The Expositor's Bible

Epistle to the Galatians

Rev. Prof. G. G. Findlay, B.A.

The Personal History
Chapter 1:11 - 2:21

Chapter 9


"But when Cephas came to Antioch, I resisted him to the face, because he stood condemned. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he drew back and separated himself, fearing them that were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that even Barnabas was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Cephas before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest as do the Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, how compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? We being Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, yet knowing that a man is not justified by works of law, but only through faith in Jesus Christ, even we believed on Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the law: because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. But if, while we sought to be justified in Christ, we ourselves also were found sinners, is Christ a minister of sin? God forbid. For if I build up again those things which I destroyed, I prove myself a transgressor."—Ga 2:11-18

THE conference at Jerusalem issued in the formal recognition by the Primitive Church of Gentile Christianity, and of Paul’s plenary Apostleship. And it brought Paul into brotherly relations with the three great leaders of Jewish Christianity. But this fellowship was not to continue undisturbed. The same cause was still at work which had compelled the Apostle to go up to Jerusalem, taking Titus with him. The leaven of Pharisaic legalism remained in the Church. Indeed, as time went on and the national fanaticism grew more violent, this spirit of intolerance became increasingly bitter and active. The address of James to Paul on the occasion of his last visit to the Holy City, shows that the Church of Jerusalem was at this time in a state of the most sensitive jealousy in regard to the Law, and that the legalistic prejudices always existing in it had gained a strength with which it was difficult to cope. (Ac 21:17-25)

But for the present the Judaising faction had received a check. It does not appear that the party ever again insisted on circumcision as a thing essential to salvation for the Gentiles. The utterances of Peter and James at the Council, and the circular addressed there from to the Gentile Churches, rendered this impossible. The Legalists made a change of front; and adopted a subtler and seemingly more moderate policy. They now preached circumcision as the prerogative of the Jew within the Church, and as a counsel of, perfection for the Gentile believer in Christ. (Ga 3:3) To quote the rescript of Ac 15. against this altered form of the circumcisionist doctrine, would have been wide of the mark.

It is against this newer type of Judaistic teaching that our Epistle is directed.49 Circumcision, its advocates argued, was a Divine ordinance that must have its benefit. (Ro 2:25-3:1) God has given to Israel an indefeasible pre-eminence in His kingdom.50 Law-keeping children of Abraham enter the new Covenant on a higher footing than "sinners of the Gentiles": they are still the elect race, the holy nation. If the Gentiles wish to share with them, they must add to their faith circumcision, they must complete their imperfect righteousness by legal sanctity. So they might hope to enter on the full heritage of the sons of Abraham; they would be brought into communion with the first Apostles and the Brother of the Lord; they would be ‘admitted to the inner circle of the kingdom of God. The new Legalists sought, in fact, to superimpose Jewish on Gentile Christianity. They no longer refused all share in Christ to the uncircumcised; they offered them a larger share. So we construe the teaching which Paul had to combat in the second stage of his conflict with Judaism, to which his four major Epistles belong. And the signal for this renewed struggle was given by the collision with Peter at Antioch.

This encounter did not, we think, take place on the return of Paul and Barnabas from the Council. The compact of Jerusalem secured to the Church a few years of rest from the Judaistic agitation. The Thessalonian Epistles, written in 52 or 53 A.D., go to show, not only that the Churches of Macedonia were free from the legalist contention, but that it did not at this period occupy the Apostle’s mind. Judas Barsabbas and Silas—not Peter—accompanied the Gentile missionaries in returning to Antioch; and Luke gives, in Ac 15., a tolerably full account of the circumstances which transpired there in the interval before the second missionary tour, without the slightest hint of any visit made at this time by the Apostle Peter. We can scarcely believe that the circumcision party had already recovered, and increased its influence, to the degree that it must have done when "even Barnabas was carried away"; still less that Peter on the very morrow of the settlement at Jerusalem and of his fraternal communion there with Paul would show himself so far estranged.

