Galatians 2:11-16; Galatians 3:26-29


St. Jerome once said that whenever he read the letters of the apostle Paul he could hear thunder. Thunder! It is a short book of only six chapters and 149 verses, but there is a thunderstorm on every page. If Galatians was a weather report, it would say “tornado warning!”

Galatians – probably his first letter – is different from any other book Paul wrote. In most all of his other letters, he begins with a long and usually ebullient thanksgiving to God for the congregation to whom he is writing. To the Philippians, he wrote, “I thank my God on every remembrance of you.” But there is no thanksgiving to God for the Galatians. As soon as he introduces himself, he begins very bluntly, in Galatians 1:1-2.

He begins by that amazing statement in Galatians 1:6, “I am astonished” – strong word, bowled out of my mind – “that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are returning to another gospel, a different gospel, a strange and false gospel. He goes on to say, “If anyone preaches to you any gospel other than the gospel I preach to you, let him be eternally condemned!”

I am reading from the NIV tonight, and I like the NIV, but you know in all of our efforts to take these old translations and dust them off and make them nice and palatable, we lose something. I am not a King James Version only preacher, but I am a King James Version often preacher. Because often the KJV gets it right. Let him be anathema, let him be condemned, let him go straight to hell! That is the unvarnished Greek.

Look at Galatians 3:20, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” Again we have kind of cleaned it up a little bit. It actually says, “You idiots! Who has cast a spell on you?” They are under a spell, he says. He calls them idiots. There is thunder in this book, all the way through.

Come over to Galatians 5:2 “Mark my words!” Unvarnished translation, “Shut-up and listen to what I am saying…pay attention, you idiots.” Then, come down to Galatians 5:12. Paul writes about those who are preaching the false gospel, and he calls them agitators. He says, “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves.” Now if it says that in the NIV, if you really want to know what Paul says, you can read my commentary on Galatians. Some things cannot be said at a pulpit – even some things that are in the Bible. This is one of them. Thunder! There is thunder in his voice. There is a tornado warning sounding off.

Now what has upset Paul so much that he writes like this? He does not write like this anywhere else in the New Testament. The Corinthian letters are filled with passion and emotion, but not like this! Romans has a lot of deep theology, as does Galatians, but not like this! There is thunder here.

Jerome was right. Paul is upset because a major controversy has exploded within the church. This controversy began in Jerusalem. It spread to Antioch, and now it has found its way into the newly-established churches of Asia Minor including those of Galatia, to whom Paul is writing this letter. So, what is this quarrel about? If I were to tell you that it is about the question of the place of the Jewish law in the life of the Christian, then you might just say, “Well, that is not too interesting or relevant to my life.” But, if I say to you that this controversy is really about racial reconciliation within the church; and that it is also about the way you and I must go to heaven (if we get there at all), then it would bring it a little closer to home.

I want us to look at this controversy. It is a controversy about racial reconciliation. This was indeed one of the presenting issues at stake in this dispute. But behind that, there is a deeper foundational cause. We must get to the root of that. A lot of our problem in dealing with racial reconciliation in our country today, and in our churches today, stems from our dealing only with the symptom and not with the cause. Galatians confronts us with the cause.

There are five parts to this story. You can think of this as a drama, if you wish, a play in five separate acts. So follow this drama as it unfolds.

Act I: The Background

The background has to do with the fact that Christianity was cradled within Judaism. Judaism was a religion beset by a double hatred: the world hated the Jews, and the Jews hated the world. If you do not believe that, just read any of the pagan authors that we think about when we think of the intelligentsia of the Roman Empire. Cicero, for example, spoke of Judaism as a barbarous superstition. Or Cassiodorus, the great historian, who said that the Jews are the “vilest of people.” There was anti-Semitism in the ancient world. There was prejudice against the Jews on the part of the Greeks and the Romans. This attitude was deep and it was lasting, and it showed itself in all kinds of ways.

But there was also a prejudice, or at least a simmering hostility, on the part of the Jewish people against the Gentile world. Many of the rabbis interpreted the covenant with Abraham as a social contract according to which any kind of contact with a Gentile was automatically a sin. You could not walk down the road with a Gentile without committing a sin. You certainly could not eat with a Gentile without committing a sin. If you were an observant Jew of the strictest kind, you were even forbidden to help a Gentile mother in childbirth for, said these rabbis, “You are only bringing another Gentile into the world.” The Gentiles, they said, had been created by God for only one purpose, and that was to be fuel for the flames of hell.

