Acts 15:36-16:5

Paul and Barnabas decide to embark on a second missionary journey and revisit the cities where they proclaimed the gospel on the first trip.  Unfortunately they have a falling out over taking John Mark – who deserted them on the first trip – and so go their separate ways.  As Paul and his new partner Silas retrace the steps of the first journey, they come across a disciple named Timothy who – in contrast to John Mark – Paul wants to make a part of the ministry.  Surprisingly Paul circumcises Timothy – who is half Jewish – to make him more acceptable to the Jews.  In so doing, Paul demonstrates his commitment to the gospel and his lack of concern for his standing and pride.

This short text teaches us about God’s sovereignty over sin and the necessity of being committed to God’s purposes above our own.

Some days after they returned from the Jerusalem council – where the apostles decided that circumcision is not necessary for Gentile believers but issued guidelines on how they are to live with converted Jews – Paul suggests to Barnabas that they go back on the road and visit the brethren in the cities where they proclaimed the word of the Lord on the first journey.  Paul has already heard and addressed reports that false teachers have tried to lead the Galatians away from the gospel.  He likely is itching to return and see how his letter has been received and how the believers are faring.

Barnabas agrees to go but wants to bring his cousin – John Mark – who began the last trip with them but turned back once they arrived in Pamphylia (where they traveled after leaving Cyprus – see 13:12).  Nothing is said either here or in the earlier text as to why Mark turned back, but it apparently was not a valid reason as Paul now wants nothing to do with taking him again.  Luke seems to back Paul’s assessment by saying Mark deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.

Barnabas and Paul disagree so strongly over taking Mark that they decide they cannot make the trip together.  Barnabas takes John Mark and sails to Cyprus (his home country and the island where Paul and Barnabas started the first journey).  Paul chooses Silas – one of the men who accompanied Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch from Jerusalem with the apostle’s decree (15:22).  Paul and Silas leave Antioch and travel overland through Syria and Cilicia  (Syria is the province where Antioch is located and Cilicia is the province to the north and west where Paul’s hometown of Tarsus is located).  As they go, they strengthen the churches that were perhaps started by Paul during his ministry in Tarsus before Barnabas brought him to Antioch (9:30, 11:25, Gal 1:21).

Interestingly, Luke – who in later texts will make it clear that he accompanies Paul and Silas – says that the two men are committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.  The church at Antioch apparently agrees with Paul’s choice and officially sends him and Silas in the power of the Holy Spirit (as they did for the first journey – 13:3).  Luke does not say this about Barnabas and John Mark but perhaps it is because he is not with them and does not record the details of their trip.  It could be that the church commends the two of them also.

It is hard to know how to interpret the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas.  For Barnabas it is easy to understand that since Mark is his cousin and since Barnabas is the “son of encouragement” (remember that ‘Barnabas’ is a nickname and his real name is Joseph) that he would lean toward giving Mark a second chance.  It is also easy to understand that Paul would not want to risk losing an assistant in the middle of a trip again (perhaps Paul’s vehement opposition implies that Mark’s leaving presented quite a hardship to the group on the first journey).  In both cases, however, it would seem that two men committed to loving each other as they love themselves and to esteeming each other higher than themselves should be able to compromise for the sake of the gospel.

That it does not happen reflects on both men.  Paul comes away looking unforgiving and unmerciful.  If someone like Barnabas – who is universally respected for his righteousness and generosity – vouches for Mark, why not give him a second chance?  On the other hand, Barnabas appears to be stubborn and perhaps more concerned with the feelings of a family member than with the effective spread of the gospel.  The good side of both arguments is Paul’s concern that nothing get in the way of the ministry and Barnabas’ forgiving spirit and willingness to accept that God can change any heart.

In the end God uses the dispute to effectively double the ministry.  Barnabas and John Mark take the gospel one way while Paul and Silas take it another.  More people are reached than otherwise would have had Paul and Barnabas stuck together.  God’s use of the argument does not excuse it or make it right, however.  God is sovereign over both righteous and sinful acts and uses both for His purposes but His sovereignty over sin never justifies the sinner.

Paul and Silas travel west and come to the last two cities that Paul and Barnabas ministered in during the first journey – Derbe and Lystra (they come to them in reverse order of the first trip since they travel the opposite way – 14:6).  Lystra is the place where Paul healed the lame man and the people of the city tried to worship him and Barnabas as gods only to later stone Paul and leave him for dead (14:8-20).

