Even Apostles Succumb to Peer Pressure

Counterfeit Christianity ~ Galatians 2:11-21

Big Idea: Right beliefs don’t always lead to right behaviour. Peer pressure – our desire for acceptance and approval by others – can lead even the most mature Christians astray. We resist such pressures by trusting in God’s approval and acceptance through Jesus.

Bogota, with a population of over seven million, has some of the worst traffic problems in the world.1

Over 1,300 people die every year from road accidents in Columbia’s capital city. Many involve jaywalkers hit by speeding cars that routinely ignore red lights. Traffic police wasn’t much help either, with a notorious reputation for corruption.

Who can solve this intractable problem?

Mayor Antanas Mockus, a former philosophy professor, did, but not how we’d expect.2

Rather than hire more policemen and legislate heavier fines, Mayor Mockus fired 3,200 traffic cops and retrained over 400 to be rehired – as mimes! Day after day, the face-painted mimes would stand at key junctions across the city centre and make fun of jaywalkers.

He also distributed over 350,000 ‘thumbs-up/thumbs-down’ signs to drivers. Like football referees, drivers across Bogota would flash the ‘thumbs-down’ red card whenever they see other commuters breaking the law.

Initially, Mockus was mercilessly ridiculed by the Columbian press. But within months, the proportion of pedestrians obeying traffic signals leapt from 26% to 75%. Traffic fatalities, on the other hand, fell by more than 50%.

What happened? “Columbians,” Mockus said, “fear ridicule more than being fined.”

He had harnessed the power of positive peer pressure.

Our desire to be accepted by our peers can be a powerful force for behavioural change – either for good or for bad.3 Even God’s specially chosen apostles were not immune. Peter buckled under, dragging Barnabas down with him too (2:11-13).

Why the ugly public dispute about whom Peter (Cephas) ate with?

Because what they ate signified who they were as a people of God.

Devout Jews then, like devout Muslims today, had a long list of dietary restrictions.4 That marked them out as God’s special people. They didn’t share meals (or utensils) with non-believers for fear of spiritual contamination.

These Old Testament prohibitions had been obligatory for ethnic Jews (and converts to Judaism) for over a thousand years. Should those who follow Jesus abandon these ingrained habits overnight? Paul says “Yes.”

We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. (2:15-16)

To be ‘justified’ is to be declared ‘righteous’ by God. At the Final Judgment (cf. Revelation 20:11-15), God will examine the totality of our lives – thoughts, words, and deeds – and pronounce his verdict on us. No more second chances.

Those who meet his perfect standard, without a single blemish, are declared ‘righteous’ and be rewarded with eternal life in the New Heavens and New Earth. Those who fall short, even once over the tiniest matter (cf. James 2:10), will be declared a sinner and be condemned to eternal Hell.

That is what’s at stake here. What would Peter rely on to determine his fate? On his own efforts to keep God’s laws perfectly or on Jesus’ promise to keep it for him?

Peter should have known better. He even had a direct revelation from God (cf. Acts 10:9-23) about what he could now eat as a Christian and what that meant for others (cf. Acts 11:1-18). God was to save Gentiles too. They didn’t need to know and obey the Law to be deemed ‘righteous.’ So if Gentiles didn’t need it if they trusted Jesus, why would Jews?

For Peter to eat separately would imply Jesus had two different paths to ‘righteousness’ – one for Jews through Jesus and the Law, and one for Gentiles through Jesus apart from the Law. This would split Jesus’ church into two – one for ethnic Jews, another for everyone else.

Peer pressure can lead even the most mature believers astray. We fear the disapproval of others more than we dare admit. God’s approval is not always found through our peers. It’s found through Christ alone. If the apostle Peter needed to be reminded of the gospel, how much more do we?

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1 See PanAm Post news report (22 Feb, 2017), “Bogota, Caracas, and Mexico City rank among the world’s worst for traffic jams.” Columbia was ranked joint-second alongside Indonesia, while Thailand came first.

2 See The Guardian newspaper (28 Oct, 2013), “Antanas Mockus: Columbians fear ridicule more than being fined.”

3 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tina Rosenberg wrote an illuminating book on this topic, Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World, (W.W. Norton: New York, 2011).

4 Old Testament laws recorded in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 specify what foods Israel cannot eat. They include: (1) all four-footed animals except for sheep, goats, cattle and a few kinds of deer. Pork is strictly prohibited; (2) shellfish; (3) birds of prey; (4) most insects except for crickets and grasshoppers; (5) swarming land creatures like lizards and crocodiles; and (6) carcasses of dead animals. They also can’t eat food which has fat or blood (cf. Lev. 3:17).

Questions for personal reflection or group discussion:

1. What kinds of behaviours or habits that Christians in churches sometimes insist on one another to conform to, that are not biblical?

2. There is so much assurance in Paul’s strong words to remind us we have been justified (‘declared righteous’) by faith in Christ alone, and not by our deeds, actions, and behaviours. How and in what circumstances can we encourage one another with this gospel truth?

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