If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Galatians chapter 2, verses 11 through 21. Paul says:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood condemned. 12 For he regularly ate with the Gentiles before certain men came from James. However, when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, because he feared those from the circumcision party. 13 Then the rest of the Jews joined his hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were deviating from the truth of the gospel, I told Cephas in front of everyone, “If you, who are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel Gentiles to live like Jews?”
15 We who are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners” 16 know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. 17 But if we ourselves are also found to be “sinners” while seeking to be justified by Christ, is Christ then a promoter of sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild the system I tore down, I show myself to be a lawbreaker. 19 For through the law I have died to the law, so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ 20 and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
I went to high school with a dude who got circumcised at 22, because he fell in with a bizarre cult of perpetually underemployed doofuses who lit their social security cards on fire and refused to do anything that involved money printed by the United States Federal Reserve because they believed that the U.S. is embroiled in a plot to trick people into blaspheming the most high God by trading money with secret pagan imagery on it. So, uh, I’m friends with a tin-foil hat dude, and he got circumcised – I don’t think through a bona fide doctor, either – in his early twenties because his tin-foil hat buddies convinced him that God still wants us to follow all 613 of the ritual Laws listed out in the Old Testament.
It’s pretty easy to spot sketchy theology when it’s obviously off-the-rails, like my high school buddy. But it’s not always that obvious, right?
Like, if you’ve grown up in a church setting in the United States of America, most likely what you have heard throughout your life is that “In the Old Testament, you saved yourself by obeying the law, but in the New Testament, you get saved by turning yourself over to Jesus.” Anybody heard that? That’s what I heard growing up.
The problem, though, is that the more you read through the Old Testament itself, the more you realize that there was never a point in the history of God’s people in which you saved yourself by doing anything: God created us in the beginning by his good mercy, and then we broke the world when we abandoned him in the Garden; and then God reached out and rescued Abraham by his good mercy, and told him in Genesis chapter 12 that he was going to create a people for himself out of Abraham’s bloodline; then God rescued that people he’d created for himself from Egypt by his good mercy, and then gave them a law that turned Israel into a place that would reflect that good mercy by which God saves us.
So it shouldn’t surprise us, in verse 15, when Paul says, “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus.” There was a purpose behind the law, and that purpose was never to “justify us.”
Instead, Paul says in Romans chapter 7, quote, “I would not have known sin if it weren’t for the law.” He’s not saying that the Law made him sin, he’s saying that the Law defined it for him. The Law gives us an idea of what God loves and what God hates. The Law doesn’t tell us “how to be saved” from our brokenness, it shows us that we need to be saved from our brokenness. The Law shatters our illusions by showing us beyond any shadow of a doubt that we really are exactly as broken as that very quiet voice in our souls has always been telling us. What you get from the Law is not a “ladder to heaven,” what you get from the Law is in ominous warning about the way you’re going.
So we see throughout the Old Testament not that God gave us the Law as a way that we could “work our way into his good graces,” but instead very simply that God gave us his Law during the days of Moses so that we would reflect his glory, and that as God’s people tried and failed to reflect his glory by keeping his Law, we came to realize that we were broken sinners in need of a savior.
There’s an overused quote by an old, dead theologian named Thomas Watson that says, “Until sin is bitter, Christ will not be sweet.” Until we see our sin clearly enough to hate it, we will not see Christ clearly enough to submit to him with gladness. There’s another quote by a somewhat-less-old but very-equally-dead philosopher named C.S. Lewis, that says, “No man really knows that he is bad until he has tried very hard to be good.”
The Law beckons us to try very hard to be good and learn in the process that we are bad. It beckons us to experience for ourselves that Christ is sweet by experiencing for ourselves that sin is bitter.
So God’s Law had a purpose, and that purpose was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The point of the law was very simply to govern God’s people during the time when they were a nation and demonstrate our need for Jesus Christ in the ages before he came. And he has come, and so the Law has been fulfilled. So you don’t need to get circumcised at 22, right?
That’s why Paul says that “We have died to the Law, so that we might live for God.” The law rightly sentenced us to death for our sin, but we’ve been “crucified with Christ,” verse 20, and “it’s no longer” you and I who live, but “Christ who lives in us.” So “the life” that we now live, “we live by faith in the Son of God who loves us and gave himself for us.”
