life and God’s favor by believing the message of Christ crucified, we can progress toward maturity in this covenant relationship in no other way than by this same faith in the Savior (Gal. 3:1-3). How shall I employ my body? In ways consistent with the fact that I am not my own, but have been bought at great price (1 Cor. 6:19-20). How shall I use my freedom in Christ? In ways that do not endanger my brothers and sisters, for whom Christ died (1 Cor. 8:11-12). How shall I react when others wound me? With a readiness to forgive, as God forgave me for Jesus’ sake (Eph. 4:32). (4) How shall I invest my resources? In ways that reflect “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” who enriched us beyond our wildest dreams by becoming impoverished beyond our worst nightmare, bereft and abandoned on the cursed cross (2 Cor. 8:9). How shall a husband love his wife? As Christ loved us and sacrificed himself to impart his pure beauty to his bride (Eph. 5:25-28). The list could go on and on. (5)

Why did Peter do what he did?

We must return to Galatians 2 to probe the source of Peter’s stumble from the gospel’s straight path, for Scripture makes clear that behavior flows from heart-condition. When observable conduct runs astray, something is amiss within, deflecting our joyful trust in Jesus and derailing responsive, grateful love. Paul puts his finger precisely on what pushed Peter off balance: fear (Gal. 2:12). Peter, Barnabas, and other Jewish Christians were afraid of the disapproval of representatives from the mother church in Jerusalem. Peter had endured and withstood such criticism before (Acts 11:2-17), but this time he flinched under peer pressure. He gave a dramatic performance that contradicted his conviction, pretending that the wall of regulations separating Israel from the Gentiles still stood. (6) 
Peter’s wavering from the gospel at Antioch did not begin when he pulled away from Gentiles, sending the signal that Jesus’ grace was insufficient to cleanse and embrace them. It started earlier, when frowns (or expected frowns) from the men from James shook Peter’s confidence that the gospel was sufficient for himself and able to present him faultless before the Father, regardless of how others might evaluate him. Peter’s failure of courage to withstand human opinion was rooted in a failure of faith, a twinge of misgiving or failure to “connect the dots” between the gospel that he himself had preached and its implications for his own identity.


Peter needed, as we all do, to have this glorious truth that Paul joyfully belabors driven down deep into the very core of his being, to saturate his thoughts, affections, self-perception and interactions with others: “Knowing that no one is justified from the law’s works but through faith in Jesus Christ, we also [like the Gentiles] have believed in Christ Jesus, in order that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the law’s works, because from the law’s works no flesh will be justified” (Gal. 2:16). This gospel of utter grace, as it permeates our perceptions of ourselves and others, simultaneously silences our self-focused boasting and dispels our self-centered insecurities, setting us free to love God and others.

1Dennis E. Johnson, “Never Lord!,” Evangelium 3, no. 2 (Mar/Apr 2005): 5–6. [back to text]

2Some scholars equate the meeting with the “preeminent” apostles reported by Paul in Gal. 2:1-10 with the apostolic council of Acts 15:1-35. This identification is contradicted, however, by Paul’s insistence that his meeting with Peter, James, and John was “private” (Gal. 2:2), in contrast to the public assembly of apostles and elders at which other believers seem to have been observers (Acts 15:6, 12, 22). It is also unlikely that “certain men from James” could have intimidated Peter into withdrawing from contact with Gentiles if the council had already occurred in which James declared so forcefully that the Law must not be imposed on Gentile believers (Acts 15:19-21). F. F. Bruce, Galatians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 43-56, and Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1970), 457-65, and others argue persuasively that Galatians was actually written by Paul “on the eve of” (Bruce) the public apostolic council of Acts 15. [back to text]

3 E.g., Rom. 6:4; 8:4; 13:13; Eph. 2:2, 10; 4:1, 17; cf. Gen. 17:1;Exod. 16:4; Lev. 26:3; Deut. 8:6; 10:12 [back to text]

4 In response to an effort by Peter to limit our obligation to forgive slights from others, Jesus told a parable illustrating how outrageous it is for slaves forgiven their infinite debt by the King to refuse to grant mercy to fellow-servants, whose worst offenses against us pale into insignificance when compared to the enormity of our guilt toward God (Matt. 18:21-35). [back to text]

5In “The Centrality of the Gospel,” a thought-provoking and spiritually challenging essay posted on the church’s website, Dr. Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, traces out the implications of the gospel in a variety of issues to illustrate his thesis that “…the Christian life is a process of renewing every dimension of our life—spiritual, psychological, corporate, social—by thinking, hoping, and living out the ‘lines’ or ramifications of the gospel.” Available online: [back to text]

6When Paul reasons, “If I rebuild what I had dismantled, I prove myself to be a transgressor,” (Gal. 2:18) he implies that by sharing the food of Gentile believers Peter had previously demonstrated that the “wall” of legal stipulations had been demolished. Now Peter’s withdrawal of fellowship was reconstructing and reaffirming the validity of a boundary that Peter himself had been trespassing. Elsewhere Paul teaches that Christ’s atoning work itself broke down the wall, so in fact Peter and Paul “dismantled” it only by proclaiming the vertical and horizontal reconciliation that Jesus himself had achieved (Eph. 2:14) [back to text]

First published in Evangelium, Vol. 3, Issue 1, July/August 2005

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