THE GREATEST JOY OF EVERY PRIEST or other mentor may be seeing a pupil follow in his footsteps. St Paul was no exception. He traveled with several disciples at one time or another: Barnabas, John Mark, Silas (all of whom we honor as saints). His favorite, the one he called his “true son in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2), was Timothy.
According to Acts 16:1-9, Timothy was a believer, the son of a pagan father and a Jewish mother in the Anatolian town of Lystra. St Paul had first visited Lystra with Barnabas in c. ad 48 and preached the Gospel in the surrounding area. Possibly Timothy’s mother, Eunice, and his grandmother, Lois, became believers at that time (cf., 2 Timothy 1:5).
When Paul returned to Lystra three years later he proposed taking Timothy along on his travels. Although Eunice was Jewish, her husband was not and Timothy had not been circumcised. Paul arranged for that to be done (cf., Acts 16:1-5) and the two set off together.
For several years Timothy accompanied Paul on his travels in Europe and Asia Minor. Timothy worked with Paul as he evangelized Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonika, Corinth and Macedonia, sometimes visiting churches on his own as Paul’s emissary. In witness to their relationship, Timothy is listed along with Paul as the author of several New Testament epistles: 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon. “He served with me in the gospel,” Paul would write, “as a son with his father” (Philippians 2:22).
Timothy in Ephesus
In the early 60s Paul sent Timothy to Ephesus to personally oversee that community where doctrinal speculation was rife. St Paul’s two Epistles to Timothy offered his former companion guidance in shepherding the Ephesian Christians.
According to the fourth-fifth century Acts of Timothy, this disciple remained in Ephesus even after Paul’s death. Timothy himself was slain by a mob during a pagan festival in AD 97.
Based on his own experience Paul warned Timothy that, “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). Paul himself was one of the first to persecute Christians when he was an observant Jew. This persecution began as soon as the apostles started proclaiming Jesus as the risen Messiah.
The Romans, who cared nothing about Jewish messiahs, feared the Christians, who preferred the Kingdom of God to the Roman Empire. They refused to honor the Roman gods – considered a civil duty – or to venerate the emperor as a god himself. They appeared to be a divisive force and they continued to grow.
All the apostles except for John died at the hands of either Jews or Romans intent on eradicating this new sect. Paul himself would suffer death for his faith, beheaded in Rome in c. AD 68. Sometimes Christians suffered in sporadic attacks of random mobs. In the second and third centuries it was the state itself which was responsible for many deaths. It is thought that, before the Roman persecutions ended in the early fourth century, upwards of 100,000 believers had lost their lives or been deprived of their possessions.
In the face of persecution St Paul proposes what may at first seem an inadequate, if not strange, response: a two-pronged fidelity to the teachings that Timothy has learned and from whom he learned them. The Word of God and the living witness of the believers who mentored them, Paul affirms, should be the most compelling supports for committed Christians under threat of persecution.
What Scriptures Does Paul Recommend?
“…from childhood,” St Paul reminds Timothy, “you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15-17).
Just which Scriptures could Timothy have known from his childhood? When St Paul first met Timothy’s family in c. AD 48, and for decades afterwards, not all of the New Testament books had yet been written. In the next 50 years the Gospels and most of the epistles were being circulated but it took some time for all the local Churches to become aware of them or to accept them as inspired. For most of this time – and certainly while Paul was writing to Timothy – when Christians spoke of “the Scriptures,” they meant the Old Testament. St. Paul is encouraging Christians under persecution to resort to Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. As St Clement of Alexandria wrote in his Exhortation to the Heathens, “These books are truly holy as they sanctify and deify.”
In this Paul echoes the witness of Abraham in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). When asked to send an emissary from paradise to the rich man’s brothers, Abraham replies, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (v. 29). When the rich man protests, Abraham answers, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead” (v. 31). Spectacular wonders amaze us but don’t necessarily lead us to faith; the Scriptures speak to truly believing hearts and strengthen the gift of faith within them. This is why St John Chrysostom would comment, “One single word from the divine Scriptures is more effective than fire! It softens the cruelty of the soul and prepares her for every good work” (Ninth Homily on 2 Timothy).
Witness of the Saints
Besides the Scriptures, St Paul commends to Timothy “the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them” (v.14). Timothy had worked with Paul for several years and knew his teaching, which, earlier in the chapter, he called “my gospel” (2 Timothy 2:8), the saving mystery of Christ which would later be put in writing in the four Gospels. He also knew how Paul lived out his faith in daily life and how he behaved under trials and persecution. The living witness of Timothy’s mentor would be a source of strength for him when he too suffered for his faith in Christ. Over the centuries until today, the encouragement of believing parents and spouses as well as teachers and fellow Christians would provide the support from which martyrs drew the strength to face the suffering they endured for Christ.
Come, O people, let us sing to Timothy, the apostle distinguished as a herald of the Gospel. Let us say, “Hail, venerable offshoot of the Faith, who were like a son to holy Paul! Hail, venerable model of virtue, thrice-wise mouth of the divine Word! Hail, divine flute announcing God to the whole world! Hail, pillar of Faith, on which the Church finds support!”