You know what a prejudice is? A prejudice is a judgment you make about somebody before you really know that person. We do this all the time in our culture. We form judgments about people without any real, deep, lasting knowledge of them. We stereotype them. This kind of stereotyping happened on both sides of the divide between Jews and Gentiles. There was mutual loathing and ridicule between Jews and Gentiles in the first century. That is part of the background of this conflict that we read about in Galatians 2.

To summarize this very briefly: it came to focus on three issues. One was days (when you worship), another was diet (what you eat), and the third was a distinctive form of body piercing (circumcision). Days – which days you should set aside for religious observance; how you observe the Sabbath; what you can do and cannot do on certain days. Diet – what kind of food you can or cannot eat; kosher/non-kosher; or even more important, and more to the point of Galatians 2 – with whom can you eat such food? Days, diet, and a distinctive form of body piercing, which was required as an essential rite of entrance into the covenant people of God. These were the three issues that separated Jews and Gentiles in this early Christian community.

Jesus had already broken through some of these barriers. We all know Luke 15, right? It is a wonderful chapter that contains within it some of the most beautiful stories Jesus ever told: the three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. But how does it begin? Luke 15:1, “Now the tax-collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus but the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'”

With whom you eat with says a lot about who you are. Isn’t it funny that the civil rights movement began at a lunch counter? “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Imagine that! Jesus had already broken through some of these barriers, but they were long, deep, and hard to overcome even among those who followed Him and believed in Him and saw Him resurrected from the dead in their midst. Even then they did not get it completely. This brings us to

Act II: The Breakthrough.

The breakthrough is Acts 10. Do you remember Cornelius? Cornelius was a Gentile – a God-fearing Gentile. He was not an atheist. He believed that there was a supreme being. He knew something about the Old Testament law. He was familiar with the scriptures of the Torah. He went to a synagogue perhaps from time to time. All of this is true. But there was still this fact that he was not a member of the covenant people of God. He was a Gentile. And Peter, even though he had walked and talked with Jesus for three years all around Galilee and Nazareth and Jerusalem; and had heard Him speak and had seen Him eat with sinners – even after all of that, Peter still harbored prejudice against Gentiles.

You remember what happened. He had a vision when he was at Joppa, at the house of Simon the tanner. This vision took place about dinnertime. Peter got hungry. He saw in his vision this cafeteria, this whole spread of food. It was soul food. It was pig’s feet, and collard greens, and pork chops. And Peter thought, “I cannot eat that! I would like to eat that – I am so hungry and that sure looks good – but I am a Jew. We do not eat that kind of stuff. This is not kosher.” And you remember the message he was given by Christ in the vision. “Take and eat, Peter. Enjoy yourself! What I have called ‘clean’ you should not call ‘unclean'” (Acts 10:15).

Here was a message from God which had a direct application to the missionary strategy of the early church. Immediately Peter goes to the house of Cornelius and he realizes that the vision was about more than what he should eat for lunch. It was about with whom he should eat at the Table of the Lord. So Peter goes there and he preaches the Gospel and the Holy Spirit falls on that group. Cornelius gets saved and the congregation that meets in his house encounters the living Christ. There is a baptism service and a whole new gospel breakthrough.

Now the Gospel can go to Gentiles as well as Jews. And Peter was the instrument of that breakthrough. Do not forget that. That point is important to Galatians. Peter was the one, not Paul.

Paul, of course, had his own breakthrough on the road to Damascus when the Lord revealed Himself to Paul in a powerful way. Paul was as deeply steeped in prejudice against Gentiles as Peter ever was – maybe more so. He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, circumcised on the eighth day, all of that. He, too, had a breakthrough when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and said: “Saul, Saul, why persecuteth thou me?” “I am not persecuting you, Lord,” he might have said. “I am persecuting these miserable Christians down here.” Jesus said, “Why persecuteth thou me? Because when you do it unto one of the least of these, you do it unto me” (Acts 9:3-5).

