Paul tells us in Galatians 2 that, while Peter was staying at Antioch, Paul confronted him over an incident that developed over a visit from men sent by James. It may be that after the death of James, the brother of John, in Acts 12 that Peter fled to Antioch, a place out of the jurisdiction of King Herod Agrippa. While Peter was there he had no problem eating with his gentile brethren. However, everything changed, when the men from James arrived. Presumably, they had been sent to alert the Christian communities among the gentiles (viz. at Antioch and the churches in Galatia) that the predicted famine (cp. Acts 11:27-29) had arrived and Jerusalem’s reserves for the poor were dangerously low. They needed help.
While the men from James were visiting the predominantly gentile churches, they didn’t eat with or worship in and among the gentile Christian community. Rather they ate and worshiped aside by themselves, separated from the others. This prompted questions in Galatia, and hypocrisy at Antioch by Peter and those who followed his example. Peter began disassociating himself from the believing gentile community at Antioch in order to please the men from James and associate with them. This brought a response from Paul in which he confronted Peter at Antioch and wrote his first known epistle to the Galatians.
When Paul refers to Peter in Galatians 2:9, he says Peter was a pillar or supporter of the truth in the Jerusalem church, but, because of what he did concerning the men from James at Antioch, he was to be blamed (Galatians 2:11). Peter gradually withdrew from fellowship with the gentile Christians (Galatians 2:12), because he was intimidated by the men from Jerusalem and sought to please them and make them feel welcome. While Peter had no problem associating with the gentile Christians before the arrival of these men, he suddenly changed his behavior, but why? Did he have a change of heart concerning what he learned in Acts 10 and professed publicly in Acts 11? Absolutely not! Doctrine had nothing to do with what Peter was doing. He erred in his behavior, because he sought to please the men who made him feel uncomfortable, doing what he otherwise thought was okay.
Hypocrisy and prejudice can be very subtle, but, when such are exercised, the resulting division is unmistakable. The will of the men from James was made to bear on the mind and heart of Peter. They would not associate with their gentile brethren, and Peter knew them and had been accustomed to worshiping and eating with them. A choice had to be made. Either Peter would offend his old friends or he would offend his new friends. The choice was uncomfortable no matter which way Peter decided to go. Yet, this wasn’t Peter’s only problem. Paul tells us that Peter’s example bore the fruit of causing the other Hellenist Jews at Antioch to follow his lead. Even Barnabas began to disassociate himself with the very people he helped evangelize (Galatians 2:13). Everyone was acting like hypocrites!
Peter was a leader in the nascent Church and should have considered what he was doing (cp. James 2:1). He didn’t and this caused every other Jew at Antioch to follow his example. For this reason Paul confronted Peter publicly and in front of the whole church community, in the presence of both Jew and gentile, in the presence of the brethren of Antioch and the men from James (Galatians 2:11, 14). Nevertheless, should Paul have taken such a drastic public action in the light of Matthew 18:15-16? Couldn’t this problem have been corrected by taking Peter aside privately? No! Jesus’ command concerned a personal and private matter and such a thing should be handled privately, but what Peter did was done publicly. Everyone knew what Peter did, so it became necessary for everyone to see why Peter was wrong (1Timothy 5:19-20).
The Galatian community should have had no problem recognizing the similarity of Paul’s rebuke of Peter in light of what the agitators had done in Galatia. The men from James destroyed the peace of the gentile Christian communities both at Antioch and in Galatia. Their behavior was wrong, and they were to be blamed rather than thought of as mature brethren in Christ whose example should be followed. In seeking to undermine Paul’s work among the gentiles these men are shown to be false brethren and enemies of the Gospel.