Please people or please God. This was the issue that prompted Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Peter, the one who boldly delivered the first gospel sermon and the one who ended the heated debate at the Jerusalem Council with a stunning claim that Gentiles were saved by grace just like the Jews, had become a people pleaser.
The believers in Antioch witnessed Peter’s lapse in judgment. When he first arrived in there he enjoyed fellowship with all of the believers, Jews and Gentiles alike. He ate with the Gentiles regularly. However, once the men sent from James showed up, Peter’s actions began to change.
At first Peter drew back. But soon he separated himself from the Gentiles altogether. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray.
Paul could not let this gross misrepresentation of the gospel go unchallenged. He confronted Peter to his face. This was not a private meeting between the two leaders. No, Paul admonished Peter in front of all the believers in Antioch. You can imagine the tension that filled the assembly, but it had to be done. The truth of the gospel was at stake.
Why did Peter cave? What provoked this blatant display of legalism on his part?
Galatians 1:10 answers clearly: “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Plain and simple, Peter had decided it was more important to please people at that time than it was to be a servant of Christ.
Shockingly, Peter at that moment had become a legalist. He placed on his neck the yoke of the law that he had already concluded neither he nor his forefathers could bear (Acts 15:10). We’ve all been there. We conducted ourselves as “grace Pharisees”, or reverted back to our old legalistic tendencies. The question is this: How do we recognize when people pleasing is more important to us than being led by God’s Spirit? Paul points to three signs.
- Fear — Peter separated himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those men that had come from James. If you are afraid of others and are living to please them you are on the fast track to becoming a legalist.
- You do not act in line with the truth of the Gospel – Peter knew separating from the Gentiles was wrong. The Gentiles had heard the Gospel message from his lips. He saw that God added them to the church and that He does not show favoritism. Yet his fear of the Jewish leaders that had come to Antioch caused him to play the hypocrite. Trying to please others will cause you to act in a way that does not line with the truth of the Gospel.
- You lead others astray – Peter’s actions influenced others. All the Jews, and even Barnabas, joined Peter in his hypocrisy. The old adage, misery loves company, applies here. To help justify your decision to give in to the legalistic demands of others, you will encourage others to follow suit.
These are the tell-tale signs that you are on the road to becoming a legalist. But you don’t have to go down that road. You don’t have to live as a people pleaser. Here is how to avoid that trap.
- Recognize that you have been justified by faith in Jesus Christ. You are already right in God’s sight (Galatians 2:16).
- Die to the law so that you can live for God (Galatians 2:19).
- Since Christ lives in you, live by faith in him, the one who loves you and gave himself for you (Galatians 2:20).
- Fully embrace the grace of God (Galatians 2:21).
In Antioch, Peter caved to the pressure of those he deemed important. God, however, never intended for our beliefs, attitudes or actions to be shaped by the opinions of others. We have been rescued from that realm and have been placed in Christ. We are to live by his indwelling presence, being shaped by his death, burial and resurrection. This will keep you from becoming a people pleaser and will help you avoid the snare of legalism.