There is a correlation between Christology and ecclesiology. Paul learned that truth on the road to Damascus. He had a breakthrough. But this great breakthrough and new missionary strategy did not come through Paul initially, it came through Peter. And now we come to this pivotal passage in Galatians 2:11-16. We are now at

Act III: The Drawback.

The Background. The Breakthrough. The Drawback. When Peter came to Antioch, Paul says, “I opposed him to his face because he was clearly in the wrong.” Before certain men came from James, Peter used to eat with the Gentile believers in Antioch. Why would he do that? Because he had had that vision in Acts 10. He knew that what God had called clean, he should not call unclean. And those who had been baptized in the one Christ could share the same supper at the same table. So he would eat with Gentiles. Why, of course he would.

But then the drawback. When men came from James – who was James? James was the pastor of the church of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the center of the most rigid kind of Christianity which declared, “Okay, maybe it is alright for Gentiles to become Christians but first of all they have to become Jews. They have to be circumcised. We have the days. We have the diet. We have a distinct form of body piercing. All of these are a gateway into the family of God.” That is what they taught.

When certain men came from James, Peter – who used to eat with the Gentiles – drew back. He would not do it anymore, and he separated himself from the Gentiles. The church that had been united was split down the middle into the kosher crowd and the non-kosher crowd, the Jew crowd and the Gentile crowd, this crowd and that crowd. And Peter was the cause of this division because he drew back.

This event happened in Antioch. Where was Antioch? Antioch was in Syria and it was the third largest city in the Roman Empire. It was to Antioch that those early Christians who were persecuted in Jerusalem came and began to preach the Gospel. Antioch was a city with a large Jewish population. Sixty-five thousand Jews lived in Antioch at the time that Peter and Paul had this confrontation there. There was a large Jewish population, but there were also many, many Gentiles. When the Gospel of Jesus Christ came to Antioch from Jerusalem, both Jews and Gentiles heard the message of Christ. They were saved. They were baptized. They were brought into the same fellowship and, of course, they ate at the same table. They were one body in Christ until…until some prejudice came in, and they drew back.

There is something else about Antioch you need to know. Why do we remember Antioch? It was at Antioch – not Jerusalem, not Damascus, not Rome – but at Antioch that they were first called Christianoi. It was in Antioch that Jesus’ followers were called Christians. Why? What had they been called back in Jerusalem? Well, we do not know for sure everything they had been called, probably some bad names, but along with that they were known as followers of the Way. Luke tells us this in Acts 22:4. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, the Life.” That is how the earliest Christians were known: followers of the Way.

Yet at Antioch the followers of the Way became known as Christianoi – the Christians. Those who look and act and walk and talk and dress and smell and eat and live in the way that Jesus did all those things. A Christian is one who is living in the light of Jesus Christ, one in whom Jesus’ lifestyle is reflected to those around in the surrounding world. Someone in whom Jesus can be seen. That is what a Christian is.

What would have made the citizens of Antioch call the Way-people after the name of Christ? Well, I think one of the main things was the fact that Jesus used to eat with sinners. He told about that great eschatological banquet that was going to be at the end of the age when people were coming from the east, and the west, and the north, and the south, and that Father Abraham would be there. Everybody would be there and they would all sit together at that great banquet table. Jesus’ meals prefigured the marriage supper of the Lamb.

There is a lot about eating in the New Testament. Did you ever realize that? We do not think much about it anymore; breaking bread, buying bread. We go to the store, we buy a loaf of bread. It is no big deal. There is a lot of bread around to be bought. That was not true in the ancient world. Bread was a scarce commodity. People had to work hard with their hands, the sweat of their face to bring forth bread from the earth. To share a meal, to break bread together, was to share your very life with somebody else. It was not a casual thing.

The Christians of Antioch would come together and break bread together at a common table, at a love feast called the agape meal. And they broke bread again together in a most special way at the Holy Supper of the Lord Jesus when they remembered what Jesus had said, “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you.” But now there is the drawback. It is not that Peter had changed his mind about this. Rather, he had buckled under pressure. That was the problem. There was nothing wrong with Peter’s conviction. What was wrong was his lack of courage. The drawback. This leads us to

Act IV: The Standoff.

Paul says, “I opposed him to his face because he was clearly in the wrong for doing this and because the truth of the Gospel was at stake.” There are some things on which you cannot compromise. There are some things that are matters of deep, abiding, biblical Gospel principles. You cannot compromise on them and be faithful to Jesus Christ, and this is one of them. The truth of the Gospel, Paul says – he uses this expression twice in Galatians 2 – the truth of the Gospel led him to oppose Peter to his face.

