Peter’s Relapse (2:11-13)
"Later, when Peter came to Antioch, I had a face-to-face confrontation with him because he was clearly out of line. Here’s the situation. Earlier, before certain persons had come from James, Peter regularly ate with the non-Jews. But when that conservative group came from Jerusalem, he cautiously pulled back and put as much distance as he could manage between himself and his non-Jewish friends. That’s how fearful he was of the conservative Jewish clique that’s been pushing the old system of circumcision. Unfortunately, the rest of the Jews in the Antioch church joined in that hypocrisy so that even Barnabas was swept along in the charade."
Apparently, sometime after the important conference described in Acts 15, Peter came from Jerusalem to Antioch. He enjoyed fellowship with all the believers, Jews and Gentiles alike. To “eat with the Gentiles” meant to accept them, to put Jews and Gentiles on the same level as one family in Christ.
Raised as an orthodox Jew, Peter had a difficult time learning this lesson. Jesus had taught it while He was with Peter before the crucifixion (Matt. 15:1–20). The Holy Spirit had reemphasized it when He sent Peter to the home of Cornelius, the Roman centurion (Acts 10). Furthermore, the truth had been accepted and approved by the conference of leaders at Jerusalem (Acts 15). Peter had been one of the key witnesses at that time.
Before we criticize Peter, perhaps we had better examine our own lives to see how many familiar Bible doctrines we are actually obeying. As you examine church history, you see that, even with a complete Bible, believers through the years have been slow to believe and practice the truths of the Christian faith. When we think of the persecution and discrimination that have been practiced in the name of Christ, it embarrasses us. It is one thing for us to defend a doctrine in a church meeting, and quite something else to put it into practice in everyday life.
Peter’s freedom was threatened by Peter’s fear. While he was in Antioch, the church was visited by some of the associates of James, a strict Jew even though he was a Christian believer. No doubt they belonged to the “circumcision party” (Acts 15:1, 5) and wanted to lead the Antioch church into religious legalism.
After his experience with Cornelius, Peter had been called on the carpet and had ably defended himself (Acts 11). But now, he became afraid. Peter had not been afraid to obey the Spirit when He sent him to Cornelius, nor was he afraid to give his witness at the Jerusalem Conference. But now, with the arrival of some members of “the opposition,” Peter lost his courage. “The fear of man brings a snare” (Prov. 29:25).
How do we account for this fear? For one thing, we know that Peter was an impulsive man. He could show amazing faith and courage one minute and fail completely the next. He walked on the waves to go to Jesus, but then became frightened and began to sink. He boasted in the Upper Room that he would willingly die with Jesus, and then denied his Lord three times. Peter in the book of Acts is certainly more consistent than in the four gospels, but he was not perfect—nor are we! Peter’s fear led to Peter’s fall. He ceased to enjoy the “love feast” with the Gentile believers and separated himself from them.
There are two tragedies to Peter’s fall. First, it made him a hypocrite (which is the meaning of the word dissembled). Peter pretended that his actions were motivated by faithfulness, when they were really motivated by fear. How easy it is to use “Bible doctrine” to cover up our disobedience.
The second tragedy is that Peter led others astray with him. Even Barnabas was involved. Barnabas had been one of the spiritual leaders of the church in Antioch (Acts 11:19–26), so his disobedience would have a tremendous influence on the others in the fellowship.
Suppose Peter and Barnabas had won the day and led the church into legalism? What might the results have been? Would Antioch have continued to be the great missionary church that sent out Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13)? Would they, instead, have sent out the “missionaries” of the circumcision party and either captured or divided the churches Paul had already founded? You can see that this problem was not a matter of personality or party; it was a question of “the truth of the gospel.” And Paul was prepared to fight for it.
Let's get personal and reflect a bit, How are do we live like hypocrites and is that leading others astray?