Why Was Timothy Circumcised?

03 Jun

As we say good-by to Barnabas in Acts and leave the Jerusalem council behind, we find Paul and Silas on their way in Paul’s second missionary journey to the Galatian area. Silas must have been a great asset for Paul’s ministry at this particular time, because of his leadership at Jerusalem. Any argument that Hellenistic Jewish believers may have had with Paul’s Gospel not being in agreement with that of the Apostles would have been considerably undermined with his presence with Paul. Therefore, Paul’s arguments in his most recent letter to them (The Epistle to the Galatians), would be vindicated with the coming of Silas.

We find Timothy mentioned first in Acts 16:1, this may imply he was part of Paul’s original work in the area, but I tend to agree with other scholarship who claim Timothy is from Antioch and was sent by Paul to Galatia to counter the false preaching there by those of the circumcision. He may even have been the bearer of the Epistle to the Galatians. We know from Paul’s letters that Timothy was brought up to know the Scriptures (2Timothy 3:15), and that his mother and grandmother were led to Christ before he was (2Timothy 1:5), but this may have been only a matter of a few days or weeks, because Paul does refer to him as his “son” in the faith (1Corinthians 4:17; 1Timothy 1:2; 2Timothy 1:2), so whether Timothy is from Galatia or Antioch, he probably came to know Jesus through Paul’s ministry.

Timothy’s work in the Gospel had become well known by the several house churches in both Lystra and Iconium (about a day’s travel apart, 18 miles), implying he had some authority there, and both city churches had a good report concerning him (Acts 16:2). Paul wanted Timothy to come with Silas and himself to the missionary work ahead of them (Acts 16:3). But, the text also says here that Paul circumcised Timothy! Doesn’t this sound a bit contradictory? After all, this whole business of whether or not the gentiles had to be circumcised led to the Jerusalem council and Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which renounced the doctrine taught by the party of the circumcision demanding the gentiles become Jews (circumcised) in order to be saved. Paul had even brought Titus to Jerusalem with him (Galatians 2:1) to prove the Jewish believers in Jerusalem weren’t merely going to pay him lip-service, and no one at Jerusalem demanded that Titus be circumcised (Galatians 2:3). It was against Jewish law to keep company with a gentile who had not converted to Judaism. Therefore, the fact the Apostles, and with them the church at Jerusalem, received Titus without demanding he be circumcised verified the words they wrote in their letters. They actually lived out what they taught in the letters to the gentile churches.

So, now we have Paul circumcising Timothy because of the Jews. How is this not a contradiction? Well, we need to understand the mutual considerations James and the Jerusalem church brought out in his letter to the gentile churches (Acts 15:23-29). The gentile churches were given great freedom to take advantage of their own culture in the manner in which they worship God and did not have to become circumcised (Acts 15:24-27), but in their new freedom in Christ they needed to be careful not to offend the Jewish believers in Christ who would now be permitted to fellowship with them as far as eating together and intermarrying is concerned. That part of the letter concerned such things as what was eaten (Acts 15:29a) and what kind of couples were fit to marry (Acts 15:29b; cp. 1Corinthians 5:1). How does this concern Timothy’s circumcision? Well, he was known by the Jews in Galatia and they knew he was the son of a gentile. If he were not circumcised, he would have been considered an apostate Jew—a non-practicing Jew. This would have interfered with Paul’s work among the Jews, for his message had always gone to the Jew first and then to the gentile (Romans 1:16; 2:9-10). Therefore, it was necessary for the sake of the work that Timothy, who was a Jew, be circumcised. In this way the work of Christ among the Jews would not needlessly suffer. The matter with Titus was for the sake of the work among the gentiles, to prove they did not have to become circumcised. Therefore, Timothy’s circumcision was for the sake of keeping a needless offense in the eyes of other Jews from hurting the opportunity of the Gospel of Christ to sink into the hearts of those Jews to whom Paul preached.

May the grace of God bless his word in such a manner that it brings no needless offence from the lips of those who preach it to others.


Posted by on June 3, 2011 in Paul's 2nd Missionary Journey


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4 responses to “Why Was Timothy Circumcised?

  1. Rory

    January 19, 2012 at 08:53

    This makes sense, but what I wonder is how anyone would actually know he hadn’t been circumcised.

    • Ed Bromfield

      January 19, 2012 at 21:32

      To tell you the truth, I don’t know how the proof of the matter was made available. However, the folks in Galatia knew Timothy was not circumcised because his father was a Gentile, and Timothy was probably not a practicing Jew until Paul preached Christ in his hometown. By Paul making a point of circumcising him in Galatia the word would have gotten around, just like it got around that he was **not** circumcised. In any event, if a local rabbi required proof, a private room and a small company of witnesses would be all that was needed to offer the proof.

    • Rory

      January 21, 2012 at 13:01

      I just wondered if they actually would have checked him out in the private room. Ha, hard to imagine that conversation.


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