Galatians 2: 11 – 21 Paul opposes Cephas
When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to accept Jewish customs?
‘We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
‘But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a law-breaker.
‘For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!’
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In these early years of the church – and let us not forget, this letter was written about 53 AD – the Christians who were originally Jewish and those who were originally Gentiles, formed separate factions within the church. In Acts 6:1, Luke refers to them as Hebraic Jews and Hellenistic Jews. In Galatians, Paul refers to one faction among the Jews as ‘the circumcision group’. The circumcision group insisted that to become a Christian, a Gentile had to be circumcised. This group was so influential, that even Peter (Cephas) had withdrawn from eating with Gentiles. His example led others astray, including Barnabas who had accompanied Paul to Jerusalem on the occasion when Peter, James and John had agreed the gospel that Paul was preaching.
In today’s passage we see that Paul regards this as a matter of the highest importance. He publicly opposes Peter, calling him a hypocrite in that he lives like a Gentile and yet is forcing Gentiles to accept Jewish customs.
Why did it matter so much?
The gospel preached by Paul was that the only requirement to be justified in God’s sight was to believe in Jesus Christ. Justification was a free gift from God.
He tackles an argument that had perhaps been made by the circumcision group. He asks, rhetorically, “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin?” What he means by this is “If Jews don’t observe the law – especially circumcision – they’re making themselves part of the sinful Gentiles. Surely Christ doesn’t want them to become sinners?”
Paul’s answer to this is sweeping. “Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a law-breaker.” He is saying, in effect, that Jews are no less sinful than Gentiles. He affirms God in Jesus has destroyed the law and that the real sin would be to rebuild it, by making specific observances like circumcision mandatory.
“For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
I find this paragraph difficult to understand. It seems to be a rather mystical expression of how Paul himself views his salvation. I think what he’s saying is that the life he used to live has gone; he has “died to the law”. Instead, Christ lives in him. Paul’s earthly life is now determined entirely by his faith in Jesus, who loved him and gave himself up to be crucified for him.
I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!
This conclusion is as powerful as Paul can make it. He’s saying that anyone who insists that circumcision is necessary for a Gentile Christian is relying on observance of the law, denying the grace of God and living as though Christ died for nothing!
Coming to the present day, are there other matters that we set up as obstacles to membership?
How about homosexuality? Gay marriage? Gender identity matters? Divorce?
How do we live a life of freedom from the requirements of the law while avoiding sin?
Your plan for mankind is so vast and sweeping that we cannot possibly understand more than a tiny fraction, and that imperfectly. Please help us to be always aware of that; help us to die to the law so that we may live for you.
In Jesus’ name, Amen