Humanity suffers a universal plague. It is guilt. Every person experiences this emotion and tries to find some way to alleviate it. Primitive people tried to assuage it by appealing to many gods through the sacrifice of animals and sometimes even humans. They imagined the gods were angry with them. They had to appease them in some way. Today, as a more cultured people, we may try psychoanalysis, counseling or some other form of therapy. Others appeal to positive thinking and self-confident living. Still others appeal to drugs, sex and alcohol to dull their senses and minds to their guilt. Whether a person is a Christian or not, they feel guilt when they do something wrong. That all people from all cultures have shown various means to deal with this guilt proves the prevalence of it.
Now the question remains: How do we relieve this guilt we are often assaulted by. We cannot ignore it for it will not go away. There must be some logical reason why we feel this guilt. Christians believe it is the Holy Spirit of God working in the lives of individuals that brings this feeling of guilt because we have sinned against a holy God.
In this passage, Paul tells us how we can be saved from this guilt over our sin. It comes through the salvation process which comes through faith in Jesus Christ and the payment he made on Calvary's cross. This teaching arises out of Paul's rebuke of Peter. It seems Peter freely associated with Gentiles until some of his Jewish contemporaries arrived. Then he withdrew from them, and in the process showed his hypocrisy. Paul rebukes him for this, and in the process teaches that salvation from guilt comes by faith alone. Faith is the bottom line in the salvation process. It does not come from works as the Judaizers attempted to teach. We do not merit it. God must freely give it.
The sacrifices made by the Jewish people in the Old Testament period only foreshadowed the perfect sacrifice of Christ. Now that Christ had come and made the ultimate and perfect sacrifice, these sacrifices were no longer necessary. It is our faith in this sacrifice that will ease our guilt over unforgiven sin. Salvation can only come in one of two ways: through works or faith. It cannot be both. If it is by works, it is not by faith and vice versa.
I. FAITH JUSTIFIES US
It was a sad but very real situation that Jesus was born into where many Israelites had perverted the teachings of the Old Testament. This was true in Palestine and other parts of the Roman Empire. They were looking to their own goodness and good works to bring acceptance from God. The rabbis enhanced this set of circumstances. Their tradition and misinterpretation only made matters worse. They taught a works righteousness where God accepted a person because they obeyed the regulations and ceremonies of the Mosaic Law that was now no longer necessary because of Christ's work. The lives of the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees best represented such teachings. As evident in the rebukes of Jesus, they thought their good works brought them favor from God.
Out of this setting arose the Judaizers who taught the same thing. They corrupted the gospel of Jesus Christ and of Paul. No longer was circumcision of any importance. In his explanation to the Philippian believers, Paul stated; “We are the true circumcision who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” (Philippians 3:3) The literal circumcision was a sign of those who entered into a covenant with God in the Old Testament. Under the new covenant established by Christ, it was no longer necessary. When Christ comes into our life, he performs a heart circumcision. He cuts away at the old nature and allows that new nature to grow and flourish. This takes place through our faith in him.
In our present passage, the scene changes from Jerusalem where the council took place to Syrian Antioch where the first church in a Gentile area was established. Paul and Barnabas served as co-pastors here. His teaching of justification by faith arises out of a situation where he had to confront the hypocrisy of Peter. Paul had to rebuke Peter for his actions. It seems he freely associated with Gentiles while his Jewish contemporaries were not around but compelled the Gentiles to live as Jews when the Jews were present. Paul reminded him that a person is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ.
Jews were known for their strict laws and separation from the Gentiles. Under the Old Covenant, they were to observe certain dietary laws and other restrictions. These were designed to keep the Jews from intermingling and intermarrying with the pagan people around them. They were to stand out as a witness for the one and true God. In this way, they would draw the pagans to the one and only God. It would also keep them from corrupting themselves with the idolatry and immorality of these pagan people.
With the New Covenant established by Christ, these ceremonial separations were no longer in place. Peter had learned this himself through the vision of unclean animals. God showed him this vision before he sent him to the Gentile Cornelius so that he would realize that all people are welcome to come to God through faith in Jesus Christ. Peter knew the lesson but quickly forgot it when his Jewish friends blew in.
Justification by faith is the way we relieve the guilt we labor under. It is the only way. Only as our sins are forgiven can we rid ourselves of the guilt over offending a holy God. This is the only way God accepts us. Of all people, Peter should have known that obedience to the Law does not justify one in the sight of God. He had labored under that Law to no avail.
