Galatians (3) — The Problem With Legalism

For the past couple of weeks, we have been in the book of Galatians, where we have learned that freedom in Christ and the grace of God are two very important themes in this book.

But, as I said, we’re afraid of grace, we’re afraid of talking about Christian liberty.  Because freedom brings responsibility and we’re afraid of what happens when we give people responsibility.  Liberty brings a loss of control, and we want to know, how are you going to get people to do what you want them to do if you don’t make a law?

And so, our concern is that a gospel of grace will give people a license to sin.  We’re afraid that if we emphasize the doctrines of grace and Christian freedom, then Christians will suddenly stop serving God and they’ll start living however they want to live.

And so, the danger is that we may go to the opposite extreme and teach that, in order to earn your salvation, there is this long list of things that you have to do, laws you’re going to have to follow, and you have do it all exactly right, or you’re lost.  And that’s legalism.

Remember that legalism is not the same as “law keeping”.  Obeying God’s law is not legalism.  That’s called obedience, and obedience to God is a good thing.  But legalism is when you teach that you become right with God by keeping all the laws perfectly.  Grace says we’re saved because of what God has done.  Legalism says we’re saved because of what we do.

And so, there were these false teachers in Galatia who were saying, “In order for Christians to be saved, they’re going to have to keep all of these Old Testament laws.”  And Paul says, no, “a person is not justified by the works of law but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16).

When people have a living, responsive faith in Jesus Christ, they are brought into God’s family – it doesn’t matter whether you’re Jew or Gentile, black or white, male or female, we all have the opportunity to share together in God’s blessings.  That’s good news!  That’s the gospel.

This morning, we’re going to pick up in Galatians 2:11, and look at a passage which is going to show us what happens when legalism gets into the church.

Before we get to our text, though — Have you ever found in life that there are some conversations that you need to have, but you absolutely dread having them?  Maybe you’re a boss and there’s somebody that you need to fire.  Or maybe your child is getting to that age where he wants to know where babies come from.  Or maybe there’s something your spouse has been doing that really bugs you.  And you really need to talk about it, but you’re not looking forward to it at all.

I heard a story about two men who lived in a small village and they got into a big dispute that they couldn’t settle.  So they decided to go talk to the wisest man in town.  The first man went to this wise man’s house and he told his version of what happened.  And when he finished, the wise man said, “You’re absolutely right.”

The next night, the second man went to the wise man and he told his side of the story.  And when he got done, the wise man responded, “You’re absolutely right.”  Afterward, the wise man’s wife scolded her husband.  She said, “Those two men told you two totally different stories and you told them both that they were absolutely right.”  She said, “That’s impossible—they can’t both be absolutely right.”  The wise man turned to his wife and he said, “You’re absolutely right.”

There are some people who will do just about anything to avoid conflict.  But I don’t think the apostle Paul had that problem.  Now, Paul didn’t go around looking for a fight, but he wasn’t afraid to take a stand, especially when it involved standing for the truth of the gospel.  And so, Paul was willing to rebuke a man who was probably one of the most highly regarded Christians at that time.

We pick up in Galatians 2:11. But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch…”

Incidentally, Antioch was a rather large city, a city with a lot of diversity. There was a large Jewish population in Antioch, but there was also a large Gentile population.  In fact, most historians believe that the church in Antioch was split down the middle – half Jew and half Gentile.

But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.  For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles…” (Galatians 2:11-12)

Paul says, there was a time in the Antioch church when the Jews and the Gentiles were closely associating each other.  They sat at the same tables to eat.  They interacted with one another in a way that showed that they had a common bond in Jesus Christ.  And Peter was right in the middle of this beautiful mixture.

I don’t know if we understand the full significance of this because, in our culture, the table isn’t a central component of fellowship.  For the most part, we are not a culinary culture. We don’t set aside a large portion of our day for a meal.  Our lives don’t rotate around the dinner table.  Most of us, if we can grab a couple of tacos at Taco Bell and eat them in the car while we’re driving down the road, we’re happy.

But that’s very different from the culture of the first century. This culture was built around the table.  Dinner took a lot of time.  To sit down and eat with someone wasn’t just hanging out, but it carried social and cultural implications that don’t exist in our society.  In Eastern culture, to sit and eat with someone was to make a statement about your relationship with them, to express your unity with one another.

