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God’s help to Lystra

Paul went to Lystra, Timothy’s hometown, during his first missionary journey. As he prepared to leave, Paul told the members of Timothy’s ecclesia: “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

Paul’s message is quite different from the “prosperity gospel” preached in many churches today. That teaching about Christianity as a path to worldly success and enjoyment is in direct contrast to the experience of many first-century believers, as well as the Bible’s clear instruction about the necessity of trials for refining our characters. The Gospel is not intended to be a vehicle to make us financially prosperous or to fill our lives with ease. Its aim is to mold us into people who please God, which often requires the experience of trial. James writes: “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations;Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing” (James 1:2-4).

As the believers in Lystra listened to Paul speak about tribulation, they could see in the wounds on his battered frame an illustration of what he was talking about. He was not speaking to them about abstractions. His injuries were evidence of tribulation he had experienced (Gal 6:17).

Paul’s injuries had come from the people living in the same town as those in the ecclesia. They had stoned him and dragged his body out of the city. Some in the meeting probably feared that something similar might happen to them or those they loved.

Paul spoke about tribulation in the nearby ecclesia at Iconium as well. The believers
there, like those in Lystra, were new to the Truth, and they too lived among violent opponents of the Gospel. After his visits to the ecclesias in Lystra and Iconium, Paul left and was away from them for about two years. That was the period between his first and second missionary journeys.

While Paul was away, God provided help to the new ecclesias in Lystra and Iconium. Given their circumstances, they would have benefited from comfort, exhortation, and encouragement to remain steadfast in the faith during the early years following their conversion. The first few verses of Acts 16 identify one of the forms the help took.

Before examining those verses, it is worth taking a moment to think about the forms the help did not take. With such determined opposition facing them, God could have sent the ecclesias in Lystra and Iconium a skilled orator, like Apollos, who could “mightily convince” their opponents in public. Or God could have sent them someone who worked “special miracles” or a powerful, physically imposing man, like a converted former centurion, to calm their hearts. But there is no record of that happening.

God helped the believers in Lystra and Iconium. But the help came in a form that was probably somewhat unexpected. It came by way of a frail, shy young man who was probably just out of his teens. Corinthians says: “But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1Cor 1:27). Those words were certainly applicable in Lystra and Iconium where help to the young ecclesias came from Timothy.

God has promised that He will help us, and He will. But the help He provides may not always come in a way we expect. There is no record of the embattled ecclesias in Lystra and Iconium getting help from someone who exuded natural strength or leadership. But those ecclesias still embraced the help God gave them. They were not like the children of Israel in the Wilderness, who so often despised and rejected the help God offered.

It is important for us to recognize, accept, and appreciate God’s help when it comes. It may sometimes come in an unexpected form. But God’s help will always come in the right form. God is far wiser than we are, so the help He provides will always be exactly what we need — and come when we need it — to bring us through our trials.

Paul returned to Lystra and Iconium at the beginning of the second missionary journey after having been away for about two years.1 He made Lystra and Iconium early stops on his second missionary journey. That may have been because he was particularly anxious to know how the believers there had fared during his absence with so many challenges confronting them.2

When Paul arrived in Lystra, he found faithful brothers and sisters. One member of the ecclesia stood out in particular: “Then came he to Derbe and Lystra: and, behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timotheus, the son of a certain woman, which was a Jewess, and believed; but his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:1).

Timothy in Lystra

“Behold” is not a word that is used casually in the Bible. It is frequently used in the context of remarkable occurrences. For example, in Acts, it is used in the account of Christ’s ascension:

“And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven (Acts 1:10-11).

“Behold” is used when Stephen witnesses Christ standing at God’s right hand before he was stoned:

“But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55-56).

It is also used when Ananias was instructed to go preach to Saul, the former persecutor, after he had been blinded on the road to Damascus: “And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth” (Acts 9:11).

The word “behold” is used when Timothy is mentioned in Acts 16:1 to highlight that there was something remarkable about him.3 What stood out about him is identified in the next verse: “Which was well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium” (Acts 16:2).

Acts 16:2 reveals that Timothy had made excellent use of the time Paul was away. The members of the ecclesia in Lystra spoke well of him. Timothy had also been an encouragement to the believers in the nearby city of Iconium. The fact that he was “well reported of” by the brethren there indicates they knew Timothy well. He must have travelled to Iconium often.4

There are several aspects of Timothy’s service during the years that Paul was away that are worth highlighting.

First, Timothy had evidently not made excuses and allowed them to impede his service to God and his brothers and sisters. He could have claimed his poor health, his youth and lack of experience, and/or the dangers associated with the work kept him from laboring in the Truth. But he did not. Timothy would have been familiar with the Bible’s warnings against excuse-making (e.g., Prov 22:13). It seems Timothy was not looking for excuses; he was looking for opportunities to serve.

Second, although Timothy struggled with poor health, he still managed to travel the 18 miles back and forth between Lystra and Iconium. What he lacked in physical health, he made up for with determination to serve God.

Third, the work Timothy did was extremely dangerous and required a great deal of courage. Think of the number of times he must have passed the spot where Paul was stoned. The fact that the Apostle had been assaulted in his city did not deter him. Instead, he chose to carry on Paul’s work. The courage that Timothy showed could not have been based on confidence in himself. He really had no grounds for self-confidence. Instead, the courage he displayed must have been based on his confidence in Christ and the strength he provides.

When we are doing something in service to our Lord that we find challenging and we fear we are not up to the task, we can encourage ourselves by remembering it is not our feeble strength we need to rely on. It is through Christ who strengthens us that we “can do all things” (Phil 4:13).

Fourth, in journeying to a dangerous place, like Iconium, to help an ecclesia in need, Timothy was following the example of the Apostle Paul. Timothy had seen Paul visit ecclesias in perilous places for the purpose of strengthening and encouraging them, and he would have known from his own experience — when Paul returned to Lystra after he had been stoned there — how helpful such visits could be. Let this be a reminder to us of the importance of setting a good example for others to follow. It can have a tremendous impact.

In our next article in the series, we will consider the change in Timothy’s life that occurred following Paul’s return to Lystra.

Ryan Mutter (Baltimore, MD)

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