The incident at Antioch, recorded in Galatians 2:11–14, involved two apostles, Peter and Paul; a misrepresentation of the gospel; an unwarranted separation of Jews from Gentiles; and a public rebuke.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he exhorts the believers spread throughout the region of Galatia to understand that, just as their justification was by faith and apart from works of law, so was their sanctification. After Paul explains how he received the knowledge of that truth directly from Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:11–12), he describes his early ministry and how he first engaged with the other apostles, including Peter, whom Paul refers to as Cephas (or Kephas), Peter’s Aramaic name (see Galatians 1:18; John 1:42). While Peter and Paul were both remarkably used by God as apostles, Paul records an incident at Syrian Antioch in Galatians 2:11–14 that reminds us that even God’s apostles were only human and could make serious mistakes.
When Cephas came to Antioch, Paul opposed him (Galatians 2:11), because Cephas had stopped engaging with Gentiles out of fear of the Jewish leaders (Galatians 2:12). He had been eating with the Gentile believers, but when a contingency of Jews arrived from Jerusalem, Peter withdrew from the Gentile crowd. Many of the Jews in the region, along with Barnabas, fell into that error, following Peter’s example. Paul branded that as hypocrisy (Galatians 2:13). Seeing that this segregation was not consistent with the gospel, Paul rebuked Peter openly, saying, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” (Galatians 2:14).
Peter knew that he had been justified by faith and not by law, but he was still requiring that others live like Jews (as under the law, Galatians 2:14). It appears Peter was motivated by fear of what the Jewish believers would say about his fellowshipping with Gentiles. That fear led to hypocrisy. Peter had received the gift of justification by faith and then, in essence, required others to pursue sanctification by works.
It is worth noting that, when Paul refers to Peter’s apostolic work, he calls him Peter (Galatians 2:7–8), using the name Jesus affirmed when commissioning Peter (Matthew 16:18). Paul acknowledged that Peter was an apostle sent primarily to the Jewish people (Galatians 2:7). But Paul uses the name Cephas when challenging Peter for hypocritically leading people back to bondage under the law (Galatians 2:18–19, 21; 3:1–3).
It is possible that the incident at Antioch in Galatians 2:11–14 preceded Acts 15:5–12, which records Peter’s standing up to those who would place Gentile believers under the law and require circumcision. If so, it is evident that, after the incident at Antioch, Peter became a champion of grace. If, on the other hand, the incident at Antioch in Galatians 2:11–14 took place after Acts 15:5–12, then it is apparent how far Peter had fallen from his knowledge of God’s grace and the freedom provided in Christ. Either way, the incident at Antioch is a cautionary tale and reminds us that anyone who thinks he stands should take heed lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10:12)—we are never too big to fail. Peter learned that lesson on more than one occasion (recall his insistence that he would never deny Christ right before he did just that).
After what must have been a painful lesson in the incident at Antioch, Peter wrote extensively of God’s grace (1 Peter 1:10, 13; 4:10; 5:10, 12; 2 Peter 3:18, etc.). In his epistles, Peter affirms that sanctification is a work of the Spirit of God (1 Peter 1:2) and not a result of works or obedience to the law. Peter also affirmed Paul, referring to him as a beloved brother to whom God gave wisdom (1 Peter 3:15). He referred to Paul’s letters as Scripture, even if sometimes they were hard to understand (1 Peter 3:16).
Despite the failings of both Peter and Paul, both men faithfully presented God’s message of grace, and Peter closes out his own writings by encouraging his readers to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).