Questions From Readers
● How could Paul preach Christians “not under the law, but under grace”, and yet terminate vows by the performance of Mosaic ceremonies at the temple?—M. C., Tennessee.
Paul had been preaching to the Gentiles, showing them that salvation was by God’s undeserved kindness and not by works of the Law. Yet Paul did not fight against the Law or its procedures; he merely ruled it out as a divine requirement for Christians. However, the reports that preceded Paul to Jerusalem painted him as a rabid opposer of the Mosaic Law and a prohibiter of circumcision, which was false, since he had circumcised Timothy himself. It was not a Christian requirement, but neither was it wicked and needing to be opposed. Paul’s position had been greatly distorted by the rumors, which were further magnified with each repeating. Hence James and the older men in Jerusalem, after hearing of Paul’s successes in gospel-preaching among the nations, glorified God and said to Paul:
“You behold, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the Law. But they have heard it rumored about you that you have been teaching all the Jews among the nations to break away from Moses, telling them neither to circumcise their children nor to walk in the solemn customs. What, then, is to be done about it? In any case they are going to hear you have arrived. Therefore do this which we tell you: We have four men with a vow upon themselves. Take these men along and cleanse yourself ceremonially with them and take care of their expenses that they may have their heads shaved. And so everybody will know there is nothing to the rumors they were told about you, but you are walking orderly, you yourself also keeping the Law.” “Then Paul took the men along the next day and cleansed himself ceremonially with them and went into the temple, to give notice of the days to be fulfilled for the ceremonial cleansing, until the offering should be presented for each one of them.”—Acts 21:20-26, NW.
The governing body at Jerusalem weighed the problem and decided on this course to counteract the Jewish prejudices roused against Paul. The rites of shaving the head, along with the prescribed sacrifices, indicated that the vow had been completed faithfully, and for Paul to associate with the four in this, even bearing the expenses of the sacrifices, would prove he had no animosity toward the Mosaic Law. (Num. 6:13-21) He was in harmony with the intent of the Law, just as today we are in harmony with the Ten Commandments and other principles of the Law, though not under it. Where its procedures did not violate new Christian truths there was no real objection to conforming. Paul did this in the matter of circumcision, drawing the line against it only when some insisted upon it as a requisite for salvation. (Acts 16:3; Gal. 5:2-6) Doubtless if this method of terminating vows had been championed as essential to salvation Paul would have opposed it, since it would tend to return Christians to the bondage of the Law. (Gal. 5:1; Jas. 2:10) But since it was not incorporated as a requisite of the Christian faith Paul did not object. Like unenforced circumcision, there were no objectionable features about these procedures. They had been prescribed by God, were suitable and Scriptural ways of ending vows, and were not suddenly wicked just because no longer required. They violated no Christian principle, compromised no new precept. Paul had made a previous vow himself, voluntarily, under no pressure that might give rise to the charge of compromising.—Acts 18:18.
This was a practical view that made it possible for the Christian Jews to freely move about and preach to other Jews, even in the temple itself, because of their ceremonial cleanness. (Acts 5:42) So long as no compromise of Christian principle was involved, conformity to these procedures was advisable to keep open the doorway to preach to the Jews. Paul readily made such concessions: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain Jews; to those under law I became as under law, though I myself am not under law, that I might gain those under law. To those without law I became as without law, although I am not without law toward God but under law toward Christ, that I might gain those without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak. I have become all things to people of all kinds, that I might by all means save some. But I do all things for the sake of the good news, that I may become a sharer of it with others.” (1 Cor. 9:20-23, NW) Other Jewish Christians did the same, and it worked to advantage. For instance, later on when Paul was being accused before Felix his opponent Tertullus charged that he “tried to profane the temple”, but Paul was able to say “they found me ceremonially cleansed in the temple”. He thus was able to squelch bickering on a minor matter so far as the giving of a Christian witness was concerned, and spotlighted the vital doctrinal truth concerning resurrection.—Acts 21:27-29; 24:6, 18-21, NW.
So just as we can make vows today, not only dedication vows but other kinds also, Paul could and did make them long ago, and for him to bring them to a public conclusion in a Scriptural way involved no compromise of Christian principles. With clear conscience Paul could obey the instructions given by the theocratic organization.
● Why did Paul oppose circumcision in his letter to the Galatians, and yet have Timothy circumcised?—T. H., Minnesota.
Some of the Christianized Jews were slow to relinquish adherence to the Mosaic Law. Those in Galatia were seeking to force Gentile converts to Christianity to comply with the Mosaic Law, and placed special emphasis on circumcision. They demanded it as a requirement of Gentile converts. Paul opposed the position that circumcision was a divine requirement, arguing that if one point of the Law must be kept all points should, and that if some points could be set aside all could. He opposed the looking to any part of the Law as essential for salvation, rejected the belief that Christians were obliged to conform to all or part of the Law. Not by Law, but by undeserved kindness were Christians to be declared righteous. “Neither circumcision is of any value nor is uncircumcision.” It is immaterial, no issue. (Gal. 5:2-6, NW) So for circumcision to be urged upon Gentile converts as a requirement of the Christian faith was wrong, and to submit to it for that reason would obligate one to keep all of the Law. This Paul opposed.
Timothy’s case was different. “Paul expressed the desire for this man to go out with him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews that were in those places, for one and all knew that his father was a Greek.” (Acts 16:3, NW) Paul wanted to use him in missionary service, in territories where they would be in contact with many Jews not even in the truth, who viewed uncircumcised persons as dogs. So Paul circumcised him, not as a matter of faith or divine requirement, but only to prevent needless controversy and premature stumbling of Jews over an inconsequential matter. It was in harmony with Paul’s regular concessions to gain a favorable hearing for the truth: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain Jews.” (1 Cor. 9:20, NW) Moreover, as we have seen, even some of the Christianized Jews stumbled over this point. So instead of permitting the irrelevant matter of circumcision to interfere with their preaching work and with their contact with the Jewish congregations, Paul circumcised Timothy. It was not a divine requirement, but a concession to remove a barrier that might stumble Jews slow to relinquish their ideas about the Law. It was not done to keep the Law on that point, as some Jews in Galatia insisted must be done by Gentiles. Actually, in Timothy’s case it was not fully a matter of a Gentile doing it, as it was in the Galatian controversies, for Timothy was half Jew.—Acts 16:1.