Tuesday, September 07, 2010

1 Corinthians 8:9 and Acts 16:3: Reflections on Freedom

"Paul wanted to take [Timothy] along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in the area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek." Acts 16:3

For the past month or so, I have been doing a study of Acts. This was very exciting for me because I am trying to read all the way through the bible and finally finished going through all the gospels. Acts is such a neat book because it chronicles the beginnings of what we would call the Christian church. Through out we see God building up His church, and that He uses very flawed people to advance His kingdom, which is quite a relief for me the more I understand how truly flawed I am! In one of the recent passages I read (Acts 15) the apostles were dealing with the question of circumcision and whether or not they should require Gentile Christians to have the ritual performed. Their conclusion was that there was no reason to burden their new brothers in this way because it was not necessary for salvation. In fact, Paul goes into great detail in Galatians and his other letters about how salvation is based on faith and not works. So when I got to Acts 16 where Timothy (a Gentile/Jewish believer) gets circumcised I was initially confused. Why, after all of that discussion about not requiring Gentile believers to have this done, does this young man get circumcised? Is this just a contradiction? A typo? In light of 1 Corinthians 8 I would say none of the above.

What first clued me into their (Timothy, Paul, and Barnabas) reasoning was the context: "because of the Jews who lived in the area." On their journey, these men would encounter a great majority of Jews who they would be witnessing to. At first I thought about how very little Paul seemed to care about what others thought and how he even reprimanded Peter for avoiding his Gentile brothers at one point because they hadn't been circumcised, but then I remembered 1 Corinthians 8. This particular passage deals with eating food sacrificed to idols, something Jewish law would have condemned. Paul tells the church in Corinth that "food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do." Moreover, he reminds them that "an idol is nothing at all in the world, and that there is no God but one." Therefore, eating such food would have no true, eternal condemnation for them. But then he adds a stipulation, which I believe answers my question regarding Acts 16. Paul says, "Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol's temple, won't he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols?...Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall."

Rather than looking at Acts 16 and claiming some sort of hypocrisy or contradiction, I see it as a fleshing out of Paul's belief that though we have freedom in Christ we must exercise it carefully. He knew that if Timothy remained uncircumcised it would be a stumbling block to the Jews they witnessed to, and found it far better to defer to their weakness then flaunt their freedom. So often we sit in judgement of those around us, including our Christian brothers and sisters. I do this myself on a daily basis and lately God has really been convicting me about it. I've come to the conclusion that we should always err on the side of grace, remembering what we've been forgiven and chose to forgive others. I don't mean to say that we shouldn't call sin sin or that we should live in chains; there is absolutely a time and a place to humbly confront our Christian brothers and sisters about sin and we should always remember that we are free from the bondage of the law, but our lives should always be about living in love toward one another, even if it means we have to give up some of our freedoms.

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