That’s why Jesus was often rebuked for having dinner with certain people.  In Luke 15, “The Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”  (Luke 15:2).  That’s what bothered them more than anything else — Jesus sat down at a table with sinners and ate with them.

Now, over my 40 years or so as a preacher, I have occasionally been rebuked, but I have never gotten into trouble for having a meal with someone.  Nobody has ever said, “Alan, I saw you at Chili’s, and you were eating with a sinner.  I can’t believe it!  My family and I are leaving this church and going somewhere else!”  That’s never happened.  Eating with someone doesn’t have the same kind of implications in our culture.

But, in the first century, the table meant everything.  Even to this day, in the Middle East, to sit at a table with someone is to say that you are at peace with each other, you have a close bond.  and so Peter was sitting and eating with both the Jews and the Gentiles, which represented the fact that they all had a common bond in Jesus Christ.

But then, in verse 12, “For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself…” (Galatians 2:12)

Peter is enjoying this fellowship with both the Jewish and Gentile Christians.  But then, some Christians showed up from Jerusalem, and suddenly, Peter stopped eating with the Gentile Christians, and he only ate with the Jewish Christians.

And when Paul heard about what Peter was doing, he got upset, because he knew that Peter wasn’t motivated by doing what he thought was right.  Rather, Peter was motivated by fear.

This was not the first time that Peter messed up because he was afraid.  You remember the night before Jesus was crucified.  Three times, Peter was asked about his relationship with Jesus and three times he denied that he even knew him.  The reason is, because he was afraid of what people might do to him if they found out he was connected with Jesus

And this isn’t the first time that Peter had been criticized for his relationship with Gentiles.  Go back to Acts chapter 10 for just a moment.  Keep in mind that there were no Gentile Christians before Acts 10.  All of the converts up to this point were Jewish.

But things got a little more complicated when an angel of the Lord appeared to a man in Caesarea named Cornelius, a Roman soldier. He was a man who feared God and gave money to the poor.  He prayed every day, and while he was praying one day, an angel showed up and said, “Send some men to Joppa.  And there you will find a man named Simon Peter.  Bring him to you because he has a message for you.”

Meanwhile, Peter was up on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house, and he had a vision. This vision was a sheet that was lowered from heaven with all sorts of unclean animals in it, animals that the Jews were not allowed to eat.  But in verse 13, a voice came to Peter and said, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” (Acts 10:13)

And I love verse 14.  “But Peter said, ’By no means, Lord…’” Peter, are you really going to argue with Jesus?  I mean how many of these arguments in the past have you already lost?  “But Peter said, ’By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’ And the voice came to him again a second time, ’What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean…” (Acts 10:14-17)

So Peter is wondering, “What does it mean that this sheet with all these unclean animals was put in front of me and God told me to eat them?”  About that time, there’s a knock on the door, and it’s these guys from Cornelius who have come to get him.  So Peter, along with some of his fellow Jews, goes to Cornelius’ house, and pretty soon he figures out what the vision was all about.

In verse 28, “He said to them, ’You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” (Acts 10:28)


            After that, he talks to them about Jesus, the Holy Spirit falls on these Gentiles, and Peter baptizes them into Christ.   Now look at Acts 11:2. “So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying….” (notice this) “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:2).

Notice, they didn’t say that Peter was wrong to baptize them.  They said, “Peter you were wrong to eat with them.  Maybe Gentiles can become Christians, but they are not our equals.  We are the chosen people, we follow the customs of Moses and we’re not going to have table fellowship with Gentiles.”

But this was a critical moment.  Everything that God had worked toward in history had finally happened. The wall between Jews and Gentiles was broken down.  Because of the gospel, there is now one people of God made up of all different tribes, tongues, nations, and colors.

The gospel finally broke through all the great barriers that man put up, and what was the response of these Jews?  “You ate with whom?”  Do you see how ingrained into their hearts and minds this idea of table fellowship was?

But Peter said to these men who were criticizing him, “Hey, the Holy Spirit fell on them! What did you want me to do, tell the Holy Spirit he can’t do that?”  That’s a bit of a  paraphrase.  It doesn’t read exactly like that, but it’s close.

