Peter once saw a vision in which God revealed to him that the gospel of the heavenly kingdom should come to the Gentiles. Later, when the issue of circumcision became a major dispute within the early church, the disciples and elders convened a council in Jerusalem. During the Jerusalem council, Peter argued that salvation was by the grace of God and not by the observation of the law. He cited the example of Cornelius’ household receiving the Holy Spirit by grace and supported Paul’s proposal.
Peter went to Antioch after the council decided that the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised. But many Jews still did not give up their position on the observation of the law of circumcision. So when Peter saw a group from James that advocated circumcision, he was afraid of their criticism and separated himself from the Gentile Christians. By this act, Peter silently acquiesced to the erroneous claim of righteousness through the law.
Paul regarded Peter’s hypocrisy as a deviation from the truth of the gospel and detrimental to the believers’ faith. He did not stand by idly and compromise his principles; instead he gave a stinging rebuke to Peter in the presence of all to hear. While at times this may be necessary, we must always evaluate the situation and resort to prayer. Yet when there was a serious conflict within the church, Paul’s attitude was rather to offend the believers and please God. He opposed Peter because he was the Lord’s faithful servant, not because he bore a grudge against Peter.
Paul’s action is in many ways commendable, for he showed his stance regarding the truth and shook legalism to its foundation. Paul opened the route for the gospel to be preached to Gentiles. More notably, however, Peter accepted his reproach with humility. Peter, once the stubborn disciple, now came to a heartfelt confession. This is a moving as well as practical lesson by which we can see why the early church prospered.
Paul’s courage to advocate the truth, his loving rebuke of fellow disciples, and the grace with which Peter accepted Paul’s rebuke all contributed to its higher spirituality. Hopefully, God will raise up more spiritual followers of Jesus like Paul and Peter in today’s church.