Consequential Confrontations (2): Paul confronts Peter on God’s behalf (Galatians 2)

The opening article discussed God’s confrontation with Adam and Eve. Surely you and I would have no objection to that, just as there would be no objection to the confrontation of a sinner in a presentation of the gospel. God certainly has the authority to confront my wrongdoing against Him.

Consequential Confrontations (2):  Paul confronts Peter on God’s behalf

But what about confrontations amongst ourselves? Are they justified? What is our response to confronting or being confronted? On the one hand, we may prefer God’s confrontations as we recognize them to be inarguable and truthful. They are also private as we read His Word and are convicted by His Spirit, we can confess and repent in the privacy of our bedrooms. On the other hand, God is easy enough to ignore when we are in a sinful condition. In our haste to justify our actions, we are prone to avoid confrontations with God in His Word. Sometimes in these situations, God calls on others to confront on His behalf. These situations call for greater humility, as our fleshly response to a fellow fallen human exposing our sin is to bite and devour (Galatians 5:15) as a means of maintaining our face in the presence of our sin. In any case, when our sin is confronted, we should take it as from the Lord and our response should be repentance and confession.

Paul’s Action

The Apostle Paul found himself in one of these confrontations with a man no less than the Apostle Peter. The simplicity of the gospel message of salvation by faith alone had come into question because of the actions of Peter. Peter was in agreement with Paul’s preaching. In fact, he preached similarly. But under the pressure of those who were advocating that the gospel incorporates a mixture of Mosaic food laws and rituals (circumcision), Peter defaulted to his Jewish roots and gave tacit agreement by his actions. Peter’s lapse had such an influence on others that even Barnabas, the first to encourage the gospel’s spread among the Gentiles, fell into the same trap. What was Paul to do? These were his friends and mentors! Peter was one of the original twelve, and hadn’t he been given the keys to the kingdom, i.e., entrusted with proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world (Matthew 16:19)? None of this mattered when truth was at stake, and even though Peter was Paul’s elder and could argue that he had the benefit of years of personal experience with Jesus, the truth of the gospel needed to be upheld. Peter’s sin neededconfronting, regardless of his position and reputation, and perhaps even more so because of them, since his position and reputation made his actions all the more impactful. 

Peter’s Reaction

What was Peter’s response to this public denunciation of his actions? Did he rebuke Paul’s audacity to confront him? Did he quibble about Paul’s manner? Did he seek to undermine Paul’s character? Is there any evidence that Peter responded in a fleshly manner? None whatsoever. Peter humbly received Paul’s correction. His public sin of hypocrisy, of paying lip service to gospel truth while acting contrary to it, had the consequence of being recorded in the New Testament for the instruction of generations of believers. Interestingly, Peter’s overall reputation doesn’t suffer from this incident, which is consequent, I believe, to his ready repentance when confronted. Peter’s ministry was still effective and heeded. It is possible that the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 occurred after Paul’s confrontation. If so, clear evidence as to his change of heart, and support of Paul, is seen there. Years later, his inspired letters demonstrate that his usefulness for God was undiminished. Further, Peter demonstrates his genuine appreciation of Paul by applauding his unique ministry and depth of insight (2 Peter 3:15-16). 

Further Reflection

What if Paul had not confronted Peter? What if Peter had not responded in humility? From our vantage point, all is “happily ever after”, but happy outcomes are not guaranteed. Paul confronted because the purity of the gospel was at stake. This is what gave him the spiritual strength to take on a man of such reputation as Peter. This wasn’t a power struggle of Paul against Peter. It was a matter of truth against error, light versus darkness, reality or hypocrisy. Peter could have responded in pride and framed it as jealousy and a power play. He could have used his considerable influence to silence and sideline Paul. He could have gone to great lengths justifying the expediency of his actions. To his credit, he didn’t, and the gospel flourished under Paul’s missionary endeavours, and Peter’s spiritual service continued to the glory of God. On the other hand, if the outcome had been ugly, would Paul have been to blame for a split in the church? Would Paul have been castigated for inappropriately confronting Peter? Of course not. The truth stands independent of human reasoning and the responsibility of the bad outcome would have rested squarely on Peter for his unwillingness to repent of the sin in his life that his brother in Christ was courageous enough to expose.

Confrontations are purifying incidents. Both the confronter and the confronted are brought under the searchlight of God’s Word. The early verses of Matthew 7 are relevant here. The confronter must first critically assess his own life and motives to be qualified to pass judgement on the confronted. The confronted must bow to the truth presented and humbly repent and seek restoration for wrongs done. The fact that a face-to-face event like this between two fallen humans is fraught with risk and unhappy outcomes does not mean it should be avoided. It does mean that the issue must be real, and, although the manner of confrontation should be carefully and prayerfully considered, any truth presented should be received and considered by me when I am confronted, independent of what criticisms my fleshly heart may level in response to the perceived injustice. Paul’s calculated risk in confronting Peter preserved the integrity of the gospel and afforded Peter the opportunity to repent of the hypocrisy into which he had fallen. Peter’s humble response provides us with a template to follow when confronted. The flesh and its pride would militate against all that Peter did, worrying about loss of face, position and reputation, but his humble response resulted in the truth of the gospel being restored with no loss of respect.

“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6 ESV).