Christian Accommodation (Galatians 2:1-14)

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This sermon is part of a series on Galatians titled “Justified.” Previous sermon: “Approved by God (Galatians 1:10-24).”

Big Idea: There is room in Christ to accommodate every believer.

Here at our church, we have an accommodation problem. Most Sundays our sanctuary is more than 80% full. Researchers say that when a room is more than 80% filled, people are uncomfortable. On the other hand, I have been to some churches that are less than 10% filled, and they have a very different accommodation challenge—they don’t want certain kinds of people to fill up the space. I once visited a church that even had a sign in the back of the church declaring its desire that certain people attend church elsewhere. Needless to say, it’s not a growing, healthy church.

In the passage of Galatians we are reading today, this point is made clear: there is room in Christ to accommodate every believer. 

Once again, Paul’s autobiographical comments in Galatians serve a larger purpose of defending the Gospel of Christ. In 2:1 Paul moves forward in his story. The parallel account of Galatians 2:1-10 is found in Acts 9:26-30. This is what we know of Paul before he met Peter and the apostles in Jerusalem: 

  1. He had been preaching the Gospel already for years;
  2. He had been preaching to both Jews and Gentiles;
  3. He had already been persecuted by the Jews (Acts 9:20-30).
  4. He had become close friends with Barnabas and Titus who were from Antioch;
  5. The apostles in Jerusalem did not know he had been converted.

Paul’s Reception (2:1-10)

The point of reference in 2:1 is his conversion on the road to Damascus (Moo, Galatians, 121). There are a few important points to note in this section.

PAUL’S CONCERN 

“I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim to the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain” (2:2).

First, Paul wasn’t concerned that he had been preaching a false Gospel (he has already asserted multiple times his confidence that he correctly understood the revelation of Christ). Rather, he feared that the apostles might not accept the Gentiles into the mission of Christ. That is, he feared that the Jerusalem apostles might reject his ministry to the Gentiles and thus create a fissure in the Church.

When Paul traveled to Jerusalem fourteen years after his conversion, the Jerusalem leaders had not required Titus to be circumcised, even though some false brothers tried to insist that he be. Indeed, the Jerusalem pillars added nothing to Paul’s understanding and preaching of the Gospel of Christ. On the contrary, they affirmed it and gave him the right hand of fellowship as a missionary to the Gentiles (Schreiner, Galatians, 115).

Paul mentions Barnabas because the Galatians knew and trusted Barnabas. He is clearly trying to establish credibility with the Galatians by affiliating himself—appropriately so—with Barnabas. Association is useful and sometimes necessary. None of us should be lone mavericks. I’ve especially found it helpful to be associated with the other pastors in our community as well as Christian business leaders. Not only is it important to show unity among Christian brothers and sisters, but it also helps when a situation arises, and you can reference a familiar name. Familiarity produces comfort. 

UNITY IN DOCTRINE

Paul then mentions Titus who, we find in 2:3, represents the contrary view of what the Galatians are being told by false teachers. Guilt by association is still a logical fallacy. What people usually mean is “guilt by participation,” but guilt by participation is not the same as guilt by association. For example, take the often-stated “if he belongs to that church, he must be x (x = liberal, conservative, Reformed, Wesleyan, etc.).” At best, that is an unfortunate assumption, and at worst, it can be ungodly, unkind, uncharitable. Furthermore, it can be terribly divisive. It promotes disunity. It fractures the Church of Christ until it is too weak to stand up against movements (political or social) of ungodliness. You don’t see that kind of stuff happening in places like Afghanistan where Christians of all stripes have learned to love each other because they are all they have (testimony of Steve and Jenny Gardner, missionaries in Kabul).

The fact that Titus, the Gentile, was not circumcised symbolizes the recognition of the Apostles that the Gospel of Christ was not contained in the Jewish law (2:3). On the other hand, Acts 16:3 is important here for Paul made a different decision with Timothy, the Jew: Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.

Why did Paul have Timothy circumcised but not Titus? Because Timothy would be ministering in a Jewish context and Titus in a Gentile context. Here’s how Tom Schreiner puts it: “Timothy consented to circumcision, not in order to be saved, but to avoid conflict and to permit him to enter the synagogues with Paul for the preaching of the gospel” (Schreiner 123).

