In this passage from Galatians 2:11-21- Paul presents his biblical and theological argument in response of Peter’s unacceptable behavior. Peter, the one who God had chosen to share the gospel to a gentile, Cornelius (cf. Acts 15) was behaving in a way that was against the true gospel. Earlier, Peter was eating with the Gentiles but as soon as the Judaizers or circumcision group arrived; he snuck out from the gentile group and joined the latter group. This behavior also led Barnabas astray.
Paul was astonished at his hypocrisy and opposes him though Peter was a senior apostle. Paul says that Peter was not adhering to the true gospel, and though he was a Jew did not behave like one and so was unqualified to ask Gentiles to live like the Jews. Paul then presents his argument. Certainly Paul and Peter were Jews by nature and not ‘sinners from among the Gentiles’ (v. 15b). Gentiles were called sinners because they were believed to be born outside the Law, yet Paul added that Jews like Gentiles were saved or justified by faith in Jesus Christ and not by works of the Law. By writing this, Paul does not mean to suggest that Jesus was a promoter of sin since Jesus had made possible for Gentiles, the people outside the Law to come to faith without the Law. Paul absolutely does not want people to think this way.
Paul declares himself dead to the Law and he states that the new life he had was through faith in Christ. His old life had been crucified on the Cross with Jesus Christ. So he found himself justified by faith through grace and not through the works of the Law. If it were through the works of the Law, he believed that Jesus’ grace was nullified and that Jesus died in vain.
The main point of this passage is that people are justified by faith in Jesus through grace and not by the works of the Law or living by a set of moral rules or even doing good deeds. It is only by faith through grace that we are justified.
Since the time of Adam, God had instructed people to offer sacrifices. However, these sacrifices had never fulfilled the full atonement of people’s sins. The sacrifice of animals was actually pointing to Christ, the perfect sacrifice that had yet to come. Nonetheless, God always looked at the heart of those who offered sacrifices. When Abraham was willing to offer his only son Isaac as a sacrifice, God declared him righteous because of his faith. In the story of Cain and Abel, though both of them brought offerings to God, only Abel’s sacrifice was accepted because it was in his heart to offer God the best of his labor. Indeed, people in the past had been following works righteousness to please God or earn merit from Him. Yet God was only pleased when people worshipped Him whole-heartedly. The Hebrews and Jews were adherent to the Mosaic Law and based their righteousness through fulfilling such laws. It is thus interesting to note that God had secured His faithful few, the remnants those people who worshipped Him with all their hearts, souls, and minds. At the time Jesus was born, the believing remnants were Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zacharias, Anna, Simeon and many unknown names to us. They lived their lives believing that the Old Testament was the divinely-revealed Word. They kept the prescribed standard of the Old Covenant but at the same time put their trust only in the Holy One and not merely in their keeping of the ceremonies and standards (MacArthur, 47).
When Jesus was born, there were many Israelites who perverted and added to the Old Testament revelation. They also based their righteousness through their own goodness and accomplishments. “Most Jewish leaders, epitomized by the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees, proudly believed their religious works placed them in God’s special favor and gained them forgiveness for their sins” ( MacArthur, 47). Judaizers arose from this vast group of legalistic Jews; they claimed to be followers of Christ but observed works righteousness and prescribed circumcision to the Gentiles and follow the Mosaic Law before they could be saved. This teaching certainly contradicted the Old Testament teaching where people like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, the godly judges, kings, prophets, and other godly figures from the Old Testament were saved or “gained approval through faith” (cf. Heb. 11:1-39).
The Judaizers were thus “not teaching the Old Testament doctrine but the cardinal doctrine of Satan, that a person can by his own goodness and works gain favor with God” (MacArthur, 47). This is the very reason why Paul referred to Judaizers as “dogs, evil workers…the false circumcision” (Phil 3:2). If the Judaizers were to compare their Jewish heritage with Paul, they would be of no match to him because he had been a zealous Jew himself before his dramatic conversion. In Phil. 3:5-9 he stated how he counted his impeccable keeping of the Law to be rubbish in comparison to the righteousness that comes form God on the basis of faith.
Certainly, the Judaizers had a corrupt view of the Messiah. “As circumcised, ceremonial Jews they were convinced they already had the full favor of God and were spiritually and morally acceptable to Him just as they were” (MacArthur, 48). They did not even view the Messiah as one who would forgive their sins because they did not believe theirs sins required such a sacrifice. Paul was afraid that Peter’s, a Jewish- Christian, behavior of following the Judaizers would corrupt the view of justification before the Gentile-Christian and hence jumps on to confront Peter with the true gospel: justification through faith in Christ and not observing the Law.
