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The Next Faithful Step

Paul and Timothy

Timothy appears in the New Testament as perhaps Paul’s most trusted assistant. Since the NT depicts the relationship over some 20 years, witnessing both to its professional and personal dimensions, there is much to consider here about such issues as professional teamwork, mentorship, and succession in ministry.

Some of the most poignant material appears in NT documents whose relation to historicity has been questioned, so a decision needs to be made about the use of sources in such a study. Is Timothy largely a figment of imagination, or do the facts given and implied about him and his relationship with Paul have a firmer basis in reality? The Book of Acts, which provides much information both directly and in passing, was assessed in the past as a work of historical fiction, though the recent trend is to affirm that Luke intended his work to be received and read as researched history.1 If it is historical fiction, one must assume that Timothy’s appearances served apologetical purposes of a later generation. If Acts intends to be history, we are freer to look for the actual man behind the accounts; in fact it has been suggested that Timothy may well have been one of the sources that Luke sought out in writing his history.2 But also Paul’s letters to Timothy are assumed by most scholars to be pseudepigraphical letters, written by someone other than Paul after his death in Paul’s name, attempting to address later problems with the authority of the living Paul. Again in that case it would be inappropriate to look for the depiction of a real person in such a document. On the other hand there is a minority group firmly convinced that Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus) toward the end of his ministry, and that they therefore elicit good biographical information.3 Since presuming that Acts is a history, and that Paul authored the Pastorals, elicits a cogent picture of Timothy and of his relationship with Paul, this essay presents the outlines that emerge from that approach to the sources.

In the book of Acts we first meet Timothy in chapter 16, during what is known as Paul’s second missionary journey. On the first journey Paul had founded churches in the southern part of what we call Asia Minor or Turkey (as any Bible map will show), at Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Revisiting these churches on his second journey (Acts 15:36-41), he apparently met Timothy for the first time.4 We learn from 2 Timothy that his grandmother and mother, Lois and Eunice, had been among Paul’s first converts from the Jewish community in Lystra; Timothy must have responded to the Christian gospel in the time between Paul’s visits. Writing Timothy years later, Paul remains impressed with the women of this family, recognizing in them their sincere and abiding faith (2 Timothy 1:5). In fact he expresses the hope that Timothy’s mature faith is somewhere near to comparing with theirs!  But Paul immediately saw something in his young man of deep value for the propagation of the gospel, since he immediately joined him to his team.

The shift to leadership with Paul was painful for Timothy, if only for the rite of circumcision which Paul now insisted upon. Although Timothy’s mother was Jewish, his father was a Gentile, and this may have been why he had not been circumcised yet.5 Paul “took Timothy and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (Acts 6:3); that is, he was circumcised not to ensure a Christian identity, but to clarify both Timothy and Paul’s affirmation of Judaism in the context of Christian outreach. Paul wanted to make it clear to all observers that the Gospel of Jesus was good news to both Jew and Gentile, and so he honored Judaism by confirming Timothy in his hereditary faith. (Titus represents an interesting contrast: since he was a Gentile, Paul refused to compel him to be circumcised. There was no need for Titus first to become a Jew in order to become a Christian; Gal. 2:3.) This first act of Timothy’s “qualification” for leadership enacts the advice Paul will later write to him, that a church leader “must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil.” (1 Tim. 3:7)

The rest of the references to Timothy in Acts show him to be a close worker with Paul, whom Paul could dispatch to distant churches to represent him as needed. This picture correlates closely with the impression we receive from Paul’s references to Timothy in the “undisputed” letters. Paul refers to him as his “co-worker” (Rom. 16:21; 1 Thess. 3:2), his “son (Phil 2:22), his “child” (1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2), and his “brother” (2 Cor. 1:1; Co. 1:1; etc.). These show a closeness that is both personal and professional.6 Timothy is mentioned often as being in Paul’s presence, for instance as the co-author of several epistles (2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon), and just as often as being away from Paul on strategic trips (1 Cor. 4:17; 16:10-11; 1 Thess. 3:1-2; Phil. 2:19-24); of course the Pastoral Epistles testify to Timothy’s independent pastoral ministry.

