A “Bastard” in a Fatherless Age … (part 4)

Ancient flint knife used in circumcision rituals

Today, for the very last time, we are going to, once again, turn our attention to the calling of Timothy as it is narrated in the fourteenth and sixteenth chapters of Acts.  For those of you who have not been following along with this series, I would highly recommend that you take the time to look through the first three posts before continuing any further.  “Why?” you ask.  Because the three posts that have preceded this post lay the groundwork for everything that I am about to discuss today; and without that groundwork, very little of what I say will make sense to you.

A “Bastard” in a Fatherless Age … (part 1)

A “Bastard” in a Fatherless Age … (part 2)

A “Bastard” in a Fatherless Age … (part 3)

Now, presuming that we are all on the same page, I want to turn now to the account we see in Acts 16.  Two years following the violently explosive events of Acts 14, Paul returns to the city of Lystra, where he finds a young outcast by the name of Timothy.

“[Paul] also came to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple named Timothy was there, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but whose father was a Greek.  The brothers in Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places,for they all knew that his father was Greek.”[1]

As you have seen, thus far, there are no incidental words in Scripture.  God doesn’t waste ink.  If it’s there, it’s there for a reason.  And our task, as 21st century interpreters of the text, is to unpack that reason, which has sometimes been buried beneath the sands of time.

So why does Paul ask Timothy to be circumcised?[2]

This is actually a massive question that can only be answered if we understand a bit about the history of the times.  Starting around 167 BCE, Antiochus IV Epiphanes banned the traditional practice of circumcision and attempted to forcibly convert the Jewish population to Hellenism.  This, of course, happened in conjunction with other anti-Jewish acts such as: forcing Jews to eat un-kosher meat, compelling them to sacrifice pigs to various Roman gods, and setting up idols in the Second Temple.  These laws were so severe that if parents were found to have circumcised their child, the parents and infant were both hanged in the public square.[3]

Needless to say, many Jews were highly offended by these laws, and in 164 BCE, the Maccabean Revolt gave birth to the Hasmonean dynasty – an independent Jewish monarchy that was no longer under the thumb of foreign leadership.  But alas, the damage had been done.  Jewish society itself was split.  Some were tired of being Jewish and simply wanted to plug in to the greater Hellenized culture that surrounded them and afforded them new opportunities to thrive in society.  Others “doubled down,” and gave birth to movements such as the Zealots.  And thus, Jewish society, by the time of Jesus and Paul, had actually become highly fragmented by a raging, internal culture war.

At the center of this culture war was the act of circumcision itself. You ask, “Why?”  Well, many of the Hellenized Jews had taken to participating in the Greco-Roman games that were always conducted in the nude.  So when the Jewish men were in the arena, everyone could see that they had been circumcised.  But Roman culture despised circumcision, viewing it as an act of barbarism.[4]  So, many Jewish men began to hide their Jewish heritage by attempting to physically alter their circumcised genitalia.[5]  This, of course, added fuel to the fire that was already raging.

But lest we think that this issue was merely a matter of Jewish heritage and Roman culture in conflict, there was a second storm brewing.  In the aftermath of the death and resurrection of King Jesus the Messiah, the newly formed Christian community was charged with the task of bringing “The Gospel” to the ends of the earth.  What this meant, of course, is that the Abrahamic Covenant was about to be fulfilled.  All the nations of the earth were going to be blessed by the redemptive actions of Jesus the Christ.  But this raised a new set of questions for the fledgling Christian community.  Should Gentiles obey the Mosaic Law?  Should they be circumcised?  Should they only eat kosher meats?

These questions (and others), lead the leaders of the early church to convene the Council of Jerusalem around 50 CE.  Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, went on record as saying that any attempt to ask the Gentiles to conform to Jewish Law was a rejection of the Gospel message itself.  Paul was so adamant in his position that in Galatians 5:12, he writes:

“Why don’t these agitators, obsessive as they are about circumcision, go all the way and castrate themselves!”