Paul and Barnabas worked among the Gentiles and had shared the true gospel. Soon after they were gone, Judaizers told some members of the Galatian Church that Paul was a self-proclaimed apostle who had no divine commission. In response to this, Paul wrote the letter to the Galatian Christians. The opening verse of the letter of Galatians identifies Paul as the author. It certainly is an unchallenged Pauline autobiography. Many false teachers and Judaizers had infiltrated the churches in the area of Antioch who spread the rumor that Paul was not a true apostle and that his teachings were not credible. Thus in the preceding verses, Paul explained his appointment as apostle from Jesus himself, and his acceptance as one from the preeminent apostles like James, Peter and Barnabas. It is no wonder then that Paul spoke with unrelenting authority when he confronted Peter. Once again, Paul defends his doctrine of justification through faith and introduces the whole theme of his letter in verse 16.
2:11-14 – Paul rebukes Peter in Antioch.
- Justification: It is that gracious act of God whereby God declares the sinner to be just or righteous on the basis of the work of Christ on the cross (imputation), which the sinner receives with a believing heart (Kroeze).
- Salvation is by faith in Christ and not by observing the “law.”
2:17-18— Paul reemphasizes that justification is through faith in Christ. However, people are not to indulge in sin just because there is no need of observing the Law anymore. Paul taught this gospel and if he departed from his own teaching, he would be considered a transgressor.
2:19-21— Paul declares that the Mosaic Law does not justify his sins anymore, but his faith in Christ alone. His past life was crucified when he put his faith in Christ. The new life was due to Christ who lived in him. If he were to consider his observance of the Law to justify his sins, Paul lamented then that Christ died in vain.
The passage accounts the confrontation that Paul has with Peter. At the same time, Paul conveys his theological message not only to Peter but eventually to the Galatians. Hence, the grammatical changes have to be observed. The ‘we’ in vv. 15-17 includes Paul with the Jewish Christians and particularly to Peter. In vs. 18 when he changes to ‘I’- a first person singular form, it is in a generalized sense referring to Peter and Jewish Christians who act like him. He does this so that the focus is removed from the confrontation at Antioch and points to character of the fundamental principle. In the latter verses 19-21, the ‘I’ is Paul’s own position and not shared. It is also interesting to note where Paul’s personal confessions with first person singular are not limited to just him. They exemplify the circumstance of every Christian. In the passage there are pronouns where ‘we’ exclusively makes sense only to Jewish Christians but there are also places in verses like v. 16 where ‘we’ applies to both Jewish and Gentile Christians.
Commentator Ebeling points out that;
“these observations on the grammatical and semantic subject already pave the way for an understanding of how this section is organized. The argumentation begins with the Jewish Christian agreement (vv. 15-16). It then indicates the critical point of disagreement (vv. 17-18) and goes on to describe the sublation of the Jewish Christian agreement in the universal Christian truth of the gospel (vv. 19-20). The concluding sentence (v.21) may be read by itself or in connection with the last subsection” (120, Ebeling).
The crucial idea or phrase of the passage ‘justification’ is “mentioned in a General, Personal, and Universal statement referring to the past, present and future” (Kroeze). The way Paul uses this artful structure to hammer one of the most important doctrines in the Bible.
The verses in the passage are actually working up toward Paul’s main thesis of the entire epistle of Galatians which is vs. 3:11, “Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for the righteous man shall live by faith.”
Since the progression of humanity, we see a pattern their nature to please God one way or the other. Adam and Eve were living in the Garden of Eden without a structured set of laws. All that God wanted from them was that they would trust God and simply keep His only command- not to eat from the tree of knowledge. Indeed, God only wanted that simple faith from them that they would trust Him. However, Satan tempted them into believing that there was something beyond simply trusting God. We could say that since then people have inherited this idea of doing something on their own. Yet God in his sovereignty and grace plan has always saved the few who put their faith in the only true God. Through this line of faith we see the Messiah eventually come.
In the past people who walked faithfully with God were considered righteous in the sight of God. Noah, Abraham, Abel are some examples of people from the Old Testament who put their entire trust in God alone and did not walk in the path to fulfill their fleshly inclinations. Even after bringing the Hebrews out of slavery and out of the wilderness, they did not worship the Lord who delivered them. Again, in his grace plan God gave the Ten Commandments to people through Moses so that whoever kept the commands would be put right with God. God also gave instructions about offering sacrifices to him. The offering of a lamb was offered to God and the sins of the one who laid a hand on that lamb were atoned. By the end of the Old Testament, there were an accumulation of all kinds of laws: the Mosaic Law, ceremonial laws, and circumcision. When God set those laws, they were in fact only pointing toward man’s incapacity to keep them. God was pointing toward the perfect sacrifice that would atone for human’s sins.
