Galatians 2:11-21


galatians-mclellanCommentary on the Epistle to the Galatians

This is the fourth message in a series of studies by pastor Murray McClellan.
It is our prayer that you are blessed through his labors in God’s Word.


The Apostolic Message Confirmed and Challenged (2:1-21)

Paul’s gospel confirmed by God in Antioch (2:11-21)

Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be  blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when  they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision.  And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was  carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about  the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of the Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?”   (Gal. 2:11-14)

This leads into a time when Paul found it necessary to rebuke Peter for actions that denied just  such a unity in Christ. Paul by this rebuke was declaring what he states in Chapter 3, verse 26. “For  you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” This needed rebuke certainly blows away the  Roman Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the pope. For here, their supposed first pope is rebuked publicly by the apostle Paul, and not over a minor issue, but centering on the very heart of the Christian faith.

So, when Paul went to Jewish country (Jerusalem), he receives the right hand of fellowship.  When Peter goes to Gentile country (Antioch), Paul withstands “him to his face.” (Gal. 2:11) Paul publicly opposes him to his face, not behind his back as is so common (and as the Judaizers did to Paul), “because he was to be blamed.” (Gal. 2:11) Peter was wrong.  Both of these men are apostles who were mightily used by God – both before and after this event – which is an encouragement to those of us who have failed in the likeness of Peter.

In verse 12, we see that Paul opposed Peter for withdrawing and refusing to eat with the Gentile believers as he had been doing prior to the arrival of certain Jews from Jerusalem. Before this time, Peter was eating and fellowshipping with the Gentile saints as absolute equals in Christ – accepted in Christ through faith. When Peter withdrew, he was denying or, at the very least, confusing “the truth of the gospel,” (Gal. 2:14) not in his teaching but through his conduct.

Prior to the coming of these particular Jews, it was Peter’s habit to eat with the Gentiles.

This is indicated by the tense of the verb used in verse 12. Eating here may well have included the Lord’s table. So, Peter had clearly put into practice the oneness of believers in the Son. He was manifesting that “we though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.” (1 Cor. 10:17) However, now “he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision.” (Gal. 2:12) Peter did not withdraw because he was convinced in his heart through scriptural arguments that it was wrong. No, he acted in the fear of men, even as he did that night by the fire when he swore with an oath, “I do not know the man!” (Matt. 26:72) It was not that Peter did not know the truth. After all God had shown him and taught him “that God shows no partiality” and ” What God has cleansed you must not call common.” (Read the whole episode in Acts 10 and 11) The truth of the matter was that Peter was afraid of the Jews – of the criticism he’d receive.

Paul withstood him to his face because Peter’s actions were hypocritical and contradicted the very gospel he was preaching. By his actions, Peter was declaring that acceptance and favor with God is connected to physical birth or certain rituals or works. That is an affront to the cross of Jesus Christ and the Lord who proclaimed, “It is finished!” that salvation would be wholly of grace, that God alone would rightly receive all the glory. Peter, however, in action, was saying that Jesus was not enough – they must also live as Jews.

Let us beware, lest when we have preached to others, we become guilty of the very errors we preach against. If Peter was not immune to failure, then certainly we are not. Oh how we need the grace of God, for we have not yet attained. Right doctrine is not enough. It must be lived out consistently for the glory of God. Right doctrine without right living produces hypocrisy.  Great leaders can fall. “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Cor. 10:12) When they do, they often take others with them. In Peter’s case, the other Jews followed the leader and “also played the hypocrite with him.” (Gal, 2:13) “Even Barnabas,” the encourager, gives in to the pressure. If Paul had not done something, there would have been some serious repercussions.

There are times when we all must stand alone, if need be, for the truth of the gospel.

The actions of Peter and the other Jews were indicating that there were two classes – a Jewish upper class and a Gentile lower class. Thus this would lead to a Jewish Lord’s table and a Gentile one. This would lead to two gospel messages – one for the Jews that declared believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and another for the Gentiles that declared believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be circumcised. This could even lead to two separate churches. I do not believe that the Lord wants “native” churches or “black” churches or “white” churches or “upper-middle-class” churches, but churches made up of one new creation (Gal. 6:15) – out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Rev. 5:9 and 7:9) – if our local assemblies are to accurately reflect the body of Christ. We are all one in Christ and any distinction made on the basis of race or class is “not straightforward about the truth of the gospel!” (Gal. 2:14) If you, as a Christian, do not hold to the “mingling of races”, if Paul were still alive, he’d rebuke you to your face. So should we, because you are “to be blamed.”

