Each book of the Bible presents its own benefits and challenges for teaching students, but Paul’s letter to the Galatians balances the truth of the Gospel with clear, real-world application. As Tim Keller notes, in Galatians, “Paul outlines the bombshell truth that the gospel is the A to Z of Christian life. It is not only the way to enter the kingdom; it is the way to live as part of the kingdom.”
Even in our current climate of social unrest, racial injustice, and cancel culture, we might be surprised to find that Paul’s teachings to the Galatians remain remarkably applicable. The episode detailed in Galatians 2:11-21 – often titled “Paul Opposes Peter” – is just one brief yet timely example Galatians has to offer students today.
Setting the Scene
After visiting Peter and the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas returned to their home church in Antioch. Soon after, Peter came to their diverse church of Gentile and Jewish Christians. Knowing that all things were declared clean in Christ, Peter ate with the Gentiles and had no issue with their uncircumcision. But when “certain men from James” in “the circumcision party” came to Antioch, Peter suddenly and dramatically changed his behavior. Fearful of these church leaders, who falsely believed Gentiles must be circumcised, Peter refused to eat with the Gentile converts, and his actions led Barnabas and the other Jewish Christians to also act prejudicially.
So here we have Peter – one of Jesus’ best friends, a powerful leader of the early church, and arguably the most famous Christian in the world at the time – discriminating against fellow believers. Peter was treating Gentile Christians as second-class citizens because of their ethnicity and bowing to peer pressure rather than advancing the truth of the Gospel.
Enter Paul, formerly Saul, the persecutor of the church turned apostle for Christ. Today, Paul’s name carries significant weight. But at this point in his career, he was still early on in his ministry. Peter was a giant; Paul was still the new kid on the block. And yet, when he saw injustice in the church, he fearlessly “opposed [Peter] to his face.”
What Drove Paul
Paul doesn’t oppose Peter for his own benefit – after all, this was likely an unpopular and risky move. Calling out a fellow brother in Christ isn’t something Paul wanted to do, but he saw no other option. After all, Peter was the leader of the early church, and his actions led Barnabas (who had ministered to the Gentiles alongside Paul for years) and the other Jewish Christians in Antioch astray. As a leader, Peter was held to higher standards, and his public sin threatened the entire congregation (James 3:1).
Second, Paul was concerned for his Gentile brothers and sisters. He knew that the “circumcision party” peddled a false gospel that aimed to force Gentiles to follow Mosaic Law rather than simply trusting in God for their salvation. Even though Peter himself did not abide by Mosaic Law, the “circumcision party” wanted to treat Gentiles as second-class citizens and lesser members of Christ’s body.
Not only did racial and ethnic prejudice rob the Gentiles of their humanity and sonship in Christ, but this discrimination ran contrary to the Gospel itself. More than anything, Paul was motivated by the love and truth found in the Gospel. Peter’s sin wasn’t just about who he ate with, and Paul wasn’t just blowing some minor issue out of proportion; rather, Paul responded to a direct attack on the Gospel, and he responded with the Gospel: “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (v.16).
What Drove Peter
It is also important to consider Peter’s motivations. While most of us would like to envision ourselves as Paul in this story – boldly and heroically proclaiming the Gospel with the odds stacked against us – reality tells us we are far more like Peter, who proclaimed undying loyalty to Christ in one breath only to deny Him three times with the next. Our students can also see themselves in the Peter who succumbs to peer pressure, prejudicial tendencies, and fear.
Though we don’t get Peter’s complete perspective, we see in verse 12 that he was “afraid of the circumcision party,” and this fear drove him to discrimination. But while Peter likely had subconscious prejudices within his heart – like we all do – he also knew the truth of the Gospel. In Acts 10 Peter himself declared, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
In other words, Peter’s drove him to hypocrisy. This story might not look that different from what happens in the lunchroom cafeteria, where a student turns his or her back on a friend in order to fit in with another group out of fear, peer pressure, a desire to fit in, or something else. Throughout middle and high school, students will face countless situations similar to the one Peter was in. Do they stand up for the truths of the Gospel they know, or will they quietly shrink back into hypocrisy? Are we training students to be Peters or Pauls?
Godly Confrontation Does Not Cancel
Finally, this scene serves as a helpful model for Christian confrontation. In present day America, Paul could have ended Peter’s ministry forever with some well-placed posts on social media. We know this was an epic call-out (v.11, 14); however, Paul does not cancel Peter or disqualify him for ministry even though his sin has potentially serious consequences.
Rather than talk about Peter behind his back, roast Peter on first-century Twitter, or call Peter inflammatory names, Paul fearlessly called out Peter in front of the crowd, who was also guilty. Had Paul shamed Peter, Paul too would have been guilty of contradicting the Gospel. To shame or cancel someone is to define that person by their sin, to declare they are beyond redemption. Paul knew that Peter’s sin was covered by the blood of Jesus; he knew that the Gospel is the power to convict and change hearts. Paul just allowed the Gospel do its work in all who heard. While public confrontation is not always the right approach, in this case Paul’s public stance not only spoke to the crowd who was also in sin, but his public support of the true Gospel before the Gentiles was a powerful testimony.
Paul offers us a helpful model for what Christ-like confrontation can look like. In a world that is quick to cancel, the Christian response to the sins of our brothers and sisters is not quiet submission or public shame, but Gospel-centered critique spoken in love. Not only are we to call out the sins within ourselves and in others, but we must also seek to lift up the lowly, just as Paul supported the Gentiles.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, despite Peter’s fear-driven failure under intense peer pressure – something we and all our students will certainly do – God does not give up on Peter. And neither does Paul. Instead, Paul models the love of God for us in Christ, a love which refuses to cast Peter aside for his sins.
Through the study of Galatians, our students learn that God will not give up on them, either. Additionally, we as youth pastors are encouraged to model God’s love to our students in the same way Paul did to Peter. While we are not likely to cancel a wayward student, we might be tempted to give up on them. Galatians shows us how love perseveres.
Look at the fruit of Paul’s loving confrontation. At the Jerusalem Council detailed in Acts 15, Peter stepped up and championed the cause of the Gentiles: “And God…bore witness to [the Gentiles], by giving them the Holy Spirit just as He did to us, and He made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith… But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:7-11). May we overcome the temptation to cancel and pursue our students in the faith that the Gospel has the power to redeem us all.
Head on over to Rooted Reservoir for our curriculum on the book of Galatians.