Simon Peter was an apostle of the Lord Jesus, as was Paul. Both of them preached the gospel to Jews and Gentiles, though Paul did more of his work among the Gentiles, while Peter carried out more of his labors among the Jews (Galatians 2:8).
Here is what Paul penned about one situation that involved him and Peter: “Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed” (Galatians 2:11). Let us consider some lessons which we can learn from the course of action taken in this matter by these two apostles.
We will look first at Peter. As we noted above, he had done something for which “he was to be blamed.” Wait a minute. If Peter was a genuine apostle of the Christ, how could he mess up? Was he not guided by the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit guided Jesus’ apostles to communicate the gospel without mistakes, both orally and in writing. But, the Spirit did not take over their minds and make their choices for them in their personal lives. When preaching, Peter’s message was perfect. In his own life, he had the freedom to make his own choices, and when humans do that, even when they show forth a pattern of being faithful servants of God, they still will make some mistakes.
In this case, of what sin was Peter guilty? Paul labeled it as hypocrisy (Galatians 2:13). A hypocrite is one who is an actor, a stage player, a pretender. The person whom we see performing as a character in a theatrical performance is a different person in real life. In the same way, a hypocrite is one who is very different in his heart than the impression that he wants others to have of him. He is a pretender.
Notice this about Peter’s hypocritical mistake: it had an influence on others. When others saw Peter, who definitely would have been counted as a leader, acting like a hypocrite, some of them joined him in his misdeed: “And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy” (Galatians 2:13). Yes, our choices, whether helpful or harmful, can have an influence on others. That is especially true for those who are in the role of leaders.
What led to Peter’s sin in this instance? Others may have affected his thinking, but the bottom line is, it was fear that led him to behave like he did. The Bible says Peter stopped associating with Gentiles, “fearing those who were of the circumcision” (Galatians 2:12). When we allow fear to take over our hearts, we do not make healthy choices. As he was walking on water, fear entered Peter’s heart and he began to sink (Matthew 14:30,31). Do you remember that? And when he denied his Lord three times, what was going on inside Peter? He was fearful. God does not want us to live in fear of what might happen. Instead, He wants us to put our trust in Him, cast our cares on Him, and make choices which glorify Him.
Now, what about Paul’s action in dealing with Peter? First of all, what Peter had done could not be justified, nor could it be swept under the carpet as if it had never happened. It happened. It influenced others. It had the potential to bring great harm to the Lord’s work. You see, there was a point when Peter was spending time with Gentile Christians and treating them like they were on equal footing with Jewish saints and were “part of us.” Then, because he was afraid of what some Jewish Christians might think about him, Peter started treating those same Gentiles as if they were not “part of us” (Galatians 2:12).
Kudos to Paul for having the courage to stand up to Peter “to his face” (Galatians 2:11). In fact, Paul rebuked his fellow-apostle “before them all,” that is, in the presence of others who were involved (Galatians 2:14). If a brother or sister in the Christ has sinned against me in a personal matter, that is between me and them and I should attempt to resolve it in a private manner. That is what Jesus taught (Matthew 18:15,16). What Paul describes in Galatians 2, though, was not a matter of Peter sinning against Paul. His was a sin against the Lord that had been committed in such a way that it was a corrupting leaven, having a widespread, evil effect on the thinking of others (Galatians 2:13). Paul “called Peter out,” so to speak, in front of others, the intention being to bring about repentance and limit the damage done. It is a biblical approach to follow the instruction of 1 Timothy 5:20: “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear.” Paul’s rebuke of Peter was not done in an effort to try and make Peter look bad (Peter already had done that all by himself), nor was it done to make Paul look superior. Paul did it to help Peter, help Barnabas, and help the church.
The Bible says, “He who rebukes a man will find more favor afterward than he who flatters with the tongue” (Proverbs 28:23). There are indications that after Paul rebuked Peter for his hypocrisy, they still thought highly of one another, and neither labeled the other as unfaithful or unreliable. That says a lot about both of those men. Are we listening?
— Roger D. Campbell