When, therefore, did "Cephas come down to Antioch?" The Galatians evidently knew. The Judaisers had given their account of the matter, to Paul’s disadvantage. Perhaps he had referred to it himself on his last visit to Galatia, when we know he spoke explicitly and strongly against the Circumcisionists. (Ga 1:9) Just before his arrival in Galatia on this occasion he had "spent some time" at Antioch, (Ac 18:22,23) in the interval between the second and third missionary journeys. Luke simply mentions the fact, without giving any details. This is the likeliest opportunity for the meeting of the two Apostles in the Gentile capital. M. Sabatier,51 in the following sentences, appears to us to put the course of events in its true light:—"Evidently the Apostle had quitted Jerusalem and undertaken his second missionary journey full of satisfaction at the victory he had gained, and free from anxiety for the future. The decisive moment of the crisis therefore necessarily falls between the Thessalonian and Galatian Epistles. What had happened in the meantime? The violent discussion with Peter at Antioch, (Ga 2:2-21) and all that this account reveals to us, -the arrival of the emissaries from James in the pagan-Christian circle, the counter-mission organised by the Judaisers to rectify the work of Paul. A new situation suddenly presents itself to the eyes of the Apostle on his return from his second missionary journey. He is compelled to throw himself into the struggle, and in doing so to formulate in all its rigour his principle of the abolishment of the Law."

The "troublers" in this instance were "certain from James." Like the "false brethren"52 who appeared at Antioch three years before they came from the mother Church, over which James presided. The Judaising teachers at Corinth had their "commendatory letters," (2Co 3:1) derived assuredly from the same quarter. In all likelihood, their confederates in Galatia brought similar credentials. We have already seen that the authority of the Primitive Church was the chief weapon used by Paul’s adversaries. These letters of commendation were part of the machinery of the anti-Pauline agitation. How the Judaisers obtained these credentials, and in what precise relation they stood to James, we can only conjecture. Had the Apostle held James responsible for their action, he would not have spared him any more than he has done Peter. James held a quasi-pastoral relation to Christian Jews of the Dispersion. And as he addressed his Epistle to them, so he would be likely on occasion to send delegates to visit them. Perhaps the Circumcisionists found opportunity to pass themselves off in this character; or they may have abused a commission really given them, by interfering with Gentile communities. That the Judaistic emissaries in some way or other adopted false colours, is plainly intimated in 2Cor 11:13. James, living always at Jerusalem, being moreover a man of simple character, could have little suspected the crafty plot which was carried forward under his name.

These agents addressed themselves in the first instance to the Jews, as their commission from Jerusalem probably entitled them to do. They plead for the maintenance of the sacred customs. They insist that the Mosaic rites carry with them an indelible sanctity; that their observance constitutes a Church within the Church. If this separation is once established, and the Jewish believers in Christ can be induced to hold themselves aloof and to maintain the "advantage of circumcision," the rest will be easy. The way will then be open to "compel the Gentiles to Judaise." For unless they do this, they must be content to remain on a lower level, in a comparatively menial position, resembling that of uncircumcised proselytes in the Synagogue. The circular of the Jerusalem Council may have been interpreted by the Judaists in this sense, as though it laid down the terms, not of full communion between Jew and Gentile believers, but only of a permissive, secondary recognition. At Antioch the new campaign of the Legalists was opened, and apparently with signal success. In Galatia and Corinth we see it in full progress.

The withdrawal of Peter and the other Jews at Antioch from the table of the Gentiles virtually "compelled" the latter "to Judaise." Not that the Jewish Apostle had this intention in his mind. He was made the tool of designing men. By "separating himself" he virtually said to every uncircumcised brother, "Stand by thyself, I am holier than thou." Legal conformity on the part of the Gentiles was made the condition of their communion with Jewish Christians—a demand simply fatal to Christianity. It re-established the principle of salvation by works in a more individious form. To supplement the righteousness of faith by that of law meant to supplant it. To admit that the Israelite by virtue of his legal observances stood in a higher position than "sinners of the Gentiles," was to stultify the doctrine of the cross, to make Christ’s death a gratuitous sacrifice. Peter’s error, pushed to its logical consequences, involved the overthrow of the Gospel This the Gentile Apostle saw at a glance. The situation was one of imminent danger. Paul needed all his wisdom, and all his courage and promptitude to meet it.

