Acts 16 Commentary Pt. 1 : At Liberty To Minister – Sermon Notes

Acts 16 At Liberty to MinisterSelfless love empowers true ministry. The love of God’s people will compel his ministers to endure not only physical shackles, but also the self-imposed shackles of worldly ordinances for the sake of others. By the grace of God we have been set at liberty to willingly endure trials, persecutions, and the legalities of this life for his glorious namesake.


Pt. 1 Acts 16:1-5

[Act 16:1-5 KJV] 1 Then came he to Derbe and Lystra: and, behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timotheus, the son of a certain woman, which was a Jewess, and believed; but his father [was] a Greek: 2 Which was well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium. 3 Him would Paul have to go forth with him; and took and circumcised him because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek. 4 And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem. 5 And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily.

Paul, the loving father.

Paul is in the process of visiting the previous church plants in Syria and Cilicia, the fruit of his labor. Syria and Cilicia are regions, each containing multiple cities. In Cilicia lies Paul’s place of birth, Tarsus. He is said to be “confirming” (KJV) them at the end of chapter 15.  This word means to strengthen (1).

Paul was doing more than just sticking his head in to make sure everything was OK. We should remember that Paul and Barnabas had not too earlier been disputing with those who said the Gentile disciples needed to be circumcised after the manner of Moses (Acts 15:1-2). This implies more than the physical act of circumcision, but the circumcision that represented the adherence to the Mosaic Law (Acts 15:24). Paul was convinced, and indeed had been teaching throughout his ministry that salvation and justification before God were outside of the works of the law. Paul had received the gospel by revelation from Jesus Christ (Gal 1:11-12) and did not need approval from anyone else to continue to preach what he knew to be the true gospel. But the men who were compelling new believers to be circumcised had come down from Judea (Acts 15:1), and there seemed to be general confusion in the Christian assemblies on this topic. Therefore Paul had gone up to those who were considered by some pillars in the church (Gal 2:9) to confirm that his gospel was the same as theirs, and to verify that he had not been laboring in vain. The elders and apostles recognized the grace given to Paul. They could not speak against it or add anything to it (Gal 2:6) and gave Paul the right hand of fellowship (Gal 2:9).

Paul, Barnabas and Silas had then taken the message back to the Gentiles in Antioch (Acts 15:30). There were likely still those in the region who were preaching Jesus plus circumcision. Paul addressed an entire letter to the church in Galatia on this subject in particular. He called Jesus plus justification by the law not a gospel at all, but a perversion of the truth and a curse (Gal 1:6-9). This was a leaven that needed to be stopped before it spread. In Acts 16 Paul spends some time going through the cities and delivering unto them the decree from the apostles and elders (vs. 4) and confirming this faith.

Having Silas along (Barnabas had departed with John-Mark) would have also given Paul’s gospel a seal of approval from Jerusalem. Silas had come from Jerusalem with the blessing of the apostles (Acts 15:22).

A parent’s work is never quite done until their children have grown and had children of their own. The birth process is quick, messy, painful and joyful. The long process of teaching, nurturing, protecting and caring now begins. Paul loves the church. Throughout Acts and the epistles, we see Paul raising up leaders in the church to carry on when he is no longer around.

Timothy: A Young Man of Good Report

[Act 16:1-2 KJV] 1 Then came he to Derbe and Lystra: and, behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timotheus, the son of a certain woman, which was a Jewess, and believed; but his father [was] a Greek: 2 Which was well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium.

Paul calls Timothy “his beloved son” (1 Cor 4:17). It’s likely Timothy was converted during Paul’s first missionary journey to that area (Acts 13), or that Timothy’s mother and grandmother were converted and they shared with Timothy. Either way, Paul feels a strong bond to Timothy. This young man is mentioned by name 17 times. That’s more than any other of Paul’s companions.

