Born: AD 17, Lystra
Died: AD 97, Macedonia
Feast Day: January 26th (with Saint Titus)
Patronage: stomach and intestinal disorders
One name that readily comes to mind when considering the growth and spread of Christianity in the earliest days of the Church is the apostle Paul, and it would be hard to overstate the influence and contribution of his missionary work. But what some tend to forget is that Paul wasn’t alone. There were many others who traveled with him and helped establish Christian communities throughout the ancient world, in Greece and Asia Minor, in the Roman Empire and beyond. We know a good deal about Paul, for his life and activities were well-documented. What’s more, he himself was a prolific writer who left a considerable body of literature, in the form of letters, where he reveals many details about himself and the early Church. But what about his companions and co-workers? What do we really know of them?
Foremost among Paul’s disciples was Timothy, who although familiar by name, is a bit of a mystery to most Christians today. It might be tempting to think of him as nothing more than a trusty sidekick – Paul’s faithful companion ‘along for the ride’ – but there was obviously much more to the man than meets the eye. Timothy was a leader in his own right, one who figured prominently in the growth of the Early Church. He was ultimately chosen to head up the Christian community at Ephesus and was considered its first bishop, in fact.
Timothy of Lystra
We first meet Timothy in the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul and Silas arrive in Lystra, Timothy’s hometown. It was here that Timothy was raised and received the faith from his mother, Eunice, and his grandmother, Lois, both devout Jews who had become believers. From their instruction and example, Timothy would have learned the Jewish laws and customs. He would have been taught the Old Testament scriptures, but he also came to know about Christ and His message. Despite his young age, Timothy was well thought of, a man of “sincere faith” (2 Tim 1:5).
When Paul asks Timothy to accompany them on their missionary journey, he decides it is prudent for Timothy, whose father was a Greek, to be circumcised, to ensure that he is well-received by the communities they will be ministering to. As one Christian historian points out, “All of Jesus’s disciples were Jews, and they remained faithful to the ancient traditions and customs of their people, observing the Jewish law, which meant circumcising their male children, abstaining from certain foods, and keeping the Sabbath and holy days. They had no thought of breaking with Jewish ways, nor did they have a mandate to invite non-Jews into their community. At one point in the Acts of the Apostles, Christians are identified as the “sect of the Nazarenes,” a tiny band of Jews who worshipped the God of their fathers, revered Jesus’s teaching and awaited with eager hope the resurrection of the dead. They did not constitute a new religion but a “way” among the Jewish people.”1
Timothy the Pastor
Paul and Timothy then set out, with Silas, to visit the churches of Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece, led by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. At some point during their journey (likely some 10 years later), Timothy is left in Ephesus to govern the Christian community there – no small task! By this time, Ephesus was already a large and prominent city, with a population of over 300,000. It was an important centre of trade, considered the “Gateway of Asia,” and also home to The Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.2
The local community was struggling because of “the pagan environment, doctrines of false teachers, and the lax moral behaviour of some Christians,” all problems that might be expected of a young church.3 As its leader, Timothy had to address many moral issues, first and foremost, defending “sound doctrine” (Tim 1:10). But he also had to attend to many practical matters, as is the duty of every priest and pastor.
Paul was confident in Timothy’s abilities to shepherd the growing community, for it wasn’t merely he who had chosen him (cf. 1 Tim 4:14). Yet, as the more seasoned apostle, he was careful to mentor and guide his younger colleague, as evidenced by the advice he gives on everything from the importance of prayer to how to deal with various members of the local community. He urges Timothy to “fight the good fight of the faith,” in other words, to persevere in his preaching and other pastoral duties, and not be deterred by either opposition or his own weariness (1 Tim 6:12).
Timothy, our brother
There’s no denying the close friendship and affection between the two men. In his letters, Paul repeatedly refers to Timothy as “my true child in the faith” (1 Tim 1:2) and “my beloved and faithful child in the Lord” (1 Cor 4:17). Though art and iconography likewise show Timothy most often as a “beardless youth,”4 Timothy’s youthfulness is not what St. Paul was referring to when he called him a ‘child’. He was talking about spiritual fatherhood and the importance of bringing others along in the faith.
