Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Sobering lessons from when Peter came to Antioch (Galatians 2:11-21)

When Peter came to Antioch, he ate with Gentile Christians: in violation of the ceremonial laws of Moses. But Peter knew that the ceremonial laws were no longer binding; Christ had purified all things. Peter himself had had this made graphically clear to him in his vision before the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10). The middle wall of partition had been pulled down once and for all through the Messiah who died for the sins not of Israel alone, but of all the world.

Later on, though, when certain men came representing James (whether officially or purportedly is not significant: if Peter could err in this matter, so could James), he stopped. Why? The Bible says "fear" (Galatians 2:12). From that moment on, Peter became a hypocrite. He preached a law-free gospel that places all men everywhere on an equal footing: Jew and Gentile alike sinners before God, and able to be justified by God's grace through faith alone; able to fellowship together at the Lord's Supper in the same way. He preached that righteousness does not come from the law, but is a free gift to all in Christ. Yet whilst he preached this, he started again to rebuild the distinctions between Jew and Gentile by separating himself from his non-Jewish brothers, refusing to treat them as equals and enjoy fellowship with them on that basis. He ate with them at the Lord's Supper: but not at the ordinary meals of every day! His gospel which he never stopped to preach, and his practice became two contradictory messages.

I think this passage has wide-ranging applications today. Here are just a few lessons from consideration of what Peter did:
  • Good men, even the best and most used, can make catastrophic mistakes. As Isaiah 2:22 in the KJV memorably says, "Cease ye from man".
  • Even the best men can be defeated by that most miserable of motives : the fear of man. As the same verse reminds us, that is man, "whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of?" And though our lives are but a shadow and a mist - this monster, the fear of man, stalks us all at all times, and we scarcely realise how much "danger money" we hand over to pay off its demands day by day. If this happens to apostles - how much more to us? "The fear of man brings a snare: but whoever puts his trust in the Lord shall be safe." - Proverbs 29:25.
  • The behaviour of great leaders is not to be our guide: Scripture and truth are. Great leaders can and do lead great numbers of people astray! The powerful example of Peter led even Barnabas astray (Galatians 2:12). This is Barnabas, an early leader in the Antioch church which led the way in treating Gentiles as full equals of Jews (Acts 11:19-20). Barnabas, who had been a pioneer leader alongside Paul in the first organised missions to the Gentiles, preaching the law-free gospel openly and widely (Acts 13:1ff). Just because Spurgeon, Stott, Lloyd-Jones, Whitefield, Packer, Hodge, Masters, MacArthur, Piper, Carey, Carson, Olyott, or whoever your particular present favourite is did it or does it, so what? We must take responsibility for our own countless blunders, and they for theirs. Hero-worship is not a Christian virtue.
  • The errors of great men and even apostles do not fall short of practices which can totally deny the heart of the gospel. Peter continued to preach the gospel flawlessly, as a Spirit-guided apostle of Christ. He declared justification by faith alone. But in his practice, as Galatians 2:14-16, he was effectively declaring justification by Jewish works. There was only ever one man whose practice was without error, and that is why we are called Christians are not Petronians or Paulicians! How tragic: and one more reason to cling closer to Christ, not putting our trust even in the best of Christian leaders. I think some of the men I named above deny the gospel in practice in the manner that Peter did. How can some of them remain in denominations whose official leadership does not teach the evangelical gospel, and where the denomination as a whole has no clear position on whether the evangelical gospel is true or not, or compulsory or not, or whether we can instead substitute it for liberalism or Roman Catholicism? I believe that they would resign immediately if their churches appointed flamboyant and unrepentant bank-robbers, homosexuals or murderers at the top of the leadership: yet if the top of the leadership is not evangelical, that is apparently OK? Is this because they believe outward morality is more important than the gospel? Surely not... but it is the error of Peter. These men teach justification by faith alone; but in practice tolerate all kinds of other justifications.
  • In making his blunder, Peter actually went backwards. He had once eaten with Gentiles; even for many years. Even the best men and leaders can backslide. What Peter once knew very clearly, he apparently then suppressed and/or forgot. Our past attainment is no guarantee of future faithfulness: even for apostles! May God have mercy on us all!
It's worth noting that some years later in 2 Peter 3:15 that Peter affectionately calls Paul - who publicly rebuked him for his error - "our beloved brother". Proverbs 27:5-6 - “Open rebuke is better than secret love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” Proverbs 9:8 - "Do not reprover a scorner, in case he hates you: rebuke a wise man, and he will love you." Peter received the rebuke, repented, and loved Paul for recovering him. Lessons for us in there too!

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