In the book of Galatians Paul relates an episode of how the Apostle Peter, also called Cephas, wrongly separated himself from the Gentile believers:
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. (Gal 2:11-13)
How could this have possibly happened?
There’s no denying that the idea of the gospel being for Gentiles and not just Jews was certainly a new concept for Peter. Acts 10 relates the episode in Cornelius’ home where the Apostle Peter has a radical change of mind. He wouldn’t have entered a Gentile’s home at all if not for the vision he had on the rooftop. But even when he gets there it doesn’t occur to him to preach the gospel. In Peter’s mind, the gospel is for the Jews. It’s only after the Holy Spirit comes on them all that Peter is convinced that the gospel is for everyone. It’s this radical moment that changes Peter’s thinking forever.
Which makes this episode related in Galatians all the more surprising. Peter knows that the gospel has overcome the boundary that separated Jew and Gentile, but when certain men came from James, he caved into the pressure to rebuild the wall of exclusion. It was a practical denial of the gospel. The gospel says that all men have come under just judgment from God, and that all men are justified by faith. Peter’s actions said something else. They said that justification was not by faith, but by heredity. It was by customs. It was by circumcision.
I ask again, how could this have happened?
Actually, I know exactly how this happened.
Because even Godly men can be intimidated. Even men and women who love God and His gospel, can be tempted to deny it. I’ve felt the pressure to deny this or that aspect of the implications of the gospel, and I’m sure you have too.
This passage is a solemn warning to us all of the power of peer pressure. The power of those we respect to get us to override our consciences. The power of church politics to stop us from doing what we know is right. The power of ego, of our desire to be thought well of by other people, to lead us into sin.
It is also helpful for us to remember this when we see a Christian leader go somewhere or do something that we find odd, or worse, a sin. Even to the point of a practical denial of the gospel. That person needs to be called, in love, to repent. That person needs to change their ways. But let this episode from Peter’s life remind us all that:-
Even the Godly can be intimidated.