If the Law could not save the Jews, it was foolish on Peter's part to think it would save the Gentiles. Keeping the law of God can never make us just before him. The root of our problem is found in our hearts. They are sinful and terribly wicked. Actions or good works cannot change that, only God can through the new birth. Our sinful actions are merely outward manifestations of a sinful nature. The law could show us our sinfulness but never change our nature. Only faith in Christ can bring a new nature with new intentions and desires. We cannot add good works to the faith as the Judaizers were trying to do. It is faith and faith alone that justifies us before God.
Martin Luther, German leader of the Protestant Reformation, taught this very doctrine. He was steeped in the tradition of the Roman Catholic church which preached that the grace of God comes through the sacraments which could only be administered by church officials. He rebuked this idea by teaching that salvation or justification is by faith alone. It was a doctrine that rocked the continent of his day just as it did the world of the Judaizers.
II. HYPOCRISY RUINS OUR TESTIMONY
Peter had trouble with hypocrisy. Peter was known for his impulsive behavior. You remember the occasion where he told Jesus he would follow him to the death only to deny him three times a short time later. On this occasion, Paul had to rebuke him again for his hypocritical behavior. He used to eat with the Gentiles, but when his Jewish friends came to Antioch, he joined the Judaizers in belittling the teachings of Paul. The tense of the Greek verb signifies that Peter continually ate with the Gentiles. It was a habitual and regular occurrence. The teaching that he was hypocritical about was that salvation came by the grace of God. He took a position in the face of his friends that he knew was wrong. He stood for the wrong to save face among his contemporaries. This must have deeply offended and hurt the Gentile believers in Antioch.
Peter's encounter with the Gentile Cornelius taught him better than this, but he forsook what he knew was right to save face. He had even opposed the Judaizers at the Council in Jerusalem, but now he backtracks. He acquiesced to the racism and ritualism of the Jews. The weak, fearful and vacillating Peter came to the fore again. Why did Peter do this? The Judaizers would not have harmed him physically if he continued to eat with the Gentiles. He was obviously afraid of their ridicule. He feared a loss of popularity and prestige.
Peter's example was damaging to others. Many other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy. Even the godly Barnabas was led astray. Barnabas went on a missionary journey with Paul. He was very familiar with Paul's preaching concerning the doctrine of salvation by grace, yet Peter's hypocrisy led even him astray. Since Peter was a leader, it was only natural that his example would influence others. They knew what they were doing was wrong but did it anyway.
Peter's example and Paul's rebuke of it give us a severe warning against hypocrisy. It is very important that we are consistent in our spiritual behavior. People must see us live out what we claim to believe in the church. Inconsistency will lead them to doubt the genuiness of our faith and it can also lead others astray as it did with the other Jews and Barnabas. This is not to say that we never make mistakes and sin. It is to say that the normal course of our life must be one of spiritual commitment to God. Others must be able to see and hear this in our actions and words.
Many use this as an excuse to stay out of church. Sometimes it is an excuse for them, but at other times it is the truth. I have encountered many people who have used this reason for not becoming a Christian or for not coming to a particular church. It may be the most common excuse for people staying out of church. We must be careful that our lives do not bear out a hypocritical lifestyle.
III. OUR ACTIONS INFLUENCE OTHERS
Peter was not the only one who suffered because of his hypocrisy. Other Jews were affected. Barnabas even joined the hypocrisy. We can be sure that the church of Antioch was severely affected by it. So damaging was the situation that Paul confronted him publicly about it.
Never let us forget that our actions influence others. Others notice what we do and say. Christians are particularly vulnerable at this point. Others watch our lives. If you are a proper witness for Christ, others will keenly watch your life to see if you walk the talk. We do not have to beat others over the head with the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is not the best method to win others to him. A quiet and consistent Christian witness is the best way to point others to the Savior. We must prepare to live consistent lives for the glory of God and for the benefit of others.
After the Persian Gulf crisis broke out in August of 1990, many people in the Reserves decided they could not or would not go to the Persian Gulf. They claimed they had not been told they might have to go to war. They were willing to take the pay from the Reserves and train with their units but would not follow through on their commitment. They did not want to believe that commitment involved war.
Sometimes we are prone to forget the necessity of commitment in the Christian life. We must commit ourselves to salvation's bottom line: that salvation takes place through faith. We must live out that belief by realizing how much our actions influence others and by being consistent in our behavior so that others can never accuse us of hypocrisy.