The Book of Galatians: Chapter 2 (verses 11–21)
September 12, 2023
by Peter Amsterdam
The Book of Galatians: Chapter 2 (verses 11–21)
(The first 10 verses of Chapter 2 are covered in the previous article.)
When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.1
Antioch was one of the larger cities in the Roman Empire, with a population estimated at 250,000 people, 25,000 of which were Jewish. This meeting with Peter (Cephas) in Antioch probably took place before the Jerusalem council described in Acts chapter 15.
Paul didn’t bring up this incident with Peter to promote himself as being superior; he was likely showing the independence and authority of his gospel. A public rebuke of Peter was warranted because Peter’s sin was committed in public and had public consequences, as others followed his example.
For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.2
Paul explained what led to his reprimand of Peter. Before the men from James arrived, Peter ate with Gentiles. Along with that, he probably ate food which was prohibited in the Old Testament law. Peter’s actions aligned with the vision he had received in Acts 10:9–16, when God declared to Peter that all foods were clean. However, certain men came, who probably were there because James, the Lord’s brother, had instructed them to go. Apparently, the news about the actions of Peter and other Jewish Christians in Antioch had reached Jerusalem.
It's likely that James and the other Jewish Christians in Palestine felt that Peter, and those with him, were abandoning the Jewish faith by no longer adhering to the Jewish food requirements. This would have been considered scandalous by the Jews in Jerusalem, and even by many Christian Jews in Antioch as well.
Peter ate with Gentiles and partook of “unclean” food; however; when the men sent by James arrived, he stopped doing so. These arrivals probably told him that James and other Jewish believers were concerned about his eating unclean food. Peter’s response was to withdraw and separate himself from the Gentiles. He ceased eating with them so that those who came from James couldn’t continue to accuse him of being defiled.
Peter’s ceasing to eat with Gentiles wasn’t because he changed his own views; rather it was due to fear of those of the circumcision party, who believed circumcision was vital. It may be that the men from James arrived and told him that the threat of persecution against Jewish Christians was growing, due to reports that Jewish Christians in Antioch were stepping away from the food laws and were eating with Gentiles. Peter was concerned about the repercussions of his actions, and therefore he ceased eating with Gentiles in order to avoid a schism among Jewish Christians.
And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.3
Peter’s actions caused the other Jewish Christians to also stop eating with the Gentiles. Even Barnabas, who had worked closely with Paul in the Gentile mission, stopped eating with the Gentiles. Paul called out Peter and those who followed him in this matter as hypocritical. In Paul’s view, Peter and the others acted not out of conviction but out of fear.
It is very likely that Peter responded positively to Paul’s reprimand, since he had acted out of fear and not on his convictions. In later Epistles, Paul didn’t have problems with Peter’s theology. In 1 Corinthians 15:3–11 Paul stated that he, Peter, and James all proclaimed the same gospel. Peter was also positive about Paul’s writings. He wrote: Count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters.4 However, at the time of the writing of the letter to the Galatians, Peter had yielded to pressure from the Jewish Christians.
But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”5
Paul’s response to Peter and those who followed his example shows that Paul had authority as an apostle, as he corrected Peter for his deviation. Through Peter’s actions, he was compromising what he knew to be true, and by his actions was nullifying the truth and becoming a bad example to others. Paul felt that the message itself was in danger as Peter was, in effect, requiring that Gentile believers had to observe the Jewish food laws to be saved. If he would only eat with Gentiles if they followed the Jewish food laws, he was basically saying that they were not true Christians unless they obeyed the Jewish purity laws. He was compelling the Gentiles to become Jews in order to belong to the people of God.
Since Peter’s sin was public, Paul needed to correct him publicly. Peter was being hypocritical. Peter was ethnically Jewish, and for much of his life he observed the Jewish law. However, since receiving his vision, he had no longer lived as a Jew; rather he lived as a Gentile in regard to keeping the law. When he was in Antioch, he didn’t keep the Jewish purity laws, neither did he separate himself from Gentiles. Through his actions, he was affirming that the Jewish purity laws were irrelevant for belonging to the people of God under the new covenant. So Paul was surprised that Peter was suddenly requiring people to observe Jewish purity laws. This issue was also raised earlier in this chapter,6 when false brothers were demanding that Titus be circumcised. Titus had accompanied Paul on his journey to Jerusalem, and James, Peter, and John were in agreement with Paul that Titus (and by extension the Gentile believers) did not need to be circumcised.
