Paul says that Peter’s actions are nothing less that hypocrisy. Peter has changed his attitude and behavior toward Gentile Christians after the visit from the “men from James.” The first verb (ὑποστέλλω) is a military term and has the sense of retreating to an “inconspicuous position” (Witherington, Galatians, 154). In Acts 20:27 Paul uses the verb to describe what he did not do – he did not “shrink back” from preaching the gospel in Ephesus in the face of persecution. The second verb (ἀφορίζω) has the separating into groups (the sheep and the goats in Matt 25:32, for example). Witherington takes this to mean that the word has a sense of ritual purity, and I might add it has an eschatological sense. At the end of the age, the Lord will separate those who will enter the kingdom from those who will not. If we are right that the political and religious situation in Judea was becoming increasingly apocalyptic, it is possible that these “men from James” were encouraging a separation of the Jews and the Gentiles in anticipation of a coming judgment.
The reason for Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship is fear from the circumcision party, those Jews who insisted on circumcising Gentiles. There is at least the possibility (based on Galatians 6:12) that some Jews, such as the Zealots, were willing to use force to ensure Jewish traditions were being observed. If this is the case, then perhaps Peter’s fear is a real fear of persecution by the more zealous wing of the Jerusalem church. This is not a case of “the pastor is coming over, quick hide the beer bottles”! Peter and Barnabas may have withdrawn from fellowship to avoid a potentially violent reprisal from the “zealots” within Jewish Christianity.
Peter’s actions therefore are out of character and not in line with his beliefs nor the agreement which he reached with Paul in Galatians 2:1-10. Paul thinks Peter and Barnabas have “shrunk back” out of fear and are in need of correction. While Peter is a hypocrite, Paul describes Barnabas as “led astray.” The verb συναπάγω has the sense of “carried away,’ he was fooled by the rhetoric of the “men from James.”
Witherington suggests that Barnabas found himself in a bad place because he was originally sent to Antioch by Jerusalem, he could not go against the “orders” of the church who sent him to Antioch in the first place (Galatians, 157). His loyalty was to Jerusalem, the group with which he was associated from the earliest days (Acts 4), rather than to Paul and the Gentile mission. The Gentile mission is not Barnabas’ commission, it is Paul’s. All of the Jews in the Antioch church join with Peter and Barnabas in withdrawing from fellowship with the Gentile believers. This indicates that there is a church-wide split caused by the “men from James.”
Paul publically confronted Peter because his “conduct was not in line with the truth.” This confrontation was “before them all,” which may mean that Paul waited until the church assembled. Parallel to the private meeting in Jerusalem, Paul chose to bring this issue to the whole assembly. The accusation against Peter that he is not living in accordance to what he knows is the truth, the agreement of Gal 2:1-10, for example. The agitators in the Galatian church, on the other hand, were described with military terms. They are spies and agitators who are outside of the truth of the gospel to begin with. Peter knows the truth and is not acting in accordance with it, the agitators do not even know the gospel.
Paul’s point is that if Peter and the Jewish Christians withdraw from the Gentile Christians, then there is no unity in the body of Christ. As Paul will point out later in the later, there is no Jew or Greek in the Body of Christ, we are all members together “in Christ.” To separate into two bodies, a Jewish and a Gentile one, totally misses the point of a “joint-body” as Paul describes in Ephesians 2.
What is at stake here is the nature of the Gospel. If Paul loses this argument, then Gentiles will continue to be “second class believers” in the eyes of some conservative Jewish believers.
Although the issues are different, how does contemporary churches create boundaries which push some types of Christians out of fellowship, or consider them as second-class Christians? Perhaps some of the boundaries are important (the men from James thought circumcision was critical to being a follower of Jesus), but others may not be. How can we disagree on the boundaries without compromising the unity of the Body of Christ?