There is good wisdom in making life adjustments in deference to the context in which you are ministering. It was not hypocritical for Paul to advise circumcision in one context but not in another. However, Paul didn’t comply or treat Timothy differently in order to reinforce or accommodate wrong belief. This much is clear now in Paul’s clear antagonism against the heresies in Galatia.

THE TRUE GOSPEL PRESERVED

The false brothers urging the Gentiles to be circumcised (2:4) were not tolerated by Paul in order that “the truth of the Gospel might be preserved” for the Galatians (2:5). Why does Paul call them “false brothers”? Because they were teaching a different Gospel—a gospel of works rather than a gospel of grace.

Sometimes good intentions can be subversive to the Gospel when they are not biblically informed. Some truths really are more complicated than a spiritual infant or child can handle.

OTHER POINTS TO NOTE

A couple more observations are worth noting regarding Paul’s reception by the other Apostles. In verse 6, we see that Paul respected the Apostles, but he did not raise his or their apostolic authority above the revelation of Christ. Also, we see that this section closes with a request from the Jerusalem Apostles to Paul that he remembers the poor. Clearly, their primary concern was helping others. They were “reach-oriented.”

What this narrative at the beginning of chapter 2 illustrates clearly is that the agitators of the Galatian church, as we should call them, required something for justification that God simply does not require. Their regard for circumcision was especially subversive to the true Gospel, as we’ll see, and is why Paul issued such a strong rebuke.

Paul’s Rebuke (2:11-14)

The background of the Church of Antioch (Acts 13) is critical for this passage:

  1. Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire (after Rome and Alexandria).
  2. Antioch was located 300 miles north of Jerusalem.
  3. Antioch was a Gentile city with a large number of Jewish residents.
  4. Antioch was the most important city in Christianity at this time because it was the center for Gentile-Jewish relations.
  5. It was in Antioch that followers of Christ were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26).

It is interesting that in Jerusalem Peter and Paul were in agreement, but when Peter was out of his comfort zone in the Gentile city of Antioch, there was suddenly disagreement. However, an important caveat to remember is that Paul is not sharing this story in order to show any spiritual superiority to Peter. Rather, he is showing how the truth of the Gospel ought to govern (2:14).

PETER’S ACTIONS

Verse 12 shows us that Peter has spent time with the Gentiles, living like them, and eating what Gentiles eat (cf. Acts 10). But when Jewish believers sent by the Apostle James arrived from Jerusalem, Peter separated himself from the Gentiles out of fear of what these Jewish believers (and probably James) would think of him.

Why didn’t Jews eat with Gentiles? It wasn’t technically Jewish law that they were not to eat with Gentiles. However, the Jewish Christians probably were affected by the fact that they were not to eat unclean food. Even vessels used to prepare unclean food were not allowed. Probably because the Gentiles served food in vessels also used to prepare unclean food. For this reason, Jews simply refrained from eating with Gentiles.

Peter’s motivation for withdrawing from the Gentiles when his buddies from Jerusalem arrived is made clear, “He drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.” Wow! Paul is calling it like he sees it. Peter was motivated by fear, just as many people today are. Many of us comply with some expectation simply for the political pressure to do so. That’s fear-based motivation, and, while fear is an appropriate motivator in life, it is not the highest or even the noblest motivation. Love is.

While fear is an appropriate motivator in life, it is not the highest or even the noblest motivation. Love is.

The result of Peter’s fear was that “the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.”

PAUL’S REBUKE

The reason for Paul’s public rebuke of Peter is clear:

  1. Peter’s action, being public, had affected others.
  2. He saw that the action of Peter and those who followed was not in step with the truth of the Gospel.

This was not a theological debate or disagreement; it was purely practical. Peter was not one of the “false brothers;” (2:4) he was truly in fellowship with Paul (2:9). But Peter’s actions appeared to substantiate a wrong way of thinking about the Gospel. In other words, Peter was reflecting poorly on the core truth of the Gospel—that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works such as circumcision or eating out of kosher vessels.

Was Paul wrong in rebuking Peter in public, in light of Jesus saying in Matthew 18:15-17 that one must confront a brother in private? No, because Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 5:20 that an elder who persists in sin should be rebuked publicly. 