Those in the body of Christ have the privilege of having a spiritual family in addition to the natural. The believers in Lystra and Iconium, as well as Timothy’s mother and grandmother should be proud that out of their ranks rose a young man like Timothy. Leaders raise leaders. Those who are strong in the faith raise others who are strong in the faith. Each of us would do well to make sure we are always bringing up a “Timothy”, not just for the sake of carrying the ministry forward, but because of our responsibility as a spiritual family. We should put the same care into spiritually raising others in the ministry that we would our own children. When Jesus’ mother and brothers stood outside asking for him, we said “But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.”  

Timothy was well reported of in multiple regions. Those who would rise to leadership in the church must be of good report (1 Tim 3:7). In Paul’s first visit (Acts 14:6) Timothy was probably a teenager. We don’t know at what point the eldership laid hands on Timothy (1 Tim 4:14), but he was still young, hence the reminder to not let anyone despise his youth (1 Tim 4:12). Timothy probably replaced John-Mark in a sense.

How Old Was Timothy?

Timothy is called young in 1Tim 4:14. That word young probably refers to any man below the age of 40.

“The word for ‘youth’ (KJV) is neot?s, [and is] ‘used of grown-up military age, extending to the 40th year.’” (2)

Timothy could have been up to 39 years of age when Paul wrote to him in 1 Timothy, but he was probably younger. 1 Timothy was likely written around 62 AD (3), or around the time of Acts 28. If Paul wrote 1 Timothy 10-15 years after the events in Acts 16, then Timothy could very well have been a mature teenager or in his early twenties when Paul picked him up to travel with him.

This should be encouraging to all young men and women in the faith. Age has nothing to do with God’s ability to use us. Timothy was full of faith and well reported of. His reputation preceded him. In Philippians 2:20 Paul tells the church that it is his will send Timothy because he has “no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s.” Always be ready. God is no respecter of persons. God will use whoever is seeking the things of Christ. Later on Paul instructs Timothy to:

[1Ti 4:12 KJV] 12 Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.

For all the young believers, here are six things we must focus on if anyone is to take our ministries seriously:

  1.   Word (speech)
  2.   Conversation (Conduct)
  3.   Charity (love)
  4.   Spirit
  5.   Faith
  6.   Purity (this Greek word is used only one other time in scripture and it refers to how men in the faith are to treat the young women, “…as sisters, with all purity.”)

[Sng 4:9-10, 12 KJV] 9 Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, [my] spouse; thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck. 10 How fair is thy love, my sister, [my] spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all spices! … 12 A garden inclosed [is] my sister, [my] spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.

The groom sees his bride as sensual and physically attractive, but also as a sister. Young men who would exercise purity should treat the younger women as sisters, even if they are dating. One good rule of thumb may be that if you would not do it to your sister, you should not do it to the person you are dating. Become friends, build trust, spiritually be brothers and sisters. Within marriage, the spiritual respect and camaraderie of brother and sister continue, and the physical aspect of a husband and wife are introduced to the “enclosed garden”, creating a special bond that has been reserved for those two and none other. This is the same purity and singleness of heart that Christ desire for his church.

Timothy’s Family: Generations of Faith.

Emphasis is put on the mother of Timothy, specifically that she was a Jew and believed. We don’t know if Timothy’s father was a believer or if he had already passed on, we only know that he was Greek and likely uncircumcised. Had he been circumcised, there is no reason to think why he wouldn’t have also circumcised his son Timothy. Timothy’s mother and grandmother were both women of faith who taught Timothy the scriptures from an early age. It’s likely they were converted during Paul’s first journey to that region:

[2Ti 1:5 KJV] 5 When I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice; and I am persuaded that in thee also.

[2Ti 3:15 KJV] 15 And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.

Paul would be referring to the Old Testament when he says scripture. Wisdom and salvation in the Messiah are all throughout the law, prophets and books of wisdom in our Old Testament.

Yes, it is foretold that the gospel will divide families (Luke 12:53), but in this case we see that the results from three generations of faith is a strong young evangelist making a meaningful impact on the Kingdom of God.

Timothy would have shown respect and been submissive to both of his parents, regardless of their beliefs.

[Eph 6:1-3 KJV] 1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. 2 Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) 3 That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.

One of the greatest things we can do as parents is be strong in the faith and teach our children the holy scripture. Paul praises Lois and Eunice for this.

