All Things To All Men

Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek. The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. 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 16:1-3 (Also read Galatians)

In Acts 15, the question rose as to whether circumcision was required of Gentile believers. The council met to discuss this matter. The Christian Pharisees insisted that circumcision was needed for salvation. Peter argued that it was not required and Paul gave testimony affirming that any Law added to the Gospel wasn’t the gospel anymore. He had seen first hand the Spirit’s work in uncircumcised Gentile Christians and was fully convinced that Gentiles do not need to become Jews in order to follow Christ (Colossians 3:9-11). The debate was settled when James declared it not to be required after hearing both sides. Paul and Silas were then tasked with the duty of going from church to church and educating them in this.

However, here in Acts 16, Paul does a strange thing. He circumcised Timothy. We might be led to think that this Paul back paddled on the decision of the council, but it is obvious that he did not. He did it for Timothy’s benefit, so that Timothy could travel among the Jewish community and be accepted as one of them. This was important for Timothy because the Jews would not associate with him otherwise!

For the Jews, circumcision was an important marker that sets them apart. It was a sign of the Covenant of Abraham (Genesis 17:10-14), and thereby their own covenant since they considered themselves sons and daughters of Abraham (Luke 13:16). This important point  of separation between a Jew and a Gentile was a part of the Law (Leviticus 12:3).

Paul’s stand is that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision holds no value for Christians (Galatians 5:6, 6:15). It is very much a neutral thing. Circumcision was of no value to Timothy, he didn’t gain any spiritual benefit by doing so. However without circumcision, Timothy would have been deemed as unclean and repulsive to the Jewish community. His access to bring the gospel and minister to them would have been hindered. It was perhaps of practical importance that Timothy was circumcised.

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.
1 Corinthians 9:19-22

For a young man brought up as a Gentile, such as Timothy, this was no easy feat. His circumcision would have been painful. It requires weeks of recovery (6 weeks in this modern era) and risks infection. But to Timothy it was only a small sacrifice for a bigger cause. The temporary pain was endured so that the gospel wouldn’t be limited by him. He put the gospel first and his own comforts and security second.

  • What in my background hinders me from spreading the gospel that I need to cut off?
  • What comforts and security needs to be taken away for me to be more effective in reaching out?
  • What is my greatest sacrifice for the furtherance of the gospel?

These are potent questions. I don’t think I have given enough. There is so much in my life that is just excess and a hinderance to the gospel. I am only thankful that I don’t have to endure physical circumcision.

The Insult

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.

“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”

She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Mark 7:24-30 (Read also Matthew 15:21-28)

Jesus went out into Gentile territory for some peace and quiet, He went into the old port city of Tyre in Phoenicia. He wanted to be anonymous, He didn’t want hordes of disciples following Him as before. Jesus was on a holiday trip. Then came this Greek woman from the region, chasing after Jesus. She knows the miraculous power that Jesus carries and she is desperate for Him to heal her daughter. We are told that her daughter is “possessed by an impure spirit” and is “suffering terribly”.

Jesus’ usual demeanor towards the sick or suffering is one of compassion (Mark 5:1-18) but here He gives her a sharp and insulting reply. He says that His mission is toward the children (of God), the Jews, and likens Gentiles (like her) to dogs. Dogs, in those days were considered unclean animals, their status was below a slave. Even though they were accepted as pets or work animals in households, calling someone a dog was still highly derogatory.

Jesus, being a Jewish rabbi, sees Jews apart from and above the other nations (Deuteronomy 14:2; Exodus 4:22, 19:5). They are the exclusively chosen nation and the children of God. Here He eludes to Himself as the bread (Exodus 16; John 6:32-40) – the sustenance of life. He is their bread, He belongs to the children of Israel. His mission of reconciliation and redemption is first towards the Jews. Although He didn’t agree with what the Jews have made the Law out to be, He was still a fervent believer that they were God’s priority.

In the face of Jesus’ offensive words, the woman’s reply was powerful. She acknowledged that Jesus was for the Jews but did not exclude herself from making Jesus her own. She humbled herself to be identified with a dog and says that even the dogs eat the crumbs of the bread that fall off. For the faith in her heart and humility in her words, she was rewarded with the healing she wanted.

Her humility caused her to lay her own ethnicity before Christ. She did not assert her own status, her own ethnicity, her own home town or the fact that He was standing on her side of the fence! She bowed to agree with Jesus that she is secondary. Giving up her rights to be respected, she considers herself wholly at His mercy. In His kingdom, she has no rights. In His economy, she is but lowly, poor and desolate. She is humble but bold. In her humility, she is assertive. She asserts that the kingdom has crumbs; it has extras from the plenty. She asserts that even the extras are more than enough for her. In His kingdom, abundance is poured out. In His economy, there is no small change because even the small is immeasurable to us.

This woman helps us to understand how we as Gentile Christians relate to the Jews and our Jewish Jesus. We as Gentiles receive the side benefits of God’s redemption of Israel as ingrafted branches (Romans 11:11-24) / sheep in the other pen (John 10:16). Through the blood of Christ, we are inducted into God’s household (Ephesians 2:11-22). 

So even the side benefits of God’s redemption is more than enough. You see, the crumbs aren’t left overs, they are side benefits from the plenty that are for the children. His kingdom is one of abundance (Matthew 14:13-21) and overflow. There is more than enough in His kingdom for both the Jews and Gentiles. Every bit of grace from God is more than enough grace for us. Even bit of provision is more than enough for us. His finished work on the cross is more than enough redemption, healing, deliverance, freedom and provision for the world.

This woman exemplifies the combination of humility, boldness and faith. May we approach Christ as she did.