Showdown at the Antioch Corral
Showdown at the Antioch Corral
Words of Faith 5-17-19
Dr. Jeffrey D. Hoy © 2019
Faith Fellowship Church - Melbourne, FL
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 When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.  Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.  The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.  When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?  "We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners'  know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.
Things went well at the meeting of Peter and Paul in Jerusalem. Paul was endorsed and affirmed by the Apostles, and there was a recognition that different cultures could be targeted differently without compromising the core of the Gospel-- the justifying work of Jesus that is offered freely in grace and received by faith. But these transitions were not that easy.
Peter came to visit Paul's church in Antioch, the first great missionary church outside of Jerusalem, and there was a confrontation. A big one. It all had to do with Jewish customs and the barriers between Jews and Gentiles.
Antioch was a mixed church with both Jews and Gentiles in it. This was a gathering of people who dared to believe that Jesus is bigger than any difference they might think of to separate over.
These divisions were vast and involved deeply rooted prejudices. In ancient culture, Jews viewed Gentiles as despicable heathens and Gentiles viewed Jews as ridiculous dogs. Jews did not mix with Gentiles. Jews never ate with Gentiles or even touched them. The customs of Rome were repulsive to Jews in every way, from nude sporting events and bathhouse debauchery to the ritually unclean animals they ate and a failure to observe Sabbath. These deep-seated differences posed a problem in the early church but not one that grace and the unity of the Holy Spirit could not overcome in believers.
When Peter first arrived for his visit to Antioch, there was no problem. Things went fine for a while, and Peter spent quality fellowship with Gentile believers and even ate with them! The most visible leader of the Jewish church based in Jerusalem was sitting down and enjoying table fellowship with people he had been raised to hate.
Then some other visitors arrived from Jerusalem. They belonged to a group that was lobbying for a requirement for all male Gentile believers to submit to the ritual of circumcision to be received into the church fellowship. This group was observant of Jewish customs and rejected open fellowship with Gentiles. The very presence of these political operatives made Peter so uncomfortable that he withdrew from the fellowship he had enjoyed before the arrival of these visitors. Because he was aware of their agenda, Peter became a pleaser of men rather than following the truth that had already been affirmed!
In our culture, it would be like a highly respected pastor or leader withdrawing from fellowship and refusing to sit at a table with other believers based on their race or ethnicity, just because some bigoted people came into the room and he did not want to displease them.
There was an immediate divisive result in that other Jews took Peter's lead and separated themselves from the Gentile believers. Even Barnabas felt caught in the middle and was led astray. This gathering of the Body of Christ was suddenly divided along ethnic and cultural lines, and Peter was at the center of it.
Now, remember who this was. This was not just any leader. This was Peter: Called from the nets, Peter. Saw Jesus heal his mother-in-law, Peter. Present at the transfiguration, Peter. Saw Jesus raise Jairus' daughter, Peter. Walked on water, Peter. Chopped off a servant's ear and saw it put back on, Peter. Denied Jesus and then was restored, Peter. Ran to the empty tomb, Peter. Met by resurrected Jesus on the road, Peter. Preached the first sermon of the church at Pentecost, Peter. What do you do when someone of such background and stature errs publicly in such a miserable way?
Paul confronted Peter publicly. Right then and right there. Paul sensed that this was something so grievous to the Holy Spirit and so publicly divisive that it could not wait for a private discussion or a re-working through the channels. This was not what had been agreed to. This was not the Gospel that they had together affirmed. This was simply not right. It was hypocrisy, and he called Peter out on it.
To paraphrase... "Peter, you live like a Gentile when it suits you, and now you act all uppity and reject Gentiles because they are not following Jewish customs? We Jews know better than anyone that we cannot be justified by obeying rules. We can only put our faith in Jesus and be justified by that faith."
It was a bold moment that must have been empowered and inspired by the Holy Spirit. We might ask why Paul didn’t approach Peter privately about this in a manner like that prescribed by Jesus and recorded in Matthew 18. Besides the fact that these events occurred before Matthew's Gospel was written down, we should realize that Paul actually did approach Peter privately with the substance of this matter in Jerusalem. Others have noted that a public offense calls for a public rebuke. People were being led astray in that moment, even Barnabas.
We should also recognize that there are moments in which the Holy Spirit will call us to our feet and raise His voice through us on behalf of a terrible injustice. These are watershed moments of significant influence upon individuals and history. This was a moment that demanded the voice of Truth. To wait would endorse through silence the wickedness that is obvious in that place. There is a time to be silent and a time to speak (Ecc. 3:7). This was a time to speak.
We don't have a record of any response from Peter. There is no indication that Peter failed to receive this public rebuke or failed to repent of this back-sliding into cultural legalism. Soon after this, the Council at Jerusalem affirmed these principles of the core Gospel while asking for courtesy in cultural matters so apparently Peter saw the light. But it is also clear that these issues would continue to surface in the early church.
So what about us?
One clear message is that there are times when we need to listen carefully to the Holy Spirit because He will call us to speak up in the face of blatant prejudice and injustice. We must speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. This was an argument that the Gentile believers could not make. Only a "Jew of Jews" like Paul could have gone face to face with Peter at the Antioch Corral.
There is also a reminder here for us that there are no perfect leaders. Peter was not perfect nor was Paul. Peter struggled with the peer pressure of fellow Jews even after receiving a vision from God of a sheet filled with "unclean" food and hearing directly from God he was not to label as "unclean" those things that God had made clean "unclean"... especially people. Peter was still growing to overcome the prejudices of his culture.
We might also take notice that what we do in public can have serious repercussions. We are all leaders. Peter led several believers, even Barnabas, backward in their thinking by his prejudiced behavior. This situation called for something more than the typical response to peer pressure. Peter could have taken a stand and avoided the confrontation with Paul altogether. The visitors might have stormed out, but their own prejudice was an issue they need to deal with before God.
Perhaps most important is for us to scrutinize those things that we may "require" of other people, in order for us to accept them as truly Christian. If the core of who we are in Christ is the transforming power of His grace that is received by faith, then the trappings that we accumulate in terms of culture, style, music, worship and dress are not to be points of separation.
Father God, give me the courage to speak up for the oppressed and to stand against prejudice. Help me to see in my own life the lure of peer pressure. Help me to see the ways that I have separated myself from believers over matters that are not the core of the Gospel. Give me the grace to confront injustice but also to be a peacemaker and reconciler. In Jesus' Name.
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