One of the fascinating aspects of the book of Acts is how we see people introduced and growing in both grace and responsibilities. Some of these people are sketched in detail (we learn a lot about Stephen in the opening chapters before his death, for example); others are referred to very briefly and we know little about them.
In Acts 16:1-5, we are introduced to Timothy, presumably one of the converts from Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey, a man later described by Paul as ‘my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord.’ (1 Cor 4:17) He clearly became an important person in Paul’s life, described as a brother, co-worker and ‘true son in the Lord’ in various letters (1 Thess 3:2, Rom 16:21, 1 Tim 1:2), and two letters (1 & 2 Timothy, part of the ‘Pastoral Epistles’) were written by Paul to him, giving us valuable insights into the duties and responsibilities of church leaders and further showing us Paul’s relationship with this younger man.
Timothy was the son of a Jewish woman (Eunice) and a Greek man, and the grandson of Lois (2 Tim 1:5). It seems that he, his mother and grandmother were converted during Paul’s first journey to Lystra, and Timothy’s reputation was such that believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. (Acts 16:2) Paul wanted to take him with them on his missionary endeavours, but because of his anomalous position (being the son of a mixed marriage and uncircumcised), Paul decided to circumcise him.
We may feel this was an odd and inconsistent decision, given that Paul was busy contending for the fact that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised! However, it’s clear that here, Paul was treating Timothy as a Jew and wanting to remove any stigma from him which might damage his reputation in the eyes of other Jewish believers. There is no indication that circumcision was being done in order to seal Timothy’s salvation; rather, this was a pragmatic decision which reflects Paul’s desire to be ‘all things to all men.’ (1 Cor 9:20-23). John Stott comments, ‘what was unnecessary for acceptance with God was advisable for acceptance by some human beings,’ a sad reflection that sometimes people are harder to please than God! Tom Wright comments, ‘We might wish life were neater and less complicated, but the complexities are part of God’s world and God’s work and demonstrate that we cannot adopt a one-size-fits-all solution to life itself.’ It’s certainly true that we need to look at individual situations individually, which Paul definitely did.
Much of what we know about Timothy comes from Paul’s comments in his two letters to him. It seems that this man was commissioned before he left (the elders laid hands on him – see also 1 Tim 4:14, 2 Tim 1:6), and Paul reminds him of this in later years, urging him to remember the prophecies made about him and to hold on to his faith and good conscience in the face of opposition. (1 Tim 1:19) He encourages him not to let anyone despise him because of his youth, but to persevere in right living: ‘set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.’ (1 Tim 4:12) This charge to Timothy is the charge set before each one of us.