1 Timothy 4:9-15
In writing to the Philippians, who were, it seems, finding the virtues of unity and humility hard to embrace, the holy Apostle Paul has this to say:
I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you. I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. …But Timothy’s worth you know, how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel (Phil. 2:19-23).
St. Paul had “no one like him!” That is quite a commendation, isn’t it? Here was a genuine man of God who had true love for God’s people, and whom the apostle could trust. Timothy is one of those figures in the New Testament who tantalizes us, because he does not write any letters by himself, but we hear about him frequently. He is mentioned at the beginning of 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon as a kind of co-author with St. Paul, his mentor. There are two letters addressed to him. And he features along with Silas as one of Paul’s constant companions in the second half of the Acts of the Apostles, too. In fact, so committed was he to St. Paul’s ministry, that he consented to be circumcised, even though it was not necessary, so that he could be accepted by the Jewish people among whom St. Paul would try to minister. Though we call Timothy an Apostle, he is not one of those twelve who studied under Jesus during his earthly ministry, nor, so far as we know, was he given an extraordinary resurrection appearance like the apostle Paul. But, under the authority of St. Paul, he was what we could call a “sub-apostle,” one entrusted with the knowledge and truth of God, even from his youth. When St. Paul met him, he was already a Christian, with a Christian mother (Eunice), who is mentioned both in the Acts and in 2 Timothy 1:5, and also a Christian grandmother (Lois).
The Old Testament Scriptures are replete with examples of those who take on the mission of their mentors, such as Joshua who led the people into the land, following in the footsteps of Moses, or Elisha, who saw Elijah disappear in the glory clouds, and took on his mantle. Joshua had an honor that not even Moses had—to actually step upon the Holy Land that God would give the people. Elisha is known most particularly for the compassion that he had for those around him, and seems to have performed even more miracles than Elijah! But both of them stand forever, formally, in the shadow of the great Law-giver and the quintessential Prophet. There is no jealousy evident here in their relationships. Instead, the household of God shows itself large enough for many kinds of leaders—those with great prominence, and those who faithfully give themselves to the task at hand, not earning great notoriety, but doing all for the benefit of others, and for the joy of the Lord.
We hear these things about Timothy in our Scripture passage for his feast-day, which takes place on this coming Sunday:
This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe. Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. (1 Timothy 4:9-15)
Reading between the lines, then, we see that this young Christian was ordained to service in the early Church, and that he was particularly gifted in reading and teaching the Scriptures. The apostle Paul’s desire for him is that these gifts would mature and grow, while being accompanied by personal qualities that would commend his ministry to the Church. St Timothy becomes for us the prime example of one under authority who listened to his mentor, did not seek the lime-light, and came to be of great benefit to the Church. The teaching that new pastors receive from the two letters addressed to him are filled with traditional wisdom and astute insight, warning leaders to resist the drift to heresy in the Church, to be aware of the traps laid for those who lead, and to blend good teaching with an exemplary life and deep humility.
From what we know of the subsequent ministry of the apostle Timothy, that is exactly what happened in his case. It is not certain if all the details of the Acts of Timothy are correct—this writing is, after all, not included in our New Testament. However, from this work and other notices in Church tradition, we hear about a leader who became the bishop of Ephesus for fifteen years, where he was well-known for his luminous Bible teaching and for his life of faithfulness. In remembering him, we speak of his brilliance and of his delight for the Scriptures, which he passed on to others:
Made bright with the Spirit’s brilliant beams, you were clearly shown to be a far-shining star of light that passed throughout the earth, filling it with splendor and enlightening it by grace, O Timothy, revealer of sacred truths and holy mysteries; and now make entreaty with the Lord that He grant peace and great mercy to our souls.
And to this we add the song,
You drank the torrent of delight, and, O godly-minded Timothy, in godliness you gave the knowledge of our God unto fervent seekers as a draught for them to drink, thus imitating Christ, to Whom you have gone with joy, and you behold God the Trinity’s transcendently shining glory and the peace of boundless strength.
Both songs see Timothy as not only a teacher, but also they intimate that he is a martyr who imitated Christ, and shared in the Lord’s self-giving life. The story goes that unbelievers in Ephesus typically celebrated a festival in honor of Dionysius. Scholars say that the name of this festival was, graphically, called the katagogia, or the bringing down—a reference to those who marauded the streets, carrying images of the gods, wielding huge phallic-shaped clubs, drinking to excess, wearing masks, and violently assaulting men and women in cultic hope that Dionysius would bring fertility to the land. Think of an after-sports street in a drunken city, and add religious fervor to the mix. Saint Timothy, it seems, tried to halt the processions, dissuading people from joining in this idolatrous and aggressive worship. We can imagine him speaking about the great katabasis of God into our midst, and saying that there was no need to “take down” anybody to appease a capricious and drunken god. During his opposition to the katagogia in AD 93, and ended up being clubbed himself, and dying a martyr’s death.
He had taken to heart the words of St. Paul, knowing that Jesus was the Savior of all—even these pagans. Concerned both for the truth, and for the peacefulness of the city streets, he called upon them to abandon the passionate mythologies and abusive practices of an evil religion. St. Paul had warned that such “distressing times will come” (2 Tim 3), and these evil days eventually brought Timothy to the rank of martyrdom.
Timothy, then, had the honor of showing in his life what he had learned in the Church, and while following in St. Paul’s train: just as St. Paul did not shrink from death, so too Timothy put the needs of those around him first, clearly sounding out the gospel. He was well aware that his life had to be “cruciform,” as Michael Gorman puts it, because he saw this quality both in the pattern laid down by Christ and in the life followed by St. Paul, who called himself “the least of all the apostles.” In their origins, St. Paul and Timothy were wildly different. St. Paul was Jewish, anti-Christian, converted in a shocking way by a vision, and a man of great argument and passions; St. Timothy was Gentile, brought up in Christianity from childhood, instructed gradually through the Scriptures, and (it seems) an introvert, for St. Paul encourages the Corinthians to “put him at ease” when he arrives among them (1 Cor 16:10). But they shared some qualities: both of them seemed to suffer from a malady: St. Paul had his thorn in the flesh, and St. Timothy had to be encouraged to take wine for his stomach. They both therefore knew about struggling with day-to-day troubles, as they would both give up their lives at the end for their Lord. Both the passionate Paul and the more peaceful Timothy were used by the Lord and we are in their debt. From them may we learn about both integrity and faithfulness, and marvel at the God who has knit us together as one body, despite all of our differences.