But what about Timothy?
There was a significant question that I left unaddressed in yesterday’s sermon: How do we handle an apparent contradiction in Paul’s teaching and Paul’s practice?
This past Sunday, we all heard the word of the Lord from Galatians 5:
Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.Galatians 5:2–4, ESV
But in Acts 16, we read this:
Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.Acts 16:1–3, ESV
The same Paul who wrote “if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you,” also had Timothy circumcised “because of the Jews.” What do we do with this apparent contradiction in Paul’s teaching and practice?
Before I answer that question, let’s first briefly consider the background. For us, in 2022 America, the issue is a little weird. I was talking with a friend this past weekend about my upcoming sermon, and he mentioned to me how strange it must be for an unchurched person to come to church and hear a text and a sermon that uses the word “circumcision” so often. What’s the deal with circumcision?
What seems like no big deal to us was a big deal to the people of Israel. Circumcision for a Jewish male was a mandatory sign of covenant membership, of inclusion in the people of God. It was given by God to Abraham as the sign of the covenant in Genesis 17:9–14. It was to be administered to all male babies on their eighth day, and it was to serve as an important identity marker for the people of God. Throughout the Old Testament we read of “the circumcised” and, importantly, the designation of the nations as “the uncircumcised.”
It was, of course, a physical sign, but circumcision was more than that. Circumcision was meant to point to the universal need for the circumcision of the heart: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn,” Moses commanded in Deuteronomy 10:16, a command that God ultimately promised he himself would fulfill in his people as a part of the New Covenant in Christ (see Deut. 30:6; Jer. 31:33, and Rom. 2:29).
It was a sign that was fulfilled in Christ, a sign that pointed ultimately to what he would do in us when he gave us a new heart, and that’s why Paul insists so strongly in the letter to the Galatians that it is not necessary for salvation or even inclusion in the people of God. This has already been accomplished in Christ!
So, since that’s true, how can Paul write “if you accept circumcision … you are severed from Christ” while also having Timothy circumcised? And, how can he allow Timothy to be circumcised, when we read in Galatians 2:3 that he refused to allow Titus to be circumcised? The answer, I believe, is found in three lines of thought: the first is the issue of timing, the second is the issue of culture, and the third is the issue of mission.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
I fall in the camp of those who believe that Galatians was the first letter written by Paul, and that it was penned prior to the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15. That’s important. The Jerusalem Council was the event where the early church settled once and for all the matter of circumcision as a requirement for salvation. Circumcision was being demanded by some (see Acts 15:1), but ultimately the church rejected that teaching, refusing to require circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses for salvation or acceptance into God’s people. If Galatians was written after the Jerusalem Council, Paul would have simply been able to say to the church in Galatia, “this issue has already been decided in Jerusalem.” But he didn’t, so most likely the letter was written prior to that decision.
Here’s why that matters: that means that the incident of Titus (Gal. 2:3) happened prior to that decision of the Jerusalem Council, while the incident with Timothy (Acts 16:3) took place following the decision of the Jerusalem Council.
When the Jews demanded that Titus be circumcised, Paul was still working to establish the truth of the gospel of grace alone through faith alone, but later with Timothy, as John Stott writes, “once a vital principal of gospel truth had been established, Paul was willing to make policy concessions.” Once it was understood that salvation was not through circumcision, Paul was willing to allow circumcision for two reasons.
CULTURAL IDENTITIES AND THE GOSPEL
Timothy George, in dealing with the question of why Paul refused to allow Titus to be circumcised but later had Timothy circumcised, wrote that the answer is simply because “Timothy was not Titus.” These are entirely different situations, and timing wasn’t the only reason why.
Timothy had a Jewish mother and a Greek (thus, Gentile) father, while Titus came from two Greek parents. Timothy would have been seen by the Jewish people as a Jew, while Titus was understood to be a Gentile.
Titus, the Gentile who—in line with his cultural tradition—was uncircumcised, was being told that circumcision was required for salvation and inclusion in the people of God. For Timothy, however, circumcision was a matter of maintaining his cultural identity and tradition. Neither Titus nor Timothy were required to be circumcised to be included in the people of God, but both were allowed to keep their cultural traditions.
For Titus to be circumcised would be to abandon his cultural tradition, and for Timothy to remain uncircumcised would be seen by many as ignoring or trampling on his cultural tradition. Titus remained uncircumcised, while Timothy was circumcised.
The principle here is important: The Gentiles didn’t have to abandon their “Gentileness” in order to become Christians or a part of God’s people, and neither did the Jews. The Jews did not have to abandon their Jewishness, symbolized in the tradition of circumcision. George writes, “For Paul, it was perfectly acceptable for Jewish believers in Jesus to have their infant son circumcised, so long as no salvific significance was attached to this ethnic ritual.”
The important question is, what are you relying on to save you? That’s why Paul writes in Galatians 5:2, “if you accept circumcision, (then) Christ will be of no advantage to you.” If you accept it as gaining you favor before God, if you accept it as earning your standing in God’s people, then you’re relying on works and not on Christ. Just four verses later he would write “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). Circumcision itself doesn’t count for anything, nor does uncircumcision. Neither gain you standing before God. If you have it, you don’t have to remove it. If you want to have your son circumcised, by all means, feel free, just don’t believe that it gains him (or you) standing before God.
The Jews were able (and encouraged) to keep their cultural identity, while the Gentiles were able (and encouraged) to keep theirs, as long as neither saw their own cultural identity as gaining them any standing before God. There’s another blog post to be written here, because there are important implications from this for us today, but for now we’ll move on.
ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE
The final reason why Paul can have Timothy circumcised after warning the Galatians against not accepting circumcision is the issue of mission. I believe Paul had Timothy circumcised as a living out of what he would later write to the church in Corinth:
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 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. 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. 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. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.1 Corinthians 9:19–23, ESV
To paraphrase Stott again, the principle had already been established that circumcision was not required for salvation, and now Paul was willing to make a concession for the sake of mission. For Timothy—the son of a Jewish parent—to be uncircumcised would have been a major stumbling block for the Jews who Paul and Timothy were trying to reach (see Acts 16:3). It seems to me that Paul was willing to allow Timothy’s circumcision (and Timothy was willing to allow it as well!) for the purpose of advancing the gospel. Timothy did this not as a way to gain salvation, but a way to gain an open door for the gospel.
Again, there is another blog post to be written here from the important implications from this for us. What are you willing to endure for the sake of gospel advancement? But we’ll save that for another day.
For now, let me close with this: There is no contradiction between Paul’s warning to the Galatians about accepting circumcision and Paul’s allowance of Timothy’s circumcision. There’s no spiritual danger in parents today allowing their son to be circumcised, and neither is there spiritual danger in parents declining that for their son. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6, ESV).
Bert Watts has served since December 2016 as the Senior Pastor at Mountain Creek Baptist Church, where he has been on staff since 2012.