This is not a man that is mincing his words.  Paul sees the demand for Gentiles to be circumcised as a direct challenge the Gospel itself and yet, when we look back to the account of Timothy, we are faced with the Apostle asking Timothy to be circumcised.  Why?  Well look at the text:

“[Paul] also came to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple named Timothy was there, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but whose father was a Greek.  The brothers in Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places,for they all knew that his father was Greek.”[6]

Timothy is an outcast in a Jewish world caught in the throws of a culture war.  His mother is seen as a prostitute.  He is seen as an illegitimate, half-breed bastard.  He’s been mocked and left on the outside for the better part of the 10-12 years of his life.  So what is Paul doing here?

Notice how the passage tells us that Timothy’s father was Greek.  Then it tells us that Christians spoke well of him.  But then it goes back to remind us that everyone “knew that his father was Greek.”

Paul knows this society.  And he knows how people view mamzers.  So he has a choice. He can send Timothy into the world uncircumcised, or, he can ask this young boy who has been hated and mocked his whole life to live out The Christ’s call to love one’s enemies.   If we listen close, we can hear Paul speaking even now:

“I am indeed free from everyone; but I have enslaved myself to everyone, so that I can win all the more.  I became like a Jew to the Jews, to win Jews.  I became like someone under the Law to the people who are under the Law, even though I’m not under it myself, so that I could win those under the Law.  To the lawless, I became like someone lawless (even though I’m not lawless before God, but Under the Messiah’s law), so that I could win the lawless.  I became weak to the weak, to win the weak.  I have become all things to all people, so that in all ways I might save some.  And I do it all because of the gospel.”[7]

Still having trouble seeing the connection?  Let me try to put it to you this way.

“Tim … I need to ask you to do something that is really hard.  It’s gonna hurt …  In fact, when people your age have this done to them, they typically lie around for days, in pain …  But here’s the deal, Tim.  I need you to be circumcised.  I know you have been mocked and ridiculed by the Jewish community.  I know that you been denied circumcision your whole life.  And I know – I know! – that circumcision has nothing to do with the Gospel or with submitting your life to the Lordship of the Messiah.  I know that, Tim!  But these people – they don’t know that.  They don’t understand.  So we’re going to make them understand by showing them what it is to live according to the Kingdom.  And in the Kingdom, we forgive those that persecute us.  When they stone us – like they stoned me two years ago – we make the hard choice to come back.  We make the hard choice because these people are lost.  And without the Messiah, Tim … without the Messiah, they always will be lost.  So I need you to show them what it means to forgive, Timothy.  I need you to do this so that they have no reason to reject you.   I want you to come with me; and I want you to help me take the Gospel to every synagogue in every nation until we reach the ends of the earth.  What do you say, Tim?  Can you do that for the sake of your Savior?”

What do you think?  Can you see how this kind of ministry is radically different than the sorts of ministry that we often offer to our youth in the 21st century?  And if so, do you have any thoughts on how this model might apply in youth ministry today? 

[1] Acts 16:1-3.

[2] While the text clearly states that Paul “took” Timothy, this should in no way be interpreted as an act that was against Timothy’s will.  There are too many other references in Scripture that bear witness to the affection that these two have for one another, for this passage to be read in any way other than Paul having asked Timothy to be circumcised.

[3] 1 Maccabees 1:46-67.

[4] According to the Babylonian Talmud, the Roman consul Titus Flavius Clemens was executed by the Roman Senate in 95 CE for the crime of circumcising himself and converting Judaism.

[5] The Apostle Paul warns against this practice in 1 Corinthians 7:18.  For those that are wondering how this is even possible, you may click on the following link that will take you to the Wikipedia article: “Foreskin Restoration.”  Warning: detailed diagram is present.

[6] Acts 16:1-3.

[7] 1 Corinthians 9:19b-23a.

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