Paul and Silas — who had separated from Barnabas and John Mark — travelled to Derbe and then to Lystra, where Timothy lived. And Timothy is described as a disciple. In other words, he was a Christian, a believer. And Luke tells us in verse 1 that his mother was a Jew and a believer also. And, in 2 Timothy, we learn that his mother was called Eunice; and Eunice’s mother, Lois, was also a believer. And these two believing women brought Timothy up to believe — we know that because in 2 Timothy 3 Paul mentions how Timothy had known the holy Scriptures since infancy. His grandmother and mother brought up this little boy in the faith.
And of course, that’s the way it’s supposed to be: Christian parents bringing up their children in the faith so that there was never a time when the child did not know and believe in Jesus Christ the Saviour. That’s the way it was with me, and that’s the way it is with many children who are brought up in the church.
But, of course, the interesting thing about Timothy is — as Luke tells us — his father was a Greek. In other words, he was a Gentile. And probably he wasn’t a believer either, otherwise Luke would have said so. And since Timothy’s father wasn’t a Jew, then Timothy had not been circumcised as an infant.
Paul wanted to take Timothy along with them on their missionary journey. And so, since Paul still intended to reach the Jews with the gospel, he arranged for Timothy to be circumcised. So, the question arises: How come Paul arranged for Timothy to be circumcised in chapter 16 when in chapter 15 it was agreed that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised? If Gentiles didn’t need to circumcised in order to be saved, then why did Paul think that Timothy ought to be circumcised? That’s the question. So, what’s the answer?
Chapter 15 again
The answer lies in the fact that chapters 15 and 16 are dealing with different issues. In chapter 15, some Jewish believers were insisting that you couldn’t be saved unless you were first circumcised. Look back to verse 1 of chapter 15:
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’
In other words, they were saying that we’re saved not by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, but we’re saved by faith in Jesus Christ and by being circumcised. Christ does his part, and we must also do our part. So, someone asks: ‘What must I do to be saved?’ And the answer is, according to these believing Pharisees: ‘You must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be circumcised.’ But, of course, that undermines the whole of the gospel of God’s free grace to sinners. According to the gospel, how do we receive salvation from God? We receive it through faith alone, and not by works of the law.
That was the issue at stake in chapter 15. That’s what chapter 15 was all about. But in chapter 16, the issue is not how a sinner receives salvation. You see, there was no question about Timothy’s salvation. Just look again at how he’s described: verse 1, he’s introduced as a disciple, a believer; verse 2, the brothers, or the believers, in Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him; verse 3, Paul wanted to take him along on his missionary journey. Do you see? Paul was satisfied that this man’s profession of faith was credible, believable. So, there’s no question about Timothy’s salvation. So, that’s not the issue.
The issue in chapter 16 is about being sensitive to the sensitivities of the people they were trying to reach with the gospel. You see, every time Paul arrived at a new city, he typically went to the synagogue and preached there to the Jewish congregation. But some of the Jews might have been offended by the presence of Timothy. After all, Luke tells us in verse 3 that they all knew about Timothy’s parentage and that he came from a mixed marriage. And the Bible commentators tell us that they would have regarded the children of a mixed marriage as apostates. You know, someone who has abandoned their religion and gone over to the other side. So, they might have looked at Timothy and thought to themselves:
What’s he doing here? He shouldn’t be here. And how dare Paul bring this apostate into our synagogue!
So, Paul was simply being careful not to offend the people he wanted to reach with the gospel and he was trying to remove any obstacle that might prevent the Jew’s from listening to his message.
John Stott puts it this way: Once the principle was established in chapter 16 that circumcision is not necessary to salvation, Paul was ready to make a concession in policy. Or, what was unnecessary for acceptance with God was advisable for acceptance with some human beings.
Paul writes something similar in 1 Corinthians. In chapter 8, he tells us that to the Jews, he became like a Jew, to win the Jews. And to those not having the law, he became like one not having the law, so as to win those who not having the law. He said:
I have become all things to all men, so that by all possible means I might save some.
So, when he was with Jews, he made sure he fitted in with them and didn’t offend them. And when he was with the Gentiles, he made sure he fitted in with them and didn’t offend them. And he made sure he fitted in with them because he wanted to win them for Christ.
Think of XXXX in XXXX, wanting to live among the people she’s trying to reach. Think of how she tries to fit in with them, and how she tries not to stand out from them in terms of where she lives and the standard of living she enjoys (or endures).
You see, people may be offended by the message we proclaim. In Paul’s day, the message of the cross was a stumbling block to some and it seemed foolish to others. But there’s nothing we can do about that, because this is the message we’ve been commanded to proclaim. We can’t do anything about the message we’ve been given to preach. However, we mustn’t let anything we do offend the people we’re trying to reach.
XXXX said the same thing about what they do in XXXX. There are some things we are commanded to do when we meet together for worship: We must read and preach God’s word; we must pray; we must sing biblical songs of worship to God; we must administer the sacraments; we must worship with reverence and awe. We’re commanded to do those things. But is there anything else which we do that might put people off? If there is, then we ought to stop doing it.
In Acts 16, Paul arranged for Timothy to be circumcised, not because Timothy needn’t to be circumcised in order to be saved, but because Paul wanted to reach as many Jews as possible, and he didn’t want anything to prevent the Jews from listening to his message.
And look how committed Timothy was to the work! Look how committed he was to reaching the lost! He was prepared to go through the pain of circumcision to reach the lost. Well, what a challege to us! If there’s anything we do which prevents the lost from listening to our message, then we need to cut it off. And if anyone asked Paul why he arranged for Timothy to be circumcised, he would have said what he already said in 1 Corinthians 7:19:
Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing.
It counts for nothing with regard to our salvation whether we’re circumcised or not. It counts for nothing with regard to our salvation. But, we can imagine Paul saying: if the Jews we’re trying to reach will be offended by the fact that Timothy is uncircumcised, then let’s remove that obstacle standing in their way, and let’s open the way to preach the gospel to them.