When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For 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 because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas 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?
I love how the bible is so honest about the failings and foibles of its most prominent heroes. This feature of scripture supports its authenticity and authority in a way that is convincing to me. The bible doesn’t cover up our sins but exposes them in order to forgive them. The situation described by Paul in Galatians speaks to our contemporary situation with great power. We are living in a moment in our culture in which Christians are tempted to draw back from others, to label others, to marginalize others, based on all kinds of differences. Differences of skin color, cultural norms, political opinions, geographic location, economic choices and financial status all play a role in this division. Add to this list dietary customs, conformity to rituals, strict religious rules, modes of dress, the list could go on and on. Sinful human nature loves to divide and categorize people. We are tempted by the world, the flesh and devil to draw back from others, even other believers.
Peter was pretending to be more righteous than the Gentiles because he was afraid of the criticism of the circumcision group. Peter was on record as believing that the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what you eat or what you drink. He believed that being born of Jewish lineage was not important for salvation. We read about his vision of the sheet in the book of Acts. We read that he courageously broke down these barriers with the Gentiles even though he was criticized.
But in Antioch he flinched. He drew back from living in line with the Gospel. He let the racists in the circumcision group get the better of him. (They claimed that people had to convert to Judaism and be circumcised before they could become Christians). So out of his fear he drew back from his gospel principle. Peter stopped eating with Gentiles in order to smooth things out with these people who were clearly in error. And Paul opposed him!
When I look at this situation I ask myself: How do I participate in this kind of pretending and hypocrisy? How is the fear of other people’s opinions shaping me more than seeking to please God? Do I draw back from relationships with Christians who are of a different race or social class or economic status or political party? I don’t want people to think that I am one of those people after all. Do I draw back from relationships with people who are outsiders? Who are not yet believers? Who are believers but who still struggle with hurts, habits and hang ups (like we all do). Do I draw back from people because they are from a different denomination or have a different worship style than I do?
The CROSS delivers me from FEAR! I don’t need to worry about what people will think of me when I know that we are all equal at the foot of the Cross. Christian leader, don’t draw back! The cross leads us toward people, not away from them. Let’s engage in the tough conversations that we may need to have. Let’s engage at the table with believers who are different from us. Let’s invite everyone from everywhere to the table. The table of the Savior who did not draw back!