In Summary: Galatians 1-2 give us a great deal more background on where Paul went and what Paul did than any of his other letters. Acts gives us much of Paul’s work in the ministry, but we see here how he spent some of his first years after salvation.
He tells how his work was approved by the Apostles, and that there were no questions about his doctrine or his practices. This is important as an aside: if the bulk of the gathering of the Redeemed has doubts about you, you should examine yourself in comparison with Scripture. The Apostles had learned from Jesus directly, and knew what did and did not matter.
At this point, Paul had no word from the Apostles or the Jewish believers to indicate he was causing problems by leading Gentiles to Christ. In fact, they even received uncircumcised Titus as a brother, showing a willingness to look beyond that long-standing cultural barrier.
Yet in the background of all this was a false teaching we refer to as Judaizing when feeling nerdy and legalism when feeling direct. It was primarily this: that to be a Christian, one first had to become a completely observant Jew. This included following all of the Law—the same Law that had been impossible to follow for centuries.
In Focus: Paul then recounts a specific incident at Antioch. He had a face-to-face confrontation with Peter, and it was not a pretty thing. Peter had formerly been open with his acceptance of Gentiles. He had no difficulties with their former lives, because they were now all one big Christ-loving family.
Then a few people came from James. We don’t know if they were sent intentionally by James to straighten things out, or if they were just known as from James. It doesn’t really matter. Peter changed his behavior on their arrival and started segregating the Jews and Gentiles again. The division was deep, and it was personal: Barnabas surrendered his efforts to reach the Gentiles to side with Peter.
So Paul confronted him, to his face. In public, in an honor society like the Roman world, this was a big deal. Paul could have been thrown out on his ear for that. Or worse—rebuked and dismissed from recognized service within the church. He stands a great risk by opposing Peter.
In Practice: Paul sees something more important than his honor here. He sees something more important than Peter’s honor. He sees something more important than visible church unity.
He sees the truth. There was, and remains, a critical need for people to see the truth more than be concerned with reputations. Truth is what mattered to Paul, even if he was rebuffed and rejected.
We desperately need to be people like that. Our churches need us to be people like that. People who will confront when the truth is at stake. People who will stand against popular leaders, visible leaders, wrong-behaving leaders, and shut them down.
Will you be one of those? Or will you quietly go along? Or worse, have you been the one who is wrong? Listen to the Pauls in your life and get back on track.
In Nerdiness: I happen to think that both Peter and Barnabas repent over this—further ministry suggests that. Also, I think there is something nerdy to examine about where Peter’s behavior took place. It looks like Antioch, but it also reads like it could be that the confrontation was in Antioch and the behavior elsewhere.
Finally, do not miss Galatians 2:20. You are not alive if you are a Christian. Christ is alive through you. Get that in your head and see what happens.