Timothy: His name means “one who honors God”. (4) 

Paul circumcises Timothy: Love compels, not legalism.

[Act 16:3 KJV] 3 Him would Paul have to go forth with him; and took and circumcised him because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek.

Paul is quite literally holding a written decree that circumcision and adherence to the law are not required. In the book of Galatians Paul even goes as far as to say that Jesus plus circumcision is not the gospel but a perversion of it and if anyone teaches such they should be accursed (Gal 1:6-8). So what is one of the first things Paul does upon returning from Jerusalem? He circumcises Timothy.

By circumcising Timothy, Paul did a work that was neither good or bad, but expedient for more effective ministry. Paul did not circumcise Timothy for any of the following reasons, 1) He feared the Jews 2) He thought it made Timothy more righteous 3) Timothy was half Jewish and therefore needed to be circumcised.

Being circumcised would have allowed Timothy to be more accessible to the unbelieving Jews throughout the course of his ministry.

“His [Timothy’s] father was Greek. Under Jewish law at least as early as the 2nd century, a person was considered Jewish if his or her mother was Jewish. It is not certain whether such a law was in effect in the 1st century, but even if it was, Timothy would not have been accepted as fully Jewish because he was not circumcised.” (5)

By being circumcised and a Jew by birth Timothy would have access to places he would not have had access to otherwise, particularly the Temple (Acts 21:9) synagogues, and other places of close dwelling such as homes or places where bread is broken.

[1Co 9:19-23 KJV] 19 For though I be free from all [men], yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. 20 And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; 21 To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. 22 To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all [men], that I might by all means save some. 23 And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with [you].

It was love, not legalism that compelled Timothy to be circumcised. To the Jews he became as a Jew for the gospel’s sake. This physical act of circumcision did nothing to justify Timothy in the sight of God. Had Timothy been circumcised to keep the law he would be a debtor to keep the whole law (Gal 5:3). Timothy was at complete liberty not to be circumcised. Titus was not compelled to be circumcised when he stood before the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.

[Rom 7:6 KJV] 6 But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not [in] the oldness of the letter.

When we wrap our minds around the fact that we are justified outside of the laws and principles of the world, it gives us liberty to partake in the physical things joyfully, knowing that it is our faith behind the acts that justify us. We are free to submit to many of the ordinances of man, not because these ordinances themselves hold any eternal value, but because we are doing it for the Lord’s sake.

1 Peter 2:13-19 Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king. Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.

Our faith must be what drives our works, not the other way around.

The elementary principles and ordinances of this world don’t determine our righteousness; therefore it is fine to partake in them and submit to them if it is for the Lord’s sake. There is a danger that may arise however, when we forget that the outward acts themselves are just a means to an end. These are things we do “for the gospel’s sake”, not to justify ourselves, but because we’ve already been justified by Christ (Rom 3:24). We are saved by grace through faith but our faith doesn’t stop at salvation. Having begun in the Sprit are we “now made perfect in the flesh?” (Gal 3:3) No, we walk in faith (2 Cor 5:7). As new creatures the Holy Spirit gives us a love for God and a love for others that compel us to do good works. We know these works reflect our faith. This danger occurs when being led by the Spirit decreases and self-imposed religion increases.

Legalism is often used synonymously with the Old Testament law, but legalism can exist outside of the law.

[Col 2:16-23 KJV] 16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath [days]: 17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body [is] of Christ. 18 Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, 19 And not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God. 20 Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, 21 (Touch not; taste not; handle not; 22 Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? 23 Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.

“…The body is of Christ.” The substance is of Christ. All these external things point to Jesus. There are those who would beguile us (charm in a deceptive way) to glory in the work rather than the substance (Christ), and to glory in the ordinances rather than the head of the body. Paul states in vs 23 that will worship (self-imposed religion or worship which one prescribes to himself (1)), humility (the kind that is promoted outwardly) and the neglect of the body only have an outward appearance of wisdom. These ordinances or any others will never satisfy the craving of the flesh. Good luck stopping the indulgence of the flesh through adherence to religious rituals and religious moral values. Only through Christ can our hunger be satisfied, only in Christ can we find fulfillment.

There is a time to abstain from certain foods, a time to perhaps wear certain clothes or respect the traditions of a culture regarding a holy day. But we can happily do these things for the glory of God because we are dead to the ordinances of the world. Therefore we have liberty to abstain from them or partake in them.

It changes our perspective when we understand that we have liberty to or not to:

  • Attend an organized church service on Sundays that is based very much on extra-biblical tradition.
  • Use musical instruments in worship even though there is no example in the New Testament church.
  • Use titles Reverend, Senior Deacon, Assistant Pastor, Pope, First Lady, etc. even though there is no biblical precedence for it.
  • Remove our hats and bow our heads when we pray in public.
  • Call Sunday the day of rest instead of Saturday.

Many of these things are good and even beneficial for the current state of the church. But these things do not justify us. We have liberty not to do them. Yet if our hearts compel us to do them or condemn us if we don’t, then we should listen to the Holy Spirit. There may be a tendency to think that we observe ordinance for the sake of those outside the faith in order to keep up a good appearance, but much of what we do is actually for those who are weak within the faith. But we must understand that these things can beguile us into a false sense of humility and self-imposed religion. By faith we operate from the inside out. 

Persecution: there are those who will maliciously attack the works you do for God.

It’s very possible that Timothy’s circumcision was used as ammunition against Paul. When writing to the church in Galatians Paul makes the case that if he did still preach circumcision, why where the Jews persecuting him (Gal 5:11)? It’s likely that these Judaizers (those attempting to add circumcision and the law in addition to Christ (6)) had used the fact that Paul had circumcised Timothy as misrepresented truth to convince the Galatians that they should now observe the law and Jewish customs in order to be fully saved.

What can we learn from this? The enemy will attempt to use what was meant for good against us. This may cause us to doubt a decision we made and wonder if it may have offended someone or caused an innocent person to stumble. If we are serving God whole-heartedly people will get offended. We may not be perfect, but we shouldn’t believe that when we truly seek to minister we will hinder the Kingdom of God; that is the devil’s trick.

[Mat 11:16-19 KJV] 16 But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows, 17 And saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented. 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil. 19 The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.

Being a men-pleaser will not profit others or us. If John (the greatest prophet born among men) and Jesus (the Son of God) offended the religious crowd by their good works, we can expect it to happen to us as well.

[Col 3:22 KJV] 22 Servants, obey in all things [your] masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God:

Being a man-pleaser has to do with eye service.  It is putting man’s opinion above God’s.

Now there is never a reason to do what we know is sin, such as fornication or murder to justify a greater good. We are lead by the Spirit. Again, it wasn’t legalism that compelled Paul to circumcise Timothy, it was Paul’s liberty in the Spirit. Paul was free to circumcise Timothy for the sake of the Jews and their weaker brethren to “become all things”.

The church increased in numbers and faith daily.

[Act 16:5 KJV] 5 And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily.

Our last verse (vs 5) is a comforting verse. We see the decree of justification by faith outside of the law being delivered to the churches (vs. 4). Because of that, the churches were strengthened in their faith, and increased in numbers daily. Understanding the liberty we have in Christ will increase our strength.

Timothy had great faith outside of circumcision. Therefore he was OK with being circumcised for the sake of the Kingdom. Our faith must be outside of legalism and works. If it is, we can freely partake in external works, and those works will strengthen and increase the church.

View Part 2 of this series.

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Works Cited

1)   Thomas, Robert L. New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries : Updated Edition. Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc., 1998.

2)   Earle, R. 1 Timothy. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 11: Ephesians through Philemon (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1981. 374.

3)   Robinson, Simon J. Opening Up 1 Timothy. Opening Up Commentary. Leominster: Day One Publications, 2004.

4)   Utley, Robert James. Luke the Historian: The Book of Acts. Study Guide Commentary Series. Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 2003.

5)   Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition Notes. Biblical Studies Press, 2006.

6)   Utley, Robert James. Paul’s First Letters: Galatians and I & II Thessalonians. Study Guide Commentary Series. Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 1997.

7)   Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). The works of Josephus: Complete and unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson.