“Him would Paul have to go forth with him; and took and circumcised him because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek.” (Acts 16:3, AV)
In the 1850’s, a missionary named Hudson Taylor went to China. In China, he took a revolutionary approach to missions, one for which many greatly criticized him. He felt that the refusal of missionaries to adapt to the culture was a barrier to reaching the indigenous people to which they were called. So, Taylor shaved his head and adopted Chinese dress, embracing the local culture. His revolutionary approach to missions was highly effective. In time, the very organizations that had criticized his approach began adopting them.
In the Scriptures, we often find some puzzling events that need explanation. Here is such an event. On this second missionary endeavor, Paul meets a believer in Lystra named Timothy. The other believers in the area spoke highly of Timothy and Paul elected to make him part of the missionary team. However, prior to taking Timothy, Paul elected to circumcise him.
This act of circumcising Timothy seems odd when you consider Paul’s strong emphasis on salvation by grace alone, apart from works, which included circumcision. Paul had just been in Jerusalem and met with the apostles and elders to resolve the issue of circumcision (Acts 15). The council soundly rejected that circumcision was necessary for salvation and held to the fact that salvation was by grace alone.
Moreover, Paul vehemently defended grace. In his letter to the Galatians, he fights this very heresy. He tells them that justification and sanctification are works of grace not external obedience to the Law. He sums this sentiment up at the end of the letter, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature” (Galatians 6:15, AV).
So, why did Paul circumcise Timothy? We see the answer in the verse. Paul did so because there were Jews in the area and they knew Timothy’s father was a Greek. Remember that Paul took the gospel to the Gentile regions and in these regions were both Jews and Gentiles. He often would go into the synagogues on the Sabbath and expound on the Scriptures regarding Jesus as the Messiah. Therefore, Paul circumcises Timothy to be of no offense to the Jews in that area. In other words, Paul would allow nothing to compromise his effort to proclaim the message of free grace, especially those things that did not count “for anything.” This is the same sentiment that Paul presents in his letter to the Corinthians.
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23, ESV)
The big point is this. In our effort to glorify Christ through our witness, remember to bring no offense to those around us. This does not mean that we compromise solid biblical morality. Sin is not a witness of Christ. It does mean that we understand and engage the culture around us, without participating in sin.