Those who had tried to force Titus to be circumcised weren’t true Christians, as they believed that it was necessary to be circumcised to be saved. Paul knew that Peter was a genuine Christian, but he did reprimand Peter, as his actions compromised the gospel.
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners;7
Paul points out to Peter that they were born as Jews, and therefore were part of the Jewish covenant and received God’s promises. The Gentiles were outside of the covenant and did not receive God’s promises. Paul was pointing to the privileges that he and Peter had by being part of Israel.
…yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.8
He went on to say that no human being, whether Jew or Gentile, can be right before God by doing what the Mosaic law requires. Peter and Paul both knew that even though they were part of God’s covenant people as Jews, that didn’t mean they were justified before God. They understood that one is not justified by works of the law, but justification comes only through faith in Jesus.
As Christians, Peter and Paul knew that the old covenant wasn’t sufficient, that righteousness doesn’t come by doing works of the law. It only comes through faith in Jesus. In preaching this message, Paul was appealing to the common ground he shared with Peter. Even though Peter was stating by his actions that the Gentiles needed to follow the food laws to be part of God’s people, Peter himself knew that no one can be right before God by following the Mosaic law. Salvation comes only through faith in Jesus.
…so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law…
Paul went on to apply what he had said about people in general to himself and Peter. The “we” in we have also believed refers to Peter and Paul as Jews. They also believed in Jesus, and therefore even as Jews, they could only be right with God by trusting Jesus and not by keeping the law. Paul made the point that if members of the covenant people need to put their faith in Jesus to be right before God, and if they can’t be righteous in the sight of God by keeping the Mosaic law, then it makes no sense to require Gentiles to keep the law in order for them to have a relationship with God.
In stating that by works of the law no one will be justified, Paul emphasized that Jews, such as he and Peter, were justified by faith in Jesus, and that no one can be righteous before God by keeping the law. Paul likely reflected on Psalm 143:2, where King David stated: for no one living is righteous before you. One author wrote: David in this psalm pleads for mercy because he realized that he cannot stand before God on the basis of his works, but only by virtue of God’s mercy.9
Three times Paul states that right standing with God isn’t achieved by keeping the law, but rather comes through faith in Jesus. No one can come before God based on what they have done, for salvation is received by faith alone.
But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!10
Just like the Gentiles, Peter and Paul have been shown to be sinners before God. They sought righteousness in Christ rather than in obeying the Mosaic law. The “we too” stands for Jewish Christians like Peter and Paul, as opposed to the Gentiles in Antioch. The accusations are true: Peter and Paul (before becoming believers) had been sinners, and as such they recognized that they were no better than the Gentiles.
The phrase “in Christ” likely shows union with Christ, as seen in upcoming verses (2:19–20), where Paul states that believers died to the power of the law when they were crucified with Christ. If Jews like Peter and Paul looked to be vindicated before God on the last day through their union with Christ, it meant that as Jews they had no advantage over the Gentiles. They were sinners, just like the Gentiles. The Mosaic law was not sufficient to bring salvation.
…is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!
Paul asked whether Christ was responsible for the sins of Jewish Christians who have left Judaism and its laws, and who instead relied on Jesus for salvation. According to the opponents, Christ would promote sin, in that the laws of Moses were no longer required. However, Paul went on to explain why Jesus was not a minister of sin.
For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor.11
For Paul, or any believer, to return to adherence to the Laws of Moses after salvation in Christ had come would be fruitless. Salvation cannot be obtained by following the law. The things torn down or “destroyed” refer to the Old Testament law. If Paul were to rebuild the Old Testament law as the means for obtaining salvation and right standing before God, which is now abolished since Christ has come and a new era of redemption has arrived, then he would be deemed a transgressor. So for Peter to say, in effect, that Gentiles must follow the Old Testament law to belong to God’s people was contrary to God’s will.
To bring back adherence to the law is to deny righteousness in Christ. The Old Testament era focused on the law and sin, whereas the new era in Christ is marked by salvation by grace and faith in Christ. Paul would be a transgressor if he were to bring back the law, because he had already died to the law when he died with Christ. The law had come to an end with the death and resurrection of Christ, who said He had come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17).
