Why Was Timothy Circumcised?

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Was Paul inconsistent when he had Timothy circumcised in Acts 16:3? After all, he had absolutely refused to let Titus be circumcised in Galatians 2:3-5. He said that the truth of the gospel was at stake. To concede that Titus should be circumcised would be tantamount to abandoning the gospel of justification by faith apart from works of law.

But what about Timothy? Acts 16:1-3 says,

Paul came also to Derbe and Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brethren at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews that were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.

There are three differences between the Timothy situation and the Titus situation.

1) Titus was a pure Greek (Galatians 2:3). Timothy was born of a Greek father and a Jewish mother. According to 2 Timothy 3:15, from childhood Timothy had been taught the Old Testament scriptures. In other words, his Jewish mother brought him up as a Jew. But his Greek father had not allowed the circumcision. For Titus the pressure was to become Jewish. Timothy was already very Jewish by race and by training. For him to be circumcised would not have had the implication of moving from Gentile status to Jew status.

2) The people Paul resisted in Galatians 2:3-5 were false brothers. The Jews to whom he catered in Acts 16:3 were not even Christians. The pressure in Galatians 2:3-5 was from professing believers upon another believer to perform a work of law in order to be accepted. But Acts 16:2 says Timothy was “well spoken of by all the brethren at Lystra and Iconium.” No Christians were pushing for Timothy’s circumcision. Rather it was “because of the Jews that were in those places” (16:3) that Paul had Timothy circumcised. “Jews” is used over 85 times in Acts and almost without exception refers to unbelievers. And here they appear to be distinct from “brethren.” So it appears that Timothy’s circumcision was not motivated by “Christian” pressure from within but by a missionary strategy from without.

3) Titus was a “test case” in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1), but Timothy was to be a constant travel companion (Acts 16:3). Therefore, in Titus’ case a clear theological issue was at stake. But in Timothy’s case, what was at stake was how unbelieving Jews might best be won to Christ. So just as Christian freedom caused Paul to resist Titus’ circumcision, this same freedom allowed him to remove the stumbling block of Timothy’s lack of circumcision. Paul applied his principle from 1 Corinthians 9:20, “To the Jews I became a Jew in order to win the Jews.”

On the basis of these three differences, then, I would say Paul was not inconsistent when he resisted Titus’ circumcision but sought Timothy’s.

Standing on (and under) the word,

Pastor John