Paul and Peter agreed in Jerusalem but in Antioch, Paul had to publicly reprimand Peter.
According to the Traditions of the Elders, uncircumcised people are unclean and did not permit Jews to eat or associate with them. However, God had shown Peter, in a vision, “that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (Acts 10:28).
On the basis of the vision he received, Peter “used to eat with the Gentiles” (Gal 2:12) but when “the party of the circumcision” arrived in Antioch from Jerusalem, he and other Jewish Christians, in fear of these men, avoided the Gentile Christians (Gal 2:12). In that way, Peter acted contrary to the vision which he received and effectively gave support to the demands of the circumcision party (Gal 2:14). Paul then publicly reprimanded Peter for submitting to the Circumcision Party (Gal 2:14).
The circumcision party not only demanded that Gentile Christians be circumcised (Gal 2:13); circumcision was only the door into to “live like Jews,” which means to comply with the entire Law of Moses, as well as to Traditions of the Elders.
This incident occurred in Antioch, but it was the same as the distorted gospel in Galatia.
2:11 But when Cephas (NIV – Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 2:12 For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. 2:13 The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. 2:14 But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?
PAUL AND PETER DISAGREE
The first 10 verses of the current chapter report the visit to Jerusalem, where Paul submitted the good news (gospel) which he preached to the Gentiles to the church leaders (Gal 2:2) and obtained their approval (Gal 2:9). Peter was one of those church leaders that gave his consent, but now the focus shifts to an incident in Antioch where Paul met Peter again, but this time they disagreed.
COMPEL GENTILES TO BE CIRCUMCISED
The name of the “men from James”, namely “the party of the circumcision”, indicates that they were the people that “try to compel you to be circumcised” (Gal 6:12). As concluded from the Titus example (Gal 2:3), who was not “compelled to be circumcised”, this confirms that the distortion of the gospel in Galatia was to compel Gentiles to be circumcised.
FORBID ASSOCIATION WITH GENTILES
“Prior to the coming of certain men from James, he (Peter) used to eat with the Gentiles” (Gal 2:12). The Old Testament does not forbid eating with Gentiles, but the Jewish additions to the Old Testament Law, referred to as the “traditions of my fathers” (Gal 1:14), declared Gentiles to be unclean and therefore strongly prohibited eating with or in any way associating with uncircumcised people, for instance:
“Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying”: “Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30)
“… the Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)” (John 4:9)
“… he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him … “ (Acts 10:28)
“… when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:2-3)
In the first few years of the church it consisted only of Jews, and the Christians, viewing themselves as the true Israelites, kept their distance from all Gentiles, whom they considered to be “unclean”. But then God gave Peter a vision in which “an object like a great sheet” came down from heaven, filled with “all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air” (Acts 10:12). In the vision, Peter was instructed to kill and eat. Many people erroneously think that God gave this vision to teach Christians that they may eat unclean animals, but Peter interpreted the vision as follows:
“… God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (Acts 10:28)
On the basis of this revelation Peter “used to eat with the Gentiles” (Gal 1:12). In fact, before the arrival of “the party of the circumcision”, Peter lived “like the Gentiles and not like the Jews” (Gal 1:14).
PETER STOOD CONDEMNED
“But when they (the men from James) came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof” (Gal 2:12). Since this is stated as the opposite of eating with Gentiles, “he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles” (Gal 2:12 NIV). He thereby acted contrary to the vision God gave him, and for that reason “stood condemned” (Gal 2:11).
COMPEL GENTILES TO LIVE LIKE JEWS
In Gal 2:14 Paul accuses Peter of compelling “the Gentiles to live like Jews”. The NIV translates this as to “force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs”. This was what the Christian Jews effectively did by keeping themselves aloof from the Gentile Christians. The distortion, therefore, was more than compelling Gentiles to be circumcised and refusing to eat with Gentile Christians. Circumcision was only the door into the Jewish way of life. To “live like Jews” means to comply with the entire Law of Moses, as well as to comply with the thousands of rules contained in the “traditions” (see discussion under 1:14).
SAME DISTORTION IN GALATIA
These verses report something that happened in Antioch, not in Galatia, but since this is mentioned in this letter, which intends to correct the distortion in Galatia, it is implied to be the same distortion.
CIRCUMCISION PARTY WAS STRONG
This is indicated by a number of things. Firstly, in Antioch, all the Jews opposed Paul. Peter, as the “apostle … to the circumcised” (Gal 2:8), in that sense, was the leader of the large number of Christian Jews in the church. Perhaps for that reason, Paul addresses him directly, but the distortion was not limited to Peter. In Antioch all the Jewish Christians yielded to the pressure; “even Barnabas” (Gal 2:13); one of Paul’s strong allies. Paul alone stood against them (Gal 2:14), reacting strongly and publicly (Gal 2:14) to their “hypocrisy” (Gal 2:13). This seems to indicate that the distortion originated with the Jewish Christians; it was not initiated by the Gentile Christians.
Secondly, at that time Jews were still probably in the majority in the church, and occupied most of the leadership positions. Since the distortion originated with them, it probably had strong support in the church.
This is thirdly indicated by the description of “the party of the circumcision” (Gal 2:12) as “men from James” (Gal 2:12). James was the brother of Jesus (Gal 1:19) and, along with Peter and John, was one of the “pillars” in the early church (Gal 2:9; Acts 12:17; 15:13). The “party of the circumcision” therefore was a very influential movement within the young Christian church, with strong support from “those who were of reputation” (Gal 2:6). That is why Peter feared these “men from James” (Gal 2:12).
PETER ACCEPTED PAUL’S CORRECTION
Eventually, Peter must have accepted Paul’s correction, because he wrote:
“our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him …” (2 Peter 3:15).