It had been Peter’s previous rule, since the vision of Joppa, to lay aside Jewish scruples of diet and to live in free intercourse with Gentile brethren. He "was wont to eat with the Gentiles. Though a born Jew, he lived in Gentile fashion"—words unmistakably describing, Peter’s general habit in such circumstances. This Gentile conformity of Peter was a fact of no small moment for the Galatian readers. It contravenes the assertion of a radical divergence between Petrine and Pauline Christianity, whether made by Ebionites or Baurians.

The Jewish Apostle’s present conduct was an act of "dissimulation." He was belying his known convictions, publicly expressed and acted on for years. Paul’s challenge assumes that his fellow-Apostle is acting insincerely. And this assumption is explained by the account furnished in the Acts of the Apostles respecting Peter’s earlier relations with Gentile Christianity. (Ac 10:1-11:18 15:6-11) The strength of Paul’s case lay in the conscience of Peter himself. The conflict at Antioch, so often appealed to in proof of the rooted opposition between the two Apostles, in reality gives evidence to the contrary effect. Here the maxim strictly applies, Ex-ceptio probat regulam.

Peter’s lapse is quite intelligible. No man who figures in the New Testament is better known to us. Honest, impulsive, ready of speech, full of contagious enthusiasm, brave as a lion, firm as a rock against open enemies, he possessed in a high degree the qualities which mark out a leader of men. He was of the stuff of which Christ makes his missionary heroes. But there was a strain of weakness in Peter’s nature. He was pliable. He was too much at the mercy of surroundings. His denial of Jesus set this native fault in a light terribly vivid and humiliating. It was an act of "dissimulation." In his soul there was a fervent love to Christ. His zeal had brought him to the place of danger. But for the moment he was alone. Public opinion was all against him. A panic fear seized his brave heart. He forgot himself; he denied the Master whom he loved more than life. His courage had failed; never his faith. "Turned back again" from his coward flight, Peter had indeed "strengthened his brethren". (Lu 22:31,32) He proved a tower of strength to the infant Church, worthy of his cognomen of the rock. For more than twenty years he had stood unshaken. No name was so honoured in the Church as Peter’s. For Paul to be compared to him was the highest possible distinction.

And yet, after all this lapse of time, and in the midst of so glorious a career, the old, miserable weakness betrays him once more. How admonitory is the lesson! The sore long since healed over, the infirmity of nature out of which we seemed to have been completely trained, may yet break out again, to our shame and undoing. Had Peter for a moment forgotten the sorrowful warning of Gethsemane? Be it ours to "watch and pray, lest we enter into temptation."

We have reason to believe that, if Peter rashly erred, he freely acknowledged his error, and honoured his reprover. Both the Epistles that bear his name, in different ways, testify to the high value which their-author set upon the teaching of "our beloved brother Paul." Tradition places the two men at Rome side by side in their last days; as though even in their death these glorious Apostles should not be divided, despite the attempts of faction and mistrust to separate them.

