Skip to content

Studies In Galatians

Standing Fast In The Liberty By Which Christ Has Made Us Free (See 5:1)

Chapter 2:11-21

Why did Christ die?

In the last segment of Galatians, chapter 2:1-10, Paul relates how, in an effort to strengthen the unity of the Body of Christ and to enable various segments of the Church to speak the same thing, he came to Jerusalem to counsel with “pillars” of the Church, namely the Apostles, in what became the first ‘Church Council’ in New Testament history. The effort ended in an edifying manner with the general acceptance of Paul’s principle that the truth of the Gospel should not be hampered by legalistic baggage, while also encouraging a general interest in the well–being of fellow Christians, both Gentile and Jew.

But a general agreement in itself did not guarantee perfect implementation, as Paul soon discovered. A short time later an incident revealed how a spirit of legalism creeps into our behavior with and toward others. This incident which some might have regarded as rather innocuous was taken very seriously by Paul, who drew from it for the Galatians the essential question: “Why did Christ die?”

An Evangelical Spirit

The Christian life pursues holiness as a result of faith. Ideally we would let the light of the gospel shine in our lives, namely, that we have been redeemed from the wretchedness of sin not by our deeds, but by the free gift of righteousness through Christ. To be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” our lives should exhibit truth, love, and peace.

But we are beset by the impulse of the sinful flesh and the promptings of the world in ways that cause us to deny the faith we profess. So it happened with Peter. His actions in Antioch began to obscure any clear answer to the question: “Why did Christ die?”

Following the Jerusalem Council which recognized that full acceptance into the Christian Church was based entirely upon a true faith in Christ Jesus, and not at all upon the adoption of the Jewish law and traditions, Paul returned to his home church in Antioch. Peter arrived some time later. This was a mixed church, containing Jewish believers and (uncircumcised) Gentile believers. Under Paul’s instruction an evangelical spirit reigned, with the Jews recognizing the Gentiles as full partners in the Kingdom. Peter, who well knew the principle that all believers were “clean” (acceptable) in Christ, joined in with this open and evangelical spirit.

But when some other churchmen came to Antioch from Jerusalem, things changed. The ‘Judaizing’ spirit came with them — that attitude that only those who submitted to the Jewish laws could be full partakers in the kingdom of God. Those who associated with Gentiles polluted their own ‘righteousness’. This matter of association was especially evident in the practice of dining, which for the Jews was regarded as a time of spiritual fellowship. In the Antioch church it most likely included the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. When they came together to eat, the Jerusalem party avoided mixing with the Gentiles. Their avoidance was obvious. What stunned Paul was that Peter, who had previously mixed with the others on his own, was suddenly embarrassed, or ashamed, or afraid to do so in the presence of these newcomers. He ate with the Jews.

A Grave Offense

When we sin openly we all too often draw others into sin themselves. Peter’s “hypocrisy” (as Paul identified it) infected others who knew better. The offense was grave — especially for Paul who recognized that it gave the lie to the central message of Christianity, namely, that we are saved by grace entirely apart from the works that we do. For the Gentiles were left to assume they were somehow incomplete and not fully accepted into Christ’s apostolic Church.

Paul was not embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid to speak in defense of the truth. In this case an open rebuke was justified. In his own brilliant manner he identified the problem at hand and then traced it to its theological roots. He employed sharp, logical reasoning to show how Peter’s cowardice and hypocrisy was no less than a denial of his faith. Briefly, it went something like this: Peter has himself “lived as a Gentile,” but now by his actions he would “compel Gentiles to live as Jews.” Yet even he and Paul, who had lived the sanctified life of believing Jews, had come to realize that all their sabbath-keeping, food-abstaining, righteous-living ways could not count as righteousness toward God. Only by drinking deeply of the righteousness of Christ, through faith, were they justified before God. They had “died to the law,” that is, the law could no longer condemn them, in Christ, Beware! If now they somehow gave the impression that their works made them more worthy than others, they would quickly find themselves subject to the law’s condemnation.

When we profess ourselves to be Christians, we invite the question from the world: why did Christ die? Paul regarded himself (that is, his fleshly ways and impulses) as dead before God. The only works that count are those that flow from faith in Christ, the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” If, in that spirit, we manifest open-hearted love toward others, and particularly toward our Christian brother or sister, we give evidence that Christ died to save sinners.

If, in the conceit of self-righteousness, we distinguish ourselves from, and exalt ourselves above, others by reason of the lives we lead, our actions cry out that grace is all bosh, and “Christ died in vain.”

What answer would you give?