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13-4-2 Peter And The Judaizers

Led Away…

The Peter who had come so so far, from the headstrong days of Galilee to the shame of the denials, and then on to the wondrous new life of forgiveness and preaching that grace to others, leading the early community that developed upon that basis…that Peter almost went wrong later in life. Peter and the Judaizers makes a sad story. And as always, it was a most unlikely form of temptation that arose and almost blew him right off course. As often, the problem arose from his own brethren rather than from the hostile world outside. There was strong resistance in the Jewish mind to the idea that Gentiles could be saved without keeping the Mosaic law. And more than this, there was the feeling that any Jewish believer who advocated that they could was selling out and cheapening the message of God to men. Paul has to write about this whole shameful episode in Gal. 2. It becomes apparent that Peter very nearly denied the Lord that bought him once again, by placing on one side all the evidence of salvation by pure grace, for all men whether the be Jew or Gentile, which he had progressively built up over the past years. Paul, using Peter’s old name, comments how Cephas seemed to be a pillar- but wasn’t (Gal. 2:9). Paul “withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed” (2:11). Peter and some other Jewish believers “dissembled” and along with Barnabas “was carried away with their dissimulation”, with the result that they “walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel”  (2:12-14). Paul’s whole speech to Peter seems to be recorded in Gal. 2:15-21. He concludes by saying that if Peter’s toleration of justification by works rather than by Christ was really so, then Christ was dead in vain. Paul spoke of how for him, he is crucified with Christ, and lives only for Him, “who loved me and gave himself for me”. These were exactly the sentiments which Peter held so dear, and Paul knew they would touch a chord with him.  

The Denial Of Grace

Yet Peter very nearly walked away from it all, because he was caught up in the legalism of his weaker brethren, and lacked the courage to stand up to the pressure of the Judaizers on him. Peter had earlier stayed with a tanner, a man involved in a ritually unclean trade (Acts 9:43). This would indicate that Peter was a liberal Jew, hardly a hard-liner. His caving in to the Judaist brethren was therefore all the more an act of weakness rather than something he personally believed in. For it was Peter, too, who had gone through the whole Cornelius experience too! And many a humble, sincere man in Christ since has lost his fine appreciation of the Lord’s death for him and the whole message of grace, through similar sophistry and a desire to please 'the brethren'. In some of his very last words, facing certain death, Peter alludes to this great failure of his- his second denial of the Lord. He pleads with his sheep to hold on to the true grace of God, lest “ye also, being led away (s.w. Gal. 2:13 “carried away”) with the error of the lawless, fall…” (2 Pet. 3:17). Ye also invites the connection with Peter himself, who was led away by the error of the lawyers, the legalists- whereas his sheep had the error of the lawless to contend with. The point surely is that to go the way of legalism, of denying the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, is every bit as bad as going to the lawless ways of the world. Peter was carried away with the “dissimulation” of the Judaizers (Gal. 2:13), and he uses the same word when he appeals to the brethren to lay aside “all hypocrisies” (1 Pet. 2:1); he was asking them to do what he himself had had to do. He had been a hypocrite, in living the life of legalism within the ecclesia whilst having the knowledge of grace. We may so easily pass this off as a mere peccadillo compared to the hypocrisy of living the life of the world 6 days / week and coming to do one’s religious devotions at a Christian church on a Sunday. But Peter draws a parallel between his own hypocrisy and that of such brethren; this is how serious it is to bow to the sophistry of legalism. It may be that an unjust disfellowship ought to be contended, and we say nothing. Or that a sincere, spiritual brother who places his honest doubts on the table is elbowed out of being able to make the contribution to the community he needs to. In our after the meeting conversations and in our  Sunday afternoon chats we can go along with such things, depending on the company we are in. And it seems just part of Christian life. The important thing, it can seem, is to stay within the community and keep separate from the world. But not so, is Peter’s message. His ecclesial hypocrisy was just as bad as that of the worldly believer whom Peter wrote to warn. Paul seems to go even further and consciously link Peter’s behaviour with his earlier denials that he had ever known the Lord Jesus. He writes of how he had to reveal Peter’s denial of the Lord’s grace “before them all” (Gal. 2:14), using the very same Greek phrase of Mt. 26:70, where “before them all” Peter made the same essential denial.  


