But when He Who had set me apart before I was born, and Who called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son to me in order that I might preach Him among the Gentiles… - Galatians 1:15-16a (ESV)
The Apostle Paul knew that He had been called to preach the Gospel of the kingdom of God and Jesus as its Lord to all nations, without restriction. It is in the midst of this knowledge, for which he labored and suffered, that he encounters what he saw as an unthinkable situation in Antioch. He recounts a story about Peter in Antioch, saying that “before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles” (2:12a). Why wouldn’t he? This table fellowship was reminiscent of what Christ Himself had done throughout the course of His ministry. This was the picture of the Gospel in action. This was the picture of God extending His covenant of salvation and restoration, indeed His peace and life, and doing so to all men.
However, Paul sadly reports that “when they came he (Peter) drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party” (2:12b). As we might imagine, with this example being provided by them to one who had an extraordinarily close relationship with the One Whom they were all now claiming as their Lord, “the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him” (2:13a), also drawing back and separating themselves from the Gentiles, re-drawing the old lines of exclusion and isolation that had done so much to bring judgment upon Israel, and which had been strenuously condemned by Christ, in word and deed. Paul responded by opposing Peter’s actions, flatly rebuking him and declaring to him that his “conduct was not in step with the truth of the Gospel” (2:14a). In this rebuke, we can hear Paul reminding Peter that the Gospel and its announcement of the kingdom of God made the proclamation that in Christ, “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).
Continuing on in the letter to the Galatians, Paul adds to his argument and writes that “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16a). In the context of this setting up of exclusionary table fellowship, Paul warned his hearers and his subsequent readers that withdrawing into their national boundaries is not what will show them to be righteous. Circumcision was no longer the mark of God’s covenant, and the evidence of a man’s faithfulness to the covenant (righteousness/justification), but rather, the confession of Jesus as Lord. God’s covenant people would be identified by the declaration of a gifted faith of belief in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Reinforcing his point, and almost the entirety of his message, Paul writes “so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law” (2:16b). Why does he say that? “Because by works of the law no one will be justified” (2:16c). Moving forward in the advance of Christ’s kingdom, the fleshly marks of a non-held-to covenant must be understood to be irrelevant in God’s plan for righteousness.
Again, God’s people were not going to be counted righteous, justified, by the outward mark of a supposed faithfulness to a covenant and its requirements (honoring the Sabbaths, reverencing the sanctuary, keeping from idolatry) that Israel had never been able to keep. Justification, that is, being counted righteous (or faithful to the covenant) would come through the faith gifted by the Holy Spirit, as that faith brings one into union with Christ for the purpose of believing that He is Lord and acting in accordance with the promises (salvation, redemption, eternal life, restoration, renewal, resurrection) associated with that belief. Naturally, this would also include the proclamation and propagation of this belief (preaching and making disciples), for the purpose of the spreading of the gift of faith (Romans 10:17), so that others might experience this justification as well.
As all of this is considered, one does not have to stretch his mind very far to come to terms with the idea that circumcision, which was being used as a dividing line for the separation of true believers and the ongoing identification of those who were truly God’s covenant people going forward, is here being seen by Paul as little more than idolatry. In doing this, they are simply rebuilding what it was that Christ tore down”(2:18a), offering proof of Israel’s ongoing transgression of not being a light to the world, which justified God’s judgment against them, showing that Christ had to come to set things right, and that God Himself had to enter into history in order to do what His people had failed to do and to be what His people had failed to be, inaugurating His kingdom in the process. Along with that, it could probably be said that anything that we presumptuously hold up as marks of identification that somehow mark us out from others of God’s chosen people as somehow special and distinct, this must surely appear as the building of barriers and as idols in the eyes of our Lord and God.