Epistles: Paul Sent to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:1-14)

Someone had been telling the Galatian Christians false stories about Paul’s relationship with the original apostles and the Jerusalem church. Paul responds by recounting his history — and he uses that story as a launching pad for preaching the gospel of salvation by grace. Chapter 2 includes two important interactions.

An agreement between Peter and Paul

“After fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me” (Galatians 2:1, ESV). Grammatically, it is not clear whether this is 14 years after Paul’s conversion, or 14 years after his first visit with Peter (1:18). It may have been A.D. 48 — perhaps the famine-relief visit that Luke describes in Acts 11.[1]

“I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain” (v. 2). Paul described his message to the leaders in Jerusalem — he was not asking them for instructions or orders (contrary to what the opponents in Galatia apparently said). Was Paul afraid that he was preaching the wrong message? Apparently not, but he feared that the apostles might undercut his work if they disagreed with his gospel.[2]

“But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek” (2:3). Paul hints that there was some controversy, but the apostles agreed with him on at least this much: that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised. Unfortunately, they did not seem to communicate this conclusion to the lay members, and that lack of communication later led to problems. People from Jerusalem traveled to other church areas and took it upon themselves to demand that other churches conform to their standards. The church visits may have been authorized by the apostles, but the specific requirements probably were not.

Paul says that the controversy arose “because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery” (2:4). These people claimed to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, but at least from Paul’s perspective, they had missed the message. They did not just want to “spy on” believers’ freedom — they wanted to eliminate it. They wanted the new faith to be just as demanding as the old one. In Judea, tensions with Rome were rising, and some zealots were quick to accuse others of religious compromise.[3] Paul says this pressure for conformity amounts to slavery. (He will use the “slave” language again in chapter 4.)

“To them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (2:5). Paul stood against the pressure not just for the convenience of his people, but for the truth of the gospel. The gospel is not just a message of how people are saved — it requires that people be freed from obsolete obligations and social barriers.

Did the leaders tell Paul to add some requirements to his gospel? No: “From those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me” (2:6). Paul seems indirectly acknowledge that the other apostles were important in some way, but they were not essential for his mission. Although they eventually gave their approval, he did not need their approval in order to preach the message Jesus had told him to preach.

“On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles)” (2:7-8). They recognized that Christ had given Paul a mission, and they let him do it. Paul gives Peter a positive word here, but implies that he has authority only over Jewish churches, and not the Gentile church in Galatia.

So they agreed to go their separate ways: “When James and Cephas [Peter] and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (2:9). Implied in this division of labor is that the leaders would not meddle in each other’s ministry — an agreement being broken by Paul’s opponents in Galatia, who were claiming to act with authority from Jerusalem.

“Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (2:10). Paul had come to help the poor believers in Jerusalem, and his letters show that this continued to be part of his ministry (Romans 15:25-271 Corinthians 16:1-42 Corinthians 8:1-4). It was a humanitarian effort not to poor people in general, but to the poor members of the Jerusalem church. To Paul, it had theological significance, for it illustrated the unity of Gentiles and Jews.

So they agreed: Peter would go to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles. But the plan failed to address one circumstance: what should be done in churches that contained both Jews and Gentiles? That is the next step in the story.

A disagreement between Peter and Paul

Paul’s next words are: “When Cephas came to Antioch…” Paul introduces this topic as if the readers already knew that Peter had gone to Antioch, and that they knew what Peter had done there. Paul’s opponents had probably told the story; now Paul tells his side: “I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (1:11).

Paul backs up to give the context of the story: “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” (1:12).

Old Testament laws did not require Jews to eat separately from Gentiles, but Jewish custom did (see Acts 11:3). Peter knew that this custom was not biblical, so he ignored it. However, when representatives of the Jerusalem church arrived, he changed his behavior.[4] It was a change of behavior based on a desire to please people — the very thing Paul had been accused of (1:10).

However, this separation implied that the Gentiles were second-class citizens, that they would not be fully acceptable unless they conformed to Jewish laws. Paul saw this as a violation of the gospel. If God was willing to live in these people, then the Jewish believers ought to be willing to eat with them.

Other people followed Peter’s example: “The rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy” (2:13). The change in behavior was not consistent with their beliefs, and was not consistent with the gospel, so Paul spoke to them all by addressing Peter, who had set the example:

“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[5] and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (v. 14).

