People often describe life as a journey. We might aim at a particular destination, but can’t guarantee that the road we’ve chosen will take us straight there; life, like many roads, has its unexpected twists and turns. Thrown off balance, intent on getting where we want to be, we can get impatient, angry, or discouraged. The question is whether we can relax our mental grip on the future, stop obsessing over where we think we’re supposed to be, and find grace where we are.
And oh, yes — the other question is whether we have to walk the road alone, or with a trusted companion or two.
In previous posts, we’ve witnessed the unfortunate falling out between Paul and Barnabas over the matter of John Mark. Reading between the lines, it seems Barnabas was ready to give his younger cousin a second chance, an opportunity to prove his mettle on the mission field after his earlier faux pas. But Paul was adamant, unwilling to trust that John Mark would be a steady and reliable associate. So Barnabas took Mark and went one way, while Paul called for Silas and went the other.
Whatever Paul’s reasons for rejecting John Mark, it’s not because he was opposed in principle to taking on someone comparatively young. He would demonstrate that soon enough.
Paul and Silas traveled north through Syria, then west through Cilicia, heading for the Galatian churches Paul and Barnabas had planted a few years earlier. They came first to Derbe, at the eastern edge of Galatia, and then to Lystra.
A woman named Eunice (2 Tim 1:5) lived in Lystra. She was a Jewess, but had married a Greek. By rabbinic reckoning, their son Timothy was a Jew because his mother was a Jew. But Eunice had married into her husband’s culture, and Timothy had therefore not been circumcised.
Somewhere along the way, Eunice had become a Christian. Perhaps she had been converted by Paul’s earlier preaching; if so, Paul may have already known both her and Timothy. But Luke doesn’t say. What Luke does say is that Timothy had grown enough in his own faith that he had a solid reputation among the believers both in Lystra and in nearby Iconium. In my imagination, Paul already knew the young man, and was pleasantly impressed with how much he had matured since the last time he saw him.
Paul was so impressed, in fact, that he decided to take Timothy with him. There was just one thing that needed to be taken care of first, one thing that Timothy lacked on his missionary résumé.
Paul had Timothy circumcised.
Now there’s a sign of Timothy’s commitment to the mission.
Why did Paul insist on circumcision? Luke says that it was “because of the Jews who were in those places [presumably, Lystra and Iconium], for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (Acts 15:3, NRSV). Paul’s reasons, in other words, were at least in part social and political.
Some people have accused Paul of rank hypocrisy here. How could he bawl out Peter in Antioch and take such a hard line against circumcision, then turn around and circumcise Timothy?
There are three things to keep in mind here.
First, as mentioned above, by rabbinic law, Timothy was a Jew, not a Gentile. There was no such thing as DNA testing to confirm paternity; Jewishness was reckoned through the mother. What Paul objected to so strenuously in Antioch was the idea that the full acceptance of Gentiles into the family of faith depended on their being circumcised first. This says nothing about the circumcision of Jewish believers.
Second, Paul viewed circumcision itself in theological neutral terms. “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing” (1 Cor 7:19) he wrote to the Corinthians. The theological problem was not intrinsic to the rite itself, but to the requiring of any rite for salvation, a move which would reinforce the notion that salvation had to be earned, contradicting a gospel of grace.
Third, Paul’s driving passion was always for the spread of the gospel. He was savvy and realistic with respect to the cultural and ideological barriers that got in the way. He was always ready to do what it took to remove a barrier or two as long as he could do it without violating the core message of grace.
Paul’s reasoning, therefore, was probably something like this: “It doesn’t matter to me or to God whether Timothy is circumcised or not. But on this journey, we’re going to keep hitting up the synagogues. Nobody’s going to question Silas; he’s got a Jerusalem pedigree. But Timothy? Word travels. If I don’t circumcise him, people will see him as an apostate. That’s enough in itself for people to reject our message and think they’re doing God a favor. So let’s get rid of that objection right from the start.” (I was going to say “up front,” but, well, you know…)
Thus, Timothy joined Paul and Silas, and Paul became a mentor and spiritual father to the young man. Timothy, it seems, did indeed prove his worth, for Luke tells us that as the three men went from city to city, “the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily” (Acts 16:5).
That’s the kind of companion you want on your journey.