“By the Works of the Law No Flesh Will Be Justified”

Galatians 2:11-16

(11) When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was condemning himself. (12) For before some from James had come, he had been eating with the Gentiles. When they came, however, he drew back and separated himself, fearing those of the circumcision. (13) And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. (14) But when I saw that they were not walking correctly in view of the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of all of them, “If you, being a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

(15) We who are Jews by nature and not Gentile “sinners” (16) know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faithfulness of Jesus Christ, and we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faithfulness of Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no flesh will be justified.

Paul Confronts Peter

In the first half of Galatians 2, Paul tells us that the gospel message that he had come to by the guidance of the Holy Spirit was essentially no different from that proclaimed by Jesus’ original disciples. In fact, not only did the pillars of the Jerusalem Church not have anything to add to Paul, but Paul himself had even one time been in a position where he had had to correct one of those pillars, Peter, when Peter had begun compromising in precisely the way that Paul had refused to with the “pseudo-brethren” in Jerusalem. Not only does this vignette put the final nail in the coffin of the false accusation that Paul is only interested in pleasing people with his man-made and too-easy gospel, but it also leads into the substance of Paul’s counter-argument against the Judaizers, and thus the real substance of Galatians.

We don’t know exactly when this happened, but at some point when Paul was in Antioch, Peter had come to visit. At first he had eaten with the Gentile Christians there, but when Jewish Christians from James came to them, Peter apparently felt pressured by them to separate himself from the Gentiles when eating. Peter being the important figure that he was, other Jewish Christians started following Peter’s example, including even Barnabas. Paul had to address this by publicly confronting Peter for the sake of those who were following his lead in this behavior that Paul felt was antithetical to the gospel of Jesus.

Why Would Peter Separate Himself?

So what was the problem with Jews and Gentiles eating together? Why would Peter feel pressure from these men from Jerusalem to separate himself from the Gentile Christians. There is actually a good deal of debate on this subject. Some think that circumcision was actually the issue. In other words, some think that 1st century Jews believed that uncircumcised men made the meal at which they dined ritually impure. Therefore, a pious and wholly devoted Jew ought to avoid dining with uncircumcised men just like he would avoid touching corpses, for example. Since circumcision has already come up as an issue in Galatians, and it will actually continue to be an issue, this is possible if we are correct that 1st century Jews actually felt this way. Others argue that it must have been something that they were eating that wasn’t kosher. The problem with this idea is that at no point does Galatians ever speak explicitly of dietary laws. Because of this we aren’t sure that Jewish dietary restrictions are even on the radar. Still others think that some Jews defined ritual purity in so strict a way as to prohibit associating with Gentiles entirely. But here’s the reality of the first century world: there were actually lots of different attitudes and opinions among Jews around the Roman Empire concerning what the Law required regarding purity when eating. There were actually lots of different ideas even among Palestinian Jews, meaning those Jews who lived in the land. Palestinian Jews tended to be a little more conservative in a lot of things than their kinsmen who lived throughout the rest of the world. But modern scholarship has demonstrated pretty conclusively that Palestinian Judaism was not a religious or ideological monolith. There was a whole spectrum of ideas and attitudes among conservative Palestinian Jews, and not all of them would have seen eating with Gentiles as being much of a problem.

The bottom line of this conflict is this: Peter was eating with the Gentiles, then peer pressure came from what appear to have been some of those whom Paul earlier called “pseudo-brethren”, and Peter stopped eating with the Gentiles. Whatever the particulars of Peter’s theological or cultural motivation, the thrust of Peter’s action is that it declared that to be a full member of the family of God, and to enjoy table fellowship with other full members, some degree of adoption of Jewish cultural customs was necessary. Put another way, it said to everyone present that our culture trumps our commitment to Christ.

Paul’s Argument: There Are No Second Tier Christians

Paul’s response at first appears somewhat enigmatic. Paul says, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” What does he mean by “living like a Gentile.” Here again we are tempted to try to consult sources outside of Galatians, but I think the answer is very simple and right here in the text. Peter living like a Gentile refers precisely to his prior disregarding of Jewish purity customs, or whatever it was that made him subsequently separate himself when certain other Jews came around. He had been living like a Gentile by dining with the Gentiles. How then, Paul asks, can he have the gall to tell these Gentiles that they had to live like Jews in order to be first tier members of God’s family? How was Peter telling them this? By separating himself once the other supposedly “first tier” members came. Jews separating themselves from the Gentiles communicated that there were culturally defined tiers within Christianity. Paul called Peter out for hypocrisy. If you are going to demand adherence to purity customs once these guys arrive, you had better demand that all the time rather than part-time living like a Gentile. Paul says elsewhere if you are going to try to live by the law in part, you are bound to live by it in total.

But that would be futile, Paul continues. We who are Jews by birth nevertheless realize that the law doesn’t make anyone righteous before God. You are not made a member of God’s family by doing the law. Paul is telling us that this point of his is not his innovation, but it was commonly held by Peter, as well, and by implication James, John, and the legitimate 1st century Church in Jerusalem. It isn’t abiding by the law that earns or has ever earned our spot in God’s family, but faith/faithfulness. Doing the law was always the faithful response to God’s faithful and loving initiative. But now in Christ that faithful response has been fulfilled and we can focus on universal ethical principles based on love rather than on culturally-defined and privileged principles of Jewish custom and law. Since customs like circumcision were never the source of righteousness to begin with, the faithfulness of Jesus and his vindication by God in being raised from the dead demonstrate those customs to be no longer relevant to righteous living at all.

“The Faith of Christ”

The way I have been talking about this depends to some extent on a particular way of translating a critical term in this paragraph, specifically the Greek pistis Christou, which could mean either “Faith in Christ” or “faith of Christ.” Pistis is a Greek word that means faith or faithfulness. The second part of this term, Christou, is the word Christos, or Christ, in the genitive case. While this is often translated “faith in Christ”, it could also mean “faith/faithfulness of Christ”. This is very hotly debated, but I tend to fall on the side of the “faith of Christ” translation. In other words, I don’t think Paul sees us as primarily justified by our faith in Jesus, but by the faithfulness of Jesus in his suffering and death on the cross. We lay claim to that justification by faith, it is true (hence “we have believed in Christ Jesus” in verse 16), but it is God’s sovereign work to call us and to justify us. We can boast no causal role in that.

So Paul’s augmented rebuke of Peter says: if you’re going to live by the law at all, you have to live by it in total. But to do so would be pointless, since even we Jews know that we are not justified before God by that law, but by faith, specifically the faith of Jesus. So there is no place, the implied argument goes, for tiers within Christ’s followers based on adherence to Jewish customs. There are no tiers because the Jewish customs are no longer relevant in any way. We are all on the same footing because of Jesus. So when you, Peter, and the Jewish Christians separate yourselves you are actually calling the very foundation of the gospel into question. This is not some innocent matter of preference or politeness to accommodate some hardliner pseudo-brothers. You are contradicting Christ.

If personal experience regarding human nature is any guide, I suspect Peter’s response was probably a deer-in-the-headlights look and a mumbled, “Oh. I hadn’t really thought that deeply about it.” That’s when Paul smacked his balding forehead and began his slow burn. At least that’s the way I envision the exchange.

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