“He came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek.” Acts 16:1
Paul and Silas set out on their journey and arrived in Lystra, a town once located in present-day Turkey. They undertook this trip to encourage and strengthen those churches which Paul had previously established and to share the letter from the Jerusalem Council. Lystra was previously visited by Paul and Barnabas on their first journey to share the good news of Jesus Christ. [Acts 14:8-23]
Timothy was likely a convert from Paul’s earlier visit. In 2 Timothy 1:5, we learn from Paul, in his letter to Timothy, that Timothy’s grandmother Lois was the first believer in the family. We also learn his mother’s name was Eunice. These two women must have figured prominently in his life for Paul to mention them more than once in his letters. Although Timothy’s mother was a Jewish Christian, his father was Greek. I think we can safely assume that Luke wanted his readers to understand that Timothy’s father was neither Jewish nor Christian. We can not assume, however, that he worshiped Greek pagan gods or even that he was still living at this time in Timothy’s life.
Timothy’s parents being of mixed heritage and religious influence was unusual. Judaism rejected intermarriages. The fact that their marriage was arranged and allowed without any explanation allows for much speculation. We don’t know if Timothy suffered from any scandal his parents’ union caused. I contend that Timothy as a child of mixed heritage would have endured mistreatment by others. From his mother, Timothy possibly learned Hebrew as well as Jewish law and traditions. Paul mentions in another letter of his that Timothy had been taught the scriptures since childhood. [2 Timothy 3:15] Timothy’s father might have had a hellenistic influence on the life of his son as well as taught him their ways and language. Some scholars have even gone so far as to suggest that Timothy was a Roman citizen.
“The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him.” Acts 16:2
A good reputation was also of great importance. From this passage, we learn that Timothy had garnered the approval of others. Paul later commends Timothy by calling him his “true son in the faith” [1 Timothy 1:2], the “son whom he loves” [1 Corinthians 4:17], and refers to him as being young. [1 Timothy 4:12]
“Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.” Acts 16:3
Why did Timothy’s mother not have him circumcised as a baby? Did his Greek father allow certain practices of Jewish faith by his wife but drew the line at circumcision? Circumcision was and still is the Jewish sign of covenant between God and His people.[Genesis 17] Paul had argued before the Jerusalem Council that Gentiles should not be held to circumcision. He and Silas now carried their decisions via letter to the churches stating that circumcision was not a requirement of faith for Gentiles. Timothy could have technically fallen into the Gentile category as a child of mixed heritage. Yet, this verse states that Paul felt Timothy needed to be circumcised because of the Jews who lived in that area. Is Paul contradicting himself? Is he using Timothy as proverbial bait to catch more fish by circumcising him? In 1 Corinthians 7:19, Paul even states that “[c]ircumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.” So, why did Timothy need to be circumcised?
While Timothy’s standing as neither full Jew nor full Greek might be advantageous to reach Gentiles, his social standing was ambiguous. Circumcision provided a normalizing factor. Timothy was a visual representation of Christianity. He embodied the church’s goal of unity. Timothy’s circumcision smoothed the waters so to speak with Jewish audiences but did not hinder Gentiles from conversion.
“As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.” Acts 16:4,5
On each stop of their journey, they delivered the Jerusalem Council’s decisions regarding Gentiles. These decisions strengthened rather than divided the budding church. The church was united and more converts joined daily. In fact, those decrees that the Council made that day, which Paul and Silas then shared via letter to those budding house churches thousands of years ago, have resulted in the Church’s continual growth among Gentiles.
Questions to consider
- What qualities do I think Timothy possessed that captured Paul’s notice?
- Did Paul go to Lystra specifically to get Timothy and have him join their journey?
- Why do I think the believers of Derbe aren’t mentioned as speaking highly of Timothy?
- What do I think is the reason Timothy wasn’t circumcised as a baby?
- Is circumcision necessary for salvation? Why or why not?
- Do I think Paul made the right decision to circumcise Timothy? Why or why not? What advantage or disadvantage to the spreading of the gospel would his circumcision have made?
- What obstacles might Timothy have experienced as a child of mixed heritage? Have I ever faced similar obstacles?
- In what ways was Timothy’s mixed heritage an asset to his work as a servant of Jesus Christ?
- Why did the decisions reached by the Jerusalem Council cause the church to strengthen and grow daily in numbers? Why did they make a difference?
Reference: Acts: An Exegetical Commentary Volume 3 Craig S. Keener pgs. 2311-2324; The Acts of the Apostles A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary Ben Witherington III; The NIV Study Bible Zondervan Publishing House 1985