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As a pastor I admit that one of my biggest idols is the approval of man. After all, much of what I do receives immediate feedback from the people I am called to serve. It is easy for me to get caught up with the number of seats that are filled every Sunday, the number of heads that nod in agreement or nod off in slumber, or the compliments/complaints I receive. Even this blog entry can be evaluated by “likes”! If I am not careful, such responses can determine my significance, security, and self-worth as I give in to the counterfeit gospel that seductively whispers in my ear: “You are what others think of you.”
The apostle Peter was no stranger to this idol. To his deep shame and regret, we all know how he denied Jesus three times. His fear of man issues did not end there, however. In Galatians 2:11-16 Paul openly rebukes Peter for his refusal to eat with Gentile Christians. In a scene straight out of a high school cafeteria (jocks eat over there, nerds over here, etc.), Peter refused to break bread with Gentile Christians. What we have here is meal-time segregation.
How do we understand Peter’s behavior? Verse 12 gives us a clue. “He began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.” Peter was not so much a racist as he was a coward. He was afraid. He was afraid of what others would think of him. At that moment, his fear of man out-sized his fear of God.
Yet, Peter’s issue went deeper than this. Paul gives us greater insight into Peter’s sin in verse 14, “When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel…” Peter’s cowardice was the fruit of a deeper root. Peter’s issue was not so much a man-fearing problem as much as it was a gospel problem. He was not acting in line with the gospel. He had strayed from the gospel he loved and was called to preach. As a result, his behavior betrayed his beliefs.
If Peter forgot the gospel, so can we. His sin proves that no one is immune from gospel straying. No one is immune from gospel inconsistency. After all, do any of us know the gospel better than Peter did? He knew the gospel inside-out. His letters are full of gospelicious proclamations: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Yet for all that Peter knew, he momentarily forgot the gospel and strayed from it.
At the same time, this passage does not only strike fear in our hearts. It also inspires. If Peter is an example of what could happen when we forget, Paul is an example of what could happen when we remember the gospel. Still considered the rookie apostle, Paul walks undauntedly up to Peter, the alpha apostle, and publicly rebukes him to his face. I have a hard time asking people to move seats during worship. What Paul did was simply awesome! What is more, Paul knew fully well that depending on Peter’s response, his rebuke could have created a PR nightmare. How many who were loyal to Peter could have turned on Paul in a flash?
But for Paul, his identity was not grounded in what others thought of him. His heart was instead rooted in fresh, fertile gospel soil. I would not be surprised if he meditated on the words, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” as he made his way to Peter. What others thought of him did not matter; only Christ and him crucified. Paul did not have to prove himself to anyone. Christ already did that for him. Paul did not have to meet anyone’s expectations. Christ already did that for him. Paul did not have to justify his existence. Christ already did that for him. Therein explains the source of Paul’s courage. Believing the gospel all the way down explains the difference between Peter’s gospel-less cowardice and Paul’s gospel-fueled courage.