Paul was one of those believers of the Law. After his conversion he deserted his previous set of beliefs. As a former zealot (Phil. 3:5) Paul could not have been any more familiar than the Old Covenant. When he received revelation from Jesus on his way to Damascus, then the true gospel became clear to him. He saw the Old Testament with the spectacle of the true gospel. Nowhere in the Torah or in his forefathers did he see that they were saved by works of the Law. In fact Paul refers to Gen. 12:3, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” This was the gospel preached to Abraham beforehand which preceded the Mosaic Law. Hence, whoever has faith is a descendant of Abraham and has been declared righteous.
The Law was given through the agency of a mediator to reveal people’s sins. When Christ the seed of the promise came, the mediated message was nullified forever. In Christ was the fulfillment of the promise that was made to Abraham that all nations would be blessed. Thus, there is salvation for every person who comes to Christ in faith. They do not have to be a Jew and observer of the Law.
The Bible emphasizes faith in Christ as the ruling factor for salvation. In the Scripture ‘righteousness by faith through grace’ is a requirement broached again and again. Rom. 1:17 says, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’.” Habakkuk. 2:4 says, “The righteous shall live by faith; Hebrew. 10:38 states, “But my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” These verses in the Scripture support Paul’s doctrine of justification through faith.
The writer’s purpose in writing this passage is to warn people who call themselves Christians to know the scripture in its truest sense. We cannot read and apply the Word of God in the manner of cherry picking. The Bible is coherent and whole in its nature. Just as Paul understood the true gospel in light of the Old Testament and did not overlook God’s intention when God said, “The righteous shall live by faith,” we ought to know the Word of God as it was intended. Paul has successfully rendered to us the true gospel by way of presenting his argument analytically and critically.
The passage contains universal truth in that no one can deny the fact that justification was through faith in Christ and will always be so. It was true with our forefathers; is true with us and will be forever. There has not been a time in the history of mankind when people have not tried to go their own way departing from God. The truth of the passage is still applicable to us and thus contextual. Though we do not see people observing the Law in churches in this day and age, we do witness an underlying belief that they have to do good works to please God. People who are religiously doing good deeds not as a worship or gratitude to God are similar to Judaizers. They have put their faith in deeds. They have departed from the reality that God covets the heart that fully trusts in His grace.
I thus believe that even if my deeds are meant for good, if I have not put my full faith in Christ, I have failed to worship God. If I have based my happiness in the achievements and deeds of my life, I have grieved God’s heart. He tells me that I should totally rely on Him and have faith in Christ alone; this fact itself is the most gratifying truth of my life. Even in my relationships, more than becoming a people pleaser or a queen of hospitality, my life should convey the message that these qualities do not justify me before God. Nothing that I have done or could do can ever earn that merit for me. I should live a life that tells people that our life begins from the work done by Christ; we cannot add to or subtract from that done deal.
I used to be part of a Christian student group through whom I came to know the Lord. In the beginning everything seemed so cool. The group looked happy, closely-knit and on fire for the Lord. Gradually, I lost interest in this group. I sat through a class with that group in which the speaker kept drilling into us that Christians must share the gospel, they must live a godly life and pursue people who do not know the love of Christ. Sitting through that class I felt like a victim- one who got trapped in their schemes of converting people to Christianity. I stopped hanging out with them and did not even attend their group activities. Though I was not familiar with Paul or even his doctrine of justification through faith, I happened to join another group that was doing a study on the book of Galatians. I joined that group merely for exploration. The more they talked about justification not by works of the Law, the more I associated my former group’s actions to the Law. They were simply following the Law, as Christians they had to share the gospel. It seemed that their evangelistic activities were like observing set of law that they applied on me. Once I attended the workshop, the onus was also put on me that I needed to start evangelizing too.
These are the mistakes that our leaders can make at times. Inadvertently, just as Peter’s actions led Gentile-Christians astray, our Christian friends can lead us astray. Their immature behavior can hurt our new found faith. When we share the love of Christ with someone and walk them through this new life, our first priority should be to nurture them in faith and not to push too hard on doing the works. In our ministries as well, we have to focus on teaching that we are justified in the eyes of God through faith not through works. Our constant mission trips, mercy programs in the churches should not convey to them that they are earning favor before God. Let it be known that justification is only through faith, their heart before God matters and the rest will follow.
I stand in confidence knowing that justification is only through faith. I do not have to evangelize and do not have to do good works. Today if we as Christians do them to reflect the character and love of Jesus, these may please God but will not add to any greater favor for us. Just as Paul has mentioned over and over again, justification is by faith through grace, we should simply have faith and let the works of grace lead us to doing good works and not good works earning grace for us.