That’s interesting. We’ve been, essentially, trained to read past sentences like that. Right? But that’s got staggering consequences. You’ve been crucified with Christ, so that it’s “no longer” you who lives, but Christ, who “lives in you.” Christ lives in you.
I wanna break that down: Everybody in this room who is a believer in Jesus has been rightly put to death with Jesus and now you aren’t just you, Christ lives in you. And because Christ lives in you, you’ve only got one hand on the wheel. You know what I’m talking about?
You aren’t just yourself, you are part of “the body of Christ.” Right? You hear the term “body of Christ” a whole lot, we’ll refer to the church – the church all across the world – as the “body of Christ,” but we hear it so often that most of the time we miss the point of the metaphor. It’s one of those things that you hear so often that you never think about it, right?
But if you have been put to death with Jesus and raised up with Jesus you are part of the body of Christ, and who owns Christ’s body? Christ owns Christ’s body. Who runs Christ’s body? Christ runs Christ’s “body.” You aren’t yours. You are not your own. You are Christ’s “hands” and Christ’s “feet.” Christ will cause you to see with his “eyes” and hear with his “ears,” and like Paul mentions in first Corinthians, you will begin to think with the “mind of Christ,” because we weren’t just resurrected as our old selves, we weren’t resurrected as the same people who were crucified, we were resurrected as members of Christ’s “body.” When you went into the grave with Jesus, somebody else came back.
And that’s a metaphor, obviously, but it’s a powerful metaphor. You’ve been raised up out of the grave as a member of Christ’s body, and as a member of Christ’s body you’ve been “knit together” with every other member of Christ’s body on planet Earth. You follow? That’s big. That’s also annoying. Because that means you’ve been knit together with that person you hate.
You’ve been knit together with every other believer on the face of the earth, meaning that there are literally billions of people on every continent, in every corner of the world you are irrevocably bound to. You’ve been raised up out of the grave with every Coptic Christian in the Middle East, every Russian Orthodox Christian throughout Eastern Europe, every Latin American Pentecostal. But that’s the easy part, right? The difficult part is that you’ve been raised up out of the grave with Jesus alongside every Christian in your hometown that you never want to talk to again. You’re a member of the body of Christ alongside your obnoxious neighbor. You’re gonna spend eternity with them. But step #1 of spending eternity with your obnoxious neighbor is spending right now with your obnoxious neighbor.
Because Christ will not tolerate avoidable discord among the members of his body. Like, if one of your hands is working against the other hand, you have a problem that you cannot afford to not settle. You’ve gotta go to the doctor. You’ve gotta figure something out. When your body turns against itself, you unravel. Christ will not tolerate avoidable discord among the members of his body.
And that’s why Paul reacts so violently when Peter drops the ball in Antioch by segregating himself from the Gentile Christians and sequestering himself with other Jews.
Because up to this point in Paul’s argument, we’ve seen that the Good News ought to bring us together rather than drive us apart, right? As we strive to be good enough, we realize that we need something more than behavior modification. We realize that we need to be rescued from the outside.
And the rescue that we need comes in the form of Jesus Christ, God the son, coming to earth, living out the life that we should have lived, and then giving himself over to be crucified in our place so that you and I are crucified with Christ, our old selves are put to death with Christ and we are raised up out of the grave with him not as our old selves but as new selves, as members of Christ’s body.
And as members of Christ’s body, we are bound to each other for the rest of forever, and as people who are bound to each other for the rest of forever, we have an unqualified obligation to seek reconciliation with each other at all costs.
And because that’s the case, if we look at verse 11, Paul says that “When Peter came to Antioch, he opposed him to his face because he stood condemned.” That’s a really strong statement. It’s not something you expect Paul to say about his friend Peter.
Most of the time your relationships are more important than your arguments, and so the fact that Paul stiff-arms Peter on this occasion tells us that this is as important as it could possibly be. This is not Paul and Peter arguing about politics, this is not the color of the carpet, this is none of those things. This is not an agree-to-disagree issue. For Paul, this is a litmus test over whether we believe the Gospel or we don’t.
He says Peter “regularly ate with the Gentiles” up until “certain men came to him from James.” So, Peter is Jewish, and a Gentile is anybody who isn’t Jewish, and up until this point, Peter used to fellowship with Gentiles – across racial lines, across ideological lines, across cultural and traditional lines – because the Gospel of Jesus Christ obliterates those distinctions, right?