There was a standoff! There was a shootout, if you will, between these two great apostles of the early church. The one thing this tells us is: great people, famous people, God-called people, even Christ-appointed apostles, can be dead wrong. Peter was wrong! Clearly, Paul says, he was in the wrong. And this was not the sort of thing that he could call Peter back in the backroom and say, “Listen here, brother Peter. Now don’t you remember Cornelius?” This situation required a face-to-face confrontation, not a backroom conversation, because Peter had led so many others astray with his disobedient behavior; the church had to be given a signal that could not be misunderstood. Thus, there was a standoff between the great two apostles.

Now is this just a matter of Jews and Gentiles, what you eat and with whom you eat and this, that and the other? Is it just days and diet and body piercing? No. The truth of the Gospel is at stake here. Look at Galatians 2:16 – this is where this entire passage is moving. This is the culmination of it all: “We know that a man is not justified by observing the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, so we too have put our faith in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law because by observing the law, no one will be justified.”

That is why this question of racial reconciliation is a matter of the Gospel. It is not just a matter of: are you socially enlightened? Have you had the right sociological training? Which side of the political divide do you come down on? This is not about that. This is about the Gospel. We are not justified by anything or anyone except by Jesus Christ. And when we divide from one another because of ethnicity or racial distinction or any of these other artificial categories Paul talks about, then we are putting that in the place of the Gospel. We are making that a substitute for grace. We are saying, “That counts before God,” as a way of our being justified in his sight. We are saying that by our actions, whether we say it with our lips or not, and that is a blatant denial of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is why racism is not just an error; it is a heresy. It will send a person to hell. Now where do you get that preacher?

A few years ago, I was invited to preach on Easter Sunday. I seldom get invited to preach on Easter Sunday because, of course, every pastor wants to be in his own pulpit on Easter Sunday, so us “itinerant preachers” seldom get a chance to preach at a church on Easter Sunday. But that year I did. It was because the pastor had taken a group of people from his church to the Holy Land, so he called me up a few months before and said, “I’m going to be gone on Easter and I wondered if you would come preach?” I said that I would.

You know what text I took? You may think it is a strange text for Easter Sunday, but I think it is a relevant text. It was from Luke 16, the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus said there was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen, and he lived in luxury every day. But outside of his gate there was an old beggar full of sores, named Lazarus. When people would come out from the rich man’s house with their stomachs bloated from all the food they had eaten, maybe casting a chicken bone his way every now and then, Lazarus would look up to them and say, “Why don’t y’all pass the bread?” But there were some dogs around and they saw him and they said: well, we can have a good supper off him and so they came and licked his sores, the Bible says.

Now, it came to pass, that the beggar died. Lazarus died. And the angels came and carried him into the bosom of Father Abraham. It so happened that there was a double coronary in that neighborhood because the rich man died at the same time. And he also had a new location: not in the comfort of Abraham’s bosom, but in the torments of hell. And when he looked up and saw Abraham and Lazarus by his side, he said, “Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus. Ask Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue. I am in agony.”

But Abraham replied, “Son, remember in your lifetime, you had many good things. Old Lazarus had only the dogs to lick his sores. You never gave him a crumb. You never passed him any bread. And now, you have a change of locations. If I were to send Lazarus back, it would not do any good because you have evangelists all around you and they are preaching the Gospel.” And he goes on to say, “You know what? Even if somebody rose from the dead…” – that’s why it was an Easter sermon – “and came back and said, ‘You ought not treat people like you treated Lazarus; you ought to pass them some bread;’ you would not listen to him. You would still end up in the same place that you are.”

The reason why he went to hell was not because he did not give Lazarus some bread; his refusal to give Lazarus some bread was an outward indication of an inner deviation that had never been made right with God. And that is the way it is. That which is on the inside will manifest itself on the outside. Because he was not right with God, he was not right with his brother at the gate.

Why don’t y’all pass the bread? It has something to do with the Gospel of justification by faith alone. It has something to do with the fact that we are saved by grace through faith not of works lest anyone should boast. When we put race or class or any of these distinctions that we use to divide ourselves one from another in the place of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and use it as a filter for judging other people we are doing exactly what the Galatians did, exactly what Peter did in that relapse. We are denying the truth of the Gospel.

