Have you ever considered what the Apostle Peter once did at Antioch? It is a question that deserves serious consideration. What the Apostle Peter did at Rome we are often told, although we have hardly a jot of authentic information about it. Roman Catholic writers furnish us with many stories about his supposed residence there. Legends, traditions and fables abound on the subject, but unhappily for these writers, Scripture is utterly silent. Indeed, there is nothing in Scripture to show that Peter was ever at Rome at all.
What then did the Apostle Peter do at Antioch? On this point, at any rate, the Scripture speaks clearly and unmistakably: “But when Peter came to Antioch, I withstood him to [the] face, because he was to be condemned: for before that certain came from James, he ate with [those of] the nations; but when they came, he drew back and separated himself, fearing those of [the] circumcision; and the rest of the Jews also played the same dissembling part with him; so that even Barnabas was carried away too by their dissimulation. But when I saw that they do not walk straight–forwardly, according to the truth of the glad tidings, I said to Peter before all, If thou, being a Jew, livest as the nations and not as the Jews, how dost thou compel the nations to Judaize? We, Jews by nature, and not sinners of [the] nations, but knowing that a man is not justified on the principle of works of law [nor] but by the faith of Jesus Christ, we also have believed on Christ Jesus, that we might be justified on the principle of [the] faith of Christ; and not of works of law; because on the principle of works of law no flesh shall be justified” (Gal. 2: 11–16).
These verses are striking on many accounts. They are striking, if we consider the event which they describe: here is one apostle rebuking another! They are striking, when we consider who the two men are: Paul, the younger, rebukes Peter the elder! They are striking when we observe the occasion: Peter’s action does not seem (at least at first glance) to be a glaring sin––in fact more of a triviality. Yet the Apostle Paul says “I withstood him to [the] face, because he was to be condemned”. Furthermore, he reproves Peter publicly for his error before all the Church at Antioch. Indeed, he goes further, and writes an account of the matter, which is now read in hundreds of languages all over the world.
It is my firm conviction that the Holy Spirit means us to take particular notice of this passage of Scripture. If Christianity had been an invention of man, these things would never have been recorded. An impostor, like Mohammed, would have hushed up the difference between the two apostles. The Spirit of truth has caused these verses to be written for our learning, and we shall do well to take heed to their contents.
Peter, without doubt, was one of the greatest in the company of the apostles. He was a disciple of long–standing. He had had peculiar advantages and privileges. He had been a constant companion of the Lord Jesus. He had heard the Lord preach, seen Him work miracles, enjoyed the benefit of His private teaching, been numbered among His intimate friends, and gone out and come in with Him all the time He ministered upon earth. He was the apostle to whom the keys of the kingdom were given, and by whose hand those keys were first used. He was the first who opened the door of faith to the Jews, by preaching to them on the day of Pentecost. He was the first who opened the door of faith to the Gentiles, by going to the house of Cornelius, and receiving him into the Church. He was the first to rise up in the council of the fifteenth of Acts, and say, “why tempt ye God, by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (v10). And yet here this very Peter, this same apostle, plainly falls into a great mistake.
Nor is this the only error of his which the Holy Spirit has seen fit to record. Once we find him trying to keep back our Lord, as far as he could, from the great work of the cross, and being severely rebuked (Mark 8: 33). Then we find him denying the Lord three times, and that with an oath (Matt. 26: 69–75). Here we find him endangering the truth of Christ’s Gospel. Surely we may say, ‘Lord, what is man?’ The Church of Rome boasts that the Apostle Peter is her founder and first pope. How odd this claim becomes when we remember that of all the apostles there is not one, excepting, of course, Judas Iscariote, of whom we have so many proofs that he was a fallible man. Upon her own showing the Church of Rome was founded by the most fallible of the apostles!
It is all meant to teach us that even the apostles themselves, when not writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, were at times liable to err. It is meant to teach us that the best men are weak and fallible so long as they are in the body. Unless the grace of God holds them up, any one of them may go astray at any time. It is very humbling, but it is very true. True Christians are converted, justified and sanctified. They are living members of Christ, beloved children of God and heirs of eternal life. They are elect, chosen, called, and kept unto salvation. They have the Spirit. But they are not infallible.
The example of the Apostle Peter at Antioch is one that does not stand alone. Do we not remember Abraham, the father of the faithful, following the advice of Sarah, and taking Hagar for a wife? Do we not remember Aaron, the high priest, listening to the children of Israel, and making a golden calf? Do we not remember Nathan the prophet telling David to build a temple? Do we not remember Solomon, the wisest of men, allowing his wives to build their high places? Do we not remember Asa, the good King of Judah, seeking not to the Lord, but to the physicians? Do we not remember Jehosaphat, that good king, going down to help wicked Ahab? Do we not remember Hezekiah, another good king, receiving the ambassadors of Babylon? Do we not remember Josiah, the last of Judah’s good kings going forth to fight with Pharaoh? These things deserve to be remembered. They were not written without cause. They cry aloud: No infallibility.
We all naturally like to have a pope of our own. We are far too ready to think that because some great leader or some learned man says a thing that it must be right, without examining whether it is Scriptural. Most men dislike the trouble of thinking for themselves. They like following a leader. They are like sheep––where one goes all the rest follow. At Antioch even Barnabas was carried away. We can well imagine that good man saying, ‘An experienced man like Peter surely cannot be wrong. I will be all right if I follow him’.
Let us learn not to put implicit confidence in any man’s opinion. What are the chief men in the Church? Dust, ashes and clay––men of like passions with ourselves, exposed to temptations and liable to weaknesses and infirmities. “Who then is Apollos, and who is Paul? Ministering servants, through whom ye have believed, and as the Lord has given to each” (1 Cor. 3: 5). It is absurd to suppose that a Christian leader cannot go wrong. We should follow them so far as they teach according to the Bible, but no further. We should believe them so long as they can say ‘Thus it is written’ and ‘Thus saith the Scripture’, but further than this we are not to go. Infallibility is not to be found in men, however great, but in the Bible.
You may know of someone who is certainly a man of God, and worthy of all honour for his preaching and practise––but do not make a pope of him. Honour him as a faithful ambassador of Christ. Esteem him very highly in love for his work’s sake. But never forget that infallibility is not to be found in godly ministers, but in Scripture. Do not place his word side by side with the Word of God. Do not spoil him by flattery. Do not let him suppose he can make no mistakes. Do not lean your whole weight on his opinion, or you may find to your cost that he can err.
It was written of Joash, King of Judah, that he “did what was right in the sight of Jehovah all the days of Jehoiada the priest” ( 2Chron. 24: 2). Jehoiada died, and then died the religion of Joash. In the same way your leader may die, and then your religion may die too, may change and your religion may change too, may go away and your religion may go too. Trust in God, not men.