3 October 2012

Galatians 2:11-21

"And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law." (v. 16)


The new Christians in Galatia had been taken in by preachers claiming additions to the gospel (good news about Jesus), and this false-gospel had been backed-up with stories of clashes between Paul and the leading apostles from Jerusalem. In this densely-packed passage we find the core of Paul's message, beginning with a story of an old friend.

Peter's heart was always in the right place, but at times he cared too much about the opinions of others. (Paul the Apostle had no such problem!) Peter's determined discipleship led him frequently into unchartered waters in the realms of faith but, all-too-often, the realisation of reality caused him to sink spectacularly. In Acts chapters 10 and 11 we have one of Peter's most important discoveries of God's work, when Cornelius and his household were all converted and baptized - God's Spirit clearly at work among them, despite them not being Jewish. Peter stepped out in faith, and could see no reason why those whom God had blessed with his Spiritshouldn'tbe welcomed fully into the family of faith (Acts 10:47). Eating with the Gentile-Christians became important for Peter as a mark of their acceptance. When he reported this to the church in Jerusalem they praised God and accepted that the gospel was for Jews and non-Jews alike. (Without such a turning point, where would we be today?)

But then, it seems, doubts started to creep in. Paul tells the Galatians of an incident where he had publically to put Peter in his place. Peter (Cephas) was visiting Paul's blossoming church in Antioch, where table-fellowship was such an important sign of their unity. Until, apparently, some of the troublemakers came from Jerusalem. Peter instantly withdraws and rearranges the table-plans. Jews on one side, 'Gentiles sinners' on the other. Rules are rules, after all.

"Hypocrisy!" cries Paul. Whatever the Galatians had heard about this incident, he now puts the record straight - Peter was backtracking, and wrong to do so. And here's why…

First-century Jews by-and-large understood their place as God's chosen family - not by their own merit, but by God's design. Their response to that privilege was to live as God's holy people - fulfilling their part of the covenant whilst God was ever-faithful. Their membership of Israel was therefore marked by obedience to God's law. God, the judge, then pronounced as 'righteous' those within the covenant. They were 'justified' - not for being sinless, but for belonging to God. Righteousness in the biblical sense is an outcome of relationship with a righteous God.

In practice, certain "works of the law" were obvious markers of this relationship. Paul's opponents had been trying to get the Galatians to accept male circumcision and food laws as essential. Such things never actually 'justified' a person - they were only signs of belonging.

Paul knows that an observance of such divisive things would take their focus away from the true object of their faith - Jesus. In Christ, God's invitation to all was opened; how then can their faith now include things which cause division? They are still justified by their membership of God's family, by God's grace, but now this membership is summed up in the person and faithfulness of Jesus Christ - through faith in him. By "faith in Christ" Paul means accepting the life and teachings of Jesus as being true and trustworthy, and then trusting in Christ and his faithful obedience to God as Israel's representative on the cross; his perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. Peter had fallen into wanting both ways of belonging - Jesus and the Jewish works - and trying therefore to claim a higher privilege than the Gentile converts. But the universal family of God cannot be united and divided at the same time.

It's all about identity. Who are we in God's eyes? So Paul begins to talk of dying and rising. The old 'him' has died (along with its reliance to those visible signs of belonging and differentiating) and a new person has risen. The old Israel has died in the one who came to represent it. And a new Church has risen, as one family, with Christ, the Son of God, living in us by his Spirit. The only proper response to God's loving faithfulness is our loving faith, which in gratitude welcomes all.

Father of everlasting grace,
your goodness and your truth we praise,
your goodness and your truth we prove;
you have, in honour of your Son,
the gift unspeakable sent down,
the Spirit of life, and power, and love.
(StF 378, Charles Wesley)

To Ponder

  • Can you think of a time when you have felt uncomfortable associating with certain people? To what extent have you been caught in similar hypocrisy ('play-acting') as Peter? How much of a hold does 'respectability' have over us?
  • In what ways does the Church today sometimes mark who is 'in and out' of God's family?
  • What does faith in Jesus mean to you? How does he 'represent' you? How do you respond to him?

Bible notes author

The Revd Andrew Murphy

Andrew Murphy is married to Emily and they have two beautiful children, Phoebe (aged 3 and half) and Benjamin (who's just turned 1). Andy is the superintendent minister of the Market Harborough Circuit (a small circuit in the south of Leicestershire, and into Northamptonshire), having moved there in the summer of 2016.