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Acts 16:1-5 by Robert Dean
Had Paul lost it and was he out of his mind when he had Timothy circumcised? Hadn't he just argued successfully that circumcision no longer mattered? Listen to this lesson and follow the timeline of Paul's thinking. See how Timothy having a Jewish mother was important in Paul's decision. Learn the significance of circumcision to God's covenant with Abraham and how it has ethnic and cultural values today, but never for salvation or spiritual life.
Series:Acts (2010)
Duration:1 hr 11 mins 26 secs

What About the Role of Circumcision and the Law? Acts 16:1-5


We have an interesting conundrum that is gradually being introduced by Luke at this point. We start into the second missionary journey. At the end of the first missionary journey Paul wrote one epistle, at the end of the second he wrote two epistles, and at the end of the third he wrote three epistles. The fourth trip was not a missionary journey, it was when he went to Rome, and while he was in Rome he wrote four prison epistles.

When Paul went on his first missionary journey he had as his travelling companions initially Barnabas and Barnabas's cousin John Mark. John Mark left when they departed from Cyprus and went to the mainland. He couldn't hack it and so that led to a later problem that occurred when Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with him on the second journey, and so they split up and went their separate ways. Paul went and took Silas with him and Barnabas went with John Mark and went back to do follow up ministry on Cyprus with the churches they had established there.

At the end of the first journey Paul wrote Galatians, which deals with the issue of what is the relationship of the law to salvation? That is the issue that was dealt with at the Jerusalem Council. We saw that there was a basic problem. Acts 15:1 NASB "Some men came down from Judea and {began} teaching the brethren, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'" So they were no longer teaching a grace gospel, they were teaching faith plus circumcision for salvation. That teaching didn't just go to Antioch; it was permeating the area where Paul had already been and was infiltrating the church in south central Turkey in what was at that time south Galatia. That was why Paul wrote the epistle to the Galatians. It was to straighten them out in the problem of law.

When the Jerusalem Council met they concluded that there was no theological reason or basis for insisting that Gentiles be circumcised, that the law should not be a burden for Gentiles. But what were they going to tell Gentiles? How were they going to solve the social problem?

The topic we have to address now is: What then is the role of circumcision and the law? If it is not for salvation, what is it for? This is an important issue because as we shall see as we go through Acts we are going to find Paul observing the law in his life. The conclusion of the matter of the letter that was sent form the leadership in Jerusalem to the church in Antioch was that there were certain prohibitions that Gentiles should follow. They were related to Jewish social custom shaped by a combination of rabbinic teach, the Mosaic Law, and/or the Noahic covenant. It had become part of the culture of second temple Judaism and the culture of the Jewish people at that time. So if they were going to sit down and have fellowship or go eat with Gentiles this was going to be a fellowship problem, a social problem; it wasn't a theological issue. So they were told to just avoid these things.

The issue is the same issue that we find in a number of other places in the New Testament that is the application of the law of love. It is not an issue of spirituality or an issue of salvation; but it is an issue of not offending a weaker brother. As a result of this Paul affirms the same position that circumcision is not necessary or required for justification. That is the same message he had in Galatians.

Acts 16:1 NASB "Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And a disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, [2] and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. [3] Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. [4] Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe. [5] So the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily."

We are introduced here to Timothy. His name is timotheus in the Greek, which means "honored of God." time is the Greek word for "honor"; theos = God. Paul becomes very close to Timothy. As we read through the New Testament epistles Timothy in mentioned by name by Paul seventeen times. That tells us something of the close relationship of Paul to Timothy. Timothy travels with Paul in his second missionary journey and on his third missionary journey he is going be with him in Rome, and then Paul is going to write two epistles to Timothy. 1 Timothy was written during his first imprisonment in Rome and 2 Timothy during his second imprisonment in Rome. In them Paul is going to give guidance and direction to Timothy as a young man.

