Acts 16:1-15 (AD 48-49)
In chapter 15 Paul and Barnabas vigorously fought the idea that Gentiles needed to be circumcised to be Christians (15:1-2). The letter to Galatians accused those who pushed that idea of being heretics, and their doctrine of being anti-gospel, Satanic (e.g. 1:6-7; 3:1-6, 10-11 and especially 5:2-6).
But here we read is that Paul “circumcised [Timothy] because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (v.3).
Double standards? Inconsistency? Changed his mind? No, no and no.
The reason Paul fought against the idea of circumcising Gentile converts was that people were being told they could repent and believe in Jesus, but wouldn’t be saved until they were circumcised. That’s heresy. The reason for circumcising Timothy, on the other hand, was missional. Because Timothy was of mixed, Jewish-Greek heritage, the Jews thought of him as a Jew. Many Jewish Christians felt that although circumcision wasn’t necessary for salvation, it was still a way for Jews to honour God for all time. They believed that Jesus hadn’t removed the practice, merely the salvific necessity, for circumcision.
If Paul took Timothy on mission to those people, it would have been harder to get an audience with them, because of the accusations that Paul wanted to stamp out the Jewishness of the Jews. Paul didn’t want anything to get in the way of he and Timothy being able to talk to those people, so Timothy agreed to Paul’s step of circumcising him.
Far from contradicting Acts 15 and Galatians, therefore, they are the necessary backdrop to what happened here. Until the Council of Jerusalem (and possibly the letter to Galatians, if that did indeed happen soon after), if Paul circumcised someone it would have looked like a capitulation to the idea that circumcision was necessary for salvation. But having established that it was not necessary, he was then free to do it for purely missional reasons. He had to establish that people didn’t HAVE to do it, before he could advocate for reasons when people MIGHT do it.
Paul (and spare a thought for Timothy who was circumcised as an adult) made a priority of reaching people with the gospel of Jesus. We sometimes talk of how it’s faithfulness, not results, that’s important in evangelism. We don’t measure our efforts by the number of converts, because that’s not in our hands. We measure ourselves by being faithful to our calling as ambassadors of Christ. But as Paul made clear, part of being faithful to that calling is doing what we can to help people come to Jesus, even where that inconveniences us, or causes physical pain.
How committed are you to that kind of faithfulness?