Was There Theological Disagreement

Between Peter and Paul?

Were There a 'Gang of Three,' Matthew, James and Peter, Who Opposed Paul?

M artin Luther did not think that the epistle of James was exactly the greatest writing within the New Testament, in fact, he referred to it as "an epistle of straw." Truthfully, while we may love and honour this little epistle as inspired Scripture, surely few of us can consider James' writing to be on a par with that of the Apostles John or Paul. Now, of course, since this epistle is very short perhaps any such comparison is very unfair.

Luther wrote,

“The epistle of James... only drives you to the law and its works. . . . He calls the law a law of freedom (James 1:25; 2:12), although St. Paul calls it a law of slavery, wrath, death, and sin (Galatians 3:23f; Romans 4:15; 7:10f)." (Martin Luther, The Epistles of St. James and St. Jude, Preface).

This insight by Luther, though possibily a little unfair, does cause the experienced and astute theological observer of the New Testament to cast their eyes a little wider.

When doing so (and this might appear to be digressing from our subject, but it is not), one notes that Matthew is a very different Gospel to that of John. Now, that is hardly 'rocket science' since everybody has noted how different John is, it is not, for instance, regarded as one of the synoptic gospels. Yet what is not always noted is that Matthew seems to have very little interest in any future community of believers beyond the Jews themselves. His Gospel is primarily addressed to the Jewish people and nation. It should not be surprising that it is this gospel which contains the following statement by Jesus:

Matthew 15:24: 'But He answered and said, I am not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.'

Matthew's Gospel is therefore, perhaps unsurprisingly, more legalistic, containing this famous (though frequently misunderstood) statement:

Matthew 5:17: 'Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to destroy but to fulfill.
18. For truly I say to you, Till the heaven and the earth pass away, not one jot or one tittle shall in any way pass from the Law until all is fulfilled.
19. Therefore whoever shall relax one of these commandments, the least, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of Heaven. But whoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of Heaven.' (MKJV). [For a full explanation of how those comments of Matthew fit in with the theology of the New Testament, go here.].

Indeed, the Epistle of James itself begins with this very restrictive greeting:

James 1:1: 'James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion, greeting:'

So James too was apparently only concerned about the descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel!

Baptism - Water and Spirit

None of the following statements by Peter are wrong, of course, however, when we look at Paul's statements on the same topic (cited below Peter's statements) we do see the more theological approach which was contained within Paul's Gospel of Grace to All the Nations:

Mark and Peter On Water Baptism

Mark 16:16: 'He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned."'

Acts 2:38: 'Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”'

1 Pe. 3:21: 'There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.'

Paul On Spirit Baptism

1 Co. 1:17: 'For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.'

1 Co. 12:13: 'For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free – and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.'

Eph. 4:4-5: 'There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism.'

In contrast to the careful conservatism of Matthew, John is very broad, containing, for instance, Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42). What is astonishing about this conversation is that Jesus - effectively - offers the promises of the Gospel to the Samaritans (a racial mix of Chaldeans and northern Israelites) before His mission among the Jews themselves was even into full stride! Moreover, only John ever uses the following wonderful expression to describe Jesus:

'The Saviour of the World.'
This occurs in both John 4:42 and 1 John 4:14.

Such statements should not surprise us since it is his wonderful Gospel which also contains the marvellous international salvific statement:

John 3:16: 'For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.'
17. 'For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him.'
18. 'He who believes on Him is not condemned, but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God.'
19. 'And this is the condemnation, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the Light, because their deeds were evil.' (MKJV).

So John is absolutely clear about the fully international implications of the Gospel whereas the apparently more reserved theology of Matthew and James seem reluctant to extend the promises too far beyond Israel itself.

The picture has formerly been painted that John was a very late writer with certain of his writings (including, of course, Revelation) being as late as the late 90s AD, therefore (the argument went), his theology might be expected to be much more mature. However, the extensive research of writers such as J.A.T. Robinson now throws all of those old theories into considerable doubt. It now seems much more likely that John was not such a late writer, just a very different and very theologically-astute one! John might well still remain the latest Gospel writer, but possibly writing no later than the 60s AD. This of course throws up other questions, for example, many had long suspected that certain of his statements in Revelation were directed towards the mighty events of AD70 when Jerusalem was destroyed and many thousands of Jews slaughtered but any such idea was usually rejected because of the perceived lateness of his writing. It follows that the idea that much of Revelation was intended as a warning about events soon to befall the Jews from AD66-73, but especially in AD70 has been revitalised; Revelation, after all, commences with this statement:

'The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place... '(Revelation 1:1a, NIV).

Nevertheless, we cannot, of course, consider that the import of that great book was only concerned with Israel on a national level, much obviously concerns Christians themselves.

Whilst it might be true that Revelation dates to the 60s AD, the Johannine Gospel itself is possibly much earlier and could well date to the approximate time of the major Pauline epistles (AD53-59). Those epistles too are, of course, mature in outlook and whereas many of us once only conceived of a very late, lonely and somewhat ascetic John, perhaps a sort of much more theologically-mature John the Baptist type, that all now needs to be revised. Is it not far more likely that his mission was, at least partly, to bridge the gap between the early Gospel proclamation to the Jews, delivered to Peter, and the Gospel proclamation to the Gentiles (unquestionably a more mature message), delivered to Paul?

