Paul’s Vision of the Man of Macedonia
6 Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
Paul's companions have now changed to Silas and Timothy, as went John Mark left and went back to be with Barnabas. Timothy, we learn was young but well thought of in his home town of Lystra. Timothy's mother and grandmother had raised him in the Jewish faith and he became a believer when Paul and Barnabas went through his town earlier. Because Timothy's dad was Greek, he was not circumcised. Paul decided to circumcise him, not to return to the Law, but he knew it would be a barrier to the mission.
But what about Galatians 2:3-5, where Paul absolutely forbids the believers there to baptize Titus. Is this a scriptural inconsistency? John Piper writes,
No Christians were pushing for Timothy’s circumcision. Rather it was “because of the Jews that were in those places” (16:3) that Paul had Timothy circumcised. “Jews” is used over 85 times in Acts and almost without exception refers to unbelievers. And here they appear to be distinct from “brethren.” So it appears that Timothy’s circumcision was not motivated by “Christian” pressure from within but by a missionary strategy from without.
So we see in one case Paul does not want Titus circumcised because the Jewish believers were demanding it. For Paul this was a gospel issue. This was also the issue Paul encountered when he came back to Jerusalem, and the church leaders there were essentially doing the same thing. But in the case of Timothy, Paul is going into unchartered territory when they set out to cross the sea and head into Northern Greece. As was their normal practice they would be going into the synagogue to preach to Jews who had not yet come to Christ. Paul assumes Timothy's not being circumcised would be a barrier to the Jews there hearing the message about freedom in Christ.
Paul uses a similar line of thinking when he refuses to eat meat offered to idols. In Corinthians 8:13 he states, "Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall."
Paul is not saying it is right to eat food sacrificed to idols. In fact, he is saying there is no inherent power in idols at all. But there are still new believers who are weak (i.e. not yet mature) in their faith. For them to eat meat sacrificed would be sin for them because of their conscience. Therefore, for the sake of the "weaker" brother, Paul chooses to not exercise his freedom in Christ.
So What Does This Mean for Us? For one, we see how a literal belief in the bible cannot explain these apparent consistencies. As we say all the time in bible interpretation the rule is always, "context, context, context". Paul is not contradicting himself using a different message for a different context. The believers should know better, whereas the unbelievers did not understand how the Gospel made circumcision unnecessary.
So often in the church we expect "unchurched" people to come into the church and understand practices they have never experienced. Like Paul, we need to think about the people who we are trying to reach. Paul knew the believers in Galatians should know better than to return to the law, in this case circumcision. But to the Jews in Greece he was now led to go reach, a leader who was not circumcised would be an unnecessary barrier to them hearing the gospel.