In Lystra they come across a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who is a believer and a Greek father.  Timothy’s mother (and grandmother – see II Tim 1:5 – Eunice and Lois) became a believer presumably as a result of the first missionary journey and passed along the faith to her son who is now well spoken of by the brethren (other believers in the community) in both Lystra and Iconium (22 miles away).

Paul decides that he wants Timothy to become part of his ministry.  Apparently the good reputation Timothy has in the Christian community and the faith that Paul sees in him convince Paul that he would be a good addition to the group.  It is interesting how Paul’s response to Timothy contrasts with his view of John Mark.  Both are young men but John Mark has proven himself to be unreliable while Timothy has developed a strong reputation because of his character.  Paul made no allowance for the one while going to great lengths – as will be seen – to include the other.

Since Timothy has a Jewish mother he is considered Jewish by tradition of the Jews.  However, since his father is a Greek, he has not been circumcised (the father presumably refusing to allow it since it is not part of his religious tradition and his word overrules the mother).  That he has a Greek father means other Jews know he is not circumcised.  This means the Jews will look down on him for being the son of a mixed marriage and reject him for being uncircumcised.  This will likely become a problem in other cities more than in Lystra with its presumably small Jewish community (no mention of a synagogue in Lystra – the small number of Jews may also explain why Timothy’s mother married a Greek).  As Paul and Silas make Timothy part of their group they must decide how to address his status.

With apparently very little consternation Paul circumcises him (the good news for Timothy is he is invited to become part of the ministry – the bad news is that the initiation rites are pretty stringent).  This at first seems to go against what Paul and Barnabas just settled in Jerusalem.  They and the apostles agreed that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised to be saved.  Paul has also written at length to these Galatians about the need to reject the Judaizers who require circumcision and obedience to the Law on top of believing the gospel.  Why then circumcise Timothy as a condition for making him part of the ministry?

The key is the difference between Gentile and Jew.  Paul never advises Jews to stop circumcising.  Since Timothy is considered to be a Jew it will be an enormous hindrance to his ministry to the Jews – who Paul continues to minister to even though his main calling is to the Gentiles – if he is uncircumcised.  To remove any doubt about his legitimacy it makes sense that he be circumcised according to the Law.  Note, however, that it is a cultural issue and not gospel-related.  Paul does not do this to complete Timothy’s salvation.

This act sheds light on Paul’s heart.  Paul will later write to the Romans and the Corinthians that in matters of conscience believers must be sensitive to those with both weak and strong faith.  In this case he lovingly accedes to his Jewish countrymen who will strongly object to Timothy’s lineage and status.  This illustrates perfectly what he will later write: For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I may win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it (I Cor 9:19-23).

Does Timothy need to be circumcised to make him acceptable to God?  No.  But to make him acceptable to Jews who need the gospel he does, and if that is what it takes for more people to hear the gospel then that is what will happen.  Paul will not compromise on the gospel message and will adamantly defend against anyone who adds or detracts from it; however, in matters where the gospel is not distorted he will lovingly do anything possible to ensure that he and his group are as acceptable to as many people as possible.  The issue is the gospel and making it heard as widely as it can be.  Everything else – whether it be ceremony or food or worship days or circumcision for the Jews – is secondary to the overarching mission.  Paul lovingly puts aside his freedom to minister to all people of all beliefs.

Along that same line he demonstrates amazing humility with this act.  He has been so vehement in his opposition to the Jews who have tried to add to the gospel and he has staked out such a strong position against those who require circumcision for the Gentiles that he could easily see circumcising Timothy as a weakening of his case.  Instead, he is wholly and only concerned about what Timothy’s status will do to the spread of the gospel.  Paul does not care about his position or whether others may see this as a capitulation – he cares about his standing before God and about fulfilling the commission Jesus gave to him.  It is all about the gospel and nothing about his pride.  But to me it is a very small thing that I should be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself.  For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord (I Cor 4:3-4).

The one who answers to God alone can afford to be humble before others.  The one who counts God’s opinion higher than any man’s does not worry about losing face or status.  The one who is full of God’s love willingly loves others and submits to them whenever possible to further God’s message.  And the one committed to God’s message willingly puts aside anything that hinders it regardless of what it costs him.  A life that is all about God is not about us.  And a life that is all about us cannot be about God.

Paul and Silas and Timothy continue their travels and as they go they distribute the decree that they and the apostles agreed to in Jerusalem (15:23-29).  The message of the apostles is received well – as it has been everywhere it has been heard – and the churches are strengthened in the faith and increasing in number daily.

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