There is no short simple answer to what is meant by Galatians 2:14: “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?’” (ESV) We will address this specific passage of Scripture and examine some of the broader issues as well.
Some are concerned when a person begins to study the Hebrew Roots of the Christian faith because they fear the person is going to drift away from the Christian beliefs and perhaps become entangled in Jewish beliefs and traditions. In general, this is a legitimate concern because Christianity and Judaism are both well-established religious systems with many traditions. It is easy to search for the truth of the Bible and follow various teachings that appear to have great favor with man – they are popular – and seem to have been adopted as “truth” for a long time. The challenge is for these beliefs and traditions to be tested according the word of God, as it was said of the Bereans, “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11 NIV) What Scriptures did they examine? The Torah, writings of the prophets, psalms and proverbs – the Tanakh. The New Testament had not been written yet.
People pursue Hebrew Roots, not to be Jewish, rather to be more Biblical. We seek to understand our Savior, Yeshua (Jesus) and the culture in which he lived. After all, if we are His disciples, we should aspire to be like Him. We believe that the whole Bible is true and applicable to us today. We believe that the Bible is divinely inspired and does not contradict itself. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (Tim. 3:16-17 ESV) If there is a passage that appears to conflict with another, then we probably don’t understand the passage or we need to check our translations.
The book of Galatians is challenging and frequently misunderstood. The book has been seen as a teaching against the Torah. As noted by Tim Hegg of torahresource.com, (whom we recommend as a teaching resource), Paul did not speak against the Torah. Paul was combating the unbiblical notion, being taught by some within the Galatian community, that “legal Jewish status” (becoming a proselyte) was the only way for a Gentile believer to become a bona fide member of God’s people. According to Paul, such teaching was contrary to the Scriptures and thus opposed to the very Gospel he had originally delivered to the Galatians. Paul’s message is that non-Jewish believers do not have to convert to Judaism to be redeemed. As Paul said, “But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage.” (Gal.2:4 NASB) Paul refers to those people as the circumcision party in chapter 2, verse 12. He calls them false brethren because they did not accept salvation by faith alone.
What bondage is referred to in Gal.2:4? Is it bondage to the Torah, God’s teachings and instructions, as is commonly asserted? Did God bring His people out of the bondage and slavery of Egypt in order to bring them into bondage to His law? Does obedience to God’s law bring bondage or blessings? Deu. 30:19 states that He set before us life and death, the blessing and the curse. So chose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants. Blessing is to come from obedience.
The core of the new covenant is that God’s law would be written on our hearts. (Jer. 31:31-34, Hebrews 8:8-12, Rom.8:5-9.) A believer transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit should not commit sin – violating God’s commandments. The bondage Paul refers to is enslavement to the fallen human nature – the flesh – and the traditions of men that nullify God’s commandments.
The beginning of chapter 2 of Galatians describes a meeting Paul had with the leaders in Jerusalem regarding the message Paul was giving to the gentiles and that the promised inclusion of gentiles into the covenants between God and Israel was beginning. Note that the public statement of requirements laid out in Acts 15 had not yet happened.
The specific conflict between Paul and Peter revolves around this group of false brethren.
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 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. (Or fearing those of the circumcision) 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 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?” (Gal. 2:11-14 ESV)
There is much missing from this description. We do not know what foods were served or what relationship Peter had with the gentiles. Peter stood rebuked since he was the one who received the vision of the sheet and the revelation that gentiles were not unclean. There was a boundary line drawn by some Pharisees based on the laws of uncleanness in Leviticus that all gentiles were unclean, therefore do not associate with them, especially do not eat with them. This boundary existed to protect from food offered to idols. The rules as to eating with gentiles was not completely settled in the First century. In addition, the conflict described in verses 2-5 indicate that the early believers were faced with division in their midst about the gentiles and the method by which the gentiles could be saved. Peter caved into peer pressure. He could have worried about his reputation when he returned to Jerusalem. Remember, he was a simple fisherman, now consorting with the city-slickers in Jerusalem. Paul confronted him to resolve this problem. There is much more detail regarding this meeting available in the books about Galatians by Tim Hegg and also by John McKee (“Galatians for the Practical Messianic”).
What does Paul mean by “how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” McKee says the original Greek means “why do you compel the nations to Judaize?” Others state this means to compel as one bound by the Mosaic ordinances or traditions and live in Judean or Jewish fashion. However, there was considerable variance between the Jewish customs or traditions of the First Century. The problem caused by Peter separating himself would be resolved by the non-Jewish believers becoming Jewish proselytes in order for unity to be restored among the believers in Jerusalem. This was not acceptable to Paul. Unity is not found in conversion via extra-biblical rituals, it is found in Yeshua and what He had done for us.
What does Paul mean when he says Peter was living like a gentile? Some state that Peter disregarded what they call “the Jewish laws” and lived like a gentile. (See comment further on about the meaning of “law”.) Others said that Paul set aside ritual purity to eat with the “unclean” gentiles. We must remember the culture – these meals were not at the local McDonalds, they were in people’s homes. Table fellowship was a big deal. Mckee suggests that the issue is one ethics – to live like a gentile – “ethnikos” in Greek, can mean pertaining to nationhood foreign to a specific national group with a focus on morality and belief. Paul’s accusation is that Peter is living like a gentile, but from a ritual standpoint Peter aligns himself with the group that holds highly conservative views of the Torah and purity. Peter appears to adopt the attitudes of the gentiles toward Jews – the Jews were seen as revolting and wicked. By separating himself from the believers in Antioch, he was actually acting like he followed the prevailing Greek culture. Peter treats his fellow Jews in a friendly manner but turns his back on the non-Jewish believers. In other words, he honors one group and dishonors another.
McKee translates this passage as: “How can you dare compel non-Jewish believers to convert to Judaism when you act like a pagan Gentile?” This interpretation is supported by the following verses because the focus of the rest of chapter 2 is about being justified by faith and not by works. Paul is firmly against conversion by extra-biblical means.
In a more general fashion, if you try to read Galatians or other writings of Paul as being against the Torah and observance of God’s laws, you must ask where did Paul get the authority to change God’s law? Yeshua said that he did not come to abolish the law. (Matt. 5:17) We believe that Yeshua and God are one. Yeshua/God is the same yesterday, today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8) if you believe the Torah is only for Jews, I recommend a booklet by Tim Hegg called “It is Often Said”, volume 4. Remember that “law” in the New Testament can mean several things – the Torah, man’s rules and traditions, the oral law. By faith in Yeshua, we are grafted in to the commonwealth of Israel. (Eph. 2:11-13, Rom. 11:17-24) Throughout the Torah are many verses saying that the law was for the children of Israel and the foreigner or stranger among them. There is only one law and one Savior. The law is not designed to save us, rather to show us our need for a savior. Once we are saved through faith, how then shall we live? Like the gentiles, darkened and not understanding or shall we live in a way that honors God by obeying His instructions? See Rom. 8:2-14. “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. … So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” If we are walking in the flesh, we cannot keep God’s law, but the Spirit enables us to do so.
Fellow Heirs – Jews and Gentiles Together in the Family of God by Tim Hegg
It Is Often Said – Vol. 4. By Tim Hegg
The Letter Writer – Paul’s Background and Torah Perspective by Tim Hegg
Galatians Study by Tim Hegg
Galatians for the Practical Messianic by John McKee