Now let me make an application by pointing out that while Peter was not an immature believer, he reverted to some immature behavior in Antioch. Paul was compelled to point it out for the sake of the Gospel. So here’s how this applies to us: correct with care. This means that everything doesn’t need public rebuke, and some things need no word at all, just patience. Let me illustrate.

Correct with care. Everything doesn’t need public rebuke, and some things need no word at all, just patience.

My wife had a well-educated grandmother tell her that she did not enjoy little children. She endured her years of raising her children in order to enjoy their adulthood. Similarly, some people don’t like spiritual infants. They want them to be adults, but they don’t like the growing part. They become very uncomfortable and withdrawn when they are put in a context with spiritual infants. For example:

  1. Rather than seeing a newborn baby who is seeking to understand the basics of being a Christian and how to overcome the addiction of sin, they see the coffee cup in their hand when they walk into the church building;
  2. Rather than seeing a spiritual infant who is trying to make sense of what the Bible says, they are annoyed because the preacher isn’t using the King James translation of the Bible.
  3. Rather than seeing a person who needs the attention of a spiritual parent to train and equip them so they can become a contributing member of the Body of Christ, they see someone taking up a lot of the pastor’s time and resources away from them. 

Consider this about Peter. As long as Peter was in Jerusalem, he was comfortable. Everyone in his circle was ethnic Jews and followers of Christ. Furthermore, as long as he was in Antioch and the crowd was only Gentile, Peter seems to have been comfortable. But as soon as the two worlds merged, he reverted to political pressure, rather than using the opportunity to show the truth of the Gospel in a very tangible way. He was concerned with protecting a very specific Jewish religious identity.

As beautiful and special as a person’s particular tradition or brand of Christian faith may be, it must never cause us to subvert the genuine Gospel of Christ.

Very often it is the doctrine of justification by grace through faith that is replaced by a peculiar practice or belief. For example:

  1. “I would rather my son not be a Christian than attend the __________ church.”
  2. “Our church is struggling. But do you know what, the _________ church isn’t doing any better.”
  3. “If we do that they may become _______(insert name of some other church group).”

I am not saying that particular practices or beliefs of our tradition, or any other tradition, are not appropriate, or that they are unbiblical. Rather, I am saying that there is a clear Gospel, and anytime we replace its primary elements with secondary or tertiary matters, we are threatening the core doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone.

Interestingly, Peter would later write in 2 Peter 3:17: “Take care that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless.” Paul’s point in Galatians 2:11-14 could just as well be stated, “Take care that you are not carried away with the error of the legalist.”

Paul’s Holy Spirit-inspired reason is that “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the Gospel.” The reason it was not in step with the Gospel is that it was not gracious, and it suggested spiritual superiority of a class of people—Jewish Christians:

“If you, though a Jew live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force Gentiles to live like Jews?” In other words, how can you, in one moment, be okay with Gentiles living like Gentiles but, in the next moment, not be okay with Gentiles living like Gentiles when the Jewish Christians arrive?

The whole point of Paul’s message so far in Galatians is to counter the attitude that Peter had on this occasion; that is, the attitude that says, “You Gentile Christians (being the spiritual infants that you are) are not really Christians until you adopt our ways of living.”

Here’s the catch: Peter didn’t really believe that Gentiles were unChristlike, but his actions implied it. And that’s what Paul rebuked him for. So, Paul calls it “hypocrisy” in 2:13.

APPLICATION

There are two applications here: the first is explicit and the second is by extension. First, to “unchristian” someone because they don’t adhere to our tradition, even though they accept the grace of Christ, is itself unChristlike. Second, to expect a spiritual infant to display the traits of a spiritual adult is to abandon the grace of the Gospel.

Conclusion

Paul’s autobiography is a powerful example of the extraordinary generosity of God’s grace as well as a reminder that God retains the authority to work and lead a person as He wishes, even when people are different from us. There is room in Christ to accommodate all who rely on His grace. If he makes room, shouldn’t we?

David Fry
Senior Pastor at the Frankfort Bible Holiness Church. PhD in Systematic Theology (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). MDiv in New Testament Theology (Wesley Biblical Seminary).