Paul saw this as a threat to the gospel and the purposes of God and so he publicly rebuked Peter. Peter’s conduct brought disgrace to the gospel in front of everybody and so he must be rebuked in front of everybody – “before them all.” (Gal. 2:14) Let us stand in awe of no man. If the gospel is at stake, let us speak up for the love of Christ and for the love of the man. Every godly man desires that, for they do not want to see damage done to the gospel or the name of Christ. If something we are doing is compromising the truth of which we speak, may someone love us enough to confront us to our face. Peter, I believe, loved Paul all the more for his act of love here in this face to face rebuke. In 2 Peter 3:18, Peter refers to “our beloved brother, Paul” and “the wisdom given to him.”

Paul saw that what Peter was denying by his actions was justification by faith alone, which is why he is going to pick up that topic in the next few verses. “The truth of the gospel” was at stake. (Gal. 2:5; 14) And the truth is God sent His Son to die for sinners like us, and through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His atoning blood and righteousness, we have peace with God – reconciled to Him through the blood of His cross. Thus, on the merits of Jesus Christ alone are we justified before God. There is nothing between God and me except Jesus Christ. He is the one and only mediator between God and man. A little piece of skin on the procreative organ does not separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. If I am a woman and cannot be physically circumcised, it matters not, for in Christ there is neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ (Gal. 3:26-29). The gospel is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek (Rom. 1:16). It has the power to cut away the foreskin of the heart, which every sinner has (Rom. 2:29).

In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all your trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And he has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (Col. 2:11-14)


A wretched sinner, saved a moment ago is just as close to God as I am, or any other saint is. I am a Christian on the same basis as he. I am accepted only in the Beloved, as is he. It is interesting to note that the believers in Jesus were first called “Christians” at Antioch (Acts 11:26). A new reality was clearly established in this called-out assembly of Jews and Gentiles whose identity centered not in their Jewishness or Gentile character, but in their common devotion to and unity with Christ. Thus they were called “Christians” – the people of Christ. Paul’s stand for “table fellowship” was really a stand for the unity of the body of Christ as accomplished through the gospel. Truly, this is a new creation “for in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation.” (Gal. 6:15)

 We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain. (Gal. 2:15-21) 

Man’s biggest and most basic problem is that he is incapable of overcoming his total sinfulness that separates him from the holy God who has revealed Himself in the Bible. Aware of man’s sin, Job’s friend Bildad asked the key question that all mankind must face – “How then can man be righteous before God? Or how can he be pure who is born of a woman?” (Job 25:4) How can a sinner – guilty and condemned – be made right with God? Where Bildad goes wrong however, is under-estimating the wisdom of our great God. There is a way one who is pure can be born of a woman. Why a virgin could be “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit and give birth to that Holy One – the Son of God! “For with God nothing will be impossible!” (See Luke 1:31-37) Jesus Christ is this Seed of the woman that will overcome sin, Satan, and the world. God has designed and accomplished the way that is the answer to Bildad’s and sinful man’s dilemma.

Many today, as Bildad, cannot seem to get past a system of justification with God that is based on law – on the works and efforts and righteousness earned and merited by “self”. But God in grace has established a better way! May God be exalted as we look into this passage and see Paul extol this new and living way!

 We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. (Gal. 2:15-16)

Paul now gets to the heart reason behind his public rebuke of Peter. Peter’s actions were sending a message that was contrary to truth (i.e. that the Gentiles must keep the Jewish rituals before they could become Christians). The “we who are Jews by nature“, such as Paul and Peter, certainly knew what it was like to live under a law system. Paul is stating that we Jews have found it necessary to abandon the law and look entirely to Christ for justification. If Jews, with all their advantages over the “sinners of the Gentiles“, cannot be saved by the law, why would one ever think to compel Gentiles to live as Jews.

It was Peter himself who declared to the Judaizers at the Jerusalem counsel, “Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” (Acts 15:10-11) Now, if God justifies men on the same basis, who are we to reject those God has accepted? Paul is saying, “Who are we to withhold fellowship with Gentile believers unless they are circumcised?” Peter was not applying the truth of the gospel in his actions. His actions were denying the very gospel he was preaching. His actions were exalting the law not the gospel of Christ.

