Paul Rebukes Peter

James Boyd

Galatians 2:11-21, “But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain Gentiles came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them, which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ a minister of sin? God forbid. For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet, not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.”

Paul Versus Peter

Paul tells of this encounter with Cephas or Peter. Peter had come to Antioch for reasons unrevealed, but most likely to be of assistance in the cause of Christ as he had done in Samaria in Acts 8. But Paul says Peter stood in error in a certain matter and Paul resisted him. He opposed him to his face and before all who were concerned. Can we suppose that Peter was really a “pope” and being openly and publicly rebuked for sinning? Who could imagine such a thing toward the “pope” of Rome who claims to be “Peter's successor”?

Here were two giant pillars in the church standing at odds. Some today might have criticized Paul for doing what he did. Some would have advised that he not cause any trouble, keep the peace, and let harmony continue. But the harmony and peace had already been broken and trouble already stirred by the error of Peter. Paul did not create the situation, but began working to remedy it. Only those who are passive toward error and compromising toward truth would advise error be left alone and truth allowed to be buried for the sake of a misguided “peace.” Peter had started the trouble and Paul would have been negligent not to deal with it. It is never right to appease sin and make it appear wrong is right.

Public sin was publicly rebuked. It should be done this way, especially when committed by those of prominence lest others think that sin is not sin. Prominent brethren can lead weaker brethren astray. When someone of note goes astray, all the more reason to expose the error. Peter's error was adversely influencing others, even Barnabas, Paul's companion on his first journey to take the gospel to Gentiles. Of all people who should have known there should be no racial discrimination in the Lord's church, it should have been Barnabas, unless Peter should have known it even better. It is bad when brethren err. It is worse when error is swept under the rug uncorrected. But how many prefer nothing be said or done in the face of error if brother Big is involved?

The Issue

What was the wrong Peter committed that caused Paul to take issue with him? Peter, a Jew, was visiting a church where there were Gentiles. At first he did not let this racial difference determine his association but treated all brethren as brethren. This would be expected of Peter since he had been the one to first take the gospel to Gentiles at the house of Cornelius, recorded in Acts 10. He had been outspoken at the conference in Jerusalem when such matters were discussed, as recorded in Acts 11 and 15. The conclusion of those meetings was that the gospel is for all without respect to race, and salvation was offered to everyone on the same terms. Peter was now acting inconsistently with that truth and making distinction among his brethren, fearing those who were Jewish Christians lest they not approve of him.

Certain ones came from James, meaning Jerusalem, where there remained those who were confused about accepting Gentiles. While it was all right for Jews to follow their customs, they could not bind their religious laws seeing that the law was no longer operative, having been nailed to the cross. One of the problems with many Jewish brethren was their attempt to make their customs and laws binding on others as if such was God's will. They acted as if racial differences made a difference in one's acceptability before God.

While Peter once realized this error, now he was practicing it. He pulled himself away from his Gentile brethren under the pressure of the presence of his Jewish brethren. Paul pointed out to him that he simply could not have it both ways.

Peter's actions were disturbing and disrupting the church in Antioch. He was causing others to take this same faulty course of action. Paul did not express his personal opinion about the matter, but charged that they "walked not according to the truth of the gospel.”It was a matter of faith.

It is not unknown for men who are usually good to sometimes bow before the fear of others and be carried away by personal prejudices. Paul reasoned, if Peter had been living as a Gentile, even though he was a Jew, why did he now require the Gentile to live as a Jew? Peter was guilty of doing the very thing he once realized was wrong. He was using his influence to perpetuate the very idea that he once knew to be error. Even today, as I write these words, names of prominent brethren among us come to mind for doing in principle the very same thing because they seem to have shifted their positions to accommodate the largest number of people rather than being consistent with once, stated convictions that they preached and practiced. It is a sad spectacle to behold when good men do such a thing.


It is an indication that something is wrong when one is inconsistent. One might at one time contend for truth and then depart from it and be inconsistent. He might once have contended for error and now hold the truth and he is inconsistent, but for the better. But when there is inconsistency I something is wrong somewhere, either at the first or later. Inconsistency may embarrass us, but being wrong can condemn us. One should prefer inconsistency when going from wrong to right, but to go from right to wrong is both inconsistent and deadly. In this instance Peter had once been right and was now wrong and inconsistent.

Paul further reasoned if the ways of the Jews must be adopted by Gentiles to be saved, then Christ died in vain. If the old law could have saved, why was the new one given? Man cannot be justified by the old Law of Moses. Paul impressed this upon them all and showed the superiority of the faith of Christ.

Those today who wish to hold to the old law make void the grace of God. Galatians 5:4, “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” The truth was they were not really justified at all, but had voided their salvation by returning to that which cannot save. Paul said that would frustrate God's grace.

Such teaching does not render the Old Testament valueless. We study it and respect the record as inspired of God because all Scripture is inspired of God (Second Timothy 3:16,17). There is much profit for us as Paul states in Romans 15:4 and First Corinthians 10: 11, but we must recognize that the law was but a shadow of things to come (Colossians 2: 17).

Dead To The Old Law

One final point of emphasis is the teaching of verse twenty. As far as the old law was concerned, Paul said he was dead (separated) from it. This was similar to his teaching regarding the Christian's relationship to the law as found in Romans 7: 1- 7. Paul showed that as a Christian he did not determine that his life would be for himself. He really did not consider his life to belong to himself. Once he had even said that dying would be better than living except for the good he could do for others (Philippians 1:23). His life was totally committed to the service of the Lord.

As Christians we live by faith, walk by faith, and our salvation is in the faith of Christ. The will of the Lord must be the heart and core of our thought and conduct. We are not to allow any motive except it please God. No word spoken should be outside His approval.

Alongside the condemnation of racial prejudice, let us be aware that if stalwart soldiers of the cross like Peter and Barnabas can get sidetracked into error, improperly influencing others, we certainly can. Let us be consistent, but more importantly, be right. Paul rendered the church great service when he rebuked Peter.