Tuesday, June 29, 2010

was Paul a hypocrite?

This past Sunday's sermon was a unique one.  Rather than preparing ahead of time, Pastor Talbot was 'on the spot', ready to answer questions from the congregation about the Bible.  The series we're in is called 'Text Message', a series all about the text of Scripture and what it has to say.  Appropriately, we were asked to text our questions to Talbot during the service.

Someone texted this fascinating question:  Why does Paul tell the Judaizers that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised to join the faith, but then he makes Timothy get circumcised?

The story is found in Acts 16:1-3, directly on the heels of the biggest doctrinal showdown in the early church.  Acts 15 records a debate that arose between those who taught that Gentiles must first be circumcised to be saved (the Judaizers) and those who strongly disagreed (including Paul).  All the big wigs gathered in Jerusalem to duke talk it out.  Peter gave a testimony about how God had poured out the Holy Spirit on uncircumcised Gentiles (Acts 15:7-11).  This in itself would have been a strong indication that Gentiles were "in" because the Old Testament never predicts the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Gentiles, only on the restored people of Israel.  Then Paul added his two cents (Acts 15:12).  James followed this with a knockout punch by using Old Testament Scripture to demonstrate that Gentile inclusion was envisioned by the prophets long ago (Acts 15:13-29).  His quotation from Amos 9 is bolstered by allusions to as many as 5 other prophetic passages, each of them contributing to the overall message that Gentiles can be included in the faith community as Gentiles, that is, without converting first to Judaism.* 

Why then, just a few verses later, does Paul require Timothy to undergo this most unpleasant surgery?  Acts 16:1 tells us that Timothy's father was Greek (apparently his Jewish mother had been unable to convince her husband of the value of such painful mutilation).  Timothy had a good reputation among the believers, and Paul wanted to take him along on a missionary journey.  Acts 16:3 tells us why circumcision was part of the orientation process for him: "because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek."  Timothy's circumcision had nothing to do with his standing before God.  It was not part of "being saved." It was for the sake of those to whom they hoped to preach.  Paul didn't want anything to stand in the way of the important message they had to share about the coming of the Messiah, Jesus.  If anyone asked Timothy, "Why should I listen to an uncircumcised scumbag like you?" He could honestly tell them, "Oh, but I am circumcised."  The door would open once again for their message.

Paul was no schizophrenic.  He was an outstanding theologian, and what's more, an apostle sent to bring the good news far and wide.  And his modus operandi was this: "I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some." (1 Cor 9:22) This doesn't mean that Paul led a double life.  He lived by his convictions.  But he was willing to make sacrifices if it meant that the gospel would gain a wider hearing.  And so was Timothy.  Listen to what Paul said about him later to the church in Philippi:

"I hope to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be encouraged by hearing news about you. For there is no one here like him who will readily demonstrate his deep concern for you. [no kidding!] Others are busy with their own concerns, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know his qualifications, that like a son working with his father, he served with me in advancing the gospel."  (Phil 2:19-22)


*If you want to dig more deeply into James' sermon, I recommend an absolutely brilliant article by Richard Bauckham.  Fair warning: It's rather scholarly, but so impressed me that I nearly framed it for my bedroom wall! [“James and the Gentiles (Acts 15:13-21).” Pages 154-184 in History, Literature, and Society in the Book of Acts. Edited by Ben Witherington. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.]

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