Paul’s relationship with Timothy has often been taken in the Church to represent an ideal mentoring relationship. How far is this tenable? Or perhaps it is better to ask about the nature of the mentoring that Timothy received. Mentoring is a broad term, and can cover guidance in handling challenges all the way from major questions of motivation and life goals down to day-to-day organizational logistics. Mentoring has also implied a range of personal patterns, from something close to imitation, to a relationship that prompts freedom and self-discovery. Did Paul mentor Timothy by involving Timothy in his own apostolic tasks such as traveling and letter-writing, or did he mentor Timothy by guiding him into his own different calling in Christ?

In one sense the evidence is capable of differing interpretations. Certainly we read that much of what Timothy did simply represented Paul and his authority. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “I sent you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ Jesus, as I teach them everywhere and in every church” (1 Cor. 4:17). Similarly he sent Timothy to Thessalonica to represent his own concerns, and gather news of the congregation for Paul (1 Thess. 3:1-7). On the other hand, Paul clearly recognized that Timothy had a call upon him in his own right. He urges the Corinthians to give Timothy the respect due to one who is “doing the work of the Lord, just as I am” (1 Cor. 16:10), and affirmed that he was one who also “preached the Son of God” to them (2 Cor. 1:19). It is in this light that we grasp why Paul referred to Timothy not only as “child” and “son,” but as “brother” and “co-worker.” In 1 and 2 Timothy Paul’s confidence in Timothy’s pastoral performance lies ultimately not on his willingness to take orders from Paul, but in the way Timothy has learned to rely on his own faith and calling (1 Tim. 1:4, 19; 6:11-15; 2 Tim. 1:6-7; 13-14). These passages testify to Paul’s anxiety for his friend, and he is not hesitant to press upon Timothy the remembrance of the experiences and the teachings that continue to tie the two together. But Paul also recalls his own astonishing experience of grace at more that one point (1 Tim. 1:15-17; 2 Tim. 1:8-13) in a way that serves to place Timothy’s welfare in the hands of the same saving Christ.

In what sense was Timothy in succession to Paul? Again, the texts point to a complex response to the question. Paul encourages Timothy in 2 Tim. 2:2, “What you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.” Here is the command of the “Apostolic Deposit,” the call of the Church to be faithful to the apostolic witness. In this sense Timothy is clearly an inheritor (together with the many others whom Paul engaged in ministry) of Paul’s mantle.7On the other hand, we do not hear Paul asking Timothy to be ready to take up Paul’s apostolic tasks if Paul should die—for instance, the envisioned missionary journey to Spain. Paul was an apostle, and Timothy, as we see him finally, is a pastor. It is probably best to conceive the important question of succession in broader terms than the succession of one individual to another’s task. Rather, the great agenda of Christ’s church requires adaptation and creative response in each generation. Here too the tasks seem to be held in the Lord’s hand, rather than in the church’s jurisdiction.


1 A review of these issues is available in many commentaries and dictionaries. A recent evaluation can be found in James D. G. Dunn, Christianity in the Making, Vol. 2: Beginning from Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), p. 64-87.

2 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles (AB. New York: Doubleday, 1998), p. 99.

3 For this complicated and ongoing discussion, see for instance William D. Mounce’s review, in Pastoral Epistles (WBC. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), pp. cxviii-cxxix.

4 This is probably the best reading of the surprising word “Behold!” in Acts 16:2. Some scholars feel that Paul’s references to Timothy as a “child” or “son” (1 Cor. 4:17; 1 Tim. 1:2, 18; 2 Tim. 1:2) prove that he must actually have converted Timothy on his first journey; others disagree, understanding that “son” refers in larger scope to the relationship as a whole.

5 Acts presents these relationships as if to explain both the expectation of circumcision in Timothy’s case and its neglect. See C. K. Barrett, Acts Vol. 2 (ICC. London: T & T Clark, 1998), pp. 760-763, for a review of further ideas about what these brief comments may imply.

6 Bonnie Bowan Thurston, “Timothy,” in Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, ed., The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), p. 601.

7 Many would see the existence of the Pastoral Letters as apocryphal attempts to remain true to this inheritance.