But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him publicly, speaking strongly against what he was doing, for it was very wrong.
This is definitely something I struggle with. Paul seems to have no problem taking his brother to task about an area that at least in his own mind is clearly wrong. I think before Jen & I were married, and I was a bit younger and perhaps less wise, I would have charged in the same way Paul does. I knew what was right, and everyone else needed to know it too! I think that is Jen’s picture of me still. She is quite the opposite, detesting all forms of conflict, and avoiding them at all costs. I think she has softened me a bit, which is good. I have learned restraint from her. My struggle though, is when should we step in, and when should we show restraint. When is enough enough?
In other words, when should I allow events to play out and let God work in my brother’s heart, and when should I step up and stop the injustice or wrong thinking or sinful behavior for the good of the perpetrator and the church and everyone around him? When is it time to put an end to the bad?
Paul says, “I had to oppose him publicly” meaning to me that it was not his first choice, but that the wrong was so bad, it needed to stop then and there. I admit, I don’t know what offense is so evil that it must be halted publicly and immediately – short of someone beating or threatening the life of another perhaps. If someone’s name is being dragged through the mud, do I step in? If I know someone is involved in a behavior that is contrary to God’s best for them, do I step in? At what level of offense or wrongness do we need to take action? What was it that Paul saw that was so destructive it had to stop then and there?
Let’s find out…
When he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile Christians, who don’t bother with circumcision. But afterward, when some Jewish friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore because he was afraid of what these legalists would say. Then the other Jewish Christians followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was influenced to join them in their hypocrisy.
When I saw that they were not following the truth of the Good News, I said to Peter in front of all the others, “Since you, a Jew by birth, have discarded the Jewish laws and are living like a Gentile, why are you trying to make these Gentiles obey the Jewish laws you abandoned? You and I are Jews by birth, not `sinners’ like the Gentiles. And yet we Jewish Christians know that we become right with God, not by doing what the law commands, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be accepted by God because of our faith in Christ–and not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be saved by obeying the law.”
Whoa. Stinging words to a keeper of rules. Even though we know it… some of us really like rules. We like to have the boundaries. A clear-cut path to follow to a right standing with God. But Paul blasted that out of the water with his last statements. “We become right with God, not by doing what the law commands… No one will ever be saved by obeying the law.”
Did he say ever? This is the same man who “beats his body” into submission to Christ, who talks of working out our salvation in fear and trembling, and other such references to a very work-oriented righteousness. How can Paul understand this dichotomy he seems to espouse? How can he say things that seem to be so opposed?
First, they are not opposed. Jesus definitely showed us that it’s not about how clean we can get, or anything we can do to make ourselves presentable before God. That all comes from him. Before we meet him, and forever after. He also made it clear that so many things can bring us down. That there is a right way and a wrong way. That there are things that are good for us, and things that are bad for us. That his laws and his truth will stand forever as a testament to what is right, not as a set of iron shackles to forever imprison us to a performance-based righteousness.
Paul saw Peter, who knew the freedom Jesus’ taught and lived it out everyday, not only reverting to rule-keeping behaviors, but imposing that on those around him. Legalism. Take the standard presented by God, and the personal conviction in your heart and slap it on everyone else, requiring from them more strict adherence to this standard than even you are willing to give. It is performance-driven, guilt-laden, burden-bearing drudgery. Not a joy-filled, freedom-living adventure with a loving Father, the reality I believe Jesus tried to demonstrate. Peter was trying to restrict the freedom of the non-jewish believers with already fulfilled laws that existed not to bring about righteousness of themselves, but to point a people to the Giver of Righteousness. He already knew and had experienced that truth, but was now afraid, in Paul’s words, to live it out.
Again Paul mentions “the Truth” of the Good News. Do you recall from chapter one, where Paul said he wanted to preserve the truth of the Good News. To me, that means doctrine, dogma… legalism even. Passing down a set of rules that must be strictly obeyed. But to Paul, the truth was the freedom. He wanted to preserve the freedom of the life we have in Jesus. Now he says it again. Peter and his gang, including Paul’s friend Barnabas, were separating themselves from the other believers because of an “act of righteousness” that gave them claim to some sort of superior righteousness. (Odd, in that it was nothing that they did. Boys were circumcised on the 8th day after birth. They can’t rightly claim such an “act”, now can they?)
Paul strongly refutes such wrong thinking by saying, “we… know that we become right with God … by faith in Jesus Christ.” He is not teaching them, but reminding them. He wants them to remember the truth they have already heard. Their freedom is not because they are circumcised or specially chosen or have kept any set of laws. (Paul even reminds Peter that he discarded the Jewish laws. Another interesting aside in that there are many today who get ruffled a bit when talk of the old testament laws not being applicable today…) Freedom has come from a restored relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Not by anything we have done, or will do. Not by cleaning up our act and hanging out with the right people. It is the free gift of God, so that no one can boast.
No one will ever be saved by obeying the law. We can’t dress well enough, speak well enough, act well enough, think well enough, do enough community service, or other acts of worship. We are justified by our faith in Jesus, in what HE did for us. Done. Over. It is finished. Now, we get to live it. In freedom. Together.
But what if we seek to be made right with God through faith in Christ and then find out that we are still sinners? Has Christ led us into sin? Of course not! Rather, I make myself guilty if I rebuild the old system I already tore down. For when I tried to keep the law, I realized I could never earn God’s approval. So I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ. I myself no longer live, but Christ lives in me. So I live my life in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not one of those who treats the grace of God as meaningless. For if we could be saved by keeping the law, then there was no need for Christ to die.
Some might say that to live devoid of any responsibility to the law, just lavishing in God’s grace, that we are in some way despising God. His laws are forever true, so he must mean for us to submit to them. Yes, his law is forever true, but what does it mean to submit to it? Do it, or else? Or, follow this truth, and you will experience the life I intended for you? I see God’s laws as warnings, or even like those video game secrets where you can find the hidden cool parts of the game by knowing certain tricks or moves. God has given us clues as to how life works best. He has already said, as Paul found out, that we can’t earn righteousness by keeping those rules. If so, Jesus would not have had to die. Some of us who were diligent enough, and who tried the hardest and were perhaps even predisposed toward more righteous behavior would reach the finish line, with our A+ papers in hand, and pass on to life forever in God’s eternal kingdom. The rest who couldn’t keep up with the demands of his laws would be doomed to rot forever in hell. That’s how a performance-based system would work. And there would be no need for a savior. If even one person could do it without him, Jesus would not have needed to die.
But he did. Cause we can’t. Ever. No matter how hard we try. Paul said, “What if… after you stop trying to do it yourself, and realize it’s only from God… what if you’ve been down that path and you are still sinning??? That’s a great question. One I still do not completely understand. What I see Paul saying here this time is that we actually become more guilty as we revert to the old way of striving to keep the rules. To do the right. In doing that, we only condemn ourselves all over again. We might feel like we are somehow making up for the fact that we are still sinners… but in fact we are only making it worse by living under the same laws that condemned us before.
The answer is the new wineskin. The complete renewing of our minds. The new paradigm. Where no longer are we made righteous by our performance (since we never were in the first place) but we live in the reality that God truly accepts us as we are. We don’t have to prove to him that we can do it, because the truth is we can not. If we try to, we will only experience the condemnation that the law brings. The Truth of the Good News that Paul keeps trying to get us to see is the freedom of knowing that Jesus is the Righteous One, and in fact he is our Righteousness.
That’s so weird. But really, really cool.
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