Charles Simeon Commentary - Galatians 2:14 - 2:16

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Charles Simeon Commentary - Galatians 2:14 - 2:16

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Gal_2:14-16. When I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the Gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? 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 the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

THE Apostles, in all that they declared, were infallible, being under the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit, by whom they were inspired; but, in what they did, they were frail and fallible, like other men. Of this we have a painful evidence in the passage before us; wherein we see Peter, from whom the Roman pontiff, unfortunately for his own claims, derives his infallibility, fallen into the grossest error, and acting in a way which brought upon him the severest reprehension. The circumstances relating to that event are faithfully recorded for the instruction of the Church in all ages: and, as they comprehend things of fundamental importance to our welfare, we will enter into them somewhat minutely; and state,

I.       The conduct reproved—

Peter, during his stay at Antioch, where the Church consisted almost exclusively of converts from among the Gentiles, had disregarded the distinctions of the Jewish law, which he knew to be no longer binding; and had acted according to the customs of the Gentiles amongst whom he dwelt: but upon the arrival of certain persons from Jerusalem, where the ordinances of the Mosaic law were still continued in the Church, he returned to the observation of the Jewish ritual, and constrained the Gentiles also to follow his example. Now this was highly reprehensible, being,

1.       Most sinful in itself—

[Had he from a tender regard to the prejudices of his less enlightened brethren conformed to their customs, he would have done well; even as Paul himself did, when, “to the Jews, he became a Jew, and to those who were under the law, as under the law.” But, whilst he did this, he should have taken care to maintain the liberty of the Gentile converts, and to explain to them his reasons for reverting to Jewish ceremonies, that they might not be ensnared by his example. But instead of acting with this caution and tenderness towards the Gentile converts, he withdrew from them, and compelled them to conform to Jewish rites: and this he did too, not from love to the Jews, but from fear of their displeasure. Now this was gross “dissimulation:” He knew, that the Jewish law was abrogated: he knew, that he himself was liberated from the observance of it: he knew, that the Gentiles could have no concern with it; and that to enjoin the observance of it on them, was to impose a yoke on them, which neither he himself nor any of his ancestors had been able to sustain. In this therefore he walked not uprightly; but betrayed the trust which had been committed to him, the apostolic trust, of enlightening and saving a ruined world.]

2.       Most pernicious in its tendency—

[This conduct of his tended to sanction the most fatal error, and, in fact, to subvert the whole Gospel. The Jewish converts had an idea, that the Gospel itself could not save them, unless they added to it the observance of the law: and it was found impossible at once to eradicate this prejudice from the Jewish mind, because they could not see how that, which God had so strictly enjoined under one dispensation, could be wholly set aside under another. Indeed this was the great stumbling-block to the Jews: and if they could have been allowed to blend their law with the Gospel, they would almost universally, and with great readiness, have embraced the Gospel. But of such a mixture the Gospel does not admit. Christ has in his own person fulfilled the law; and, by his obedience unto death, salvation is provided for a ruined world. No other obedience must be blended with it as a joint ground of hope: his righteousness is that which alone can justify us before God; and his must be all the glory. But Peter by this conduct confirmed the Jews in their error, and established the same error among the Gentiles also: and, if God had not raised up Paul to reprove it in the outset, the whole Gospel might have been superseded, almost as soon as it had been promulgated: and all the effects of Christ’s mediation might have been utterly destroyed. We see on that occasion how far the influence of Peter extended: for it drew away all the Jewish converts at Antioch, yes, and even Barnabas himself, from the truth of God: and if the evil had not been stopped in its commencement, who can tell how soon, and how fatally, it might have inundated the whole Church? Verily such conduct as this deserved reproof; and we have reason to bless our God, who endued Paul with wisdom and courage to reprove it.]

Suitable to the occasion was,

II.      The reproof administered—

St. Paul, when he saw the misconduct of Peter, did not secretly endeavour to destroy the character of his offending brother, but boldly and openly reproved him before the whole Church. Had the offence been of a private and personal nature only, it would have been right to admonish his brother privately, and not to bring it before the Church, till private admonitions had been used in vain: but, when the welfare of the whole Church was at stake, it was necessary that the reproof should be as public as the offence. Hence, when all the Church was assembled, Paul took occasion to reprove,

1.       His inconsistency—

[Peter had in that very place neglected the Jewish law, as he was fully authorized to do: but, when some Jews came thither from Jerusalem, he both altered his own conduct, and compelled all others, even Gentiles themselves, to follow his example. What a grievous inconsistency was this! And how must he have been struck dumb, when Paul so pointedly expostulated with him, “If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of the Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, WHY compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?” What excuse could he offer? Alas! none all.

