It was after three years that I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [ie Peter], and stayed with him for fifteen days. Except for James, the brother of the Lord, I saw no other apostles.
     Take note: what I am writing here, before God, is no lie. Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown, unsighted by the churches of Judaea; what they heard was only [the report that]: "the one who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he had previously been destroying." And so they praised God because of me. - Galatians 1:18-24/transliteration by Bruce C Wearne

Read this account alongside the letters Peter wrote. Look at that place where Peter refers to Paul.

"Some of the things Paul writes," he says, "are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures" (II Peter 3:16).

Antioch in Pisidia

Ruins at Antioch of Pisidia, believed to be a location of one of the Christian communities in Galatia. PICTURE: Maderibeyza (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

 

IN A NUTSHELL

Paul explains his initial contact with Peter, the Jerusalem church and the churches in Judaea.

Remember how the Lord also dealt with Peter's ignorance and instability? Peter knew that whatever the problems which Paul had in communicating his message, Jesus was able to help him and make his message clear.

So, we don't fall into a common trap of reading such statements as some kind of "do or die" competition between these apostolic leaders of the early church. If we do, we may find ourselves "twisting" these Biblical documents and, in the process, destroying our grasp of any insight and wisdom they provide. Why? Because these accounts explain how God's Spirit was working with and through both Peter and Paul.

The dog-eat-dog party spirit (5:15,21) born of zealotry, would pit Paul against Peter and thereby empty the Gospel of its power - it would even make "Christ" into a faction (I Corinthians 1:10-17). This seems to have been a constant temptation for the first Christians. But not just for them. It is a mentality that seemingly creeps up on us unawares.

After all, we now, with our "superior" hindsight - a mere 1950+/- years later - could easily use this account of this event to explain how we don't engage in such combat, not even like these two leaders of the early church. And if we were to do so we would be embarking upon a path that requires a mistaken interpretation. In Paul's terms, we would be demonstrating our (albeit) latter-day "ignorance and instability", because we would have assumed that the authority of Paul and Peter was indeed "from men and through men" (remember what Paul wrote right at the beginning of the letter? see Galatians 1:1). Instead, our interpretation of Paul and Peter - our hermeneutic - should provide us with a clear view of how the Spirit of Jesus, accomplished His work in their lives.

When Peter says there are "ignorant and unstable" people he is writing as one who knows what ignorance and instability is all about. Likewise, when Paul identifies "trouble-makers" who "pervert" the Gospel, he knows just what that involves all too well - he was a prime mover in the trouble-making department. Both openly admit that any knowledge and wisdom they put forward has come to them solely from the mercy of their Master. Paul's account here should also be read in such terms. This is an extended exposition of how Jesus led Paul and Peter into a life of service which also involved ongoing self-criticism.

Luke's account of Paul's opposition (in Acts), shows us that his fury was initially directed to those Jews who, from that inaugurating Pentecost, had embraced Israel's Messiah. Paul was intent on wiping them out - systematically - and these, Luke has told us, were Jews of the dispersion. That campaign ran until this self- same Messiah turned Paul around, turned him around completely, by sending him to the Gentiles (1:23-24) and, no doubt, to then come into contact with fellow Jews he had forced to flee from his persecution.

Like Peter, Paul well knew that his own "ignorance and instability" did not prevent Jesus from turning him around. Our ignorance and instability is nothing other than our refusal to embrace the Lord's daily gracious working in our lives. Peter's turn to the Gentiles occurred in the house of Cornelius the Roman centurion when the Holy Spirit turned him around.

Peter knew full well Jesus' words to the disciples when He was eating with them after His resurrection. He had shared a meal with them even when they were carried away by unbelief and hardness of heart (Mark 16:14). If Jesus had consented to do that with His disciples, even when they disbelieved, how then could the disciples of Jesus refuse to eat with Gentiles who believed? (see Acts 11).

This then is the same (block-headed and frustrating) Peter who Paul was to confront when his double- minded play-acting, his lack of firmness, came to expression (that also becomes starkly evident in Chapter 2). But as I have said, we should not interpret Paul as trying to commend himself by, as it were, robbing Peter of his "pillar" status to transfer credit to his own account.

What Paul is affirming is the way in which the "revelation of Jesus Christ", which had turned him around, was busy assisting Peter, and the churches of Judaea, for the ongoing work of harvest as the Gospel seed was sown among the Gentiles.

And if the same Holy Spirit provoked Paul to say some difficult things to Peter, so that the workers, in their ongoing work, were kept from straying down paths that Jesus did not send His disciples, then Paul had to be willing to make such comments. This is indeed part of "bearing one another's burdens...in a spirit of gentleness" (Galatians 6:1-6).

There's some marvellous surprises in store for us in this letter concerning the way those who believe are allowed, by the Holy Spirit, to reap the first-fruits of eternal life but only if we do not grow weary in doing good to each other and to our neighbour (6:8-9).