Free means easy
Paul wanted to take [Timothy] along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. (Acts 16:3, NIV)
Early in his second missionary journey, the Apostle Paul comes to Lystra (in modern Turkey), and there recruits a younger colleague, Timothy. But as Paul takes Timothy on, he does something strange - he circumcises him.
This seems odd enough to our contemporary ears, but in the context of the book of Acts, it’s very surprising indeed. Only shortly before, Paul has been engaged in fierce debate against people who were teaching that Gentiles who became Christians had to be circumcised, as Jews were. Paul has argued against this at the Council of Jerusalem - recorded in Acts 15 - and won the day. No such circumcision is required. But then, months later, he circumcises Timothy. Has the Apostle lost his nerve?
Reading the passage carefully, it turns out that far from contradicting the Council’s decision, Paul is actually applying its essential principle consistently. That principle is that in view of the grace of God, we should not make it hard for people to turn to Christ (see Acts 15:10, 19, 28).
Timothy was the son of a mixed marriage - a Greek father and a Jewish mother. Technically that meant that he was Jewish enough to be circumcised. As Paul looked ahead to the synagogues he’d be preaching in as he travelled the Mediterranean world, he feared that the fact that Timothy was an uncircumcised Jew would make people think he cared little for the religion of his mother. Paul circumcised Timothy because he wanted to remove a barrier of prejudice, and make it as easy as he could for Jewish people to come to Christ.
Here, then, is the consistent principle of Acts 15-16: since God has made it as easy as possible for us to come to Him, we must, in spreading the gospel, also remove all the barriers we can.
Of course we cannot and must not change any of the moral imperatives of the Christian life. Jesus calls us to repent, and the churches must hold firm on that. But there are cultural barriers we can all too easily erect.
Sadly, sometimes even a church which makes much (rightly) of the free grace of God in its doctrinal basis actually has a culture that is remarkably inaccessible to the outsider. Or it may take no notice of how it is perceived, and of any potential misunderstandings about it which it may need to correct (never fully possble!) in its PR. Here is a danger for us all.
So it is that there is no inconsistency in his circumcision of Timothy. See 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 for Paul’s own personal reflections of the principles behind this.
We must learn from the Apostle. Again and again in his letters he teaches the amazing grace of God in Christ, freely given. But he always follows this up with practical expression. Since God has made it easy for people to come to Him, so must we.
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