But grievous as such inconsistency would have been in any one, it was peculiarly sinful in Peter: for it was at this very place, Antioch, that the point had been some time before discussed with great vehemence; and so pertinaciously had the Jewish teachers maintained the universal and perpetual obligation of their own law, that not even the united wisdom and authority of Paul and Barnabas could settle the dispute; so that it became necessary to refer the matter to the decision of the whole college of Apostles at Jerusalem. Accordingly the question was stated; and Paul and Barnabas on the one side, and some of the Judaizing teachers on the other, were deputed to go up to Jerusalem, and there to get it finally settled by such authority as they were all agreed to submit to. Accordingly the deputation went; and laid before the Apostles the matter in dispute. And who, of all the Apostles, was the man that undertook to determine it? It was this very Peter, who now was undoing all that he had before done. He called the attention of the assembly to the commission which he had received to open the kingdom of heaven both to Jews and Gentiles; and reminded them, that, on his preaching first to the Gentiles, God had sent down the Holy Spirit on them, precisely as he had before done upon the Jews at the day of Pentecost; thus visibly and unquestionably declaring, that the Gentiles were to have the Gospel freely administered to them without any observance of the Jewish law. And on this testimony, supported by that of the prophetic writings, James, who presided on that occasion, determined the point; and, to the great joy of the Gentile converts, confirmed to them the liberty which they were so desirous to retain [Note: Act_15:1-19. with Mat_16:18-19 and Act_10:31-44.]. Yet behold, this very Peter, at this very place, before these very Gentiles, and in the presence of these very messengers, Paul and Barnabas, took upon himself to rescind the decree of the whole college of Apostles, and to insist on the Gentiles observing Jewish rites, which he, as a Jew, had neglected and despised. Alas! Peter, who would have expected this at thy hands? Who would have thought that, after having been distinguished above all the children of men, in that the keys of the kingdom of heaven were committed unto thee from thy Saviour’s hands; and after having seen myriads (lock into it in consequence of thine opening of the doors, thou shouldest use those very keys to shut the doors again, and thereby, as far as in thee lay, exclude from the kingdom all who had already entered, and all others of the human race? Verily, the reproof given thee, though so public and severe, was nothing more than what thou justly deservedst for thy grievous inconsistency.]

2.       His impiety—

[It was not the decree of man, but of the Most High God, that he presumed to abrogate. God had graciously sent his only-begotten Son to be the Saviour of the world: and had declared that in him should all nations be blessed. By faith in that Saviour had Abraham, the father of the faithful, been saved, hundreds of years before the Mosaic law was given: and when that law was given, it was not intended to alter the nature of the salvation, before promised, but only to keep the Jews a separate people, and to prepare them for the Saviour whom they were taught to expect. Thus not even to the Jews was the observance of the Mosaic ritual enjoined for the purpose of establishing a righteousness by means of it, but only to direct their attention to that Saviour, from whom alone a saving righteousness could be obtained. Yet behold, Peter undertook to change the very way of salvation itself, and to thrust from his office that adorable Saviour, who had already come down from heaven, and “purchased the Church with his own blood.” Had an angel from heaven been guilty of such presumption, he had, as St. Paul tells us, deserved to be accursed [Note: Gal_1:8-9.]: What then didst not thou deserve for thine impiety, unhappy Peter, when, in committing it, thou knewest that thou wast sinning against God, and subverting the very foundations of a Christian’s hope! Methinks, if Satan exulted when he had prevailed on thee to deny thy Lord and Saviour, how much more did he shout for joy when he had seduced thee so to betray the trust reposed in thee, as to give him a hope, that through thee the Saviour’s kingdom should be utterly and eternally destroyed! Holy Paul, we thank thee for thy fidelity to thy fallen brother: we thank thee for thy zeal in thy Master’s cause, and for thy love to the whole Gentile world. But above all, we adore thee, O most blessed God, who didst endue thy servant with such wisdom and grace, and enable him by his timely and courageous interposition to break the snare which Satan had laid for the whole race of mankind.]

