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The Apostle Paul faced a crucial moment in his missionary endeavors when a number of men came to the church in Antioch from the church in Jerusalem. Their arrival in Antioch triggered a stunning reaction from the Jews who had been amiably fellowshiping and feasting with their gentile brothers and sisters. Immediately upon the arrival of these men from the church in Jerusalem, the Jews who had previously enjoyed table fellowship with their peers in Antioch began to separate themselves. Alarmingly, among their number were the Apostle Peter and Barnabas, who had been Paul’s co-laborer on his gentile mission. Paul was scandalized by their behavior, and he recounts this event and his response to the Jews who had separated from their gentile brothers and sisters in Galatians 2:11–21.

This was a watershed moment in the life of the early church. What is the basis for table fellowship between Jews and gentiles? What were the conditions that would enable people who were formerly antithetical to one another to live in peace and fellowship with one another? Of course, the question goes much deeper than a mere interest in table fellowship. At the root of the question is another question of greater consequence: How can a man be made right with God?

The Apostle Paul provided a simple answer to both of these questions. In the first place, a person, whether Jew or gentile, is made right with God only by faith in Jesus Christ. Paul made this point in an elegant but powerful manner in Galatians 2:15–16, as evidenced in the structure of the passage. Galatians 2:15–16 is arranged in the form of a chiasm. A chiasm is a literary device named for the Greek letter χ (chi) in which the author’s writing is arranged in an ABCBʹAʹ pattern. The letters of the series thematically correspond to each other with the emphasis placed on the item or items in the central position (C in the previous example). Galatians 2:15–16 evidences this structure in the following way:

  • A – We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners
    • B – yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law
      • C – but through faith in Jesus Christ
        • D – so we also have believed in Christ Jesus
      • C’ – in order to be justified by faith in Christ
    • B’ – and not by works of the law
  • A’ – because by works of the law no one will be justified.

We can place this in a thematic summary in the following way:

  • A – Reference to humanity as a whole (Jews; gentiles)
    • B – Works not a means of justification
      • C – Justification by faith in Christ
        • D – We (Paul, Peter, and all the rest) have believed
      • C’ – Justification by faith in Christ
    • B’ – Works not a means of justification
  • A’ – Reference to humanity as a whole (all flesh)

The point of paramount importance is the central notion designated by the letter [D]. But notice the movement of Paul’s thought. In [A]–[Aʹ], Paul refers to humanity as a whole. Within the Jewish mind the world was divided into two distinct camps: the Jews and then everyone else. In [B]–[Bʹ], Paul speaks first of the converted Jew who understands that justification before God cannot be established on the basis of law keeping, and then simply restates this reality in the second part of the pair. The reason that the Jewish convert knows that the law cannot be a means by which a man can be made right with God is because he had lived his life under the types and shadows of the Mosaic law. Day after day, the priests offered sacrifices to the Lord, and year after year, the Israelites observed the regular cycle of the ritual and feast days prescribed by the law of Moses. None of these things could make the worshiper perfect, for the simple reason that they were never intended to make anyone perfect (Heb. 10:1–4). The Mosaic economy always pointed beyond itself to something that would fulfill it: a sacrifice that could finally and fully remove the stain of sin (Heb. 10:14) and make it possible for man to dwell in the presence of God in happiness and wholeness as Adam had done in the garden of Eden. Paul came to realize this, and both Peter and Barnabas knew it as well. Both the Jew and the gentile languished under the same plight (Rom. 3:9; 5:12–14; Eph. 2:1–3). This brings us to the third step in Paul’s chiasm.

A person, whether Jew or gentile, is made right with God only by faith in Jesus Christ.

If no one can perfectly keep the law of God in order to gain justification before God, then what avenue is left to pursue? The only avenue open is the one that is guaranteed to succeed: resting on the grace of God as it is displayed in the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accordingly, lines [C]–[Cʹ] state unequivocally that a person is justified before God only “by faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 3:16). Christ, the lamb without spot (1 Peter 1:19), who lived a perfect life in perfect conformity to His Father’s will (Heb. 4:15; 1 John 3:5), has fulfilled the divine requirement of perfect obedience. More than this, God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). This glorious transaction occurred on the cross where our Lord bore the curse of our sin (Gal. 3:13; Col. 2:13–14). It is only by believing that Christ, the Son of the living God, delivered Himself over to the wrath of God on his behalf (Rom. 3:21–26; Gal. 1:4) that a person can be made right with God. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). This is what Paul did. This is what Peter did. This is what Barnabas and all the other believers did. It is not surprising then that this is the central point of Paul’s chiasm: “We also have believed” (Gal. 3:16).

The authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith understood the enormous significance of this point: “The principal acts of saving faith are, accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace” (WCF 14.2). Faith seeks no other foundation than the foundation that the Father has laid in the cross of His Son. It rests on Christ. Faith understands well that the condition of the human heart precludes any possibility of earning God’s favor through any works man might do. It confesses that “nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.” Faith accepts and receives Christ as He is graciously offered in the gospel.

The issue in Antioch was table fellowship between Jews and gentiles. What could overcome the cultural or economic bias between those two groups? The answer is the cross of Christ. It is through His once-for-all sacrifice that the dividing wall had been broken down and a new man comprising both Jews and gentiles was born into the world (Eph. 2:11–21). Peter, Barnabas, and Paul well understood that the only way to set the distinctions of this world in their proper place was to live in the light of the cross. They understood that part of the calling that Christ placed on them was a calling to begin to live in the present in terms of those principles and categories that would come to full flower only when Christ returned in glory, and so they did. They enjoyed table fellowship with the gentile members of the church. However, in a moment of weakness, Peter and Barnabas succumbed to the pressures of the moment and lost sight of the cross and what it meant practically for their relationship with gentile believers. Paul was compelled to answer them so that the truth of the gospel would be maintained.

We can be thankful that Paul sensed the gravity of the moment and earnestly reminded Peter and Barnabas of what they knew to be true. We can be thankful that he spoke clearly and boldly on the matter, not least because we too need to be reminded of these glorious truths. Salvation is by grace through faith, and this is not of ourselves—it is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8).

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