He came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek. The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted to take him 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. As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. (verses 1-4)
Paul is both deeply principled and flexibly pragmatic. Sometimes he is unyielding in holding to the practical outworking of a point of theology, like when he confronted Peter about his refusal to eat with Gentiles at Antioch after the arrival of Jewish visitors from the church in Jerusalem (Gal 2:11-14). Paul called him on it, sensing that a principle of freedom and grace was threatened by Peter’s hypocrisy. Indeed, other believers joined Peter in his wrongheaded behaviour, including Barnabas. Paul was justly concerned that Gentile-believers would feel they were only second-class Christians unless they followed all of the Jewish tradition. Paul understood that if they needed to keep the law in order to be fully accepted, grace would be undermined, ultimately impacting their grasp of salvation. So, he pressed the issue.
On another occasion he rejoiced that his co-worker, Titus, who was a non-Jew, was not compelled to be circumcised (Galatians 2:3). At the time, the Jerusalem church was debating whether Gentiles should be compelled to keep the whole Old Testament law as a necessary part of receiving salvation. The apostles and elders ultimately said “no.” Instead, they affirmed: “it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 15:11). To require Titus to be circumcised would have been a denial of grace. Paul would have stood firmly against it.
But with Timothy, he seems to see things differently. Because he had a non-Jewish Dad, Timothy had never been fully brought up in Jewish practice, and thus never circumcised. So, before taking him on this missionary journey, Paul “circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area” (verse 3). He seems to think Timothy’s lack of circumcision would be an unnecessary distraction for some. But his circumcision wouldn’t throw grace into question because Paul at the same time was delivering “the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem” (verse 4). Those decisions made it clear that circumcision was not necessary for salvation. It was by grace alone.
With that settled, Timothy’s circumcision could smooth the way for some to better hear the gospel. That was Paul’s motive. As he says elsewhere: “Though I am free … I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law” (1 Corinthians 9:19-20).
He’s passionately committed to grace, but also passionate to see people come to faith. When grace is at stake, Paul is unyielding. But when grace is unthreatened, he graciously flexes so people can see, and hear, and come to know Jesus.
What a grace-filled combination. What a challenge to live likewise.
Dear Lord, thank you that your salvation is a gift of pure grace. Help me embrace it passionately. And strengthen me with grace-filled flexibility to make your grace known to as many as possible. Live your life in me. Amen.
Reflect: Is there a circumstance in your life in which you need to hold strongly to principle? Ask the Lord’s strength. Is there a circumstance before you in which you need to flex, perhaps beyond your comfort-zone? Ask the Lord for grace.