Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? (Galatians 2:11-14)
You Rebuked Who?
Paul admits he was the one born out of due time. He did not walk with Jesus as He taught the multitudes or watched the Lord walk on water. The late coming apostle did not enjoy those quiet, private moments with the Son of God like Peter, James and John. It would have thrilled Paul to experience the transfiguration but he was not there – Peter was. Pentecost was a glorious time for Peter as he unlocked the keys of the kingdom for the Jews and later at the house of Cornelius, opened the door for the Gentiles. Peter was someone to look up to and admire for his place in the scheme of the early church.
Luke does not record the event Paul spoke about in his letter to the churches of Galatia. Paul, in a matter of fact way, alludes to the incident to build an argument about the promise of God to bring all men to Him through His Son. What is amazing about the story is the event itself. News had been received that Peter was coming to Antioch. The church at Antioch was one of the hardest working churches in New Testament times. No doubt, there was great excitement that Peter was coming. Paul’s view was very different. He was disturbed by things he heard about Peter. Something had to be said.
It is human nature to think of Paul’s position compared to Peter’s. This could work to the advantage of Peter and the disadvantage of Paul. Pride could get in the way. Arrogance was a present danger in situations like this. Two men who had a lot of influence in the church could wrangle their pedigrees fully leading to a full-blown brotherhood quarrel. Temptation lurked on the edges. Satan would have a field day with the impudence of Peter and the highly educated boastful Paul. To the glory of God, neither men gave the devil quarter.
Paul crafted his words carefully but a rebuke was in order. Peter was wrong. Yes, the grand old apostle was seriously mistaken in what he had done. There was nothing right about his blatant hypocrisy. He had caused many others to play the hypocrite and even persuaded Joses, the Son of Encouragement (known by all as Barnabas) to follow suit. That was how powerful the example of Peter was on others. Barnabas was infected. No one had said anything to Peter. Were they afraid of him or intimidated by Peter? Regardless, Paul had to say something and he did. Others were not going to be straightforward about the matter but Paul knew Peter was wrong and a rebuke was in order.
Peter could have reacted in many ways. He could have defended himself appealing to who he was and where he had been and what he had done for the Lord. Why should he listen to this Paul? Who does he think he is anyway? Peter would have had a lot of backing to support his defense. He could have made a position just to defend himself. What happened is why this is a great story. We have only Paul’s side of the events and do not know clearly how Peter reacted. The apostle Paul seems to allude in withstanding Peter to the face that Peter accepted the rebuke because it was the right thing to do. Did the preacher of Pentecost worry about his actions and how it had affected others but never had the complete courage to own up to it? Hard to say.
What is found in this story is the spirit of two men who loved the Lord with all their hearts, their souls and their minds. Paul had to worry about the best way to approach the subject so that he could help save the character of Peter. Prayer was evident as a precursor to the event. When the time came, Paul was firm in showing Peter what he had done was wrong. Hearing the rebuke from Paul, it would seem that Peter knew he had been misguided. More prayers were offered along with words of encouragement. I suspect that Paul and Peter became much closer after that. They were both men of honor. Their lives were wholly dedicated to one cause: Jesus Christ. It was not about who they were nor what they had accomplished in life. Preaching the gospel of Christ was not about their position among the brotherhood. They loved God. What else mattered? And that is why this is a great story.
Christ is with those of humble mind, not with those who exalt themselves over His flock. (Clement of Rome, Epistle to Corinthians, c. 100)