Why Did Paul Publicly Rebuke Peter? (Galatians 2)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.1 13And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

1Or fearing those of the circumcision

An Apostolic Confrontation

In Galatians 2:11 Paul drops his usual sequencing term “then” (Gal. 1:18, 21; Gal. 2:1) and switches to “but when,” a change that may indicate the event he is about to relate happened in roughly the same timeframe as the Jerusalem conference of Galatians 2:1–10. It probably occurred during the period Luke describes after the Jerusalem conference when Paul and Barnabas continued “teaching and preaching” in Antioch (Acts 15:35).1 “Opposed” (Gk. anthistēmi) is a strong term that often appears in contexts of struggle against evil (Matt. 5:39; James 4:7; 1 Pet. 5:9).2 The perfect-tense participle “condemned” (kategnōsmenos) envisions a metaphorical trial in which the judge has found the accused guilty beyond doubt (cf. Deut. 25:1 LXX).3

ESV Expository Commentary

Four New Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the books of Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, and Galatians, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and applying them to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary series.

Then Paul explains why (“for”) he could make such dramatic statements. Cephas had been accustomed to eating with Gentiles in Antioch. The verb “was eating” is in the imperfect tense (Gk. sunēsthien), implying that Peter was not doing anything unusual in eating with Gentiles before the emissaries from James arrived. After they arrived, however, he began to retreat (hypestellen) and separate (aphōrizen) himself from them. Again the verbs are in the imperfect tense, but now implying gradual action. Paul seems to have thought that Peter slowly gave in to the pressure that fear of James’s emissaries placed on him, perhaps with a measure of self-doubt (cf. Rom. 15:22–23).

There is no need to think that James intended the people he sent to Antioch to put this sort of pressure on Peter. James may have simply sent them to report on how the church at Antioch was doing a few months after the letter of “the apostles and the elders” explaining the contents of the apostolic decree (Acts 15:22–33).

The Problem

What was the problem? Jews often associated with Gentiles, especially in Antioch (Josephus, Jewish War 2.45, 463).4 Cephas, however, seems to have started to “live like a Gentile” (Gal. 2:14), probably in the sense that he had ceased to observe Jewish dietary restrictions.5 In response to a heavenly vision (Acts 10:9–16; 11:4–10), he had tossed out an important Jewish identity marker, which many Jews went to great trouble to keep (Jdt. 12:2) and for which they sometimes endured deprivation (Josephus, The Life 14) and even death (1 Macc. 1:63).

The people from James were offended, perhaps thinking that nothing in the apostolic letter had implied that Christian Jews should start to live like Gentiles (Acts 15:23–29). In other circumstances, Paul was happy to urge Gentile Christians to defer to Jewish scruples (Rom. 14:3; 14:13–15:3). Cephas’s withdrawal from a form of fellowship with the Gentiles that he had previously practiced, however, seemed to communicate that these Gentile Christians had to become Jews in order to enjoy full fellowship with Christian Jews, including the foundational, influential leadership of the church in Jerusalem (cf. Gal. 2:14).

What Cephas had to fear from the people from James is not clear, but if the “circumcision party” here is related to the “circumcision party” of Acts 11:1–2, they seem to have had some authority to require people to give an account for their association with Gentiles. In any case, the pressure was strong enough that all of the Christian Jews in Antioch except Paul succumbed to it. There is probably a level of disappointment and personal pain behind Paul’s phrase “even Barnabas.” Paul’s talk of “hypocrisy” assumes that all of them—even Barnabas—knew it was wrong to buckle to this pressure.

Paul addressed his remarks in Galatians 2:14 to Cephas. He was one of the influential apostles who had agreed with the “truth of the gospel” (cf. Gal. 2:5) at the Jerusalem council (Gal. 2:6–10), and now he had influenced a large group of people to act in a way inconsistent with this truth. The withdrawal of a group in power from association with outsiders is a subtle way of urging the outsiders to join the group in power. The troublemaking false teachers in Galatia were doing something similar to the Galatian Christians (Gal. 4:17).6

Whether the presenting symptom was pressuring Titus to accept circumcision (Gal. 2:3) or pressuring Gentiles in Antioch to follow Jewish dietary laws, the disease was the same. The gospel is about a new creation, in which the church dissolves former social boundaries (Gal. 3:28; Gal. 6:15). Requiring circumcision and dietary observance was reinstating social boundaries God had torn down through the gospel.

The Problem beneath the Problem

The problem with Cephas’s withdrawal from table fellowship with non-Jews was what it communicated about the nature of the gospel. It implied that in addition to what God accomplished for sinful humanity through the atoning death of Christ, people had to contribute something to their own redemption before reconciliation with God was complete and fellowship with other, fully justified Christians was possible.

This serious miscommunication about the nature of the gospel was not a matter of Cephas’s active teaching and preaching, nor even, apparently, of any particularly dramatic action or stand on his part. He simply began to withdraw from fellowship with Christians who were not like him. Even churches whose doors are obviously open to all kinds of people can compromise the truth of the gospel by not taking the time, trouble, and resources necessary to incorporate people of various backgrounds into the life of the church. It is possible to communicate through withdrawal from or neglect of those who differ from the majority that the gospel is really only for people who are like most other people in the church. This passage clearly teaches that this subtle but very common problem in the church is a serious distortion of the gospel and needs the corrective rebuke of the apostle Paul.


  1. Cf. J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, 10th ed. (London: Macmillan, 1902), 111.
  2. BDAG, s.v. ἀνφίστημι.
  3. BDAG, s.v. καταγινώσκω; BrillDAG, s.v. καταγινώσκω.
  4. James D. G. Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians, BNTC (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993), 121.
  5. Douglas J. Moo, Galatians, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 146.
  6. John M. G. Barclay, Obeying the Truth: Paul’s Ethics in Galatians (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1988), 59.

This article is by Frank Thielman and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Volume 10) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.

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