Certainly, Paul had full authority:

Galatians 2:7: 'But on the contrary, seeing that I have been entrusted with the gospel of the uncircumcision, as Peter to the circumcision;
8. for He working in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision also worked in me to the nations.
9. and knowing the grace given to me, James, and Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, gave right hands of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we go to the nations, but they to the circumcision. ' (MKJV).

Interestingly, John is included here with Peter and James, but there seems little doubt that John soon developed an interest in Paul's message of grace which would go to the Gentile World, rather than the more restricted gospel based on repentance and baptism which would go to the Jews. Repentance, of course, figured especially largely because the Jews had already known much of the things of God but had fallen back, whereas - for the Gentiles - this really would be news, literally 'good news'! When John the Apostle later came to pen his Gospel, he would take great care to bring out the international and universal offer of the Gospel message, evidenced by such things as his determination to record Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman, followed by His offer of grace to her people, which he had personally witnessed. Can we ever imagine that Matthew, filled with the initial 'Gospel of repentance and restoration to the Jews' approach, would have ever recorded such an incident??

As far as Paul was concerned, he was absolutely clear about the full dimensions of his own 'Gospel of grace.' Please read these words most carefully:

Ephesians 3:2: 'If you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given to me toward you,
3. that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I wrote before in few words,
4. by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ)
5. which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it is now revealed to His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit,
6. that the nations should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partaker of His promise in Christ through the gospel.
7. Of this gospel I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effectual working of His power.
8. This grace is given to me (who am less than the least of all saints) to preach the gospel of the unsearchable riches of Christ among the nations,
9. and to bring to light what is the fellowship of the mystery which from eternity has been hidden in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ;
10. so that now to the rulers and powers in the heavenlies might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God,
11. according to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord;
12. in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through His faith.
13. For this reason I desire that you faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory.' (MKJV).

Especially notice how verses 7-8 strongly infer that the Gospel which was delivered to Paul was different from that initially delivered to Peter. Certainly it was, for Peter preached repentance and baptism mainly to the Jews, whilst Paul preached "the gospel of the unsearchable riches of Christ among the nations..."

Again, while Paul baptised a very few,

1Corinthians 1:16: 'And I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides these, I do not know if I baptized any other.'

he did not see it as any major part of his mininstry:

1Corinthians 1:17: 'For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel; not in wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.'

A careful study and consideration of the New Testament does strongly suggest two initial gospel proclamations both of which had divine authority, but with the gospel to the Jews only having authority until the cataclysmic events of AD70. It does seem, therefore, that our Gracious and Longsuffering God gave the national people of Israel a generation during which he 'winked at' their ignorance and slowness to break with the past. Post-AD70, however, it seems obvious that only the Pauline Gospel of Grace would have divine authority - and, for all peoples!

An early clash between Peter and Paul certainly had occurred, of course, at Antioch in Syria, circa AD45-50:

Gal 2:11: 'But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was to be blamed.
12. For before some came from James, he ate with the nations. But when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those of the circumcision.
13. And the rest of the Jews also dissembled with him, so as even Barnabas was led away with their dissembling.
14. But when I saw that they did not walk uprightly with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before all, If you, being a Jew, live as a Gentile, and not as the Jews, why do you compel the nations to judaize?' (MKJV).

Here - before a great many people - Paul challenged the seeming hypocrisy of Peter who obviously was eager to break with his Judaistic past, but feared the reactions of others. But without question - all such matters were considered closed and decided by the events of AD 70 which deprived the Jews of their temple. But even before that, this whole matter was largely amicably decided by the Jerusalem Conference of about AD49 or 50. Carefully consult Acts 15 for the record of that. Trouble is: certain Jewish legalists continued to actively undermine the 'justification by faith alone' which Paul preached among the Gentiles, even well after that, a fact which resulted in his epistle to the Galatians, circa AD55-57 (the very early AD48 dating of Galatians can no longer be accepted for a variety of reasons which we will not go into here).

The Book of Hebrews also warned the Jews that they needed to change and move on:

Hebrews 8:10: '"For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My Laws into their mind and write them in their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
11. And they shall not each man teach his neighbor, and each man his brother, saying, Know the Lord, for all shall know Me, from the least to the greatest.
12. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities I will remember no more."
13. In that He says, A new covenant, He has made the first one old. Now that which decays and becomes old is ready to vanish away.' (MKJV).

As if to fulfil that last comment, the temple would be destroyed, probably, very soon after the writer of Hebrews penned those words.

So we should not be reluctant to admit that our gracious Lord almost certainly gave the Jewish people a Gospel of a more limited national scope for about a generation until they were expected to move on in a fuller understanding of the message of grace. Actually, the fact that grace and the wideness of the Gospel is often lacking in Matthew almost certainly points to this Gospel having been written much earlier than many of us once thought.

So what antagonisms - if any - occurred between those who preached the early Gospel of repentance for the Jews and Paul's more mature grace-centred Gospel for the Gentiles? Humanly speaking, there must have been a few such occasions, however, it would be wrong to exaggerate them. The legalists who caused havoc at Galatia much to Paul's anger had, quite probably, broken off the Jerusalem congregation at some point and we cannot really believe that such a thing only happened once. But we may surely be assured that the momentous events of AD70 really did underline the final conclusion of the Old Covenant and the 'halfway house' of the early Gospel proclamation to the Jews could then be seen by most Jews (undoubtedly not by all) to be ready to be put aside in favour of a fuller and richer revelation.
Robin A. Brace. April, 2009.