Paul initially went to Timothy’s hometown of Lystra during his first missionary journey. Barnabas accompanied him. The two arrived in approximately AD 48, which was about two years into the Journey. Although it is not possible to tell exactly how old Timothy was at the time, it is reasonable to assume that he was about 18. Paul was probably in his early 40s.
There is evidence that Paul was quite sick during this time. When he reflected back on this period in his Epistle to the Galatians, he recalled:
“Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first. And my temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. Where is then the blessedness ye spake of? for I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me” (Gal 4:13-15).
Some commentators believe that Paul was suffering from the effects of malaria during his time in Lystra and the other cities of Galatia. That could have affected his eyesight as well as his overall health. But it did not deter Paul from doing the work that was before him.
In addition to Paul’s poor health, Paul and Barnabas had to endure many perils and hardships because of their preaching activities in the region. That could have been why their young travelling companion, John Mark, had left them and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). One of the dangers associated with preaching during that time was mob violence, and it threatened to erupt in Iconium, the town that Paul and Barnabas visited just before going to Lystra.
There was a plot in Iconium by the opponents of the Gospel to humiliate and kill Paul and Barnabas. The two learned of it and fled:
And as a violent attempt was made, both by the GENTILES and Jews, with their RULERS, to wantonly disgrace and stone them, knowing it, they fled to the CITIES of LYCAONIA, Lystra and Derbe, and the SURROUNDING COUNTRY; and there they proclaimed glad tidings” (Acts 14:5-7, Emphatic Diaglott).
Lystra, which was about 18 miles away, was the next town they visited. It was joined to Iconium by a military road.
Paul’s preaching in Lystra bore fruit. 2 Timothy 1:5 indicates that Timothy’s grandmother was the first member of his family to be converted. That verse states that “the unfeigned faith” dwelt “first” in her. Given Timothy’s close relationship with her and his love of the Word, it is reasonable to assume that he would have quickly shown interest in Paul’s message. Since Timothy suffered from ill health, he might have been particularly intrigued by Paul, who even though he was sick, was still filled with great inner strength, energy, and determination.
Many years later, Paul reminded Timothy of the events that occurred in Lystra and the surrounding cities during his first missionary journey. That suggests that Timothy knew Paul during this period, and it indicates that he was among the early converts in Lystra:
“But thou hast fully known my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, charity, patience, Persecutions, afflictions, which came unto me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra; what persecutions I endured: but out of them all the Lord delivered me” (2Tim 3:10-11).
It was not long after meeting Paul that Timothy witnessed the dangers that could come with the work of spreading the Gospel. Acts 14:8-9 records that there was a crippled man in Lystra who Paul perceived had faith to be healed. The Apostle cried with a loud voice for him to stand, which he did (Acts 14:10). The people of Lystra were astounded when they saw the man walking and leaping. They began to cry out that the gods had visited the city in human form: “And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men” (Acts 14:11).
The people called Barnabas “Zeus” and Paul “Hermes” (Acts 14:12). Their reaction harmonizes with historical evidence. Archeological discoveries indicate that the joint worship of Zeus and Hermes was common in the area, and there were local legends about those two gods appearing to people in human form. The shouts from the people about them being gods were in Lycaonian, which Paul and Barnabas evidently did not understand or they would have stopped the people
Paul and Barnabas realized that something was amiss when the priest of Zeus came with oxen that he intended to sacrifice to them (Acts 14:13). They rent their clothes to get the people’s attention and to express their objection to what was about to occur (Acts 14:14). They tried to reason with the people about the nature and character of God and to demonstrate that, as people, they were no different from them. Their arguments scarcely restrained the people of Lystra from sacrificing to them (Acts 14:19).
The people of Lystra were either extremely embarrassed or very disappointed in Paul and Barnabas because they quickly turned on them. Jews from the nearby cities of Pisidian Antioch and Iconium arrived, and they persuaded the people of Lystra to stone Paul. Thinking that they had killed him, the people of Lystra dragged Paul’s limp body out of the city: “But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead” (Acts 14:19, ESV).
The disciples in Lystra, which probably included Timothy and his family, were very courageous following the attack on Paul. Unafraid and unashamed to be identified with him, they gathered around his body outside of the city (Acts 14:20). Then an incredible event occurred. Paul rose up, and he returned to the city.
Paul quickly resumed his work. The next day he set off to preach in the city of Derbe: “Howbeit, as the disciples stood round about him, he rose up, and came into the city: and the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe” (Acts 14:20).
Seeing Paul respond as he did must have had a tremendous impact on young Timothy. The boldness and strength coming from Paul’s sick and battered frame must have been so moving and encouraging to him as he considered his own physical limitations. We can imagine Timothy yearning to learn more from Paul and wanting to follow in his footsteps.
Timothy and the rest of the new disciples in Lystra probably marveled at what Paul did next. Having traveled to Derbe, Paul had moved in the direction of Tarsus, his hometown. Given his condition and his recent experiences, it would have been natural for Paul to continue in the direction of his hometown and then on to Syrian Antioch where he could conclude his journey, rest, and recover. But Paul consistently put the work of the Truth and the needs of his brothers and sisters above himself. Instead of moving towards his home after his time in Derbe, he moved away from it. He reversed course. He returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch — with all of their dangers — in order to strengthen and encourage the new disciples there:
“And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:21-22).
What an amazing role model he was to Timothy!
As Paul stood before the Galatian disciples, they would see in the wounds that he bore from his stoning at Lystra, an illustration of his teaching that “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.” He later made reference to those injuries in his Epistle to the Galatians: “From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus” (Gal 6:17).
While he was in Lystra and the other cities in the area, Paul organized the ecclesias and prepared them for the next few years when he would not be with them: “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed” (Acts 14:23).
It was likely during this time that the prophecies were given that indicated Timothy’s abilities. Paul made reference to those prophecies when he wrote his first epistle to Timothy: “This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare” (1Tim 1:18).
The laying on of hands and the imparting of Spirit gifts were part of the process of ordaining elders (1Tim 5:22). It is likely, therefore, that it was during his second trip to Lystra that Paul laid his hands on Timothy. It appears that he was guided to do so by the prophecies that were given about Timothy: “Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery” (1Tim 4:14). Paul referred to laying his hands on Timothy in his second epistle to him: “Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands” (2Tim 1:6). The particular gift that Timothy received is not explicitly identified. But based on the context of the passages in which his gift is mentioned, it is reasonable to assume that he was given the gift of prophecy, which enabled him to speak “unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort” (1Cor 14:3).
Having strengthened and encouraged the new ecclesias in Galatia, Paul departed. He made his way back to Syrian Antioch. Acts 14:28 records “and there they abode long time.” He was probably there about two years.
The lives of Timothy and the other new disciples in the area would not have been easy during that period. Paul had warned them that they would experience “much tribulation” because of their beliefs. They knew from seeing him what that could mean. They were in a dangerous area. They lived among determined opponents of the Gospel who were willing to use violence against them to try to suppress Christianity. But Timothy and the members of his ecclesia also had a wonderful hope; they had been strengthened by the Holy Spirit gifts, and they had witnessed the sterling examples of Paul and Barnabas.
In the next article in the series, we will consider how Timothy spent his time during the two years that Paul was away, and the events that occurred following his return to Lystra.
Ryan Mutter (Baltimore, MD)