The New Testament portrait of Timothy provides a positive case study of a young man who enjoyed a rich spiritual heritage and early ministry opportunities, pursuing a sincere faith and fulfilling his God-given ministry in his generation. The apostle Paul played a key mentoring role as he identified God’s hand on the young man, invested relationally in him, trusted him with key assignments, and offered him long-term support.
Family and Relational Context
Timothy grew up in Lystra, an obscure Roman colonial town in the high plains of the district of Lycaonia in the province of Galatia.1 The Apostle Paul preached in Lystra on his first missionary journey, suffering acute persecution while establishing a church in the community (Acts 14:8-23). The fact that he did not preach first in a synagogue may indicate that Lystra had no formal Jewish community.2 Timothy’s unnamed father was a Greek, or pagan, and his mother, Eunice, and grandmother, Lois, were both devout Jews with “sincere faith” (Acts 16:1; 2 Tim. 1:5). In the absence of a synagogue, these special ladies presumably taught him the “sacred writings since childhood” (2 Tim. 3:15).
Timothy, his mother, and grandmother probably converted to Christianity on Paul’s first visit to Lystra. Quite possibly, they witnessed Paul’s persecution and suffering as well (Acts 14:19-20; 2 Tim. 3:10-11). By the time of Paul’s second missionary journey, the young man Timothy had earned such respect among the believers in Lystra and Iconium that he drew the attention of Paul and Silas; they decided to take him on as an apprentice and ministry associate (Acts 16:1-3). The community of believers received prophetic utterances setting Timothy apart for the ministry, and Paul laid hands on him in blessing and to impart spiritual gifting (1 Tim. 1:18; 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6). To prevent trouble with the Jews on account of Timothy’s pagan father, Paul had him circumcised before setting out on his journeys (Acts 16:3).3
Over the following years of ministry, Timothy and his mentor, Paul, developed a most profound respect and affection for one another. The Apostle trusted Timothy with many critical assignments: to encourage the Thessalonians under persecution (1 Thess. 3:2), to confirm the faith of the new converts in Corinth (1 Cor. 4:17), and to pastor the church in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3). His name appears with that of Paul in the salutations of seven of the epistles (Rom. 16:21; 2 Cor. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; Philem. 1:1).4 Paul came to call him his gnēsio teknō, literally his “legitimate child” in the faith (1 Tim 1:2).5 Paul frequently commends Timothy for his loyalty (1 Cor. 16:10; Phil. 2:19; 2 Tim. 3:10), and it is fitting that the Apostle’s final letters should be addressed so affectionately to his godly, but reluctant successor.6
The Apostle Paul’s two letters to the young pastor offer clues about Timothy’s personality. He was affectionate and sensitive (2 Tim. 1:4); he may have struggled with a timid personality, along with occasional fear and hesitance to take risks (1 Tim. 4:12-16; 2 Tim. 1:7-8). Paul shows fatherly concern, warning him not to give way to youthful lusts (2 Tim. 2:22), to take care of his stomach ailments (1 Tim. 5:23), and not be ashamed of Paul or the gospel in difficult times (2 Tim. 1:8). Young Timothy’s ministry clearly started strong. He had the advantages of a godly heritage, a highly influential apostolic mentor, the unanimous trust and admiration of those who met him, and influence that extended throughout the whole church.
The Sincere Faith of Timothy
The young disciple Timothy enjoyed a strong spiritual heritage and an early start in ministry, but he also made a series of choices to help him fulfill God’s destiny for his life. He chose to develop his own sincere faith, handle his life with purity, and fan his God-given gifts into flame with self-discipline.
Timothy chose to nurture the sincere faith that he had observed in his mother and grandmother, finding his own place in the people of God. The defining statement about Timothy’s character comes at the beginning of Paul’s second letter, when he writes, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well” (2 Tim. 1:5). The Greek word translated “sincere,” anypócritos, is the negative adjective of the noun “hypocrite,” the term for a stage actor in Greek drama “acting in a role that was not his or her own.”7 Jesus criticized some of the religious leaders who behaved like common actors, giving charity, praying in public, and fasting while more concerned with their public image than with genuine fidelity to God.8 The sons of Eli during the formative years of the prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 2-3) had certainly behaved like stage actors, prancing around the tabernacle in their priestly garments while secretly plotting evil. Timothy’s faith was anypócritos, “genuine and sincere, lacking in pretense or show.”9
The theme of purity of heart permeates Paul’s letters to Timothy, as if this was a core value they had discussed many times. The Apostle affirms sincerity of spirit as one of the principal goals of all Christian teaching: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). He encourages his protégé to let no one despise him for his youth, and to keep on setting “an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (4:12). Paul notes that some other leaders, having rejected a good conscience, “have made a shipwreck of their faith” (1:19). Timothy must flee from the love of money and instead “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (6:11). A humble sincerity of spirit extended to the way he was to treat other believers in the church, especially the younger women, “as sisters, in all purity” (5:2).
