Once the operative realm of the concept of justification is understood, and as we are able to operate more freely and comfortably with its connection to covenant inclusion, irrespective of national origin or physical descent, we find the way that it is introduced into the letter to Galatians is more than sensible. Paul brings the issue to the table by recounting his experience with Peter in Antioch, writing “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he had clearly done wrong. Until certain people came from James, he had been eating with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he stopped doing this and separated himself because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision” (2:11-12). The “pro-circumcision” party are those that expected Gentile believers in Jesus to Judaize. They expected these believers, in demonstration of their joining up with the elect people of God, to undergo circumcision. Most likely, this would have included an expectation that they would adhere to Sabbath-keeping and food laws as well, with this presumption founded on Paul’s talk of Peter’s eating with Gentiles and his subsequent cessation of this practice.
According to Paul, Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with the Gentiles was equivalent to agreeing with the need for Gentile believers to Judaize, thus devaluing the confession of Jesus as Lord as the sole necessary covenant marker that identified one as a participant in the covenant people, in the church, and as ambassadors of the kingdom of God that had been announced and inaugurated by Jesus. Paul will later go on to point out that a devaluing of this confession, which is not to be separated from the crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus, is functionally equivalent to devaluing the death of Christ and making it irrelevant. In addition, this action on the part of Peter apparently flew in the face of his own confession and that to which he had previously agreed, which was that there was no need for Gentiles to undergo the rite of circumcision in connection with their covenant-based confession, and no need for them to adopt any of the traditional covenant markers.
As previously noted, when Paul visited Jerusalem, with Titus in tow, Titus was not “compelled to be circumcised, although he was a Greek” (2:3b), thus ultimately confirming the truth of Paul’s gospel (2:5). The influential leaders of the church, in Jerusalem, as Paul said, added nothing to his message (2:6), which pronounced justification through an oath of loyalty to Jesus alone (faith alone), apart from the works of the law. Peter had played a role in the assessment of Paul’s message, but now, by his actions, he was effectively adding to Paul’s message and even contradicting it to an extent, affirming the insistence that circumcision must take place, and treating the Gentile believers as if they were, somehow, fundamentally different and in need of making themselves look like Jews so as to participate in the covenant people (thus contradicting his experience in Acts chapter ten, which would have been well-known to all the church, and especially to Paul as the Apostle to the uncircumcised).
For all of these reasons, Paul accuses Peter of rank hypocrisy, adding that “the rest of the Jews also joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray with them by their hypocrisy” (2:13). To that, Paul adds, echoing the words of the fifth verse of this chapter, “But when I saw that they were not behaving consistently with the truth of the Gospel,” which finds no separation between Jew and Gentile while promoting the unity of the church of Christ under one and only one covenant marker, “I said to Cephas in front of them all, ‘If you, although you are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew,’” implying that Peter himself had abandoned Sabbath-keeping and food laws, thus abandoning any pretense of the value of those in light of what God had accomplished in Christ, “’how can you try to force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (2:14) This is a stinging indictment of one who had a reputation as a pillar of the church (2:9), and no doubt caused Peter to reflect on his rooftop visions, his experience with Cornelius and his household as recorded in Acts, and now his own failure to live out and live up to the truth of the Gospel.