11-16 The Episode in Antioch
In Part 3 we see what happens when grace is working and what happens when men ignore the grace of God. Peter, of all people, becomes the object of the problem. A man in whom God had entrusted the keys of the kingdom unwittingly closes the door of opportunity to Gentile brethren. How sad a case this was for Antioch. How poor a witness this situation was for the church in Jerusalem. And how great a disaster this would have been for the one body of Christ had not Paul the Apostle been there to boldly confront it. There are three issues that I see occur.
1. Unity with Brethren
First, before the negative, let me deal with the positive of what was happening before the issue of separation came up. This little section can be seen as a powerful example of the Grace of God with brethren in unity together. I’ll give a picture of the church’s condition before trouble showed up. To do this I will strip out the negative and read the passage in a positive sense from the Message Bible.
Message Bible 11 “…when Peter came to Antioch…Peter regularly ate with the non-Jews.”
What picture of the grace of God. In Antioch men and women, who once were at odds nationally, were eating meals together regularly and enjoying one another in the church! Paul will eventually describe this condition when he writes to the Ephesians. He gives a picture of what was happening at those meals together and why it was able to transpire.
NIV Ephesians 2:14 For He [Jesus] Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace.
We see the grace of God demonstrated in Jewish believers eating with Gentiles believers. They are no longer Jew and Gentile but one new man in Christ. Prejudice has been laid aside and these so-called unclean Gentiles are friends with Peter. This is very much in keeping with what the Lord had spoken to Peter years earlier. We read from Acts 11:15…
NIV 15 The voice spoke to him [Peter] a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
Here we witness Peter’s “Unity with Brethren” in a very practical setting – a meal with fellow believers and all are one in Christ. There is no such thing as Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles. Nationality is omitted in Christ.
2. Clarity with Brethren
And then something broke down. Let’s read the sad passage in its original negative tone from the Message Bible.
Message Bible 11 Later, when Peter came to Antioch, I had a face-to-face confrontation with him because he was clearly out of line. 12 Here’s the situation. Earlier, before certain persons had come from James, Peter regularly ate with the non-Jews. But when that conservative group came from Jerusalem, he cautiously pulled back and put as much distance as he could manage between himself and his non-Jewish friends.
All of the clarity in relationships that Peter had developed with his brethren is lost. Peter is reacting to, what Paul will label later as false brethren. These influential men, coming on the authority of James the Elder, encouraged the keeping of the ceremonial Law of Moses in which eating with Gentiles is strictly prohibited. I can hardly believe that had the writer of the Epistle of James known this would happen he would have sanctioned such behavior. Yet, these men from James were of such stature that Peter, and even Barnabas, forsook fellowship with dear real friends and detached themselves out of intimidation. Clarity with brethren is compromised. However, I can understand how this could happen. It’s happened before to Peter.
NIV Acts 11:2 And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, 3 saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
So Peter naturally expected and feared another grilling when he got back to Jerusalem. Who wants to get yelled at twice for the same thing justly or unjustly? While I understand that, it is difficult to justify such hypocrisy.
3. Dividing the Brethren
There is something bigger at stake here than eating together – the dividing brethren. The ramifications of Peter’s actions were far reaching. If Gentile believers were second-class here at a simple meal, it wouldn’t take long for them to become second-class throughout the whole church. Peter had fallen victim to the old problem of being worried about ones own needs more than the needs of others. His need for a good self-image gave him a greater self-worth than helping others with needs in the church. And he gave into that “need” for self-worth.
What is church about? Somehow today in Christianity the idea that church is about meeting ones own needs first has become prevalent. Issues like, “I want to go to the church where all my needs are meant”, and “in what church do I feel best” become the deciding factors of where to fellowship. It’s like the society we live in – what do I get out of this! Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 12 it is God who places members in the body where He sees fit.
NIV 1 Corinthians 12:18 But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired.
I’m suggesting that maybe the first question to ask is, Where does God want me to serve and use my gift? Let personal needs became secondary. The Lord Jesus left us with a wonderful principle to follow when we feel our needs are not being met where we are.
Message Bible Luke 6:38 “Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back – given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity.”
If you want your needs met give to others. It seems unnatural that this could be true; yet its what the Lord teaches. I wanted to teach my kids how to live by this principle as they were growing up. We worked on 5 little words that they would ask visitors who came over. How may I serve you? Waiting on guests became a tool of illustrating what Jesus taught. Meeting the needs of others is the quickest way to have your needs meant – write it down as a spiritual principle. Does this seem impossible? Apparently we just witnessed that it was difficult enough for even the Apostle Peter to get tripped up by. Yet, by the end of his life Peter has learned his lesson and is teaching the same things.
NIV 1 Peter 2:17 Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers…
I doubt that Peter made the same mistake a third time. I continue with verses 17-21 in the final section, Part 4.
J. Robert Hanson