2 Timothy was written in about 65 AD. This passage in Acts 16 was about 50, fifteen years before 2 Timothy. Timothy at this stage is probably around twenty or twenty-five because he is referred to as a young man. In that culture you were young until you were about forty, at which time you became mature, an elder. But you were a young man up to that age. So Timothy is going to be given guidance as a young pastor by the apostle Paul.

Paul led Timothy to salvation on the first missionary journey. This is when Paul would have first met Timothy, his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. It is mentioned in 2 Timothy 1:5. It was Paul helped them to understand that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah that had been promised and prophesied from the Old Testament. Therefore it was necessary for Jews, even though they had the Law and everything else, to trust now in Jesus as messiah and to believe in Him. This was a godly family.

Because of Paul's closeness to Timothy, and because he had led him to the Lord and had mentored him throughout his ministry, Paul would refer to Timothy by the endearing term "my son" is 1 Timothy 1:18. But there is a little problem with Timothy in his background. He is the offspring of a mixed marriage. His mother is Jewish and his father is Gentile. This presented a little bit of a problem because his father is a Greek and didn't want his son to be circumcised. Even today some Greeks hold that circumcision is mutilation and they are strongly against it. According to the rabbinical view of how to determine whether one is Jewish, Jewishness was determined by the mother. If the mother was Jewish then the children were Jewish. It seems that according to biblical genealogy Jewishness is passed on through the male, because that is the focal point in the genealogies. Probably both are true. The lineage is passed on through the father because he is the head of the home. It is doubtful that the genealogies can prove that Jewishness was determined by the mother.

The bottom line for us is that as far as Paul was concerned Timothy was Jewish. And if Timothy as a Jew was going to go with Paul and follow the principle to the Jew first and also to the Greek then Timothy, in order to have a platform for ministry among Jews—in some cases locally where it is known who he is, and that he is of a Greek father and has not been circumcised—he was going to have to be circumcised.

This is an interesting question for us because if circumcision is no longer spiritually significant then why does Paul have Timothy get circumcised? As we look at the New Testament and talk about the Law, the Law is no longer relevant. So why is it that later on we find Paul shaving his head, taking a vow, going to the temple? Is this wrong or are we just looking at this only from a very narrow grid in terms of theological correctness and ignoring ethnic and cultural issues? The real issue here is that as Jews with a cultural heritage, and with the temple still in operation, there were certain things that they still did culturally. But Paul understands that they don't have a spiritual significance other than as a reminder of the past and as a visual aid of spiritual truth that has been fulfilled in Christ. So we need to look at this in a little more detail.

Remember that in 2 Timothy 3:15 both the mother and the grandmother had been trained in the Word, and so he knows the Word. He has memorized Scripture probably, that was the standard operating procedure for Jewish children. Now that he is an adult he has shown great promise and is well spoken of by the brethren. This word "brethren" doesn't refer in context to Jewish brethren, it refers to those who are also members of the body of Christ. So it is a reference to Christians. Timothy as a young man, because of his prior knowledge of the Scripture and his spiritual growth and maturity during this time, has gained a very positive reputation among the Christians in Lystra and Iconium. So Paul recognizes his ability and wants him to go with him, but in order to do that he has to circumcise him.

This raises the question: What is going on with the circumcision here? If the Law no longer mattered, then why does Paul get Timothy circumcised? There is a reason here for saying "the Law no longer mattered" in this way. It did matter. Paul says in Romans seven that the Law is good and righteous and holy." It is just not profitable for justification or sanctification. But it is not bad; it is not evil. The other question to be asked: If Jewishness is no longer relevant, why does it matter? Somehow in the early church and down through the centuries we have gotten this idea that because we are in the church age, if you are Jewish and you get saved ethnicity is irrelevant. Irrelevant for what? That is what we need to ask. It is not absolutely irrelevant, it is irrelevant in terms of justification or sanctification. It is not totally irrelevant. Paul is very clear on this and we also need to be very clear on this. The fact that somebody is ethnically Jewish is still significant. That is why Paul is having Timothy circumcised. We need to understand this.