The law makes no provision for the pardon of the guilty.

Only those who are proven to be innocent of the charges can be cleared. The law must condemn sinners. The charges against men are great. Man has violated the law of God. He has not whole-heartedly loved His Maker. He has a wicked, corrupt, proud, and sensual heart. Indeed “we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:19-20)

To be justified is the very opposite of being declared guilty and condemned. No amount of law keeping can make a person righteous. Our main problem is more “what we are”, even more than “what we do”. We have a heart problem and just as a leopard cannot change its spots, nor an Ethiopian his skin, neither can a sinner change his nature. The law, as we have seen, can certainly reveal sin and guilt, but it cannot remove it. It can just condemn it. Only God can justify ungodly sinners, and declare them righteous, by a new and living way – by grace through “faith in Christ and not by the works of the law“. Our status before God can only be changed if we come to God through the merits of another – the One Man who is perfectly righteous and whose heart is pure and upright (see Psalm 24:3-5). God receives sinners for Christ’s sake. He has taken the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us and dying under its penalty. He has imputed His righteousness to our account that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.

By “the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” It doesn’t matter where you put in your works. Whether you believe you must begin the work by taking that first step, or whether you complete or establish the work by some act, effort, or faithfulness, you pervert the gospel of grace. It doesn’t matter where you stick “you” – beginning, middle, or end – if you’re in there, you are lost! Sinners can only be justified by grace. Christ is the alpha and omega and everything in between. Christ is our salvation!

 But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not!  (Gal. 2:17)

Does one become a sinner by eating with sinners? If so, then our Lord Jesus who ate with sinners would be “a minister of sin“. For this was certainly His example. But Paul affirms, “Certainly not!” Jesus affirmed over and over that it is not externals like eating or drinking or touching a sinner that contaminates. Sin is a heart issue. These other things cannot affect the heart (Mark 7:18-23). The Lord had shown Peter through the vision of the unclean animals (Acts 10), not to call unclean what the Lord has cleansed. If He cleanses a sinner – whether Jew (ceremonially clean) or Gentile (ceremonially unclean)- that sinner is clean. Though his sins be red as scarlet, yet through the blood of the Lamb, they shall be white as snow! All that are Christ’s are one with Him.

If the Judaizers are right, then Jesus is wrong.

He is a minister of sin and leading others into sin through His teaching and example. The Judaizers’ and thus, Peter’s actions, were actually condemning Christ and forsaking all that He had accomplished in His reconciling work on the cross. This should never be.

If, after looking to Christ alone to be justified, one is still found to be a sinner, then Christ can’t justify us. Instead, He can only point us to the law to justify us. What a perversion of the truth! The law is the tutor that points us to Christ who justifies – not the other way around. The Judaizers’ Jesus looks a lot like Moses!!!

The old house (law covenant) looks similar to the new (but it pales in glory when compared to the new!). The similarity comes because it shadows and pictures and points to the new. However, the old was built on sand for it was never intended to be a permanent dwelling place – but only until the fullness of times. The new house is built on the Rock. Paul’s not about to move back.

  For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. (Gal. 2:18)

Paul says that he destroyed that old house when he moved into the new – for the new is an everlasting household. To go back to Judaism would be rebuilding a house back on the sand and forsaking the new. That would be disastrous for when the day of judgment comes “great will be its fall!”

If any were to build back up again an old covenant kind of system, which was destroyed or completely put away in salvation, then that one would be under its curse as a transgressor – a law breaker, condemned and unclean.

 For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. (Gal. 2:19)

Paul states that he could never build up again the old. He’s glad that it is out of the way. He’s dead to that old law system. Now, as one who is alive in the Spirit, he can “live to God” as his Master. No longer is he enslaved to sin as his taskmaster, with the law heaping up guilt onto his soul. “The law has dominion over a man as long as he lives,” Paul wrote in Romans 7:1. However, the law killed him. It revealed his utter sinfulness and condemned state before God and fulfilled its purpose in leading him to Christ, where he could be justified by a new law – the law of faith. “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” (Rom. 3:27-28) Again we see the totally “different gospel” of the Judaizers. For to them, one must live to the law or else he is dead to God. However, Paul, a true apostle of Jesus Christ, delivers the truth that unless one is dead to the law, he cannot live to God. Paul says that he is dead to the law that he might be married to another. “Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another – to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God.” That old marriage covenant was a real albatross around our neck, but praise God …

