Here is a conundrum. In the last few few posts I have been looking at how Paul and Barnabas argued with some members of the early church who were pushing for the new Gentile churches to be taught that they must be circumcised.
Paul and Barnabas hotly opposed these men and to get a resolution they took the issue up to the elders and apostles in Jerusalem for a decision. There was a lengthy debate and discussion as both sides of the issue were presented and reviewed eventually leading to a decision that the Gentiles churches did NOT have to be circumcised nor keep the old law.
Now we see Paul come to Derbe and Lystra where he met up with Timothy. Timothy was the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer but his father was a Greek, that is, a Gentile. Timothy was also a disciple and we are told he was well thought of by the people of Lystra.
Now here is the conundrum. Upon meeting Timothy, Paul took him aside and circumcised him! After all of the disputes with others and the decision that circumcision was not necessary, he goes and circumcised Timothy.
This seems to directly contravene all that had happened before and so the question arises, did Paul lie? Did he make a mistake previously in opposing circumcision?
The answer is a rsounding NO. So we need to understand what was going on here and why Paul took this path.
Circumcision is Meaningless
We saw in Acts 15 the discussion and decisions of the church where it was decided by ALL those present that the Gentile churches did not need to be circumcised, nor to keep the laws of Moses. In fact it became a negative thing to follow that path if a person took on the beliefs associated with the law for in the law there was the remembrance and constant reminder of sin.
In Jesus Christ we have been set free from sin and set free from the law. Circumcision was part of the law and in fact became the sign or seal of those who followed the laws of Moses.
But also in Jesus Christ we do not come before God on the basis of works of law. We stand before God through faith in Jesus Christ and stand in the grace of God as free men and women through our faith. Paul showed us how pointless circumcision was when he wrote in Galatians 5:2-6,
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.
So we see that in Christ Jesus as we follow the teachings of His gospel, circumcision is meaningless. It does not count for anything as Paul says in verse 6.
Now the key word to note here is in verse 3: “accepts.” Circumcision becomes a problem that will separate us from Christ if we “accept” the teachings of circumcision. If we accept the teachings believing them to be a requirement of salvation, then we have to accept the rest of the law as well. You can't accept one without accepting the other.
But in truth if a person was circumcised prior to becoming a Christian, as Paul and the twelve apostles and all of the early Jewish followers of Christ Jesus were, when they came to Jesus and were baptised in his name, they stood before God through faith, not a work of the law, which is what circumcision is.
And besides, once a person is circumcised they cannot become physically uncircumcised. Again Paul showed this in 1 Corinthians 7:18-20.
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.
So if circumcision is meaningless in the new covenant where we stand by faith in Jesus Christ, why did Paul take Timothy aside to circumcise him? The answer has to do with the ministry Timothy was to follow.
Timothy was an evangelist. This ministry was assigned to him by The Lord when hands were laid on him by Paul. We see this assignment in the words of 2 Timothy 4:5,
As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
An evangelist is one who goes out and spreads the word of The Lord to those who may not have heard it before. These are the people who preached on street corners and in market places and meeting places to try and win people to The Lord so that they would repent and come to Him and be saved.
In some ways they were the “salesmen” offering a “product” to the people. Naturally there was no charge for this product of salvation in Jesus Christ as they were not selling the truth but offering it freely to all who would be saved.
But one of the things that a sales person has to do if they are to win business is to be able to associate with those he is selling to. He must be aligned with them and empathise with them so that they will listen to him or her and be convinced by the pitch he or she is making and thus be sold.
Likewise an evangelist has to be acceptable to those he is preaching to so that they will listen. He cannot be so different from the people that they reject the words of the gospel because they are uncomfortable with the person preaching it. The people will more readily listen to someone who is like themselves.
Becoming Like Others
Paul knew this for he said in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23,
19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
Paul empathised with those he was preaching to and he became like them in order to win more of them to Jesus Christ. In each case as we see in the verses above, he took on the appearance of those he was preaching to so that they would see he was “just like them.” But we also see that while he may have looked like them, his heart and faith remain inked in Jesus Christ. His outer appearance may have seemed like these people to whom he was preaching, but his mind, heart and soul were firmly rooted in the faith he held with Christ Jesus.
And because Timothy was an evangelist and would be moving amongst both Jews and Gentiles to preach the word, Paul knew that being physically uncircumcised would be a problem for Timothy if he were speaking to Jews. In fact they would find it abhorrent and would not have let him into the synagogues nor listen to what he had to say because of this one issue.
To overcome the issue then, Paul took Timothy aside and had him circumcised. He knew it was meaningless and Timothy knew it was meaningless in the new gospel of Jesus Christ, but they did it for the sake of being acceptable to the Jews so that he could at least get to first base in his preaching and teaching of the word.
So looking back at the title of this post…did the Apostle Paul lie? No! Absolutely and resoundingly he did NOT lie when he preached that circumcision was unnecessary but then circumcised Timothy. He did this for the sake of Timothy being able to fulfill his ministry as an evangelist to be acceptable to the Jews he would move amongst. He did it so Timothy could become like those he may be speaking to and thus win more people to Christ.
Neither Paul not Timothy placed any importance on circumcision for they knew the teachings of the truth over this matter. But those they would come into contact with did not know these things and rather than put them offside, it was better to be like them in this thing so they could then lead them to the truth.
Paul was practicing in this action a principle he showed in Romans 14:13.
Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.
By circumcising Timothy he was removing a stumbling block to preaching of the word so that Timothy would be unhindered in his work as an evangelist.
It is a lesson we need to learn to as we speak to others about Jesus. Do we set ourselves up as high and mighty, as Jesus freaks or religious zealots when we talk to others? Or do we take Paul's approach and try to meet others at their level and on their terms so we can empathise and use common ground to lead them to Christ? Something for all of us to consider.
(Picture sourced from stock.xchng taken by Alfonso Romero)