Few incidents exhibit more Strongly than this the grievous consequences that may ensue from a seemingly trivial moral error. It looked a little thing that Peter should prefer to take his meals away from Gentile company. And yet, as Paul tells him, his withdrawal was a virtual rejection of the Gospel, and imperilled the most vital interests of Christianity. By this act the Jewish Apostle gave a handle to the adversaries of the Church which they have used for generations and for ages afterwards. The dispute which it occasioned could never be forgotten. In the second century it still drew down on Paul the bitter reproaches of the Judaising faction. And in our own day the rationalistic critics have been able to turn it to marvellous account. It supplies the corner-stone of their "scientific reconstruction" of Biblical theology. The entire theory of Baur is evolved out of Peter’s blunder. Let it be granted that Peter in yielding to the "certain from James" followed his genuine convictions and the tradition of Jewish Christianity, and we see at once how deep a gulf lay between Paul and the Primitive Church. All that Paul argues in the subsequent discussion only tends, in this case, to make the breach more visible. This false step of Peter is the thing that chiefly lends a colour to the theory in question, with all the far-reaching consequences touching the origin and import of Christianity, which it involves. So long "the evil that men do lives after them"!

Paul’s rebuke of his brother Apostle extends to the conclusion of the chapter. Some interpreters cut it short at the end of ver. 14; others at ver. 16; others again at ver. 18. But the address is consecutive and germane to the occasion throughout. Paul does not, to be sure, give a verbatim report, but the substance of what he said, and in a form suited to his readers. The narrative is an admirable prelude to the argument of chap. 3. It forms the transition from the historical to the polemical part of the Epistle, from the Apostle’s personal to his doctrinal apology. The condensed form of the speech makes its interpretation difficult and much contested. We shall in the remainder of this chapter trace the general course of Paul’s reproof, proposing in the following chapter to deal more fully with its doctrinal contents.

1. In the first place, Paul taxes the Jewish Apostle with insincerity and unfaithfulness toward the gospel. "I saw," he says, "that they were not holding a straight course, according to the truth of the gospel."

It is a moral, not a doctrinal aberration, that Paul lays at the door of Cephas and Barnabas. They did not hold a different creed from himself; they were disloyal to the common creed. They swerved from the path of rectitude in which they had walked hitherto. They had regard no longer to "the truth of the gospel "— the supreme consideration of the servant of Christ—but to the favour of men, to the public opinion of Jerusalem. "What will be said of us there?" they whispered to each other, "if these messengers Of James report that we are discarding the sacred customs, and making no difference between Jew and Gentile? We shall alienate our Judean brethren. We shall bring a scandal on the Christian cause in the eyes of Judaism."

This withdrawal of the Jews from the common fellowship at Antioch was a public matter. It was an injury to the whole Gentile-Christian community. If the reproof was to be salutary, it must be equally public and explicit. The offence was notorious. Every one deplored it, except those who shared it, or profited by it. Cephas "stood condemned." And yet his influence and the reverence felt toward him were so great that no one dared to put this condemnation into words. His sanction was of itself enough to give to this sudden recrudescence of Jewish bigotry the force of authoritative usage. "The truth of the gospel" was again in jeopardy. Once more Paul’s intervention foiled the attempts of the Judaisers and saved Gentile liberties. And this time he stood quite alone. Even the faithful Barnabas deserted him. But what mattered that, if Christ and truth were on his side? "Amicus Cephas, amicus Barnabas; seal magis amicus Veritas." Solitary amid the circle of opposing or dissembling Jews, Paul "withstood" the chief of the Apostles of Jesus "to the face." He rebuked him "before them all."

2. Peter’s conduct is reproved by Paul in the light of their common knowledge of salvation in Christ.

Paul is not content with pointing out the inconsistency of his brother Apostle. He must probe the matter to the bottom. He will bring Peter’s delinquency to the touchstone of the Gospel, in its fundamental principles. So he passes in ver. 15 from the outward to the inward, from the circumstances of Peter’s conduct to the inner world of spiritual consciousness, in which his offence finds its deeper condemnation. "You and I," he goes on to say, "not Gentile sinners, but men of Jewish birth—yet for all that, knowing that there is no justification for man in works of law, only53 through faith in Christ—we too put our faith in Christ, in order to be justified by faith in Him, not by works of law; for as Scripture taught us, in that way no flesh will be justified."

