The Incident at Antioch

While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch in Syria after their first missionary journey, a controversy occurred that resulted in their being sent with some other believers to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles and elders. Here is how Paul describes an incident in the controversy in his letter to the Galatians:

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:11-14, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV)

Paul opens his account of the incident by telling the Galatians that when Peter (Cephas) came to Antioch, Paul opposed him to his face because he “stood condemned.” Paul doesn’t identify who condemned Peter. A popular explanation is that Paul meant that Peter stood condemned by the inconsistency of his own actions.

Paul goes on to tell what Peter had done. When Peter visited Antioch, he initially followed the custom of Jewish Christians there of enjoying table fellowship with Gentile Christians. Although this exposed him to the possibility of breaking the Jewish food laws, it was consistent with his having eaten with Cornelius and his friends (Acts 11:3). However, when some men came to Antioch from James (the leader of the church in Jerusalem), they criticized the practice (some scholars suggest that they may even have delivered a message to Peter expressing concern over his action and/or over its possible effect on the relationship between the church in Jerusalem and the Jews) and Peter gradually drew back from it. According to Paul, Peter did so because he feared “the circumcision party,” which could refer to the Jewish Christian representatives of James or to the Jews.

The other Jewish Christians followed Peter’s example, causing a social rift between Jews and Gentiles in the church in Antioch and thus putting pressure on the Gentiles to observe the Jewish food laws to restore unity. This was unacceptable to Paul, who believed that “there is neither Jew nor Greek … in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Because the Jewish Christians’ conduct before the men came from James showed that they also recognized this, Paul described their action as hypocrisy. His noting “even Barnabas” joined them suggests that he was especially hurt by Barnabas’ withdrawal from table fellowship with the Gentile Christians (the incident probably prepared the way for the disagreement between between Paul and Barnabas shortly afterwards that resulted in their parting company [Acts 15:36-41]).

Paul’s saying “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” suggests that all the events related in verses 12-13 took place before Paul confronted Peter. This prompts the question–why did Paul let things go so far before intervening? Perhaps at first he wasn’t clear as to the implications involved or was reluctant to voice his opposotion openly or perhaps he was absent during the early part of Peter’s stay in Antioch.

When Paul confronted Peter, he did it publicly (“before them all”) as well as personally (“to his face”). His doing so agrees with the injunction that he later gave to Timothy regarding elders, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Timothy 5:20). It’s hard to know how much of what follows was actually said on the occasion. Here I’ll comment on just the first sentence (verse 14b), leaving consideration of the rest for my forthcoming series of articles on Galatians.

Eugene H. Peterson paraphrases that sentence thus: “If you, a Jew, live like a non-Jews when you’re not being observed by the watchdogs from Jerusalem, what right do you have to require non-Jews to conform to Jewish customs just to make a favorable impression on your old Jerusalem cronies?” (THE MESSAGE) “Require” might seems strong. However, as I observed above, Peter and the other Jewish Christians’ withdrawal from table fellowship with the Gentile Christians put pressure on the latter to observe the Jewish food laws to restore unity to the church.

Paul’s not telling the Galatians how Peter and the Antioch church reacted to what he saud to Peter suggests that Peter did not give in to Paul’s rebuke and that the church was more or less siding with Peter at the time that Paul wrote Galatians. Peter could have claimed that, as an apostle to the Jews [Galatians 2:7-8], he withdrew from table fellowship with the Gentile Christians, although seeing nothing wrong with it in itself, out of concern for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (Paul himself said in a later letter, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law [though not being myself under the law] that I might win those under the law” [1 Corinthians 9:20). However, the church eventually sent Paul, Barnabas, and others to Jerusalem to consult the apostles and elders there about the controversy (Acts 15:1-2).

James D. G. Dunn claims that “the Antioch incident was probably one of the most significant events in the development of early Christianity. It shaped that future of Paul’s missionary work, it sparked off a crucial insight which became one of the central emphases in Paul’s subsequent teaching, and consequently it determined the whole character and future of that young movement which we now call Christianity” (Jesus, Paul, and the Law [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Know Press, 1960], 162-63). I agree.

2 thoughts on “The Incident at Antioch

    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      Thanks, Rose. To me the incident illustrates how God sometimes changes His plans because of what we do. The account of what happened before, during, and after Peter’s visit to the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:1 – 11:18) suggests that God planned for Peter to effect the opening of the church to the Gentiles on the basis of repentance and faith. However his response to the Judaizers in Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14) suggests that he lacked the courage or vision to do so. Thus God used Paul to do it. However God still used Peter in bringing it about, Peter’s later supporting Paul and Barnabas at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), which officially recognized that believing Gentiles didn’t have to become circumcised and obey the law of Moses.


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