Acts 16:1–5 (ESV)✞: Timothy Joins Paul and Silas
In this passage we are introduced to a believer named Timothy. Paul meets him in Lystra, where Timothy is spoken of very highly. Rightly so, I guess, because I believe this is the same Timothy1 Paul will later put in charge of the church at Ephesus, and to whom the letters we now know as 1&2 Timothy are written.
Paul wants to take Timothy with him as he travels and preaches the Gospel so he has Timothy circumcised, knowing that there are a lot of Jewish folks in the area.
The passage notes that Timothy has a Jewish mother but a Greek father, so therefore he hasn’t been circumcised. So, because he knows they’re going to be encountering a lot of Jewish folks, Paul has Timothy circumcised to eliminate any worries they might have about having the Gospel explained to them by an “unclean” man, or even by a clean man (Paul) who’s clearly accompanied by an “unclean” man. (Which, I presume, would also make him unclean.)
“But wait,” some people might be thinking, “Didn’t we just read in the last passage that the Apostles decided Gentiles didn’t need to be circumcised? I thought Paul was against circumcision! Isn’t that what he says in Galatians 5 (ESV)✞ – didn’t he say it was better to be emasculated than to be circumcised?” But that’s not quite right; there are a few passages where Paul talks about circumcision, and yes, emasculation is mentioned, but things are more nuanced than just saying, “don’t do it.”
First there is some mention of circumcision in Galatians 2:1–10 (ESV)✞, but for the most part in that passage Paul is just using “circumcised” and “uncircumcised” to mean “ethnically Jewish” or “not ethnically Jewish.”
Then in Galatians 2:11–14 (ESV)✞ is mention of the argument Paul had had with Peter, whereby Peter was withdrawing from the Gentile believers, but again, circumcision isn’t the point. Peter was just falling in with a crowd Paul calls “the circumcision party,” which leads me to believe that they were ethnically Jewish Christians who were wanting Christians to follow the Jewish Mosaic Law – which, it’s true, would include circumcision. Again, this is what a number of Christians were saying in the previous passage.
1 Corinthians 7 is more to the point we’re discussing, where Paul speaks to circumcision directly, but only as part of a larger point: when God called you to be a Christian you were in a particular state, and you don’t need to seek to get out of that state, whatever it was:
17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
1 Corinthians 7:17–24 (ESV)✞, emphasis added
For the men, what was your “state” when you were saved? Circumcised? Uncircumcised? Neither state will prevent you from following the Lord, nor will either state help you follow the Lord – neither “counts” for anything. Just like being a “bondservant” or being free don’t make you more or less able to serve the Lord. Given the current discussion around circumcision this is especially interesting: if you’re a bondservant and you’re able to gain your freedom Paul says you should, not because it will make you a better Christian but just because it would be better to be free than to be a bondservant – yet when it comes to circumcision he says the opposite: you shouldn’t seek to change your state, either from circumcision or to it, because there’s no benefit to doing so.
And then there’s the “emasculation” passage in Galatians:
1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
7 You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? 8 This persuasion is not from him who calls you. 9 A little leaven leavens the whole lump. 10 I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. 11 But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. 12 I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
This passage definitely makes it seem like Paul is against circumcision—and, in a sense, he is—but only within the context of men getting circumcised in an effort to be “better” Christians. He even says again that, “neither circumcision nor un-circumcision counts for anything.
So is Paul against circumcision? He definitely is, if circumcision is being used as a means of attaining God’s favour. The very issue we had in the previous passage here in Acts is what Paul is again addressing in Galatians: if anyone preaches that you have to have faith in Christ and do something else, in addition, on your own—obey the Law, be circumcised, obey certain religious ceremonies, whatever—that person is deviating from the Gospel. Paul is very clear in this passage that this is one of those cases were you really can make a “slippery slope” argument: if you accept that someone has to be circumcised in order to be a Christian you can’t just pick and choose, you’re going to have to accept that someone is obligated to obey all of the Law. “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” – accept part of the Law, and you’re throwing away the Grace offered to you and trying to earn your own salvation, which has never, ever, worked. It is, in fact, denying how sinful we actually are, if you think you can somehow be as righteous as God requires simply by obeying some rules.
So that brings us back to Acts 16: is Paul being a hypocrite by having Timothy circumcised? Not even a little! It would have been hypocritical for Paul to have Timothy circumcised to make him a “real” Christian or a “better” Christian or a “more acceptable” Christian, but that’s not what he was doing. He was having Timothy circumcised to remove a barrier to them spreading the Gospel to Paul’s fellow Jews. And, since neither circumcision nor un-circumcision counts for anything, it’s no big deal for Paul to take a practical step by having Timothy circumcised.
- I didn’t see a specific note in a commentary confirming that this is the same Timothy, but I’m reasonably sure. ↩