Jews were not the only people who practiced circumcision. Some of the men in Arabia practiced it as well. They were among Abraham’s sons, and circumcision was among their traditional customs, just as it was for the Jew, but only the Jews took it so seriously as to draw their identity from its practice. Anyone among the Jews who was not circumcised was cut off from his people. Eventually, the practice of circumcision came to include the whole Mosaic Law. So, to be circumcised, according to Judaism, meant that one embraced the Torah, as well.
The men from James who taught the brethren at Antioch that circumcision was necessary to be saved (Acts 15:1) caused a deep concern among the believers there, especially for Barnabas and Paul, whose practice it had become to preach Jesus to the gentiles without their having to embrace this Jewish tradition. Luke uses a term for their dispute that he uses elsewhere for a very disorderly event in Ephesus (Acts 19:40), for a disagreement between the Pharisees and Sadducees that threatened to pull Paul to pieces (Acts 23:7, 10), and Luke also uses the same word for the accusation against Paul of illegal activity which repeatedly resulted in riotous behavior (Acts 24:5).
In other words, what occurred at Antioch was not an earnest and warm discussion. There may have been some pushing and shoving going on, and voices raised in anger, and even some finger wagging with questions hurled a one another (Acts 15:2). Finally, they determined that Paul and Barnabas would appear before the Apostles and elders of the Jerusalem church where they and others among them (i.e. the men from James) could have this matter settled. Normally, it is thought that the plural pronouns in Acts 15:2 refer to the church at Antioch determining what should be done, but given the presumed importance that I take of these men from James, it is very likely, if true, that they were the ones calling the shots and commanded Paul and Barnabas to be there.
A cursory read might leave one with the idea that, sure there was a dispute in Antioch, but it was a friendly affair that really ended by agreeing that the matter should be handled by the leaders of the Jerusalem believing community. Nevertheless, Luke’s words quite clearly indicate a very sharp and heated debate going on in Antioch. Moreover, if these men were as important as I believe the context implies, it was they and not the church who decided that Paul and Barnabas would appear before the Apostles and elders at Jerusalem; it was the men from James. I believe the context implies they had some authority to ‘command’ Paul and Barnabas to be there. Notice how Luke phrases it: “…they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.” Clearly, the ‘certain other of them’ answers to ‘they’ who determined the matter to occur. The context implies that they were powerful men from Jerusalem, not mere messenger boys from James. They had their own agenda to work out, and they did it under the cloak of carrying a message from James.
Paul says in his Galatian epistle that these were false brethren who crept in earlier to spy out the freedom the Messianic Jews and especially the freedom the gentile believers enjoyed in Christ (Galatians 2:4), and they sought to bring them under the rule of the Jerusalem authorities—i.e. the high priests and the Sanhedrin. It would be folly for the Jewish authorities at Jerusalem to believe this could be done by simple messengers. A number of churches were affected by this scheme, showing it was an organized effort on the part of someone or a group at Jerusalem working against the believing community. The men involved had to have been important Jews with some power to command the presence and respect of other Jews. To believe they were simple envoys from James who overstepped their authority, at least from my perspective, seems to overlook the context.
Luke doesn’t mention in Acts 15 that Peter was among the believers at Antioch, and Paul doesn’t mention either Peter or Barnabas debating with him against these apparently powerful Jews from Jerusalem. Luke does claim Paul and Barnabas engaged in vigorous debate with these men at Antioch, but he never shows Barnabas joining in the Jewish segregation activity that Paul reveals in Galatians 2:13. So, it may be that these men thought they had an ally in Peter or at least a submissive independent with serious obligations vested in their common concern. They probably expected he would support their position at Jerusalem. Neither Paul nor Luke shows Peter debating with these men, so he may have been a bystander, not by choice, but by necessity. He was not an educated rabbi like Paul or an educated ruler like Barnabas, but these men from James were able to attempt a heated debate with Paul, so they were well educated in the traditions of the Jews and knew how to defend their position. Peter was a simple fisherman whom the Lord had chosen to witness what he saw Jesus do and say and to preach the forgiveness of sins to all who would believe.
When Paul arrived in Jerusalem, he tells us in Galatians 2:2 that he explained his Gospel privately to the Messianic leaders there—both the Apostles and the elders. Knowing this, it seems even Peter may not have understood completely what Paul’s Gospel entailed. Both men loved the Lord, and both were leaders in the nascent Church. However, we must be realistic in considering these events. Paul was able to understand why one shouldn’t behave a certain way, seeing all the subtle nuances it entailed. Peter, however, although he knew, or should have known through the pricks of the Holy Spirit within him, that he shouldn’t have engaged in segregated behavior at Antioch, may not have been able to see the subtle shades that his behavior had upon the Gospel. What was at stake was nothing less than the superiority of Jesus Christ as our Mediator instead of the Law, for the law could never unite Jew and gentile. Unity of Jew and gentile can only occur in Christ.