This is why there are certain things that Paul does in Acts that some people have thought that he must have been out of fellowship for doing it. Well the only other option is that Paul must be absolutely out of his mind, because one day he is teaching the gospel of grace and the Law is no longer relevant and the next day he has taken a vow and shaving his head. There is a third option and that has to do with the fact that Paul is doing something that is still legitimate because the temple hasn't been destroyed yet. He is not doing it because it is going get him justified or sanctified; he is doing it out of respect for his ethnic cultural background and for the heritage of the Old Testament.

The doctrine of circumcision

1.  Circumcision did not begin with Abram in Genesis chapter seventeen. There were other cultures that practiced circumcision—not a lot but there were so it is not historically unique to the Jews. But it becomes historically significant and doctrinally or theologically significant to the Jews.

2.  God first required circumcision of Abram in Genesis chapter seventeen. Genesis 17:11 NASB "And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you." The Hebrew word for covenant is berit. There is a form of the word for the circumcision ritual, and that is the bris. It is the word for covenant. In the act of circumcision the eight-day-old boy is now in a covenant relationship with God; he has now been brought into that Abrahamic covenant. It is not the Mosaic covenant. The sign of the Abrahamic covenant is circumcision, not the Mosaic covenant. The sign of the Mosaic covenant was the Sabbath. So getting circumcised isn't shifting to the Mosaic Law, it is a recognition that as a Jew, a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob they were in an eternal covenant with God. It is an eternal permanent covenant that doesn't change. So for Jews today, whether they are saved or unsaved, their identification with Abraham is through the Abrahamic covenant and the bris (circumcision). So this is unrelated to the issues of law and legalism in that sense.

3.  The New Testament recognizes that circumcision was Abrahamic and not Mosaic. John 7:22 NASB "For this reason Moses has given you circumcision (not because it is from Moses, but from the fathers)…" Who are the fathers? Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So Jesus recognized that it was not a Mosaic institution, it was an Abrahamic institution, and that is seen also in Acts 7:8.

4.  The problem that occurred in terms of theology was that during the period of the second temple Judaism circumcision and other religious aspects of the Mosaic Law began to be seen as being spiritually efficacious. In other words, you had to do them to gain righteousness. It was a pure works system. This is the problem that has infected the former Pharisees in Acts 15 who have become Christians. They are going to teach that you had to be circumcised in order to be saved.

5.  This problem is gradually developed through Acts. In Acts 10:45 we start seeing a foreshadow after Peter went to Cornelius's household. Word gets out that Peter is eating with the Gentiles. "All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also." That word "circumcision" is used in two ways. One way is with legalists and another way is just to refer to Jews as those who are circumcision, which is how it is use here. Then in 11:2 NASB "And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him." We haven't seen that phrase used before and it is a sort of foreshadowing of the problem that is developing.

6.  By 49-50 AD (Acts 15 & 16) this had developed into a problem. These Pharisee background Christians are saying that it is necessary to be circumcised in order to be saved, to get the blessings of the covenant. They are starting to merge faith plus works.

7.   Acts 21 is when Paul has come to Jerusalem after his third missionary journey. He has shaved his head and taken a vow. What is that all about? We will cover that when we get there but he is obviously following tradition. He is not putting himself back under the Law. Paul never fudges with this issue on the Law, he is following respect for Jewish tradition and is going to go into the temple, which is still God's temple. He is going to go through the ritual cleansing because there is nothing wrong with that. He isn't thinking that any of this made him saved or sanctified. Acts 21:15 NASB "After these days we [Luke is with him] got ready and started on our way up to Jerusalem. [16] {Some} of the disciples from Caesarea also came with us, taking us to Mnason of Cyprus, a disciple of long standing with whom we were to lodge. 17 After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. [18] And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.[19] After he had greeted them, he {began} to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. [20] And when they heard it they {began} glorifying God; and they said to him, 'You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law …" That is their tradition, it is not being said in a bad way. They are not being accused of being Judaisers. [21] "and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs." Did Paul do that? No. Remember, he had Timothy circumcised. It was not that it was necessary for sanctification or for justification, it was necessary form their social, cultural level. So there were these false charges brought against Paul some seven years later, that he was telling them not to get circumcised. The message of Paul as we see in Galatians wasn't that you shouldn't get circumcised, it was that circumcision didn't do anything for you spiritually.

