Reading over Galatians 2:11-21 I had to pause and think for awhile about what might have occurred. Some things seem clear, but others are not so readily apparent. For example, were the Jews eating food that wasn’t kosher? It is evident that they were not abiding by some of their traditions, otherwise how could the presence of the “men from James” affect their behavior? The “men from James” used the subtle power of persuasion through their own separation from the others (cp. Galatians 4:17) to cause the Jews to retreat from what they had been doing, namely, eating freely with their gentile Christian brethren.
Personally, and this is against the opinions of many of the commentaries I have on this Scripture, I don’t believe the Jews were eating non kosher food. If it is wrong for a Jew to expect a gentile to become a Jew before he could be saved, and before they could have fellowship together at the same table, so, too, it would be wrong of gentile Christians to expect a Messianic Jew to abandon his Jewish traditions in order for them to eat together. What? Can’t brethren enjoy a ham sandwich and a cheese-steak at the same table in a restaurant? How would that technically be impossible to do? Was non kosher meat brought to the table of the love feast at Antioch in which all the brethren participated? I don’t know, but I like to think that gentile Christians would have been sensitive to the tradition of their Jewish brethren and contribute beef or lamb or such like for the occasion, but this is not clear either. However, it should be clear that the Jewish brethren would have brought food anyone could eat with a clear conscience.
What is obvious is “the men from James” viewed the meal of Christian fellowship, in which both Messianic Jews and gentile Christians were participating, a common matter . Their own refusal to participate persuaded Peter and the other Jews in Antioch, including Barnabas, to gradually retreat from their offensive behavior and join the separatists. What is missing here?
I think the missing piece to this puzzle is that the “men from James” were probably Pharisees and perhaps of a priestly line (Acts 6:7; cp. Acts 15:5). Paul says they were the “strictest sect” of the Jews (Acts 26:5). They applied the more stringent purity laws of the Temple to the meal one would eat at home. Thus, they believed that this more rigid figure of ritual purity had an inherent value of holiness. I submit that it would be impossible for a Jew and a gentile to fellowship at all under these conditions, unless the gentile became a Jewish proselyte. If an ordinary Messianic Jew embraced this type of tradition under all circumstances, it should be clear he could never eat at the same table with a gentile Christian. I believe it is this tradition that Paul had in view in his letter to the Galatians that caused Peter to separate from his gentile brethren in Antioch.
Jesus spoke of this tradition. He and some of his apostles practiced it, presumably not to cause offense to those who invited him to a meal. But not every disciple was privy to or practiced this tradition at an ordinary meal. Jesus didn’t rebuke the Pharisees for their tradition, until they began criticizing some of his disciples for not observing the tradition, which he claimed was from men and not God (Mark 7:1-13).
This speaks from the heart of Paul’s rebuke of Peter. Peter may have been trying to be “all things to all people,” as was Paul’s manner (1Corithians 9:22), but the effect of his behavior didn’t honor the Gospel. Peter’s participation in the “traditions of men” had the effect of making the gentile Christians second class citizens, and was an affront to Christian unity and spoke against the cross of Christ. Peter stood self-condemned (Galatians 2:11), but as it is with all repentant believers in Jesus, he took the earliest opportunity to express his true heart. He may have been able to be manipulated by these so-called “men from James,” but later he would stand against those who sent them and defended Paul’s ministry among the gentiles (Acts 15:7-12). The mark of one of Christ’s own is his willingness to repent of wrong behavior and choose the perfect will of God. This was Paul’s hope in writing to the Galatians. Notice the structure of Galatians 2:16:
A| “Knowing that a man is not justified
———-B| by the works of the law
——————–C| but by the faith of Jesus Christ
——————–C| even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ
———-B| and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law
A| shall no flesh be justified.”
This is what is known as a chiasm. It is a figure of speech in the Greek resembling the letter Chi (X), from which it gets its name. It was used by the writer for emphasis. In the case above Paul intended the faith of Christ to be of central importance. We are justified by Christ’s faith, not by our works, however religious or well intentioned they might be. If we could obtain justification by any other means, then Christ would have died in vain.
Therefore, in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek. That is, one is not more important than the other, nor is one less “holy” than the other. Each has his own traditions, and as long as those traditions do not exclude brethren, God is honored in one’s observance of those religious rituals.