For through the law I died to the law…12
Paul died to the law because Christ had brought the era of the law to an end through His death on the cross. Jesus lived under the law and kept it perfectly, and His death freed believers from the law.
Paul explained why going back to the law and demanding that the Gentiles keep it was sinful instead of righteous. Paul uses “I” here to represent the Jewish Christians. Peter was requiring Gentiles to keep the law, thus suggesting that the law is to be followed in order to live in a manner that is pleasing to God. On the other hand, Paul said that such a stance contradicts the cross and the new covenant that Jesus’ death ushered in. No believers, including Jewish believers, are under the law. They have died to the law. In Romans, Paul wrote something similar: You also have died to the law through the body of Christ.13 The law no longer had authority over them.
Because Jesus lived under the law and fulfilled it through His sinless life, He was able to free those who live under the control of sin and the law. By dying on the cross, He took the penalty of the law on Himself, even though He was sinless. His death brought an end to the era of the law.
…so that I might live to God.14
The purpose of dying to the law is stated. Since believers are no longer under the law, they live in the new era of salvation. Christ is the new Adam, He has arrived, and believers are new persons. The marriage of believers to the law has ended, and now they are married to Christ, so that they will be fruitful for God.15
I have been crucified with Christ.16
The key moment in salvation history is the death of Christ. The era of the law ended when Jesus died on the cross. Believers died to the law’s rule over them when they died with Christ. Union with Christ in His death brings the beginning of a new life for believers. Peter was denying the importance of the cross by insisting that Gentiles follow the law. If eating with Gentiles requires that they obey the law, then Jesus’ death on the cross doesn’t play the central role in redemption. In such a case the law, rather than Christ, becomes the focus of salvation. This view is wrong, and minimizes Jesus’ death on the cross.
It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.17
Because Paul has been “crucified with Christ,” he has changed. The old “I” that he was no longer lives. The old age of sin and death has now been set aside due to Jesus’ sacrificial death. Believers are now a “new self” in Christ, as they have died with Christ.
A new era has dawned, which is marked by the indwelling of Christ in believers. Generally Paul refers to indwelling in reference to the Holy Spirit, but sometimes he states that Christ dwells in believers. Do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?18 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.19 Christ in you, the hope of glory.20
The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.21
The fulfillment of God’s promises at the cross and resurrection doesn’t mean that sin and evil are done away with. Paul still lived in his body (the flesh), and thus believers live out their lives by faith in Christ. The reference to the flesh isn’t used in the sense of living under the dominion of the former evil age. Here it refers to life in the body and shouldn’t be equated with living in sin. Nevertheless, life in the body signals the weakness that marks the old age, which indicates that the new age has not come in all its fullness.
Paul trusts in Christ, who has shown His love by giving His life on the cross for Paul’s (and all believers’) sake. This is similar to what he wrote to the Ephesians. Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.22 Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.23 This love is rooted in the cross, where Jesus gave His life “for” Paul (and all of us). The expression “for me” suggests the idea of substitution, that Christ died in Paul’s place.
I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.24
Righteousness cannot come by the law. If it did, then Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross would have been unnecessary, as right standing with God would come from observing the law.
Peter’s actions regarding the Galatians had sent the message that Gentiles must keep the law to be right with God.
It seems that Peter heeded Paul’s advice. If he hadn’t, then Paul would have considered him to be a false brother. Rather, Paul wrote positively about Peter in 1 Corinthians,25 and Peter, likewise, commended Paul in one of his letters.26
This brings us to the end of Galatians chapter 2.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Galatians 2:11.
2 Galatians 2:12.
3 Galatians 2:13.
4 2 Peter 3:15–16.
5 Galatians 2:14.
6 Galatians 2:3–4.
7 Galatians 2:15.
8 Galatians 2:16.
9 Thomas R. Schreiner, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Galatians (Zondervan Academic, 2010), 167.
10 Galatians 2:17.
11 Galatians 2:18.
12 Galatians 2:19a.
13 Romans 7:4.
14 Galatians 2:19b.
15 Romans 7:4 NKJV.
16 Galatians 2:20a.
17 Galatians 2:20b.
18 2 Corinthians 13:5.
19 Romans 8:10.
20 Colossians 1:27.
21 Galatians 2:20c.
22 Ephesians 5:2.
23 Ephesians 5:25.
24 Galatians 2:21.
25 1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:5.
26 2 Peter 3:15.