Paul’s leading edge was love, unity, harmony in community, building up and willingly adjusting to those who were less spiritually mature, or weaker in their consciences.
So, how does all this square with the way Paul publicly rebuked Peter?
Well, some thoughts come to mind.
First of all, Peter was no stranger to public rebuke. The Lord Himself had taken Peter to task on a number of occasions, one time in a very public and painful way. Peter would have had experience in understanding how to navigate through this kind of encounter.
Secondly, Jesus had anticipated how hard it would be for His beloved ones. Early in His ministry, the Lord provided some simple, practical steps for resolving conflict within the body, beginning with a one-on-one conversation, moving to a small meeting with one or two others who could act as mediators, and only when that doesn’t work, to bring the conflict before the whole community.
There is no doubt both Paul and Peter knew these teachings and prayers of Jesus. They were both apostles, they had both received years of personal tutoring from the Lord Himself. They knew.
So, though the record does not reflect it, my guess is Paul must have talked with Peter, with Barnabas, and with the Jewish believers who had come down from the Jerusalem church, both one-on-one and in small groups. My guess is, the Jewish believers were completely unmoved by Paul’s arguments.
I have one piece of intriguing evidence to support this thought. Paul wrote in one of his letters to the believers in Corinth,
This will be my third visit to you. “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”
I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others,
since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you.2 Corinthians 13:1-4 (NIV)
It seems this is how Paul was in his relationships. He followed Jesus’ basic outline for correction and resolution of conflict within the Body of Christ.
Now something that often gets missed is that there was more than one group of Jewish people who were opposing Paul.
One group rejected the gospel. They were staunchly Hebrew covenant Jews, and considered Paul a renegade and worse, a heretic and blasphemer. These were the ones seeking to destroy Paul.
Another group seems to have believed in Jesus, but they did not preach the same gospel as Paul. Perhaps at least some of these were among the former priests, and Pharisees who believed the old covenant of the Hebrew Bible was still active—I say this because Luke described them as “some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees.” This group was seeking to correct Paul.
On this side of the issue were the Pharisees who had become believers.
To them the scriptures clearly outlined nonnegotiable terms for inclusion with the people of God.
- They had two thousand years’ worth of scripture to back them up. They knew God had given the covenant of circumcision to Abraham, and had made it crystal clear anyone without circumcision would be removed from the people of God.
- This covenant was so serious, and so important to God, Moses nearly lost his life when he attempted to answer God’s call to lead without taking care of this issue.
- Again, no one was permitted to enter the Promised Land until every male had undergone the rite of circumcision.
In the middle were Peter and Barnabas.
According to Paul, this believing group of Pharisees from the Jerusalem church had come down to Antioch after Peter had arrived, and had been so convincing in their arguments that both Peter and Barnabas were finally swayed, even though:
- Barnabas had worked side-by-side with Paul and experienced the miracle of salvation among the Gentiles with Paul. Barnabas was both well-known and well-loved by the church at Antioch, where he had been teaching with Paul for years.
- Peter had been given a vision by God Himself to show that Gentiles would now be included in the people of God. However, this vision was so disturbing to Peter he had at first resisted God.
- Peter’s vision led to the centurion Cornelius’ conversion, and that of his whole household. Shockingly, to Peter and the six Jewish believers who had accompanied him, God poured out His Spirit on these uncircumcised Gentiles. So, Peter baptized them all, seeing God had already brought them in to His household.
And on the other side was Paul, left standing alone.
There is no question the Gentile Christians, who had up to this point been received as full members into the family of God, were now getting the message something was wrong with them. Frighteningly, this contingent of believers from Jerusalem, men learned in the scriptures and familiar with the things of God, were teaching a very convincing message that grace and faith were far from enough, for not only the famous Peter, but even their beloved teacher and shepherd Barnabas was drawing back from them.
The only one left who might defend them was Paul.
It was necessary Paul publicly defend them, so the Gentile Christians would be reassured of their place with God. Paul did this not simply for the sake of truth, but for the sake of keeping the church from being irreparably broken apart.
Paul was left with an untenable situation, where God’s beloved ones were being told they were unacceptable when God Himself had already imparted His Spirit to them. In this case, the believers who had come down from Jerusalem were 100% convinced they were right, they had solid scripture references, they had thousands of years of tradition, they had the backing of all the scholars, and they had a sympathetic ear in Jerusalem…Paul had none of those things. Yet, on this issue they were wrong. We know that, now.
What Paul did have was the Spirit of Christ, the evidence of God’s powerful, divine work among the Gentiles, and prophecies from scripture that he was now interpreting in a fresh, new way based upon Jesus’ powerful salvation of grace through faith as understood in the gospel.
Make every effort to protect and nurture the unity God has given us by His Spirit, including, as a last measure, public rebuke.
It is all part of living in a community to be open about what we think and feel, to be passionate about the things that are important to us, and to establish boundaries. It is also healthy to listen to each other, to be willing to learn from each other, and to humbly understand none of us is 100% right about everything. We may feel we are right, but we may be quite wrong.
[Sword pommel | Courtesy of Pexels]