8.  Titus at the same time Timothy is being circumcised so that he will not create a problem of dissention with the Jews they are ministering to was a Gentile and was not compelled to be circumcised (Galatians 2:3). But Timothy was.

9.  Look at some of the statements that Paul makes about circumcision. Galatians 5:2 NASB "Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you." When did he write this? Maybe six months before he had Timothy circumcised. Is Paul crazy? No, because what he is talking about in Galatians 5:2 is, if you think that if you become circumcised in order to be saved or sanctified then Christ isn't going to profit you anything. It is why you do the ritual, not the act of the ritual. [3] "And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law." But see, that doesn't apply to Timothy does it? He is not making what appears to be a blanket universal statement here that you shouldn't get circumcised at all. He is talking about circumcision within the context of Galatians: circumcision is a requirement for salvation or sanctification, not as just an act that has no spiritual significance whatsoever. [6] "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love." Whether you are circumcised or uncircumcised doesn't matter. That was just a physical thing that had a training aid type of significance. It doesn't have anything to do with spiritual reality. The only thing that matters is faith, the faith-rest drill working with love in the spiritual life. [12] "I wish that those who are troubling you [Judaisers] would even mutilate themselves." In 1 Corinthians 7:18, which was written after Paul's second missionary journey, NASB "Was any man called {when he was already} circumcised? He is not to become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? He is not to be circumcised." He is just saying it doesn't do anything for you spiritually. [19] "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but {what matters is} the keeping of the commandments of God." This is what matters. He is not talking about the ten commandments because the Law is no longer spiritually significant. He is talking about the commandments in the New Testament.

Then he concludes in Galatians 6:15 NASB "For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation." What matters is that you are a new creature in Christ (1 Corinthians 5:20). It is being in Christ that matters. We get "in Christ" at the moment we are saved; it is the baptism by the Holy Spirit. Galatians 3:26 NASB "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. [27] For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. [28] There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Paul is making a statement here that when you are in Christ Jewishness or Gentileness isn't a factor. Is he saying that it is erased and you and no longer a Jew or a Gentile? How do we know? "You are neither slave nor free." Cf. Philemon. In Rome Onesimus becomes a believer. What does Paul do? He says, "You are a believer, you are free. I know your master, he is a believer; you are free." Paul writes to Philemon and see he knows Onesimus has done him wrong but he implored him that now he is a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ that you not only forgive him but that you let him go free. Onesimus's slave status didn't change because he became a believer. He is still a slave. If you are a Jew and get saved, you are still a Jew; if you are a Gentile and get saved you are still a Gentile. This statement in Galatians is not saying that Jewishness is now irrelevant. That idea really has its roots in the origins of replacement theology back in the late 1st century, early 2nd century when some of the church fathers began to say that because the Jews rejected Christ they are no longer Jews, the real Israelites are Christians; they are the heirs to the promises. That is the first step on the path to anti-Semitism. 

What we are talking about here is that as many as were baptized into Christ, have put on Christ, are therefore all one in Christ and distinctions for spirituality do not continue. Men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile have the same access. But in the Old Testament under the Law they had a different access. We see the same thing in Colossians 3:10, 11 NASB "and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him—{a renewal} in which there is no {distinction between} Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all." These distinctions are irrelevant in Christ in terms and in terms of our personal relationship to God in terms of prayer and living our spiritual life. 1 Corinthians 12:13 NASB "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit."