The reading from Acts sixteen may be confusing for a few different reasons. One reason is found in verse four, “As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem.” Our text does not say what the content of those decisions was.
We have to go to Acts chapter fifteen, which recounts the first church council in Jerusalem. They examined the question of whether Gentiles should have to observe the law of Moses, chiefly in regard to circumcision. The decision of the council was this: “We should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.”
So the basic answer was “No, you do not have to keep the law of Moses, and you do not have to get circumcised.” This would include the ceremonial and civil laws given by God through Moses. These are no longer binding on Jewish or Gentile Christians. The moral law is still in place, as seen in the Ten Commandments. We cannot simply set those aside.
The council added that Gentiles should avoid certain practices that would be especially repugnant to Jews. These are things like eating food with blood in it. This was forbidden in the law of Moses, so Jews would find eating blood extremely revolting. Although Gentiles are free in Christ to eat anything, yet for the sake of those who do not yet understand the freedom of the Gospel, we should be willing to not practice our freedom.
So far so good. We are free, but we do not want to cause offense to brothers. That is fairly easy to understand. This is the message that Paul and Timothy were taking to the churches.
But then we get to the other confusing part of our reading from Acts sixteen. In verse three, Paul circumcised Timothy. Now if you think about this, at first glance it makes no sense. Paul and Timothy are going out to proclaim that Gentiles are free and do not need to keep the law of Moses, particularly circumcision. So why do this very thing to Timothy? Besides the discomfort of the procedure, there is the whole question of why they would risk undermining the main message of their journey, that circumcision is unnecessary.
The answer is that Paul was seeking to avoid causing offense. Although circumcision is not listed as one of those things that Gentiles were encouraged to abstain from in order not to offend Jews, still they did it. Freedom in the Gospel yielded for the sake of weaker brothers.
This would not always be the case. When it came to Saint Titus, Paul did not have him circumcised. There the situation was different. They were not going among those who were ignorant of the faith and were willing to be instructed. Instead, certain Jews had hardened themselves in a position of legalism. Against such people Paul would not budge an inch.
In our text, Timothy was going among Jews who had only recently heard the good news, and who knew that Timothy’s father was a Greek. So these Jews might have been outraged at Timothy’s presence, and said, “How dare you bring this uncircumcised Greek among us?” Such thoughts by the Jews were wrong-headed, since they did not yet understand that Christ had fulfilled circumcision and made it obsolete. But Paul knew that if they saw Timothy coming into their assembly, they would not even give Paul the chance to explain.
So if the Jews protested about the uncircumcised Greek, Paul could simply say, “Not so! I had him circumcised.” Then they would hear him out.
We can get several lessons from this text. For one thing, we must hold firmly to the fact that we are not made more pleasing to God by what we do. Instead we are perfectly pleasing already in Jesus Christ, through His obedience on our behalf, and the shedding of His Blood. We cannot get more perfect in God’s eyes than we are right now. We do not need a set of rules to obey, whether they are Old Testament laws or man-made principles.
This is so freeing. Your life is not a matter of working or requirements or regulations. True, we have the Ten Commandments, and we ought to obey them. But we do not obey the Commandments of God as people under the Law, that is, threatened by punishment if we fail. We do not need to live in terror that we have not met God’s standard, and that when we reach the Pearly Gates we will be turned away because we were not good enough.
You are not, in yourself, good enough. But in Christ, you are declared absolutely righteous. You do not need to convince yourself, or God, that your heart is in the right place. Your old heart, the heart of sin that you cannot get rid of, will never be in the right place. It will not be reformed or improved. It will only continue to spew out a fountain of sin. But in Christ, you are acceptable to Him. You are declared to be His people, even though you were not born to the right people, or born in the right way, or born with the image of God. Instead, you have received the new birth in His image through Holy Baptism.
But realize also that you should be considerate towards the weak in faith. These are people who are not yet fully educated in this freedom from works that we have in Christ. They may believe in Christ, but do not comprehend that we do not have to obey ceremonial laws or man-made rules. Part of their thinking is still stuck in the old ways of earning and self-righteousness.
(Don’t forget that you and I still sometimes think this way as well, so let us not feel too superior to others who are new to this faith.)
When someone, for example, believes that playing cards is inherently sinful because they were raised that way, do not brazenly invite them to Poker Night at your house. Give them time to learn and understand that these things are not really sinful in themselves.
If they refuse to learn and stubbornly insist on their rules, then it is a different matter. Then we must resist them, because they are threatening our liberty in Christ. If we try to avoid offense then, we will not change them. Instead they are only winning us to their legalism.
This calls for wisdom, which is not our strong suit. We will not always correctly discern the right response to someone. The occasion may call for defense of freedom, but instead we try to avoid offense. Or someone may need us to be gentle with them, but we instead we act upon our freedom and hurt them. Mistakes cannot be fully avoided. We cannot always perceive the truth.
So we constantly need forgiveness. The correct path should always be clear to us, yet it is not. We should be better trained in the ways of the Gospel and love for our neighbor, yet we have all failed to take these things as seriously as we should. Instead, too often we have thought of ourselves and what we feel or need.
For us men who fail, Christ came. He pursued and practiced perfect wisdom. He always said the right thing at the right time. He always knew when to resist and when to be gentle.
For those trapped in a legalistic religion, He displayed the perfect religion of freedom and forgiveness by dying on the Cross at the hand of sinners. For the weak who are easily hurt and who are helpless and needy, He took the hurt on Himself. He became the substitute who was wounded for our offenses. He became the Pierced Servant so that He could give us peace and salvation. He showed us that we do not have to be afraid, for we are not bound as slaves under the harsh taskmaster of the law. No, we are free so that we can obey freely, and help our neighbor freely, and freely sacrifice for others, without fear.
And even we, the Gentiles who once were not His people, enjoy this freedom that He has poured out so graciously.
In His Name, the Lord of all nations. Amen.
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