Why Was Timothy Circumcised?

13 Dec

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 to 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 December 13, 2009 in Gospel, Religion


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4 responses to “Why Was Timothy Circumcised?

  1. Ron Cantor

    August 24, 2013 at 05:33

    Shalom Eddie, Hebrew 8:13 is not (in my opinion) referring to the entire Old Covenant, but the end of the sacrificial system as a means of (temporary) atonement. Paul (or someone) wrote Hebrews in 66CE. The Temple was destroyed in 70CE. Plus the context of the following chapters is blood sacrifice, priesthood, atonement, etc. We know that Yeshua did not come to end the Torah for Jews (Matt. 5:17) and that the Jewish believers felt strongly about continuing as torah observant Jews (Acts 21:20-25). My question to you would simply be, how can the covenant of physical circumcision not be in effect today? God told Abraham that it was an eternal covenant:

    “7I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.” (Gen 17:7-8)

    The fact that the nation of Israel exists is nothing short of miraculous and is a fulfillment of prophecy (Ez. 36:24). However, it is important to point out that while the Abrahamic covenant promised much, it was not a covenant that promised salvation. That is only through Yeshua’s blood. Therefore, can we conclude that both covenant’s are in effect? Blessings, Ron

    • Eddie

      August 24, 2013 at 10:16

      Greetings Ron, all I can offer is my opinion on these matters. I cannot offer dogma fixed in cement. Paul told us that we see through a glass darkly, that we know only in part now, but later our knowledge will be perfect (1Corinthians 13:9-12).

      As I read the Scriptures, God promised Israel a New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31), and the context seems to be (at least to me) that the second covenant would **replace** the first. The idea was that the first covenant was faulty in that it was not kept. Neither could it be kept properly, because the covenant was based upon human frailty—that is, it was a covenant either party could keep or break off. God kept his part of the bargain, but the Jews (and anyone else who might have been chosen instead of them) could not be so faithful.

      The writer of Hebrews seems to take this position as well, in that he says the Old Covenant was about to “vanish away” (see Hebrews 8:13). Your claim that this concerned only the sacrificial system lacks support in the text. It seems a lot like today’s churches (and I’m a member of one of them) who claim the Law is done away, yet they keep the law of tithing. I tithe, but I don’t think I am commanded to do so, I simply submit to the churches demand to do so. If I refuse to do so, I have not sinned (in my opinion), and this idea would carry over to the Jewish traditions as well for the Messianic believers. You worship God in the Jewish tradition (as much as you are able to discern from ancient writings), and you are pleased to do so, and I believe God is honored in that. But, you are not commanded to do so – i.e. according to Jewish tradition, just as I am not commanded to worship God according to American tradition. We could simply worship God in some other honorable way.

      I agree that the fact that the state of Israel exists today is nothing short of a miracle, and is a testimony of God’s love and faithfulness to you and your nation. But, concerning Matthew 5:17, I don’t consider this Scripture a foundational matter to keep the Old Covenant. What Jesus is saying is that (although he intends to make a New Covenant later) he is not casting the old one aside as though it was worthless. He intends to fulfill it—for the glory and honor of God, showing that—if there was a man among us who would be truly faithful to God—that covenant **could have been kept** but was not. It was broken, like a marriage vow, and Israel chose to go the way of the nations. Nevertheless, because God is who he is – faithful and loving – a new covenant would be made, after Jesus fulfilled the first.

      As for the covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17), I don’t believe the physical act of circumcision has any importance with God. He later calls for the circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4); it is not the cutting of the flesh that honors God, but the cutting away of those things of the heart that turn us away from Him.

      Lord bless you, Ron, and thank you for this little discussion. It makes me turn to the Scripture and reconsider what I believe. Things like this establish me in what I believe to be true. Forgive the lengthy reply, but I wanted to give your statements a decent reply.

  2. Ron Cantor (@RonSCantor)

    August 15, 2013 at 05:33

    Nice post. Would you agree also, that since the Abrahamic covenant is still in affect, that Paul’s reason for circumcising Timothy and not Titus, was because, as a Jew, Timothy was called to be circumcised (not for salvation, but as part of the irrevocable call on Israel [Rom. 11.29], see also Rom. 3:1ff), and Titus, not Jewish, would have no need or call to be circumcised? It was clear in Acts 15 that the Jewish believers would continue to live as Jews (and circumcise their boys as commanded in Gen. 17). That was the norm and there was never an apostolic decree or teaching that departed from this. Blessings.

    • Eddie

      August 15, 2013 at 10:00

      Greetings Ron, and welcome. What an interesting question! To tell you the truth, I hadn’t thought about in quite the way you present it. I hesitate, however, to think the Covenant of Circumcision is in effect **physically** on the basis of Romans 3. Why would God cut off–forever–a Jew who wasn’t circumcised? There may even be Jews who don’t know they are Jews, but God had guided them to help preserve the lineage. Certainly something like this could be understood in some of the prophecies concerning the Diaspora.

      How would you understand Hebrews 8:13?

      Whatever the truth is, certainly it is not wrong for any Jew (Messianic or not) to retain the Jewish traditions. I see them in much the same way as I see our American traditions, through which many of us seek to honor God. While the Jewish traditions may have been begun by God, Himself, they were meant to point to Christ in some way. So, the spiritual meaning is what is eternal, not the physical act–as far as I can see. Yet, to retain one’s Jewishness, and through it honor God, cannot be wrong, just as thanking God for America during the July 4th celebrations cannot be wrong, for he is responsible for all the good that comes upon all of us.


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