I remember vividly the first time I realized that Scripture documents historical narrative in the New Testament. The Old Testament, we all know, tells the history of Israel. But often we tend towards the New Testament for instruction, for theology, for teaching about how the Church should function. The Gospels and Acts tell the story of Jesus and the disciples planting the first few churches, and then the rest of the New Testament are letters telling those churches how to act, right?
Yes! This is true! But we pick up tidbits of the story line through those letters; just like when we write letters (or emails) today, we mix in stories with our thoughts! And one particular story is causing me much reflection today. When Jesus had his disciples, there were three who were his inner circle: Peter, James and John. If you have spent any time in the Scriptures, you know that Peter was the dynamic leader of the group. He was the outspoken one, the one who spoke quickly and often put his foot in his mouth. He was also the first one to preach and stand up to the Jews and religious counsel after Jesus returned to Heaven and the Holy Spirit came.
But when [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to [Peter] in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
– Gal 2.11-14
Peter, the leader of the Church, the “rock” as Jesus called him, the one to whom God gave the vision and the first mission to take the Gospel to the Gentiles by declaring them clean, fell into the temptation to refuse to eat with the Gentiles because the Gentile Christians were not observing the Old Testament dietary laws. In the book of Acts we are told the story of Peter receiving a vision that God declared all food and all people clean, and called him to go and preach the Gospel to Cornelius and his family, a man to whom God had given dreams about salvation. And Peter went! He was the first one to be led and to branch out preaching and taking the Gospel to non-Jews. And yet, the Jews were so influential that when Peter went to Antioch – a Gentile city – and met with the church which was primarily not Jews, he was tempted and fell into hypocrisy. He fell into a heresy that God Himself had refuted to him in a vision. And his failure was so dynamic that the rest of the Jews followed him. Even Barnabas, “the son of encouragement” was fell into this hypocrisy and sin.
Paul confronted him. In front of everyone, Paul noted that Peter had been eating with the Gentiles until “certain men from James” showed up Peter was eating with the Gentile Christians and had no problem with them. But their false Gospel drew him back into his old way of thinking; that he still must adhere to the Jewish dietary laws.
Peter. The dynamic leader of the Early Church. Messed up the Gospel.
If that does not give you hope, nothing will! How often do we believe the claims of the Gospel that nothing can earn us merit with God, that we should obey Him out of love and reverence, but yet when we fall into our own temptations and sin blatantly or establish legalistic tendencies for ourselves trying to maintain our standing with God? Do you beat yourself up if you forgot to read your Bible one day? Do you judge other Christians for non-Biblical guidelines that you have layed out for your own life?
Peter did it too.
But thankfully Peter had Paul to call him out. Peter and Paul rarely interacted with one another. Peter was appointed as the apostle to the Jews while Paul was appointed as apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews) (Gal 2.8). But thankfully we see this interaction and we know that Peter repented because after this exchange he wrote his letters (1 and 2 Peter), which preach the same Gospel.
Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone at times warps the Gospel in his mind. Sometimes we are too lenient towards sin and sometimes we are too legalistic. It’s normal. But be humble when your friend points it out in your life and return graciously to the beauty of the Gospel that we cannot earn our salvation and keeping rules will not merit us worthy before God. And repent when we are tempted to continue in sin because “God is gracious” and will forgive us. Yes, He will forgive, if we truly repent and turn away from our sin, we may not continue in it. But we are all – just like Peter – a work in progress whom God is sanctifying and changing.