Peter had been living like a Gentile, and he should not pretend that he didn’t. He had been ignoring the rules that separated Jews from Gentiles, but his change in behavior implied it was wrong to be a Gentile. “Peter is in effect requiring the Gentile converts at Antioch to adopt a higher standard of Torah observance than he himself would normally follow.”[6] Social discrimination violates the truth of the gospel.[7]

Unity in the church does not require that everyone follow the strictest opinions. God does not require Gentiles to live like Jews — and he does not require Jews to do it, either! Even the Jews are allowed to live like Gentiles, and the church should not feel compelled to satisfy its overly conservative critics.

Things to think about

  • Peter went to the Jews, and Paul to Gentiles (v. 9). A comparable situation today might be that one preacher agrees to focus on European-Americans, and another on African-Americans. Is this approach wise, or racist? What problems might result?
  • How well do I remember the poor? (v. 10)
  • Does the “truth of the gospel” require that we eat with believers who have customs we do not like? (v. 14)


[1] Ben Witherington, New Testament History, 197. Some scholars identify the Galatians 2 visit with the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) instead, saying that Paul did not mention the Acts 11 visit because he had no discussions with the apostles on that visit and it was therefore irrelevant for his story. The topic in Galatians 2 and Acts 15 is the same: whether Gentiles should be circumcised. This would mean that Galatians was written after the Jerusalem Council. Support for the “late date” of Galatians also comes from the “northern Galatia” theory, which says that Paul is writing to people who are Galatian by ethnicity, and that Paul did not reach their region until after the Council.

Other scholars say that it is unlikely that Paul would have visited Jerusalem on the famine-relief visit without meeting with anyone and without discussing this topic, and in order to answer objections Paul would have had to include all his visits to Jerusalem no matter what was discussed. In Gal 2:2, he specifically says that the discussions were private, whereas the Acts 15 council was a public discussion. He says he went in response to a revelation, which comports well with Acts 11:28. And Galatians 2:10 says that the apostles wanted him to continue to remember the poor, which makes it sound like he had already done something for the poor — bringing famine relief. On a controversy like this, more than one discussion was probably necessary. This means that Paul wrote Galatians before the Jerusalem Council, and Paul was writing to people in Pisidia, Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium — in southern Galatia. Those cities were in the province of Galatia even though the people were not Galatian by ethnicity. Acts 2:9 shows that people could call themselves by their province, not just by ethnicity. The scholarly controversy about the date of the letter and location of the recipients does not affect the interpretation of the letter.

[2] “If they reject the legitimacy of this mission, it will indeed make Paul’s work futile in one sense, for their rejection will thwart God’s intent to bring Jew and Gentile together as one in Christ” (Richard Hays, “Galatians,” New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI [Abingdon, 2000], 223).

[3] The sociological pressures may have been similar to what we see in some Muslim regions, where radicals threaten violence against anyone who does not adhere to strict standards — for example, shaving is supposedly a sign of weakening religious loyalty, so radicals may threaten barbers who shave their customers. “We will publicly shame you as a compromiser unless you conform to our standards.” Paul calls this tyranny of judgmentalism an attempt to enslave.

[4] We do not know if the men from James demanded this separation, or if Peter was merely afraid that they would want it. Perhaps he planned to do it temporarily, to avoid offense, but ended up causing offense to the Gentiles.

[5] In this phrase, Paul has broadened the discussion beyond the question of eating with Gentiles, but it is difficult to determine exactly what he meant. In the first century, the distinction between Jews and Gentiles usually focused on circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath days. Some rabbis taught that Gentiles were required to keep the laws given to Noah. Galatians 3:17 suggests that the difference lies in the laws added in the days of Moses. Gentiles were expected to keep the laws that existed in Genesis, but were not required to keep those added later.

[6] Hays, 235.

[7] “One can betray the truth of the gospel not only by preaching false doctrines but also by engaging in false practices — particularly practices that fracture the unity of the church…. God has brought into being a new community that embraces Jews and Gentiles together as God’s people. This is not merely an implication of the gospel of an inference from the gospel; rather, it is an integral part of the gospel itself” (Hays, 248).

Author: Michael Morrison

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