Peter said, “The Holy Spirit fell on them. Who am I to argue with God?  What do you want me to do?  I baptized them because the Holy Spirit fell on them. These brothers were there, too. Ask them.”

So, Peter had already fought a fight about eating with Gentiles, he had already stood up in the face of this accusation, so why did he lose his courage in Antioch, and go back to his old way of thinking?  Galatians 2:12 tells us it was because of fear.  “When they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.” (Galatians 2:12).  Peter was afraid of those Judaizers.

You need to understand this about legalism — legalists are great at the art of intimidation.  One of the primary ways that legalists get their way is to put pressure on people and insist and threaten them.  So, while Peter had taken some criticism for doing what was right in the past, apparently he wasn’t in the mood to deal with it anymore, so when these men came from Jerusalem, Peter stopped eating with the Gentiles so he wouldn’t have to listen to their criticism any more.

So, Paul tells us that he rebuked Peter.  Because when Peter gave in to these legalists, he made several mistakes.  Let me finish out the rest of this passage:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.  For 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.

         “And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But 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?’”

(1)  Peter did not do what he knew to be right

The problem wasn’t that Peter didn’t know better.  If that had been the case, Paul would have taught him.  The problem was that Peter did know better, but he didn’t have the courage to do what he knew was the right thing to do.

And we know that Peter knew better because of that incident with Cornelius.  Remember, Peter said in Acts 10:28, “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”

And a few verses later, Peter said, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”(Acts 10:34-35)

So Peter knew what the right thing to do was.  That’s why twice here in Galatians, Paul uses the word “hypocrisy” to describe Peter.  You probably know that the Greek word for “hypocrite” was originally used to describe an actor.  They would put on a mask and they would pretend to be someone else.  So, when Paul calls Peter a hypocrite, he’s indicating that “What you’re saying that you believe by your actions and what you really believe are two different things.”

And I would suggest that there are times that we all do the same thing.  And, like Peter, we are especially tempted to do it when there are legalists around, who can be a bit intimidating.  Because there are some things that we don’t believe are wrong, but we will pretend that we think they’re wrong, we act like they’re wrong, so we won’t offend those legalists who tell us that it’s wrong.

Let me give you an example.  I heard about a preacher in Tennessee who was hired on to work on with a church.  This was a church where things had been rather stagnant for quite a while, and so when he got there he tried a few new ideas to bring some life to the church.  One of those ideas was to have everyone stand up at the beginning of worship, turn and greet their neighbor, say hello to the person next to them.

Now, that doesn’t sound like a big deal to us, but this church had never done anything like that before.  This went on for about four Sundays, then the preacher was called in to meet with the elders.  They said to him, “You can’t do that anymore.  Now, understand, we don’t think it’s wrong, but some of the brethren here are upset about it.”

The preacher wanted to know, “Which ones?”  One of the elders said he had had a couple of the sisters talk to him, and another elder said that one sister had written him.  So basically, it all boiled down to three women in that church who didn’t like them doing this.

So the preacher said, “OK, we’ll stop, but I want those three ladies to be present at the next elders’ meeting.”  When they asked him why, he said, “Because I want to know who I work for.  If those three ladies are running this church, then they need to be here.”  After that, the elders decided he could go ahead and do their welcome.

But, how often do we operate that way?  We will act like things are wrong when we know they’re not wrong just to make some people happy.  And, in the process, we deceive good people like Barnabas who start thinking, “Well, it must be wrong because the elders don’t let us do it.”  And then we drive away people like the Gentiles.  How many Gentiles in Antioch do you suppose left the church because of the way they were treated by people like Peter?

Paul said, “Peter, You’re a hypocrite because you’re not doing what you know to be right.”

(2)  Peter’s actions were contradicting the gospel of grace.

In verse 14, Paul says, “I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.”  This is significant.  Paul said, “Peter what you’re doing is living in a way that violates the gospel of grace.  The gospel of grace tears down walls, it doesn’t keep them up.”