Paul makes no doubt that the Jewish Apostle’s experience of salvation corresponded with his own. Doubtless, in their previous intercourse, and especially when he first "made acquaintance with Cephas" (Ga 1:18) in Jerusalem, the hearts of the two men had been opened to each other; and they had found that, although brought to the knowledge of the truth in different ways, yet in the essence of the matter—in respect of the personal conviction of sin, in the yielding up of self-righteousness and native pride, in the abandonment of every prop and trust but Jesus Christ—their history had run the same course, and face answered to face. Yes, Paul knew that he had an ally in the heart of his friend. He was not fighting as one that beateth the air, not making a rhetorical flourish, or a parade of some favourite doctrine of his own; he appealed from Peter dissembling to Peter faithful and consistent. Peter’s dissimulation was a return to the Judaic ground of legal righteousness. By refusing to eat with uncircumcised men, he affirmed implicitly that, though believers in Christ, they were still to him "common and unclean" that the Mosaic rites imparted a higher sanctity than the righteousness of faith. Now the principles of evangelical and legal righteousness, of salvation by faith and by law-works, are diametrically opposed. It is logically impossible to maintain both. Peter had long ago accepted the former doctrine. He had sought salvation, just like any Gentile sinner, on the common ground of human guilt, and with a faith that renounced every consideration of Jewish privilege and legal performance. By what right can any Hebrew believer in Christ, after this, set himself above his Gentile brother, or presume to be by virtue of his circumcision and ritual law-keeping a holier man? Such we take to be the import of Paul’s challenge in vv. 15, 16.

3. Paul is met at this point by the stock objection to the doctrine of salvation by faith—an objection brought forward in the dispute at Antioch not, we should imagine, by Peter himself, but by the Judaistic advocates. To renounce legal righteousness was in effect, they urged, to promote sin — nay, to make Christ Himself a minister of sin (ver. 17).

Paul retorts the charge on those who make it. They promote sin, he declares, who set up legal righteousness again (ver. 18). The objection is stated and met in the form of question and answer, as in Ro 3:5. We have in this sharp thrust and parry an example of the sort of fence which Paul must often have carried on in his discussions with Jewish opponents on these questions.

We must not overlook the close verbal connection of these verses with the two last. The phrase "seeking to be justified in Christ" carries us back to the time when the two Apostles, self-condemned sinners, severally sought and found a new ground of righteousness in Him. Now when Peter and Paul did this, they were "themselves also found54 to be sinners,"—an experience how abasing to their Jewish pride! They made the great discovery that stripped them of legal merit, and brought them down in their own esteem to the level of common sinners. Peter’s confession may stand for both, when he said, abashed by the glory of Christ, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." Now this style of penitence, this profound self-abasement in the presence of Jesus Christ, revolted the Jewish moralist. To Pharisaic sentiment it was contemptible. If justification by faith requires this, if it brings the Jew to so abject a posture and makes no difference between lawless and law-keeping, between pious children of Abraham and heathen outcasts—if this be the doctrine of Christ, all moral distinctions are confounded, and Christ is "a minister of sin!" This teaching robs the Jew of the righteousness he before possessed; it takes from him the benefit and honour that God bestowed upon his race! So, we doubt not, many a Jew was heard angrily exclaiming against the Pauline doctrine, both at Antioch and elsewhere. This conclusion was, in the view of the Legalist, a reductio ad absurdum of Paulinism.

The Apostle repels this inference with the indignant  μὴ γένοιτο, Far be it! His reply is indicated by the very form in which he puts the question: "If we were found sinners" (Christ did not make us such). "The complaint was this," as Calvin finely says: "Has Christ therefore come to take away from us the righteousness of the Law, to make us polluted who were holy? Nay, Paul says; -he repels the blasphemy with detestation. For Christ did not introduce sin, but revealed it. He did not rob them of righteousness, but of the false show thereof."55 The reproach of the Judaisers was in reality the same that is urged against evangelical doctrine still—that it is immoral, placing the virtuous and vicious in the common category of "sinners."

