The apostle Paul twice refers to “the truth of the gospel” in Galatians 2.
…to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. (2:5; ESV)
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?” (2:14; ESV)
I think trying to understand this phrase is critical to understanding the problem that the apostle Paul is addressing in the letter to the Galatians. Most scholars and commentators take Galatians 2 to be a defense of how a person is saved by faith and not by works. I also believed this was the general message of this letter. However, I am seeing things differently now because of a couple of new personal observations.
1. The conflict is not between the Jews and the Christians. I had always seen that this was the conflict, particularly after studying the book of Acts and noting how the Jews persecuted in Paul in many cities he taught. But these troublemakers are described as “false brothers” (2:4). These troublemakers are Jewish Christians, claiming to be God’s people, but are proving themselves false. In fact, they claim to be Christians sent from James (2:12). This point also suggests that these are not Jews, but Jewish Christians. Further, Galatians 2:13 says that the rest of the Jews also acted hypocritically, causing Barnabas to also be carried away. If these were the persecuting Jews, I do not believe Peter and Barnabas would have been tempted to cave into the peer pressure as they did. I think the NLT is correct to render verse 13 as “other Jewish Christians followed Peter’s hypocrisy.”
2. Carefully reading the first 14 verses of Galatians 2 reveals the hypocrisy Peter, Barnabas, and the other Jewish Christians had fallen into. The hypocrisy was not about when a person was saved. The hypocrisy is stated clearly in verse 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” (ESV). The problem was the Jewish Christians were not eating with Gentile Christians. The hypocrisy was teaching that there was no longer clean or unclean, but the Jewish Christians still acted like there was a distinction. Thus, Paul could say, “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel…” (ESV).
So, what is the truth of the gospel? The truth of the gospel is that there was no longer a dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles. There was no longer a separation between in clean and unclean. Now Jews and Gentiles were to become one family and one body in Jesus. The truth of the gospel is what Paul would write to the Ephesians:
14 Forhe himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed inordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and mightreconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came andpreached peace to you who werefar off and peace to those who werenear. 18 For through him we both haveaccess in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20built on the foundation of theapostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself beingthe cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows intoa holy temple in the Lord. 22 In himyou also are being built togetherinto a dwelling place for God bythe Spirit. (Ephesians 2:14-22; ESV)
I think I have for too long allowed other writers to color my view of Galatians 2. The apostle Paul cannot be talking about how a person is saved because he is writing to the saved. Paul is writing to the Galatian Christians about the Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in the Antioch church. Paul is not battling Jews who trying to change the gospel. Paul is battling Jewish Christians who are trying to tell the Gentile Christians that they are not part of the body of Christ (or citizens in God’s house, to use Ephesians 2:19) unless they are circumcised and maintain the ceremonial defilement laws. Specifically, the Antioch church is in conflict with Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians separating themselves from one another on the basis of clean and unclean/defilement and circumcision (2:3).
I hope to write more about this as I continue to study Galatians.