Not long ago our entire family enjoyed a rare bowl of ice cream before bed. Typically I don’t worry about what they eat, however I do try to limit sugar intake, especially at night. My kids were elated, and it was good. So good in fact, we all craved another the following night. Sadly, it couldn’t be. As I was serving the night before, I realized that only a single serving remained. I couldn’t easily split it between three kids and I wanted to avoid an entitlement of ice cream every night, so I told them none of us needed the ice cream. Slumped in disappointment they walked away. After they went to bed, alone, I quietly ate the last, teeny, tiny serving. Can you imagine the accusations and looks of betrayal if I’d been discovered? The hypocrisy of it all! It’s probably not worth telling you that when my husband asked for some ice cream the following day, I shrugged and nonchalantly said, “It’s all gone, honey.” Utterly disappointed, “You mean the kids ate it all the other night?” I simply smiled a sheepish smile.
As I read Acts 16, I feel like I’ve uncovered Paul’s hypocrisy. Paul had just vehemently opposed saddling Gentiles with the requirement of circumcision in chapter 15.
So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? (Acts 15:10 NLT)
And in chapter 16, here he is circumcising sweet Timothy whose father was a Gentile. The text says that Paul didn’t want to offend the Jews during their missionary journey. But, honestly, that just doesn’t satisfy me. He made an incredible case for grace in Jerusalem. He had me convinced Christ plus nothing! I was hooked on his doctrine! Why’d ya do it, Paul? Why’d ya go back to circumcision? I wasn’t prepared for that.
If you’ve been following this study, you know I’ve said over and over: our faith is NOT a formula. See? I had just developed a formula that said, “don’t circumcise. It’s a saddle and I cannot bear it.” I could easily go on to say, “don’t baptize, don’t join a church, and don’t take communion; it’s a saddle that you cannot bear.” Does that sound ridiculous to you or not? So my question is, why did Paul make such a big fat deal about not circumcising with the Jerusalem Council if he was only going to turn around and insist upon it in Acts 16? Let’s break it down.
THE CASE FOR GRACE
The grace of God is a concept that is terribly difficult to appreciate. To receive something of value for absolutely nothing in return is outrageous in our current economy. In spiritual terms, it means we cannot control our destiny within our own means. It means grace is outside of our control and that’s frightening. While the law was not given to Israel as a formula for control, it turned into exactly that. Circumcision became a symbol of the law, a sign of a people who follow the one true God, and they manipulated that. It’s true, God did ask them to be circumcised as a sign, and to follow the commandments he ordained, but for what purpose? Not to satisfy him as God, like many believed, but rather to know him. To enter into relationship.
So when the gospel message of salvation arrived in Jesus, many of the Christian Jews naturally concluded that circumcision and the law would be necessary for their new faith too. Not just beautiful worship, but necessary. Paul on the other hand wanted everyone to understand grace completely. Works, the law, circumcision, they were not required for salvation. When he went to the Jerusalem Council, he wanted the Gospel of Grace to be made clear. Regardless of what you do, it is impossible to please God without the blood of Christ. Christ plus nothing!
Paul realized it was very risky passing along these Old Covenant practices to the Gentiles. Not necessarily risky for Paul and his reputation, but risky for the gospel itself. We see him, more than once, express his fear of wasting his time with the Gentiles. Why? If the Gentiles had adopted circumcision and the law, then this new Christian movement could easily have, and probably would have, been absorbed into another sect of Judaism, causing the message of grace to eventually grow mute. The “burden of the law” was the misunderstanding that you can earn your way toward acceptance from a God who requires nothing! If this was the resulting message, where would this leave the New Covenant?
If Paul was defending grace in chapter 15, did his regard for grace disappear in Chapter 16? The New Living Translation (NLT) in Acts 15, says that Paul vehemently opposed the Judaizer’s doctrine of circumcision. When he’s with Timothy, he doesn’t seem vehemently opposed to circumcision at all. It’s odd. He’s not wringing his hands or painfully wrestling with the question, “ Do I have Tim do this? Or do I not?” The text implies confidence.
I come from a long line of believer’s who stand up for the truth. I was raised to be strong, and not be afraid of the consequences when standing up for true doctrine. So firmly grounded in this value, I must admit that there’s a big part of me that wants to see Paul travel this missionary journey with an uncircumcised man. I want to see him telling those Jews the truth and not worry about the offended! I actually feel a teensy bit let down that he doesn’t.
Do you remember how Paul changed his message according to his audience in Acts 14? In every city, he first went to the Jews and used Holy Scripture as evidence to prove Jesus. Later, when dealing with pagan Gentiles he used creation and nature to prove the one true God.
When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. (I Corinthians 9:22 NLT)
Paul dearly loved his Jewish brothers and sisters, and wanted to make every attempt to reach them. Because Timothy’s heritage came from his Jewish mother, it made him Jewish, therefore Paul wisely anticipated that the Jews along their journey would likely refuse them, because an uncircumcised Jew would represent rebellion, and consequently could not be trusted. Everything out of their mouths would have been futile. Paul prioritized the gospel over doctrinal correctness. In so doing, he actually lived out God’s grace for them. Grace was ironically all through chapter 16!
PAUL AND THE LAW
We can be confident that Paul knew it was spiritually unnecessary for Timothy to be circumcised, and he was emphatic that he didn’t want the practice forced onto the Gentiles. But did you know that Paul never actually advised the Jews against circumcision or the law? He says over and over that he loved the law. The law helped him to see between right and wrong, and it aided him in knowing God. In fact, right before he was arrested in Acts 21, he and the Council had agreed that he would undergo all the purification rites in the Temple to prove he was a law abiding Jew. They wanted to set the record straight and dispel the rumors that he was attacking the law. It must have been confusing, and even appalling to outside observers, to see Jews and Gentiles worshipping together, practicing various things. While Paul encouraged everyone to follow the Holy Spirit on such matters, he was always clear that the law did nothing to save the participant. Such a departure from their understanding of the Old Covenant.
Today, in some circles, doctrine can sound like a bad word, something to be avoided. In other circles, doctrine is the entire basis for life. To be fair, doctrine indeed has its place and its significance is not lost on me. I suppose we will all understand the one true doctrine in time. But for now, we must follow Paul’s example. We must place an emphasis on the Gospel of Grace over doctrinal correctness when forced between the two. Relationship is not found in doctrine. It’s found in grace. Paul completely trusted the Holy Spirit to direct his decisions, and we too can completely trust the Holy Spirit in everything! AND? We can completely trust the Holy Spirit to guide all believers into truth! It’s not necessarily our job to make sure everyone knows the truth. God is completely capable. Let’s unite as the Body of Christ to encourage and support the simple pursuit of God.