Read the Passage:
Travel to Jerusalem (2:1–10)
In Gal 1:11–24 Paul had emphasized the divine origination of the gospel message, as well as God’s sovereign administration of the gospel in the lives of believers (cf. Gal. 1:12, 15–16). Perhaps in an attempt to keep his readers from concluding that the Christian life is one of passivity, in Gal. 2:1–10 Paul recounted the events from his trip to Jerusalem to attend the first church council, which is recorded in Acts 15:1–22. On this trip, which occurred fourteen years after Paul’s first trip to Jerusalem to visit Peter (cf. Gal. 1:18), the issue of obedience to the Old Testament ceremonial law was the issue at hand. At Gal. 2:3 Paul notes that Titus was not circumcised (cf. Acts 16:1–3). This may seem like an odd reference, but circumcision was the work of the law on which the Judaizers were focused. Note that Paul mentions the term “circumcision” 13 times in the book of Galatians, all of which are in chapters 2, 5, and 6.
In Gal. 2:6–10 Paul continues to defend himself and his message by highlighting the divine nature of the gospel. Paul had previously said that he was not a man-pleaser (cf. Gal. 1:10), and in Gal. 2:6 he notes that God does not favor anyone for their own sake. Further, Paul notes that his relationship with the church leaders was not the basis for nor the power behind his message—a point he had made sarcastically at Gal. 2:2. These claims by Paul were in response to the false teachers who were likely claiming friendship with church leaders, if not with Jesus Himself, to validate their message. Paul further opposed the false teachers’ message by noting not only did the Jerusalem Council rule that becoming a proselyte was not a requirement for salvation, but also “they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship that we should go to the Gentiles” (Gal. 2:9).
Confrontation of Peter (2:11–16)
Gal. 2:11–13 recounts an event in the life of the early church in which Peter had come to Antioch, likely the site of the first Gentile church (cf. Acts 11:19). Paul reports that while with the believers in Antioch Peter would “eat with the Gentiles” (Gal. 2:12). Such sharing of meals with Gentiles was an event that orthodox Jews believed would defile them, for Gentiles’ diet contained many foods that were unclean under the Jewish ceremonial law (cf. Lev. 11:2–23; Deut. 14:3–21). Of course, Peter had reportedly already settled this matter in his interaction with Cornelius (cf. Acts 10:9–22; Mark 7:19). Yet, when Jewish believers came from Jerusalem Peter “withdrew and separated himself” from the Gentile believers (Gal. 2:12). Consequently, some of the weaker brethren, including Barnabas, were “carried away” with Peter’s hypocrisy (cf. Gal. 2:13).
In Gal. 2:14–16 Paul explains why Peter’s actions before the Gentiles were wrong—namely, he was undermining the very truth and message of the gospel. In Paul’s own words, Peter and the Jewish believers “were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). Christians are neither justified nor sanctified by their own works. There are two levels upon which Paul is speaking here. First, making law-keeping a requirement for entering into salvation is tantamount to denying salvation by faith alone. Indeed, as Paul notes in Gal. 2:17, the very fact that Christians continue to sin after salvation demonstrates the fact that, as the apostle noted earlier, “By the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Gal. 2:16). Second, making ceremonial law-keeping a requirement after salvation, as a means for (and not proof of) right standing with God, undermines the redemptive message of the gospel. As Paul would later teach, believers are both justified and sanctified by faith in Jesus Christ (cf. Gal. 5:6; Phil. 1:6; Heb. 2:11).
Rehearsal of the Gospel (2:17–21)
In Gal. 2:17–21 Paul delves into the implications of the Judaizers’ teachings and Peter’s actions. First, in Gal. 2:17 Paul notes that if the Judaizers’ doctrine is correct, then Jesus is “a minister of sin,” for Christ taught salvation by faith alone. Paul’s thought here is that if we are saved by works, then our present sins are accounted to us; since we are one with Christ (cf. John 17:21–23), Jesus is then a sinner, too. As Paul says, “Certainly not!” Second, in Gal. 2:18–20 Paul teaches that if we re-introduce works into salvation, we condemn ourselves, for we cannot perform good works without sinning. Third, and most importantly of all, in Gal. 2:21 Paul teaches that if salvation is possible via law-keeping, then “Christ died in vain.” The idea here is that if man can be saved by his own works, then there was no need for Jesus to be crucified. Paul had already denied the possibility of salvation by works at Gal. 2:16 and would reiterate the foolishness of this teaching at Gal. 3:21.
- Why did the Judaizers attack both Paul’s character and his doctrine? How do you usually respond to unjust criticism?
- Is contextualizing the gospel—that is, packaging it up in culturally sensitive ways—appropriate?
- Are you ever tempted to base your self-identity in who or what you know, rather than in God?
- When are accommodating one’s actions for a weaker brother okay? How do we distinguish between stronger and weaker brethren?
- Are you ever tempted to base your standing before God on your performance of Christian service? How are faith and works connected?