In Galatians 2, the apostle Paul recounts an episode which occurred between him and the apostle Peter. He notes that “when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch,” Paul confronted him publicly (v. 11). But, what would cause two apostles to square off? What issue could be so dire? He notes in verse 14, that it was a critical issue; an issue pertaining to “the truth of the gospel.” There was great confusion, and Peter was at the center of the dilemma. A delegation of Jewish leaders had come from Jerusalem. It is believed that the delegation was made up of Judaizers—those who maintained that salvation consisted of more than simply faith in Jesus Christ, but also strict adherence to Mosaic rituals and regulations. Further, these Jewish legalists would no doubt have held onto the practice of strict separation from all non-Jews, as they had done for many years. Their arrival in Antioch caused great fear in Peter (v. 12), because he, along with other Jewish Christians, had embraced the Gentile Christians as brothers and sisters in the Lord. In response to the arrival of the Jewish delegation, Peter began to withdraw from fellowship with the Gentiles. In fact, the majority of Jews in Antioch followed his lead, and began to separate.
This effectively created the illusion of a two-class division: the Jewish Christians being the more spiritual; the Gentile Christians being less spiritual. When Paul heard about it, he was furious. Immediately, he recognized the behavior as hypocrisy (v. 13), and took action against the ring leader, Peter. Paul notes that this self-imposed separation created confusion, as it muddied the waters with regards to the gospel. Peter was, in effect, preaching another gospel (cf. Gal. 1:8-9), and Paul confronts him “because he stood condemned” (v. 11). Paul poses the question, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (v. 14).
In other words, the Jewish Christians had been experiencing the benefits of Christian liberty, not adhering to the minutiae of the Mosaic law. Essentially, they were now living like the Gentiles. But upon the arrival of the Judaizers, Peter effectively reversed his stance, separating from the Gentiles specifically because they were not obeying Mosaic law. He was now placing a burden of law-keeping on them that he himself had been freed from through the redeeming work of Christ, along with the rest of the Christian fellowship. And Paul calls it like it is: hypocrisy. He presses Peter on “the truth of the gospel,” reminding him of the most essential truth—a truth that Peter no doubt knew very well—“that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 16). In fact, in order to emphasize his point, he restates the phrase two more times: “even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.” Thankfully, we know that Peter repented, and the truth of the gospel was upheld. The notion that people are justified by faith apart from works is prevalent in the New Testament, but it would need to be rescued from a thousand years of obscurity, as it is the focal point of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Adapted from Why We're Protestant by Nate Pickowicz