God had clearly placed natural and spiritual gifts into Timothy’s life, but the young man had to work hard to develop them. Paul advised him to not neglect his “charisma” or gift (1 Tim. 4:14) and to “fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Tim. 1:6). Although Paul does not specify the nature of his protégé’s gift, he clearly charged Timothy to study, preach, and teach the Word of God (1 Tim. 4:11-14; 2 Tim. 2:15, 24-25; 4:2), as well as to exercise the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5). Timothy must eschew silly diversions and train himself for godliness (1 Tim. 4:7) and make an effort to “fight the good fight” (1 Tim. 6:12). He should devote himself to Scripture reading, exhortation, and teaching (1 Tim. 4:13-14). Neither should he be intimidated because of his youth, for God had not given him a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control (2 Tim. 1:7).
The “Man of God” Equation
The Scriptures provide a glimpse into the transformation of Timothy from a young man in Lystra into a “man of God” (1 Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 3:17). Most certainly, several external factors helped him along. He enjoyed the advantages of a godly heritage, training in the Scriptures, a godly mentor, and early leadership opportunities.
Beyond these factors, Timothy chose attitudes that would help make him into a man of God. He chose to reject cynicism and nurture a sincere personal faith, remembering his supernatural encounters with the Lord and developing personal spiritual discipline. He chose to exercise purity of heart instead of pursuing greed and the passions of youth. Timothy knew that his supernaturally endowed gifting was no guarantee of God’s favor, but he developed and exercised those gifts with discipline. The attitudes chosen by Timothy add up to his reputation and long ministry as a recognized man of God: Sincere Faith + Pure Heart + Developed Gifts = Man of God
Practical Advice for Mentors
The apostle Paul’s actions in mentoring Timothy offer insight into the role of pastors and teachers of all times as they invest in the next generation of men and women of God.
1. Reflect on your own place in the chain of grace. The history of the people of God is an unbroken chain of believers who receive a godly heritage, grow in their own sincere faith, and pour it into the next generation. Paul affirmed that he serves God with a sincere conscience “as my ancestors did” (2 Tim. 1:3). Acknowledging our spiritual mentors with gratitude can make each of us realize that we have a responsibility to do for the next generation what our forbears did for us. Our place in the Kingdom of God is a temporary stewardship, and we are responsible to those who come behind us.
2. Invest relationally in a few. The apostle Paul, like Jesus himself, preached to multitudes, worked with an extended group of ministry companions, and invested his heart and soul into a few. Mentoring involves relationship: listening to the family history of our protégés, understanding their personal strengths and weaknesses, hearing their dreams, supporting them in difficulty, believing in God’s work in their lives, making ourselves personally available to them, and praying with them and for them. Mentoring helps to shape character and produce integrity. Pray that God will help you find a handful of younger people that you can accompany as they walk the life of faith.
3. Believe in the ministry of the next generation. Older leaders have the benefit of experience, and may be tempted to use it as a weapon to criticize young leaders for their mistakes, which they often make in projects born of enthusiasm and faith. Mentors understand that when they open doors of ministry for their protégés, the young leaders will certainly make some mistakes, and it takes courage to stand with them, defend them when necessary, and help them move forward. Paul sent Timothy on several sensitive assignments, then supported him with advice as he worked hard and navigated the uncertain tasks and relationships of ministry, even after he was known as a leader in his own right. Mentors invest continually in the leadership development process, and can rejoice in the success of their protégés.
4. Offer long-term support. Short-term leaders will never know the joy and power of long-term ministry relationships, but a mentor’s commitment can produce influence for a lifetime. During some moments in their lives Paul and Timothy could talk sitting by the campfire, while at others their communication was more occasional and long distance. Some ministry settings offer short bursts of intense interaction to build mentoring relationships, such as serving on a team or teaching in a ministry preparation school. The influence multiplies if the teacher or leader makes him or herself available over the long haul, speaking into the mentoree’s spiritual life, ministry, and family over years and even decades.
The biblical case study of the spiritual development of Timothy and his mentor the apostle Paul powerfully illustrates the chain of relationships that transmit faith from one generation to the next in the people of God. Each Christian leader is partly a Timothy, needing a wiser older leader to love, encourage, and guide him or her through the maze of life and ministry. In the same way all Christian leaders, no matter their age, can serve in a mentoring role like Paul, listening to, believing in, and guiding those who come behind them. May the Lord use each of us to raise up a new generation of “true children in the faith.”
1. New Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Lystra.”
2. Since Paul and Barnabas in Lystra did not preach first in a synagogue, as was their custom, there may not have been enough adult Jewish males to establish one (Acts 14:8-18). David S. Dockery et al., Holman Bible Handbook (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992), 649.
3. New Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Timothy.”
4. F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd rev. ed. (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1634.
5. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. “γνησίos.”
6. New Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Timothy.”
7. I. Howard Marshall, “Who is a Hypocrite?” Bibliotheca Sacra 159 (April-June 2002): 131.
8. Richard A. Batey, “Jesus and the Theatre,” New Testament Studies 30 (1984): 563. Batey’s much-quoted article describes the discovery of the Roman theatre in Sepphoris, six kilometers from Nazareth and lists the many references to theater and acting in the words of Jesus.
9. Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, eds., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1988), s.v. “73. Genuine, Phony.”