In Paul's first missionary journey, in companionship with Barnabas, he visited Cyprus, Perga in Pamphylia, Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, with other places (Acts 13, 14), and finally they returned to Antioch, "from whence they had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled." Their first act, on their return, was to gather the church together, and there, before the saints, "they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how He had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles." Sent out from the bosom of the assembly, with the entire fellowship of the saints, they, on their part, in fullest fellowship with the saints, and counting upon their interest in the Lord's work, gave them a detailed description of what God had wrought through them in the proclamation of His word. They then resumed their labours in Antioch, for "they abode long time with the disciples."
It was of God that Paul and Barnabas should return to Antioch at this time; for the question of the relation of Christians to the ceremonial law was just coming up for discussion, and demanding an authoritative settlement. We thus read in the very first verse of Acts 15, that "certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren [and said], Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved." Whether Peter was then at Antioch, or afterwards, and whether these were the certain who "came from James" to whom Paul refers, cannot be decided with certainty. But the question raised in Acts 15 is one and the same, in essence, as that which Paul debated with Peter, as recorded in Galatians 2; and it is a question, it may be added, of permanent significance for the church of God. The whole truth of Christianity is bound up with it, as well as the way of salvation for individual souls. We may therefore consider it as presented in the remarkable conflict between Paul and Peter, as narrated by the apostle himself.
A word or two may be first expended upon the actors in this striking scene. Peter had received a pre-eminent place amongst the twelve. To him the Father had revealed that Jesus was "the Christ, the Son of the living God," and to him the Lord had committed "the keys of the kingdom of heaven." Ardent in nature, a man of deep emotions, and consequently eager and impetuous, he was characterised by true affection and devotedness to his Lord and Master. But trusting his own heart, he was sifted by Satan, and fell into the awful sin of denying his Lord, as the Lord had forewarned him. Through the Lord's intercession His poor servant was rescued and finally restored; and in proof of his entire recovery the Lord committed to him, in the presence of other disciples, the care of His lambs and of His sheep. On the day of Pentecost, and onward till the call of Saul of Tarsus, Peter was the leading apostle, the prominent figure in the testimony of that day. Paul, as he himself has written, was "as one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God." Much the junior of Peter spiritually, and without the prestige attaching to one who had been a disciple when Christ was on earth, the companion of the Lord on the Mount of Transfiguration, at the last supper, and in the garden of Gethsemane, it was a bold thing for Paul, and a thing demanding much courage and singleness of eye, to enter upon open conflict with Peter. What then was the cause of the conflict?
Some from Judea had taught the brethren, "Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved." It was an attempt to revive Judaism, and to impose its ritualistic observances on the Gentile believers as a condition of salvation. Peter had been taught the folly of this in a remarkable manner (see Acts 10:9-16); and for the time he learned his lesson, for he said to Cornelius, "Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath showed me that I should not call any man common or unclean" (v. 28); and after Peter had returned to Jerusalem he justified his conduct in eating with uncircumcised persons. Still further, when he went to Antioch he at first ate with the Gentiles; but when certain came from James, "he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision." (Gal. 2:12.) The effect was, Peter's influence being so great, "the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation." Paul was thus left alone in his contention, that "in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision, but a new creature."
The great question then was very simple. Was anything, circumcision or anything else, necessary for justification in addition to faith in Christ Jesus? If Peter had the mind of the Lord in separating himself from the Gentile believers at Antioch, there was evidently something else required. For why did he now refuse to eat with them? Solely on the ground that they were uncircumcised. (v. 12.) If then Peter were right, circumcision was still for profit, inasmuch as it conferred an advantage on the Jew. In other words, a work of the law must be added to faith in Christ for justification. It was a small thing, it might have been argued, and if the point were but yielded peace between the Jewish and Gentile believers would be established and preserved. But this "small thing" undermined the whole truth of grace, and cast a slur upon the work of Christ. It was therefore a supreme moment in the history of the Church; and to have accepted this addition to the gospel of Christ would have perverted it, made it "another gospel," to preach which would bring down God's displeasure and judgment. Hence Paul said, "If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed." (Chapter 1:6-9.)
Paul therefore had no other alternative, if he would be faithful to the trust committed to him, than to withstand Peter to the face because he was to be condemned.* Peter was not, at this moment, walking "uprightly according to the truth of the gospel"; and consequently, painful as it must have been to Paul, he had to be rebuked. The case would not have been met by dissociation from Peter's practice, or by withdrawing to another field of service, for the maintenance of the truth of God was involved. In the presence of all the believers at Antioch, Paul therefore exposed and condemned the action of his fellow-servant; and the proof that he was in communion with the mind of God in doing so is the fact that he was led, as inspired of the Holy Spirit, to preserve the record of the contention. Peter, on the other hand, makes no allusion to it in his epistles; but to show that grace wrought in his heart for restoration, and hence, that he fully accepted the action of his younger colleague, he was guided to speak of "our beloved brother Paul" and of his writings. It was fidelity to God that administered the rebuke, and it was grace that enabled Peter to profit by it; and the issue was the preservation of the gospel of Christ.
*So should the word be rendered rather than "blamed." Some would even say "convicted of evil."
The truth propounded by Paul in this conflict was never of more importance than at the present time. Affirmed by him both in the epistle to the Romans and in this scripture, it was forgotten almost as soon as the last of the apostles departed to be with Christ. It lay buried out of sight, except in the case of individuals, until Luther was raised up to proclaim it once again, at least, in measure. From Luther's day till now it has had one continuous struggle for recognition and acceptance; and it is not too much to say that, wholly rejected in Thyatira, it is fast dying out, if it has not already expired, in Sardis, and that it is entirely unknown within the borders of Laodicea. Paul therefore, or those who are imbued with his spirit, and who tread in his steps, are still needed to withstand those who, like Peter, whether through weakness, as in his case, or through enmity to the doctrines of grace, as with many others, corrupt the truth of God by human additions, and lay the foundation of salvation in rites and ceremonies of their own devising.
What then was the truth for which Paul contended? It was that "a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ," and as a consequence he adds, "we," we Jews, "have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified." (v. 16.) But if this be so, what place could be found for circumcision? Hence he proceeds to ask, "If, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners," as we should be if circumcision is yet requisite, "is therefore Christ the minister of sin?" The very question demonstrates its folly; and he then warns Peter, and all who hold with him, that to build again the things which he once destroyed was to make himself a transgressor. This Peter had really done by reviving the value of circumcision. Thereupon Paul proceeds to expound the deliverance of the believer, as exemplified in himself, from both the claims and the sphere of the law, through death with Christ. (vv. 19-21.)
Leaving the reader to examine for himself this significant scripture, we will content ourselves with calling attention to its main points. Through the law, which had exacted the penalty of transgression from Him who was "made a curse for us," the apostle was "dead to the law," for he had been "crucified with Christ"; and the object of his being dead to the law was that he might live unto God. (Compare Romans 6:10, 11.) If, moreover, he was crucified with Christ, "nevertheless," he says, "I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me." As crucified with Christ, his old self, over which the law had claims, was gone for ever: it was now Christ - not himself, "not I" - that lived in him; and the Christ who lived in him, was, as the Son of God, the object of his faith, and the One who claimed all that Paul was, inasmuch as it was He who had loved him and given Himself for him. Paul had done therefore with the old master, the law, and henceforward it was Christ, and Christ alone that filled the vision of his soul.
All through the Gospels we see that it is the soul that clings to Christ, touched by His love and grace, that learns most.
A distracted heart is the bane of the Christian. When my heart is filled with Christ, I have neither heart nor eye for the vanities of the world.