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 16:3)
At the first leg of Paul’s second missionary journey, he stopped at Lystra. There, he recruited Timothy as his protégé, and Acts 16:3 says that Paul circumcised him (or at least Paul had Timothy circumcised if he did not get his own hand dirty). This comment, however, might simply pass simply as a factual reporting, a nice-to-know-and-let’s-move-on kind of fact. However, reading what happened just before this event would inevitably raise at least one question.
In Acts 15, Paul had just debated the Jews who came to Antioch from Judea about the merit of circumcision for one’s salvation. The Jews insisted that circumcision was necessary for salvation (Acts 15:1). Paul, however, insisted that the snip-snip was unnecessary. None of them was willing to back down. So, Paul brought the matter up (or south) to Jerusalem Council. The apostles and the leaders at Jerusalem would need to settle this matter swiftly: do Gentiles need to be circumcised to secure their salvation? The council made a historic decision that Gentiles did not need to become Jews (or proselytes) in order to receive salvation in Jesus. This was a big win to the Gentiles. So, Paul returned to Antioch with affirmed and endorsed conviction that circumcision is indeed not meritorious for one’s salvation.
So, the question now is why then did Paul circumcise Timothy? Was Paul being a hypocrite? Was he being inconsistent? Was he afraid of the Jews in Lystra? Fortunately, the answer is ‘No.’
Two things are clear. Firstly, Paul was still committed to Jerusalem council’s decision. His epistles make this point very clearly (Romans 2:25-29; 1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:6; 6:15; Col. 3:11; Phil. 3:1-3). Paul also did not circumcise Titus because Titus was pure Greek (Gal. 2:3). Secondly, Paul actually never stopped any Jews from being circumcised or from circumcising their baby boys. So, Paul did not have any problem with the action in and of itself. Paul’s problem was with those who insisted that circumcision was necessary for salvation.
Therefore, Paul circumcised Timothy because of missiological, not soteriological, reason. Paul circumcised Timothy, not in order to gain or secure Timothy’s salvation. He did so in order to help with their mission. In his journey, whenever he arrived at a city, Paul usually stopped by at synagogues first if there were any. So, if Timothy were not circumcised, he would be quite restricted in synagogues. Even though his father was a Gentile, Timothy’s mother was a Jew. So, according to Talmud, Timothy was considered a full Jew. So, if he were not circumcised, he would have a very bad rapport with the Jews. This certainly would hinder the proclamation of the gospel.
Paul circumcised Timothy because of missiological, not soteriological, reason.
Hudson Taylor was the pioneer missionary to the inland China back in the 19th century. Unlike other missionaries, Taylor decided not to wear the typical British clerical garments. Instead, he decided to wear Chinese garments. He shaved his hair and wore pig-tail like the Chinese. He ate Chinese food. He also encouraged the missionaries who work under him to do the same. Unfortunately, Taylor had to cope with some heavy and ugly criticisms by other missionaries because of his missiological move.
However, someone who heavily criticised Taylor in his early years later wrote this:
“His missionary colleagues dressed and behaved like European clergymen. They belonged, visibly, to the same world as the merchants and the administrators and the soldiers whom the Chinese collectively classed ‘red-haired foreign devils’. The first step was obviously to get out of devildom by looking and behaving as much like a Chinese as possible and thus approaching one’s potential converts on their own terms.”
Taylor did not compromise the Gospel. Instead, he contextualised himself and his missionary companies. Hudson had tremendous success because the Chinese were not immediately repulsed by a message that was packaged in foreign attire. His contextualization actually built bridges for the gospel.
Taylor himself put it this way:
“In (Chinese dress) the foreigner, though recognised as such, escapes the mobbing and crowding to which, in many places, his own costume would subject him; and in preaching, while his dress attracts less notice, his words attract more.”
He also wrote this elsewhere:
“… the foreign air given to everything connected with religion, have very largely hindered the rapid dissemination of the truth among the Chinese. But why need such a foreign aspect be given to Christianity? The word of God does not require it; nor I conceive would reason justify it. It is not their denationalization but their Christianization that we seek.”
Therefore, similar to Timothy, Paul circumcised Timothy, not because of salvation issue, but in order build bridges for the gospel. This aligns with what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9.
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)
So, all of us who call ourselves Christians must take time for self-examination. Are we expecting unbelievers to change to become like us or to adopt some of our traditions before they become Christians? Are we expecting people to jump through hoops, to do certain things before we think they are worthy to be saved? Or are we actually jumping through hoops and hurdles so that we meet people where they are and they are confident that they can become a Christian, they can be saved simply by trusting in Jesus Christ?
Is there any personal tradition or group culture that actually hinders people from hearing the gospel? When people come to your group, your community, or when people see your life, do they think that the gospel requires them to adopt your culture or your tradition? Are we willing to ‘snip’ them off? When they have the confidence that God accepts them for who they are?
The gospel is wide enough to transcend cultures and traditions. God delights in seeing people from all tribes, tongues, and nations to come to worship Him. Let us tear down any tradition or any cultural wall that hinders people from coming to Jesus.