In Ephesians 2, Paul goes into great detail to describe the barriers that used to exist between the Jews and the Gentiles.  But then, beginning in verse 11, he says,

         “For [Jesus] Himself is our peace, who has made us both [Jews and Gentiles] one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross.” (Ephesians 2:11-16)

Folks, that’s the gospel message!  Paul says the work of Jesus on the cross abolished the wall between Jews and Gentiles, and he wasn’t about to sit by and watch that wall get rebuilt.  For Paul, the truth of the gospel results in welcoming people of all races.  Salvation is not by race, salvation is by grace.  But the tragic truth is that through the centuries, the church has struggled to grasp this basic truth of the gospel.

I’ve known of many churches that would preach from Galatians 3, “there is no Jew or Gentile, no male nor female” and preach baptism out of that verse but then not let minorities into their church building, and violate the very spirit of that verse.

One of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard comes from Mahatma Gandhi.  While he was a student in South Africa, Gandhi was intrigued by the Bible, and he thought that maybe the teachings of Jesus were exactly what his troubled nation needed.  So one Sunday he got up and went to a Christian church, but he was met in the foyer by a deacon who said, “You cannot come in here.  Go find a church for people of your color.”

So Gandhi left and he later wrote in his autobiography, “I decided that if Christianity has caste differences also, I might as well remain a Hindu.”  It makes you wonder how many hundreds of millions of people might have heard about Jesus if only that one church had understood the gospel.

It is impossible for racism to exist where people understand the message of the gospel.  Paul said in Galatians 3:26-28, For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Now, the good news is that, after Paul rebuked him, Peter got straight.  He later went to Jerusalem where there was a big conference about the Gentiles, and Peter stood up in Acts 15:11 and said, But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”  So, the good news is, Peter finally understood what the gospel is all about.  The question is, have we gotten it?

And that’s why this passage in Galatians is so relevant.  Does the church truly understand what the gospel is all about?  Because if we do, there are three things that will happen:

(1)  The gospel will only be taught; it will be lived out.

It’s one thing to preach about the gospel at church.  It’s another thing to put it into practice every day as we relate to one another.

(2)  The gospel is horizontal as well as vertical.

The gospel doesn’t just make us right with God, it makes us right with God’s people.  In fact, the basis of our fellowship together becomes our common need for God’s grace.  Gospel makes us one with each other, because we’re not united on the basis of color, or economic status, or citizenship in any particular country.  We are united on the basis of the truth that everyone here has only one hope of going to heaven and that’s through the blood of Jesus Christ.

(3)  The gospel is more important than peace.

Now I want to be careful because I realize this point could be easily misunderstood.   Peace is a wonderful thing.  We are to be known as a people of peace, but not peace at any price.  As Paul said of the Judaizers in Galatians 2:5, to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.”

         We should never look for a fight, but we must be willing to oppose those who would water down the gospel of God’s grace, the gospel that says that everyone has the right to enjoy the blessings of God’s kingdom through faith in Jesus Christ.

I confess to you this morning that there have been times in my life when peace has been more important than the gospel.  What I’m going to share with you, I say this with shame in my heart and a great deal of embarrassment.  The first church I preached at was a small country congregation in western Tennessee.  It was one of those churches where they had been doing the same thing the same way for about a hundred years, and one of the things that this all-white congregation had been doing was living with prejudice in their hearts.

One year, they were holding a gospel meeting and I had printed up some flyers advertising the meeting to spread around the community.  One of the areas that I planned to distribute the flyers was an African American community about a mile or two up the road.  One of the elders came to me and he said, “Don’t take any flyers up there.  They have their own church they can go to.”

I wish I could tell you this morning that I had the courage to rebuke that elder like Paul rebuked Peter, but I didn’t.  I wish I could at least tell you that I turned in my resignation the next Sunday, but that didn’t happen either.  I simply went home with a broken heart.  And it’s easy to make excuses – I was young and didn’t know any better, I needed the job to support Sueanne and myself.  But the truth of the matter is – I valued peace more than I valued the gospel.

And the ironic thing is that when that gospel meeting was held, it wasn’t really a “gospel” meeting.  It was just a meeting because it was missing the gospel – it was missing the good news that God’s grace extends to all people of all races who respond to him in faith.

And I am persuaded that for far too long we have fought fights we never should have fought and we have not fought the fights we should have.  Because, folks, the gospel is worth fighting for.

“In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28) 


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