 I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)

Christ’s death is my death. Thus I am released from any former obligations and all debts. Christ’s life is my life. Oh, blessed union! This New Covenant is forever! His death, His life, His righteousness, His peace, His victory, His salvation, His family, His home is mine by blessed union! We are members of His body (Eph. 5:30); the Beloved One in whom the Father is well-pleased. The true Christian life is not so much the believer living for Christ, as Christ living through the believer. “…always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body… that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (2 Cor. 4:10-11)

We live in the flesh. I read, write, pray, love, serve, give thanks with instruments of the flesh but for the called out one, filled by the Spirit, these works do not proceed from the flesh, nor are they done according to the flesh, but with the members of the flesh. My carnal members have now become instruments of righteousness to God (See Romans 6). We are still found in the likeness of fleshly men, but there is a great difference. We now live by faith! We are no longer “sensual” (Jude 19) and living simply according to our physical senses. We are now spiritually alive. The life that we now live is not the life of the flesh, (though it is in the flesh and must battle with the flesh) but it is the life of Christ lived through His Spirit.

Thus, Paul said, “I live by faith in the Son of God.” This shows clearly that saving faith cannot be reduced to a one time decision or event in the past. It is a living reality for the true Christian. My faith is not in my faith or in my knowledge, but “in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Could anything less than the priceless blood of Christ have delivered one as me – so hopelessly lost in wickedness and ignorance and darkness? If you think differently then, you have a much higher opinion of yourself than does the Word of God.

What unfathomable love the Son of God has set upon me! Oh sinner, look to Christ and His merits and His love for sinners that took Him to the cross. Can you see the “me” and “I” in this passage? Look unto Him alone and you can say that “me” is ME! Don’t you just love those “me’s” in verse 20? It was for me!

What conclusive evidence of His love in giving Himself for me.

Let all my works and efforts and merits be accursed. I have a Redeemer who is more precious than all the world! The law did not give itself for me. It was unbending and unmoving and could not act for the sinner. It simply stood as a huge barrier – condemning, accusing, and carrying the sentence of death. But I have another, standing between me and God. He is the one Mediator and He brings me to God – His Father – reconciling me “in the body of His flesh through death, to present [me] holy and blameless and above reproach in His sight.” (Col. 1:22) The veil of the law separated me from God, but the veil of Christ (that is the veil of His flesh – that new and living way by which we have boldness to enter the holiest by the blood of Jesus [Heb. 10:19-20]) has torn the veil of the Old Covenant temple asunder. My High Priest has made peace through the cross. Could there be any sweeter comfort to your soul than this?

Putting up the old veil again is to cut yourself off from God. It is to set myself and my work and righteousness in the place of Christ. The self-righteousness that spurns the love of Christ for sinners is deserving only of wrath and destruction.

 I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain. (Gal. 2:11-14)

If we can be justified with God through the law, then Christ died needlessly. By exalting our works as having any part of our acceptance with God, we stand with the Judaizers against Christ and His cross.

Peter, by his actions, in separating from uncircumcised Gentile believers, was acting as he had that day before the cross, in which he declared, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to you.” The source of this thinking is clear in Jesus’ response, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” (Matt. 16:22-23) He was setting aside the grace of God; mindful of pleasing men and not God.

If we insist upon building up again the wall that Christ has torn down, so that we can climb over it to enter the way, rather than through the narrow gate, then we are thieves and robbers who shout at the Crucified One to come down from the cross; for they think that their works make His death unnecessary. What will the Lord of the hill do to such as these? Let us tremble at such a thought. Let us not set aside the grace of God. Rather, let us thank God for it. Let us rejoice in it. Let us rest in it. Let us preach it. Oh, how I love the grace of God. Oh, how that God of grace has and does love even me!

~ Murray

Murray McLellan

Murray is the lead church planter and Bible teacher at Grace Fellowship Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. He and his wife Cheryl have labored in the Gospel for many years despite the many discouragements along the way. Our brother is associated with “InDepth Studies”, the Acts 29 network of church planters, and more recently the uniquely Canadian C2C church planting network. In new covenant circles Murray is a long time contributor to new covenant thought and discussion.