Ver. 18 throws back the charge of promoting sin upon the Legalist. It is the counterpart, not of ver. 19, but rather of ver. 17. The "transgressor" is the sinner in a heightened and more specific sense, one who breaks known and admitted law.56 This word bears, in Paul’s vocabulary, a precise and strongly marked signification which is not satisfied by the common interpretation. It is not that Peter, in setting up the Law which he had in principle overthrown, puts himself in the wrong; nor that Peter in reestablishing the Law, contradicts the purpose of the Law itself (Chrysostom, Lightfoot, Beet). This is to anticipate the next verse. In Paul’s view and according to the experience common to Peter with himself, law and transgression are concomitant, every man "under law" is ipso facto a transgressor. He who sets up the first, constitutes himself the second. And this is what Peter is now doing; although Paul courteously veils the fact by putting it hypothetically, in the first person.57 After dissolving, so far as in him lay, the validity of legal righteousness and breaking down the edifice of justification by works, Peter is now building it up again, and thereby constructing a prison-house for himself. Returning to legal allegiance, he returns to legal condemnation;58 with his own hands he puts on his neck the burden of the Law’s curse, which through faith in Christ he had cast off. By this act of timid conformity he seeks to commend himself to Jewish opinion; but it only serves, in the light of the Gospel, to "prove him a transgressor," to "commend"59 him in that unhappy character. This is Paul’s retort to the imputation of the Judaist. It carries the war into the enemies’ camp. "No," says Paul, "Christ is no patron of sin, in bidding men renounce legal righteousness. But those promote sin—in themselves first of all—who after knowing His righteousness, turn back again to legalism."

4. The conviction of Peter is now complete. From the sad bondage to which the Jewish Apostle, by his compliance with the Judaisers, was preparing to submit himself, the Apostle turns to his own joyous sense of deliverance (vv. 19-21). Those who resort to legalism, he has said, ensure their own condemnation. It is, on the other hand, by an entire surrender to Christ, by realising the import of His death, that we learn to "live unto God." So Paul had proved it. At this moment he is conscious of a union with the crucified and living Saviour, which lifts him above the curse of the law, above the power of sin. To revert to the Judaistic state, to dream, any more of earning righteousness by legal conformity, is a thing for him inconceivable. It would be to make void the cross of Christ!

And it was the Law itself that first impelled Paul along this path. "Through law" he "died to law." The Law drove him from itself to seek salvation in Jesus Christ. Its accusations allowed him no shelter, left him no secure spot on which to build the edifice of his self-righteousness. It said to him unceasingly, Thou art a transgressor.60 He who seeks justification by its means contradicts the Law, while he frustrates the grace of God. 


[49] Rom. ii. 25-iii. 1.

[50] Rom. i. 16; ii. 9, 10; ix. 4, 5; xi. 1, 2.

[51] In his L'apôtre Paul: esquisse d'une histoire de sa pensée, an admirable work, to which the writer is under great obligation.

[52] See Chapter VII. pp. 109, 110.

[53] ἐὰν μὴ has the same partially exceptive force as εἰ μὴ in ch. i. 7, 19. Comp. Rom. xiv. 14; also Luke iv. 2627.

[54] For this emphatic found, describing a process of moral conviction and inward discovery, comp. Rom. vii. 101821; the whole passage strikingly illustrates the reminiscence of our text.

[55] Commentariiin loc.

[56] See Grimm's Lexicon, or Trench's N. T. Synonyms, on this word. Comp. ch. iii. 19; Rom. ii. 23-27iv. 15v. 14.

[57] The I of this sentence is quite indefinite. On the other hand ver. 19, with its emphatic ἐγὼ γαρ, brings us into a new vein of thought.

[58] Comp. ch. iii. 10-12, 19; Rom. iii. 20iv. 15.

[59] This verb has, as Schott suggests, a tinge of irony.

[60] Rom. vii. 7-viii. 1.