“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
Two things really stand out here to me. One is obvious, the other is not so obvious. First the former. It took a lot of courage for Paul to call Peter out for his obvious deviation from the Gospel. Peter was clearly wrong, most everybody there knew it, but nobody wanted to say anything until Paul spoke up. Because it was Peter. Would you have wanted to call Peter out for this?
As ones who are to be committed to the truth, we need to be willing to stand boldly for the truth. We need to be willing to help call our fellow brothers and sisters in the faith to live according to the truth as well. There are times when such calls needs to be personal, and there are times when they need to be public like this one was. But, if we will not offer this kind of loving accountability to fellow believers, who will? What Paul did was right and good and necessary.
Here’s the second thing: Peter fell off track here. He got suckered in by peer pressure and started behaving down to the expectations of a group of people who he had mentally assigned way more power than he should have and was therefore seeking a seal of approval he didn’t need. Let me say that again: Peter did this.
This was the same Peter who was the vocal leader of the church. The same Peter who preached the Pentecost sermon that launched the whole movement. The same Peter who stood before the Sanhedrin and defiantly declared that he must obey God and not men. The same Peter who pronounced immediate and deadly judgment on Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit and trying to deceive the church. The same Peter who had experienced a miraculous escape from Herod’s prison. The same Peter who was the first person God called to preach to a Gentile thus opening the door of church expansion and announcing to the whole group that God was willing to accept Gentiles even though they weren’t Jews.
That Peter was now kowtowing to the judgmental, racist, theologically incorrect opinion of a bunch of Jewish Christians (who were probably former priests or Pharisees) who still believed that Gentile believers were inferior to Jewish believers. This would have been akin to a white person in the 1960s who marched with Dr. King, refusing to sit with black people at a racial dialogue event when a group of racist, but powerful white preachers came in the room.
What’s the point? Peer pressure to lower our behavioral standards to that of the culture rather than the kingdom can grab ahold of anybody. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been following Jesus or how much you’ve accomplished for Him, you’re never totally free from those kinds of pressures. We must be ready to be courageously committed to the Gospel at all times, regardless of the consequences. And, if–or when–we should fall, we must be humble enough to be graciously corrected by a fellow believer willing to be courageous enough to confront us.
We live in a day when the racism most folks figured was mostly gone in our culture has again reared its ugly head. The truth is, it was never really gone, just dormant. The Civil Rights Act in many ways stopped the forward progress that King and others were making. Now, that doesn’t at all mean it was unnecessary, it means that by passing it we felt like we had arrived and stopped working so hard to continue moving forward. Instead, we just piled the racism underneath a number of more pressing problems (the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the counter culture, the sexual revolution, feminism, the Dot com bubble and bust, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, radical Islam, the Great Recession, and etc.).
In the church, we are to be a place where racism vanishes as realize we are all of equal value at the foot of the cross. Yet, it is easy for us still to find ourselves moving down to meet our culture rather than calling it to rise to the better standard of the kingdom. Let us pay heed lest we fall like Peter. And in the meantime, let us have the courage of Paul to call out racism when and where we see it. We can’t point to it where it doesn’t exist for political purposes, but we must stand firmly against it every place it does. The Gospel demands nothing less. If we can’t offer people a kingdom that is positively different from the culture, they aren’t going to want to join it.