Paul's Complex Mission: Reflections on Acts 16:9-15

Lectionary Reflections
Acts 16:9-15
May 5, 2013

After Peter, Paul is the great hero of Luke's story of the mission of the early church. It could be said that Peter sets the tone of inclusion for the church's earliest work among the Gentiles, and Paul takes that conviction and travels widely to spread the news. Indeed, after the long section of chapters 14 and 15, which recounts the crucial decisions of the Jerusalem council, all references to the other apostles disappear from Luke's narrative. Between the council in chapter 15 and Paul's arrest and imprisonment in chapter 21, Luke summarizes in a very brief compass Paul's ongoing struggles with Jewish opposition, his missionary work in Asia and Europe, and his continuing turn toward the Gentiles.

Still, in this transitional section of Luke's story (Acts 15:36—16:10), there are deeply controversial elements. Though our lectionary passage does not include some of this material, it is important for us to examine at least part of it to provide a broader context for Luke's narrative. Paul and Barnabas here separate, apparently in some real anger. Up to now Barnabas has played a central role in the story, intervening for Paul and the apostles (9:27), recruiting Paul for work in the church at Antioch (11:25-26), serving as Paul's companion on the mission (13:1-14:28), and offering a defense of that mission at the council (15:12). After this scene, Barnabas disappears from the book of the Acts. Though Barnabas is spoken of quite often, there is no evidence that he is a particularly close companion of and worker with Paul.

Contrast that with Galatians 2:11 from Paul's own hand. There Paul implicates Barnabas, along with Cephas (Peter) and the "men from James" (leaders of the Jerusalem church community) in a basic conflict with Paul concerning the core of the mission of the church. Here Barnabas is described as weak: "even Barnabas was carried away by hypocrisy." Paul's charge, as it was to Peter, is that though they profess Jewish exclusiveness, they practice something quite different, enjoying table fellowship with Gentiles. Still, the source of Paul's anger in Luke's account is less personal than a matter of principle. Luke calls John-Mark's and Barnabas' departure to Cyprus in effect an apostasy ("abandonment" at 15:38 has the sense of apostasy in other places - cf. Acts 5:37-38). For Paul in Acts, to choose to go elsewhere in contrast to the call of the Spirit, that Holy Spirit who must always direct the mission, is to reject the call of God. Paul has heard the Spirit's call, and Barnabas' human decision stands in the sharpest contrast to it.

Now comes a most confusing action on Paul's part. It is nothing less than startling to witness Paul's circumcision of the boy Timothy "because of the Jews," we are told specifically, so soon after the events so carefully delineated at the Jerusalem council in chapters 14-15. And Luke then goes on to say, "as they went through the cities, they delivered to them for their observance the decrees that had been decided by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem" (16:4)! In short, Paul circumcises an apparent Gentile and immediately delivers decrees that explicitly state that no such thing is required! What are we to make of this?

As you may imagine, gallons of ink and hosts of megabytes have been spilled and pecked over this conundrum. Perhaps we cannot answer such questions historically for Paul, but we can begin to discover answers when we remember that Luke is our author, and he has special narrative concerns that he wants to express. For Luke, Timothy is a Jew, since his mother is a Jew. We can hardly be certain that the later Jewish notion that Jewishness is conferred through the mother was operative at this first-century time, but for Luke it seems important that the Jewish Timothy be circumcised as a matter of Jewish identity. In that case Luke must imagine that Timothy's Greek father has prevented his son's circumcision as not important. But in the community of Jews, it clearly is important and can be a source of tension in that community when one of its own remains uncircumcised. For Luke, the Jerusalem council's decision concerning the freedom of the Gentiles can have no bearing on the traditions of Judaism. By circumcising Timothy, Paul announces to the Jewish community, of which he is still a part, that he has not abandoned them in his turn to the Gentile mission. Though circumcision can no longer have a saving significance for Paul or for the mission he has undertaken following the council's mandate, it still can be practiced as a legitimate statement of cultural solidarity.

I would say that this act of circumcision, when seen in this light, is an echo of Paul's quite painful and personal relationship to his Jewish brothers and sisters as he struggles with them in his Roman letter, chapters 9-11. There he is genuinely worried that the refusal of his Jewish friends to receive Jesus as Messiah will remove them from the fuller life that that Messiah has come to offer. The anguish of the language of Romans is quite palpable in this regard. Paul never stops thinking of himself as Jewish. He has just received Jesus as Messiah and finds in that reception the fuller expression of what Judaism has always professed.

4/28/2013 4:00:00 AM
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    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.