The fact thus recorded is of infinite importance on account of,

III.     The instruction to be gathered from it—

Every part of this record teems with instruction. But we must content ourselves with submitting to your attention two points only; namely,

1.       That salvation is solely by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, without the works of the law—

[This forms the very ground of the reproof which Paul gave to Peter. It was indeed the observance of the ceremonial law that gave occasion for the reproof: but the works of the moral law must of necessity be comprehended in the reproof itself, because it is as a subversion of the faith of Christ that St. Paul chiefly complains of Peter’s conduct. The observance of the ceremonial law, as an act of obedience to God, might have been unnecessary, and inexpedient: but it could not have been of so fatal a nature as St. Paul represents it, if obedience in other respects had been meritorious before God: if it did not add to the merit of moral obedience, it could not so detract from it, as to make both that and the death of Christ also of no value: yet St. Paul speaks of it as “removing the people from the grace of Christ to another Gospel [Note: Gal_1:6.],” yea, “as frustrating the grace of God,” and causing “the death of Christ to be in vain [Note: ver. 21.].” It was in this view, 1 say, as tending to establish a salvation by works instead of a salvation by faith in Christ, that St. Paul so strenuously opposed the conduct of Peter. The Apostles “knew that a man could not be justified by the works of the law;” and therefore they renounced all dependence on the works of the law, and looked for justification solely by faith in Christ. This, I say, they did themselves, and this they inculcated on others, as indispensably necessary to their salvation. St. Paul elsewhere tells us, that in this way Abraham was saved [Note: Rom_4:1-5.]; and David was saved [Note: Rom_4:6-8]; and all the world must be saved [Note: Rom_4:9-14. See also Rom_9:30-33; Rom_10:3-4.]. But in no part of Scripture is this truth more forcibly declared than in the passage before us. We may contrive to pervert words, however plain they be: but here are facts, which we cannot get over; and which speak volumes. Let us learn then not to subject ourselves to similar reproof, by blending any human works with the merits of Christ, or using our influence towards the establishment of so fatal an error. Let us be thankful to God that we have had reformers, who have ventured to withstand the impositions of popery, and have, at the expense of their own lives, emancipated us from the thraldom in which he who calls himself the successor of Peter, and boasts of deriving infallibility from him, had so long held the whole Christian world. And, if there arise amongst ourselves any who would yet stand forth as advocates of human merit, let us refer them to the Articles and Homilies of our own Church; that, if they believe not the language of inspiration, they may at least be put to shame before that Church, which has received those documents as the acknowledged symbols of her faith [Note: See the 10th, 11th, and 12th Articles of the Church of England: and take for a pattern the Apostle Paul. ver. 5.].]

2.       That no consideration under heaven should lead us to compromise the truth of God—

[Peter doubtless excused himself in his own mind from an idea that his dissimulation was, in existing circumstances, expedient. But expediency, though worthy to be attended to by every true Christian, and in man)r instances a proper rule for his conduct, has no place, except in things that are otherwise indifferent. It can never warrant us to neglect a known duty, or to commit the smallest sin: for, if it could, Daniel and the Hebrew Youths might have avoided the snares that were laid for their feet. Nothing can warrant dissimulation. What we believe to be true, we must uphold and vindicate: and what we believe to be right we must do. Neither a desire to please, nor a fear of displeasing, must cause us to swerve an hair’s breadth from the path of duty. We must obey the dictates of our own conscience, and “be faithful unto death, if ever we would receive a crown of life.” We cannot indeed expect that we shall never err, seeing that infallibility pertains not to our fallen nature, nor is the lot of any of the sons of men: but if we err, it must not be through fear or through favour, but simply through the weakness incident to man in his present fallen state; and we must be especially careful that the error be not in any thing of fundamental importance. We may in our superstructure “build hay, or wood, or stubble,” and yet ourselves be ultimately “saved, though it be so as by fire:” but, if we err in the foundation, we involve ourselves in inevitable and everlasting ruin [Note: 1Co_3:10-15.]. Let us look to it therefore that we “hold fast the faith once delivered to the saints.” Let nothing be suffered for one moment to move us from it. Let us bear in mind, that “other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” On that let us build, even on that alone, not uniting any thing with it, or attempting to strengthen it by any addition of our own. Let us guard against any approximation to this fatal error. Many there are, who, whilst they would abhor the thought of uniting their own merits with the merits of Christ, will yet, through a false notion of humility, not venture to trust in Christ, unless they can see some measure of worthiness in themselves. But this is in reality, whatever it may be thought, a repetition of Peter’s sin; and will sooner or later meet with a severe reprehension from our God. We must go to Christ guilty, that we may be forgiven; naked, that we may be clothed; polluted, that we may be sanctified: and, when we are most empty in ourselves, then shall we receive most out of his fulness. We must “know nothing but Christ and him crucified,” and be contented to be nothing, that he may be “all in all.”]