There is an episode of the hit comedy series, The Office, where the boss, Michael Scott, invites some of his employees to his house for a dinner party. What ensues is a tragically hilarious meltdown between Michael and his girlfriend, Jan. Now, of course, The Office is fictitious and the scenes shown to the viewers are meant to make your cringe and laugh all at the same time. In Galatians 2, we find a similar scene, although in this scene Paul is not trying to bring us to laughter. In fact, there does not appear to be anything funny at all going on. The scene in Galatians 2:11ff causes us to wonder, though, what will happen next? In that sense, it is very much similar to the Dinner Party between Michael Scott and his employees.
Now, in Galatians 2 Paul opposes Peter because of Peter’s change of heart and actions over table fellowship with the Gentiles. Peter, initially it appears, was willing to sit and eat with the Gentiles who had different eating customs to the Jewish people. However, after “certain people from James” came (I think here we should understand that these certain people are not authorized by James but had come from Jerusalem where James was considered the leader of the community), Peter changed his practice. He began to distance himself from the Gentile converts to the way of Jesus and to follow the hard-line that these Jewish brothers and sisters were following.
This is significant to Paul because the primary way, at this point, that one showed acceptance to another and how the church practiced community was through table fellowship. Without table fellowship there could be no church. The church did not sit in pews, nor did they sit in small groups, they sat at a table, and they ate a meal together. This meal, this fellowship was everything for the early church. And if Peter and others begin to separate themselves due to Jewish eating customs and rules, then the church is not united but divided.
And so, in verses 15ff Paul embarks to show how the Jewish Law is insufficient for the purposes of sanctification. Not only that, but if the Jewish Law were sufficient, then the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus would have been purposeless. And so, Paul’s argument here causes Peter as well as modern readers to determine whether in following Jesus if Jesus is even necessary. The obvious answer that Paul wants us to see is that of course Jesus is necessary! If Jesus were unnecessary, then this whole movement would be founded on crumbling ground. However, that is not the case at all. Jesus is necessary, and not only is Jesus necessary, it is through Jesus and Jesus alone that this way of life is possible.
And this gets us back to table fellowship. Because what Peter and others are doing in Galatia here, while it may seem innocuous or mostly innocent to us, is a dangerous development to the way of Jesus.
Consider what John says in his Gospel, quoting Jesus: “I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I prayer that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me” (John 17:21). Jesus continues on in this very section urging that the disciples be one as an example of the veracity of the way of Jesus. And, in fact, this is a theme throughout John’s Gospel–Jesus’ oneness with God and the disciples’ oneness with Jesus.
And notice too, that Jesus says this in John 17:21 so that the world will believe. The oneness of the followers of Jesus is a witness about the truth of Jesus to the world! That’s why Paul is so concerned in Galatians 2. It is not simply a matter of which meats to eat, or who can sit with who. It is a matter of whether the way of Jesus is true or not. And for Paul, after his experience on the Damascus road, he has chosen to dedicate his life to this way of Jesus. Nothing can come between the truth of Jesus and Paul.
So, why should we care about this? What does Galatians 2 teach us in today’s world?
Well, I think first and foremost, it teaches us about the radical unity of the body of Christ. As human beings, this can often be one of our greatest faults. We are very good at carving up the world, and even carving up Jesus’ church into various groups. Some of these are innocent enough (small groups, age based classes, etc.) while others are more dangerous, and even more accepted (denominations, exclusive attitudes toward certain others, etc.). But, here we see that the way of Jesus is a radically inclusive way of life when it comes to who can be seated at the table. It doesn’t mean that “anything” goes, but it does mean that when you or I come to the table, you or I do not control who is seated where nor who is welcome to be seated.
Paul’s conviction about this is strong enough to oppose Peter to his face in Galatians 2. It is my prayer that we will be champions of the table of Jesus, the table of fellowship, and welcome all to come, eat, and be filled.