By the time Timothy was appointed Bishop of Ephesus, he had already spent a decade or more working alongside Paul and Silas, helping to found the churches in Corinth, Thessalonica, and Philippi. They had no doubt experienced a lot together; the bonds of friendship, of “brotherhood,” were by now firmly established.
Timothy, the Man
What stands out about Timothy? Probably more of his shortcomings than his strengths. We know from Scripture that he suffered from various ailments, for Paul advises him to “use a little wine for the sake of your stomach” (1 Tim 5:23). Timothy was more timid in nature and less confident in his abilities than St. Paul and needed to be encouraged to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you…for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:6-7).
Yet this is precisely why Timothy can be such an inspiration to each one of us. We needn’t have it all together – or feel perfectly suited – to do whatever the Lord asks of us. We must only be willing to offer our small and imperfect lives to God, and He will do the rest – equip us for the roles and responsibilities He has in mind.
Timothy’s name, in Greek, Timotheus, means “one valued by God.” Of course, it is true that each of us is valued and loved by God. But, even today, Timothy is honoured and revered in so many Christian churches – Roman, Orthodox, Greek, Anglican, even Lutheran. Why? Perhaps because he endured much for the Early Church and was so instrumental in helping it to grow. We see ourselves in him, in our desire for godliness – to simply love and serve God, and to live lives pleasing to Him. The fact that he was the son of a Jewish Christian mother and a Greek father demonstrates “the power of the Gospel to reach all peoples, regardless of ethnic, racial or social differences.”5
Timothy, Martyr for the Faith
Some sources say that Timothy witnessed the end of the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who had been living in Ephesus with the apostle John since the Resurrection of Christ.6 As for Timothy’s own death, most early and medieval texts suggest he was martyred in Ephesus, clubbed to death by an angry mob for denouncing the orgiastic worship of the goddess Artemis.7 Local Christians apparently took him to a nearby mountain and tried to revive him but were unsuccessful and ended up burying him there instead. Later, in the 4th century, his body was moved to Constantinople and placed in the Church of the Holy Apostles.
In life and in death, Timothy exhibited his heartfelt love for Christ and the Gospel. He was entrusted with guarding the faith that had been passed on to him, and he did his part, fulfilling this task to the very end. According to Russian custom, the back of an Orthodox priest’s cross is often inscribed with the words of St. Paul to Timothy: “Be an example to the believers in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”8 May the life and example of this holy man of God inspire each of us to do the same.
St. Timothy, pray for us!
– Kelley Holy
1 Robert Louis Wilken, The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 18.
2 David Padfield, “The City of Ephesus in Bible Times,” Bible Land History: Exploring the Lands of the Bible with David Padfield [website]; available from http://www.biblelandhistory.com/turkey/ephesus.html; Internet; accessed 28 December 2017.
3 Introductory Notes to “The First Letter of Paul to Timothy,” The Navarre Bible: New Testament (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1999).
4 “Saint Timothy: The Iconography,” Christian Iconography [website]; available from http://www.christianiconography.info/timothy.html; Internet; accessed 3 January 2018.
5 “Who is St. Timothy?” St. Timothy’s Anglican Church [website]; available from http://sttims.ca/about/who-is-st-timothy/; Internet; accessed 2 January 2018.
6 According to this source, it was St. John of Damascus who suggested Timothy had witnessed the end of the life of the Virgin Mary. From “Saint Timothy: Bishop of Ephesus,” Encyclopaedia Britannica; available from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Timothy; Internet; accessed 2 January 2018.
7 Cf. Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “St. Timothy – January 24,” Tradition in Action [website]; available from http://www.traditioninaction.org/SOD/j210sd_Timothy_01_24.html; Internet; accessed 2 January 2018.
8 “The Holy Apostle Timothy,” Perfectio in Spiritu [blog]; Available from https://horvathliviu.wordpress.com/2012/01/22/the-holy-apostle-timothy/; Internet; accessed 29 December 2017.