Later in the book of Galatians, in Galatians chapter 3, Paul comes to the climax of his argument and he says that “In Christ there is no male and female, there is no Jew and Gentile, there is no circumsised and uncircumsised, there is no barbarian or Scythian, and so on and so forth. Right?
The distinctions that we artificially draw between ourselves in order to justify separating ourselves from each other and putting other people under our feet do not exist. We invented them. The divisions that we cling to are made in our image, not in God’s image, you know what I’m talking about? And by dying on the cross and raising us up together with him, Jesus has abolished all of those distinctions. There’s a reason that throughout the 1950s and 60s the book of Galatians developed a reputation as St. Paul’s great anti-segregation manifesto, and when the Civil Rights Movement came in full swing, a good deal of their arguments came almost verbatim out of the book of Galatians.
Because we’ll learn that when Paul wrote Galatians, he was facing down a pretty rabid group of segregationists who were plaguing the church nearly 2000 years before they plagued our churches in the first half of the 20th century. Peter used to minister to and minister with Gentiles across cultural lines, but whatever the men from James had told Peter caused him to withdraw, separate himself from the Gentiles and exclusively do fellowship with other Jews. Paul has a good idea why: He says Peter did this “because he feared those from the circumcision party.”
It’s a very long story, to explain what the “circumcision party” is, but the short version is that the circumcision party was a group of agitators pretending to be Brothers and Sisters in Christ who wanted to tear the earliest churches apart at the seams by stirring up discord between Jewish believers and Gentile believers.
So they would go into churches all throughout the Empire and present arguments that seemed convincing if you weren’t real familiar with the Bible, and they would say, “These Gentiles refuse to obey God’s law, and if you keep sharing your fellowship with them, you’re not going to help them – they’re not going to become law-abiding Jews – they’re just going to drag you down. They’re just going to pollute you.”
And they would say, “If you don’t deal with this infestation now, then 20 years from now, this neighborhood is going to be overrun with Gentiles who bring ham sandwiches to your potlucks.” You know what I’m talking about? Human beings are remarkably susceptible to that kind of rhetoric. And the segregationists from the circumcision party took full advantage of that.
And instead of standing firm against the circumcision party as a leader in the church, Peter buckled and made concession after concession after concession after concession. He tried to appease the circumcision party by separating himself from the Gentiles and only fellowshipping with other Jews.
He said, “Okay, let’s not let this turn into a big thing – I’ll fellowship with other Jews and we’ll have Jewish churches and Gentiles can fellowship with other Gentiles and have Gentile churches, and it’ll be fine, and tensions won’t erupt, and the circumcision party’ll be satisfied and sit back down, it’ll be fine.” Peter tries to appease the circumcision party by segregating himself from the Gentiles that God has placed him over as a shepherd.
And so Paul says in verse 14, “When I saw that they were deviating from the truth of the Gospel, I confronted Peter in front of everyone.” Because Peter has no excuse. Peter knows better. Peter knows plenty well that “Christ came to fulfill the Law,” like Jesus says in the gospels. There was a purpose behind the law, and that purpose has been fulfilled. The time in which the law was a factor in how God governs us came and went, and it’s over.
But the circumcision party isn’t done with the Law yet. They refused to be done with it. But it’s not because the circumcision party loves God. It’s not even because the circumcision party has some misplaced love for the Law of God. It’s because the circumcision party hates Gentiles. The circumcision party is trying to tear the church apart at the seams by throwing us into discord against one another by stirring up resentment between Jews and Gentiles, and the tool they’ve decided to use is the fact that Gentiles do not adhere to the law of Moses.
And Peter thinks he can appease them. And so Peter stops fellowshipping with Gentiles, and he segregates himself with other Jews.
But Paul refuses to join Peter in trying to appease the circumcision party. He says, of course inviting Gentiles to fellowship with us in Jesus Christ is going to change the culture of our churches. Of course Gentile Christians don’t adhere to the “letter” of the Law. But you don’t need to either anymore. Because that’s not what the Law is for. The law is not meant to justify us in the eyes of God and it is especially not meant to draw a wedge between Jews and Gentiles.