The sad thing about Peter’s reversion to the Judaist perspective was that it was an almost studied undoing of all the Lord had taught him in the Cornelius incident. There he had learnt that the Lordship of Jesus, which had so deeply impressed him in his early preaching, was in fact universal- because “He is Lord of all”, therefore men from all (s.w.) nations were to be accepted in Him (Acts 10:35,36). God shewed him that he was not to call any man common or unclean on account of his race (Acts 10:28). But now he was upholding the very opposite. And he wasn’t just passively going along with it, although that’s how it doubtless started, in the presence of brethren of greater bearing and education than himself. He “compelled” the Gentile believers to adopt the Jewish ways, as if Peter was a Judaizer; and every time that word is used in Galatians it is in the context of compelling believers to be circumcised (Gal. 2:14 cp. 2:3; 6:12). So it seems Peter actually compelled brethren to be circumcised. And the Galatian epistle gives the answer as to why this was done; brethren chose to be circumcised and to preach it lest they suffer persecution for the sake of the cross of Christ (Gal. 5:11; 6:12-14). Consistently this letter points an antithesis between the cross and circumcision. The body marks of Christ’s cross are set off against the marks of circumcision (Gal. 6:17); and the essence of the Christian life is said to be crucifying the flesh nature, rather than just cutting off bits of skin (Gal. 5:24). Peter’s capitulation to the Judaizers, Peter's revertal to circumcision, was effectively a denial of the cross, yet once again in his life. There was something he found almost offensive about the cross, an ability to sustainedly accept its message. And he turned back to circumcision as he had earlier turned to look at John’s weaknesses when told he must carry the cross. And we turn to all manner of pseudo-spiritual things to excuse our similar inability to focus upon it too.  

Eventually Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentile brethren (Gal. 2:12). But he had learnt to eat with Gentile brethren in Acts 11:3; he had justified doing so to his brethren and persuaded them of its rightness, and had been taught and showed, so patiently, by his Lord that he should not make such distinctions. But now, all that teaching was undone. There’s a lesson here for many a slow-to-speak brother or sister- what you start by passively going along with in ecclesial life, against your better judgment, you may well end up by actively advocating.  It can be fairly conclusively proven that Mark’s Gospel is in fact Peter’s. Yet it is there in Mk. 7:19 that Mark / Peter makes the point that the Lord Jesus had declared all foods clean. He knew the incident, recalled the words, had perhaps preached and written them; and yet Peter acted and reasoned as if he was totally unaware of them. 

Paul gently guided Peter back to the Cornelius incident, which he doubtless would have deeply meditated upon as the inspired record of it became available. Peter had been taught that God accepted whoever believed in Him, regardless of their race. But now Paul had to remind Peter that truly, God “accepteth no man’s person” (Gal. 2:6). The same Greek word was a feature of the Cornelius incident: whoever believes receives, accepts, remission of sins (Acts 10:43), and they received, accepted, the Holy Spirit as well as the Jewish brethren (Acts 10:47). With his matchless humility, Peter accepted Paul’s words. His perceptive mind picked up these references (and in so doing we have a working model of how to seek to correct our brethren, although the success of it will depend on their sensitivity to the word which we both quote and allude to). But so easily, a lifetime of spiritual learning could have been lost by the sophistry of legalistic brethren. It’s a sober lesson. And yet Peter in his pastoral letters (which were probably transcripts of his words / addresses) makes these references back to his own failure, and on the basis of having now even more powerfully learnt his lesson, he can appeal to his brethren. And so it should be in our endeavours for our brethren. Paul warned him that by adopting the Judaist stance, he was building again what had been destroyed (Gal. 2:18). And Peter with that in mind can urge the brethren to build up the things of Christ and His ecclesia (1 Peter 2:5,7 s.w.), rather, by implication, that the things of the world and its philosophy.