From the very outset the greatest difficulties which Christianity had to encounter sprang up from within. As the apostle prophesied at a later date, "I know this ... that of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them." (Acts 20:29, 30.) So was it at Antioch at the particular moment of which our scripture speaks; and, strange to say, it was Peter the apostle, who had received so many marks of his Lord's favour, who had been admitted to special intimacies, and who had been restored by His tender grace after his grievous fall, who headed, or at least sanctioned, a party in the Church of God. The facts are very simple. In the reception of Cornelius Peter had been taught the mind of God as to Gentile believers, that he was not to call those whom God had cleansed unclean. And he had not forgotten the lesson, for when he first went to Antioch he mixed with the Gentile believers freely, and ate with them on the ground of a common fellowship. But when "certain came from James," from Jerusalem, he yielded to their Jewish prejudices, "and separated himself, fearing them of the circumcision." Himself a Jew by birth, and desiring to stand well with the Jewish party, he, in a moment of weakness, identified himself with their feelings, and made a schism in the assembly. The effect was disastrous upon the other Jews, and even Barnabas was carried away by their dissimulation.
Such was the state of things at Antioch with which Paul had to contend; and, as far as appears in the narrative, Paul stood alone, and had not a single helper in the conflict. And indeed there must have been, even for him, many temptations to avoid controversy with Peter. The place that Peter had occupied among the twelve, the halo which would surround him in the eyes of many of the saints from his personal acquaintance with the Lord during His earthly sojourn, and throughout the forty days after the resurrection, as well as the danger of making a lasting breach in the assembly, might well have appealed to the apostle to be silent. But it was a question of fidelity to the truth of God, and if Paul had declined to speak, and to speak decidedly, he would have been unfaithful to the commission he had received from his risen and glorified Lord. It was, therefore, a momentous epoch in the Church of God, a moment in which the whole truth of grace depended, at least in Antioch, on the action of one man. If Paul had surrendered on the point raised, if he had followed in the footsteps of Peter and Barnabas, Judaism would have resumed its place of privilege and supremacy, and ritualism would have been once more enthroned by the leaders among the saints.
Even the casual reader of the narrative will perceive as much as this; but the real question, concealed behind the action of the Jewish leaders, was a far deeper one. The question really brought up was between the first man, who is of the earth earthy, and the second Man out of heaven. Not only was Peter undermining the full and complete work effected by the death and resurrection of Christ, but also, when he separated himself from the Gentile saints, he resuscitated and went back to the ground of the first man. The law did take knowledge of man in the flesh; it was God's standard for him, and thus it both tested and exposed him; but "what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." (Romans 8:3, 4.) The man in the flesh, therefore, has passed away for ever from the eye of God under judgment in the cross of Christ. Like the fig tree cursed by our blessed Lord, he has been declared to be fruitless for ever; and as such, judged and hateful, he has been displaced for ever by the second Man, the Lord Jesus Christ. When Peter therefore refused to eat with the Gentile saints, he revived the man that God had for ever judged, and thereby put himself in opposition to the true character of Christianity.
This will be clearly seen if we now follow the argument of the apostle when he withstood Peter to the face, "because he was to be blamed."* First of all, he charged inconsistency upon him, reminding him that he had been living "after the manner of the Gentiles," and hence that it was utterly inconsistent to turn round now and compel "the Gentiles to live as do the Jews." This explains his words, "When I saw they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel." Secondly, he urges that the works of the law for justification had been for ever set aside for Jews, as well as for Gentiles, in that they had believed in Jesus Christ, that, says the apostle, "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.) In the next place he makes the application of this blessed truth to Peter's conduct. "If," he says, "while we seek to be justified by ["in" actually] Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners [as would be the case if, as Peter maintained, it was wrong to eat with the Gentiles], is therefore Christ the minister of sin [as your conduct would make Him out to be]? God forbid." Another thing he presses home upon the conscience of Peter. You, Paul says in effect, are building again the things which you once destroyed when you formerly ate with the Gentiles, and in so doing you have made yourself a transgressor. Paul's argument, as is evident, was both irresistible and unanswerable.
*"Blamed" is a far to lenient word. It means at least "condemned," and some maintain that it is still stronger - "convicted of evil."
Lastly, the apostle passes away from Peter, and goes to the root of the matter in taking up the question of the means of his own deliverance from the law. "I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God." Another statement of the apostle may be connected with this: "Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to Him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God." (Romans 7:4.) These two statements must be combined to reach the truth of our scripture. The commandment which [was ordained] to life he had found to be unto death; it had brought death into and upon his conscience, and through grace he had acknowledged that death lay upon him as God's just judgment. But the same mighty grace had opened his eyes to another thing: if through the law he was dead, he was dead to the law, for the law only has dominion over a man as long as he liveth; and, moreover, he was dead to the law that he might live unto God. But how was this blessed object to be attained? The next verse unfolds this divine secret, and to this the most earnest attention is invited.
Let it then be well observed that the apostle says, "I am crucified with Christ." Through the grace of God, Paul saw that he had been associated with the death of Christ, and through faith in the power of the Holy Ghost he appropriated it. The consequence was that the man whom the law convicted as a transgressor, and into whose conscience it had brought death, had gone for ever in judgment both from the eye of God and for Paul - otherwise he would not have said, "I am crucified with Christ." Yea, he had become dead to the law by the body of Christ, that he might "be to Another," even to Him who is raised from the dead, that he should bring forth fruit unto God. That man, Paul in the flesh, the sinner, had gone in death: what then remained? This he tells us as he proceeds, "Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me." Another Man, even Christ, had come in; the old had gone for ever, and the new Man had taken his place, and it was He who henceforward lived in Paul. Such was God's way of deliverance for Paul from his old status as a transgressor, and such is God's way of deliverance for every sinner. There is no other way; and this way, if the happy goal of liberty is to be reached, must be trodden in the experience of the soul. The journey must be made from Adam to Christ, and the way from the one to the other lies through death accepted and morally known by the soul.
There is yet another thing to complete this blessed instruction. The verse concludes, "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." In the words of another, "The Christ who was the source of this life, who was his life, was its object also. It is this which always characterises the life of Christ in us; He Himself is its object - He alone. The fact that it is by dying for us in love that He - who was capable of it, the Son of God - has given us, thus freed from sin, this life as our own, being ever before the mind, in our eyes He is clothed with the love He has thus shown us. We live by faith of the Son of God, who has loved us and given Himself for us." Thus, to repeat a well-known phrase, That which is presented to us as the object of faith becomes in us the power of life; and hence the energy of the display of life, of Christ, through us will depend upon the activity of faith, through the power of the Holy Ghost, in Christ as the Son of God, who loved us and gave Himself for us. Christ is thus formed in us; and God presents to our hearts the mightiest possible motive to a life of devotedness in the object of our faith, in the expression by His beloved Son of the love which passeth knowledge in His death upon the cross. Well might Paul remind the Galatians that he did not frustrate the grace of God; for he had shown beyond all question that if the law, any bit of it, were needed for righteousness, Christ had died in vain.