It ought to do the opposite. Because as we strive to be good enough, we realize that we need something more than behavior modification. We realize that we need to be rescued from the outside. And that rescue that we need comes in the form of Jesus Christ, God the son, coming to earth, living out the life that we should have lived, and then giving himself over to be crucified in our place so that you and I are crucified with Christ, our old selves are put to death with Christ and we are raised up out of the grave with him not as our old selves but as new selves, as members of Christ’s body. And as members of Christ’s body, we are bound to each other for the rest of forever, and as people who are bound to each other for the rest of forever, we have an unqualified obligation to seek reconciliation with each other at all costs.
This flies in the face of the circumcision party, because the circumcision party wants to tear us apart from the inside by baiting us into putting our cultural differences or our racial differences or our ideological differences or our good-old-fashioned disagreements and grudges above the fact that you and I have been crucified together with Christ and resurrected together with Christ, and that we’re members of one body now whether we like it or not.
So, the gospel is absolutely free and absolutely terrifying. God’s grace is absolutely free and absolutely demanding. Jesus rescues us from our sin at great cost to himself and no cost to ourselves, and then calls us to submit ourselves to his good mercy in a way that drags us through costly and difficult and life-changing and horrifying reconciliations that are not optional.
So, listen, if you’ve been reconciled to God, you will be reconciled to your neighbors. You will be reconciled to your brothers and sisters in Christ. Like, in the first century, if you were a Jewish believer and you had been reconciled to God you were going to be reconciled to your Gentile neighbors whether you liked it or not, and if you were a Gentile believer in Christ and you’d been reconciled to God you were going to be reconciled to your Jewish neighbors whether you liked it or not. God didn’t consult you on that matter. He didn’t ask for your opinion. He didn’t give you a questionnaire to fill out about who you thought it was worth being reconciled to. If you’ve been reconciled to God, you will be reconciled to your neighbors.
That’s a scary thought, for multiple reasons. And one of them is that if you put your foot down your entire life and refused to be reconciled to your neighbors, the problem was not that God had failed you. The problem very well might be that you were not reconciled to God so you had no heart for reconciliation with each other.
This is the part where I’m supposed to do some sort of interpretive gymnastics to explain why this doesn’t mean what Paul makes it seem like it means. But I’ve got nothing for you. If you refuse to be reconciled to your brothers and sisters in Christ, the problem might be that you have not been reconciled to God so you have no heart for being reconciled to your brothers and sisters in Christ.
There are some obvious caveats to that – right? – like, there are some people who continue to be directly belligerent and predatory, and so you may never be able to have a functional relationship with your abusive spouse again. I am not pushing you towards that. That is its own thing. You may never be able to have a functional relationship with your biological mother or your biological father again because every time you get mildly close they try to take advantage of you. Those are all real things. Those are their own thing.
But there is a universe of difference between maintaining a necessary distance for your own safety and refusing to be reconciled to your fellow members of the body of Christ because of your own pride. Being reconciled to God will drive us to being reconciled to our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, because we’ve been put to death with Jesus. Our pride has been put to death with Jesus, our shameless self-interest has been put death with Jesus, our greed and our selfishness, our contentiousness, have been put to death with Jesus, and we’ve been raised up together with him as members of his body. And Christ will not have avoidable discord among the members of his body.
We’re getting to the section of the service that people often refer to as the altar call, but throughout the last half hour I’ve done, maybe, everything I can to talk you out of coming down to the altar and giving your life to Jesus Christ by laying out some of the radical demands that come with being raised up to walk in newness of life as Paul says. If you take away nothing else from today, take away that redemption is annoying. As a member of Christ’s body, the Holy Spirit will drag you through difficult reconciliations you would never have chosen to pursue on your own. That’s annoying. That complicates your life.
Which means that if you’re anything like me, you’d probably rather walk. My pride is so pervasive that in my sinful nature I’d rather cling to my grudges than submit to the transformation Christ calls us to in the Spirit.
But if that’s you, we’re praying that the Holy Spirit would break down your hard-headedness. We are praying, like Thomas Watson said, that “Sin would become bitter to you” so that “Christ becomes sweet.” We’re praying that you would grow profoundly dissatisfied with the grudges and prejudices that might keep you from turning yourself over to Jesus to be reconciled to God. We are praying that you’d give yourself over to be crucified with Christ, and raised up together with him so that you’re no longer just you, but Christ lives in you.