A Commentary by John Stott
Of course, it was a daring step of Paul’s to take Titus with him at all. Thus to introduce a Gentile into the headquarters of the Jerusalem church could have been interpreted as a deliberate act of provocation. In a sense, it probably was, although Paul’s motive was not provocative. It was not in order to stir up strife that he brought Titus with him to Jerusalem, but in order to establish the truth of the gospel. This truth is that Jews and Gentiles are accepted by God on the same terms, namely through faith in Jesus Christ, and must therefore be accepted by the church without any discrimination between them.
Such was the issue. And in the event, the point was made and the truth established: ‘Titus…was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.’ However, the victory was not won without a battle, for strong pressure was exerted on Paul to circumcise Titus. This came from ‘false brethren’, whom the New English Bible calls ‘sham-Christians’ and J.B.Phillips ‘pseudo-Christians’. As John Brown judiciously comments, ‘These persons were brethren, i.e. Christians in name; but were “False brethren”, Jews in reality.’ They were almost certainly Judaizers, and Paul has some stern words to say about them. They were intruders, ‘interlopers’ (NEB). This may mean either that they had no business to be in the church fellowship at all, or that they had gate-crashed the private conference with the apostles. So J.B.Phillips understands it, translating ‘who wormed their way into our meeting’. In either case, in Paul’s view they were spies. They had ‘slipped in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage’. In particular, they tried to insist on Titus being circumcised. We know that this was the platform of the Judaizers party, for their slogan is given us in Acts 15:1: ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’
Paul saw the issue plainly. It was not just a question of circumcision and uncircumcision, of Gentile and Jewish customs. It was a matter of fundamental importance regarding the truth of the gospel, namely, of Christian freedom verses bondage. The Christian has been set free from the law in the sense that his acceptance before God depends entirely upon God’s grace in the death of Jesus Christ received by faith. To introduce the works of the law and make our acceptance depend on our obedience to rules and regulations was to bring a free man into bondage again. Of this principle Titus was a test case. It is true that he was an uncircumcised Gentile, but he was a converted Christian. Having believed in Jesus, he had been accepted by God in Christ, and that, Paul said, was enough. Nothing further was necessary for his salvation, as the Council of Jerusalem was later to confirm. (see Acts 15).
So Paul stood firm. ‘The truth of the gospel’ was at stake, and he was determined at all costs to maintain it. He resisted the pressure of the Judaizers, and the apostles did not compel Titus to be circumcised. ‘To them (that is, the false brethren) we did not yield submission even for a moment’ (verse 5). Or, ‘not for one moment did I yield to their dictation’ (NEB).
It is necessary to add that these verses could be interpreted, and are interpreted by some commentators, in such a way as to understand that Paul gave in and that Titus was circumcised. Bishop Lightfoot refers to the paragraph as ‘this shipwreck of grammar’. Paul is evidently writing under the stress of strong emotion, even of considerable embarrassment. He leaves his sentence in verse 4 unfinished, and we can only guess what he would have said if he had completed it. Further, although all the great Greek codices include the negative in verse 5 (‘we did *not* yield submission’), there are one or two Latin versions which omit it. This is reflected in the margin of the New English Bible: ‘I yielded to their demand for the moment.’ It seems right to reject this reading, as do both the Revised Standard Version and the New English Bible. But if by chance it is correct, then we must understand that Paul circumcised Titus, as he later circumcised Timothy, as a conciliatory gesture (Acts 16:3). Once a vital principle of gospel truth had been established, Paul was willing to make policy concessions. But, he insists here, he did it voluntarily, not out of compulsion. For, whether Titus was circumcised or not, verse 3 stands: ‘Titus…was not *compelled* to be circumcised.’ So does verse 5b, that Paul’s motive was to preserve ‘the truth of the gospel’. However, my own belief is that the RSV and NEB texts are right, and that Titus was not circumcised. As Bishop Lightfoot very properly points out, the people to whom Paul made concessions were *weak* brethren, not *false*.