Act V: The Aftermath.

Now before this drama ends, I must take you to Galatians 3:26, to this famous text. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. . .” This passage that is often used, and I would say misused, for lots of reasons other than what it is really all about. This passage is grounded in one supreme fact. And that fact is in the preceding verse. “All of you who are baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Therefore, because this is true, then, consequently there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The unity that we have in Jesus is grounded in that to which our baptism testifies.

Paul is here picking out the three “biggies” in human life: race, money, and sex. They dominate our culture, our entertainment business, our newspapers. This is what people talk about, it is what they think about, it is what they work every day of their life for: race, money, and sex. Now, there is nothing inherently sinfully about any one of these three things. There is nothing wrong with racial identity, with the fact that I am a Caucasian and my colleague Robert Smith is an African-American. God created us different. He did not make us all the same. God did not use a Xerox machine in the book of Genesis!

To think that racial reconciliation means homogenization is to misunderstand racial reconciliation. That is not what it is about. There is nothing wrong with racial identity. The problem comes when racial identity, whether it is white, black, brown, red, yellow or purple, gets demonized. Then it becomes racism. We use race as a pretext to separate and segregate ourselves one from another. Then it becomes a denial of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

There is nothing wrong with money. God wants us to use money and use it wisely. He gives us the ability to make money and save money and provide for our family. There is nothing in the Bible against that. The lust of money is the root of all evil. But money is not evil – the Bible does not say that. Yet when money is corrupted by greed – when we begin to act like that fool who had many barns but wanted still more barns – then we are liable to hear what God said to him: “You fool! Tonight, it’s all up. Money is not going to help you now.” His wealth has been demonized into greed.

God made us male and female. There is nothing wrong with sex in its proper context. The Bible makes that clear. “The marriage bed is undefiled,” the Bible says (Hebrews 13:4). But when sex becomes demonized by lust then it becomes a barrier to the Gospel.

These are the biggies. None of these distinctions – race, money and sex – are eliminated once we become Christians, but they are relativized. Did you hear what I said? They have been relativized; they have been put in a new category; a new value system; a new priority list. They have been relativized by our baptism. Because when we are baptized, three things happen.

First, we are dipped. Now I am a Baptist, I know we have Presbyterians, and dear Methodist sisters and brothers, and I am not here to argue about the modality of baptism. But even Martin Luther – and there was no stronger defender of infant baptism than Martin Luther in the history of the church – said the word baptizo really means to dip. We are dipped in baptism. That means that we are buried with Christ in baptism so that when we are raised to walk, it is in a newness of life. Those old categories that have been demonized are now relativized by virtue of the fact that we have been dipped.

Not only dipped, but we are also dyed. I mean by that that baptism is a fountain filled with blood and it changes our color. It gives us a new status and a new standing and a new way of relating because we have not only been dipped, we have been dyed. In the beautiful painting of the cloud of witnesses mural that graces our chapel dome at Beeson Divinity School, one of the great saints is William J. Seymour. He is the only African-American in that panoply of the great saints of the church. William J. Seymour was the leader of the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in the early twentieth century. Under his painting there is a banner that says, “The color line has been washed away in the blood of Jesus.” We have been dyed.

We have been dipped, we have been dyed, and we have been delivered. That is why in the early church after believers were baptized, when they came up out of the water, they then faced in the direction in which the sun went down. That is the west, in the direction of darkness. And the newly baptized Christian would spit in the direction in which the sun went down. He or she was spitting in the face of the devil.

Then, turning to the east, the direction which the sun comes up, the new Christian would say, “I embrace you, O Lord Jesus Christ.” Renouncing the devil and embracing Jesus Christ, that is what baptism means. We have been dipped, we have been dyed, we have been delivered from all of these demons that hang like vampires on our soul, sucking out our very life’s blood.

The aftermath is the one that we are still living today. The story is not over. Our charge is to live out the meaning of the reconciliation that we have in Jesus Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is Jesus Christ who offers us a new way of living because we know him as the one who has come to relativize those distinctions so we can say: There is now in Jesus Christ, neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. We are all one! One! One in Jesus!


Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.

Check out more great articles

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.