They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Timothy, The Unlikely Disciple

One of the central figures of the New Testament story is Paul’s adopted son in the faith, Timothy. Two books of the New Testament canon were written by Paul to Timothy (1 & 2 Timothy) and he is mentioned in almost every other Pauline letter in some capacity. He is Paul’s most faithful companion and follows him all over Asia Minor, Greece, and even to Rome itself. Who is this young man who Paul called, “my true son in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:1) and “my dear son” (2 Timothy 1:1)? What do we know about him and what more can we learn by searching the scriptures and doing some historical research? In our first lesson, let’s look at Timothy’s hometown and his family background.

Although we do not officially meet Timothy until the start of Paul’s second missionary journey in Acts 16, Paul and Barnabas visit Timothy’s hometown of Lystra on their first trip to Galatia in Acts 14. Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for Greek gods there (see “The Gods are Back”) and then later Paul was stoned and drug out of town and left for dead by an angry mob. Timothy would have certainly been present at these events and aware of this visit from these odd strangers in his hometown. A bit of background of the hometown environment that Timothy would have grown up in is very helpful in understanding what kind of person Timothy might have been. Lystra was a backwater town in the district of Lycaonia; essentially the middle of nowhere in Roman times. The word, ”Lycaonia” means ”wolf land” and gives an idea of the area’s remoteness. There were no main Roman roads in the area and it was basically out-of-your-way-to-anywhere in the province of Galatia. It was twenty miles on foot to the next decent sized town of Iconium (Acts 14:1-7). The people there were so “back woods” that they had never even adopted the universal Greek language as their common tongue. They still spoke their native Lycaonian dialect (Acts 14:11). In addition to the Lycaonians, from what we can tell from Scripture and other sources, the town also had a few retired Roman soldiers living there as well as a small Jewish population. In conclusion, Timothy would definitely have more been more comfortable in a rural setting than in the big city.

In Acts 15:36, some two years after their first visit to Lystra, Paul suggests to Barnabas that they go back and check on the towns and people that they witnessed to on their first missionary trip. Paul, this time along with Silas, goes to Timothy’s home town at the beginning of his second missionary journey. We first meet Timothy by name in Acts 16:1-3, when, after arriving back in Lystra, the Text says that Paul wanted to take Timothy along on the missionary journey with them. As stated previously, Timothy was almost certainly present when Paul had come through two years earlier. He had witnessed the, “The Gods are Back” fiasco and had seen Paul stoned and left for dead and then get up and come back into his city again (Acts 14: 19-20). Most scholars think that he was probably 10-12 years old when Paul came through the first time and a young teenager when he came back two years later. It is only conjecture, but it is certainly probable that Paul had seen Timothy earlier and had his eye on this young man and his possibilities in the faith. What did Paul see? What was Timothy’s family like? What made him a candidate to be a disciple and Paul’s closest companion?

From Acts 16:1 we learn that Timothy had a strong Jewish background on his mother’s side. The text said that his mother was a “Jewess” and a “believer”. The word, “believer” means not only a follower of the Jewish God, YHVH, but also in his son, Yeshua. We can only assume that she became a believer in Messiah Jesus through the teaching of Paul and Barnabas – as that would have most likely been the first time that they would have heard the gospel story. We learn Timothy’s grandmother and mother’s name in 2 Timothy 1:5, Lois and Eunice. Although we do not know Timothy’s father’s name, we also learn in Acts 16:1 that his father was a “Greek”. The fact that the Bible says that he was a Greek and no faith was mentioned suggests that he was not a follower of YHVH or a believer in Messiah Jesus. As a twenty-first century reader, we don’t think anything of this “mixed marriage” between Timothy’s Jewish mother and his Greek father. But, as we will see in our next lesson, this fact is very significant and carried tremendous consequences for young Timothy.

From Saul To Paul

The Conversion of Sergius Paulus

Perhaps no one in in the Bible was more like Christ than Saul of Tarsus. We first meet Saul in Acts 7:58, at the stoning of Stephen and then learn of his conversion experience on the road to Damascus in Acts Chapter 9. Most Christians have assumed that God changed Saul’s name to Paul at his conversion experience to signify his new faith in the Messiah Jesus. Now that he is a changed man, God switched the “S” to a “P” to give him a new name and signify that change. But, is this really the case? Did God change Saul’s name? Did he leave the Damascus Road using his new, ”Christian” name? A careful look at the Text will give some revealing insights into this interesting subject.

First of all, when do we find evidence in Scripture of the name change? Was it right after the Damascus Road experience? Actually, there is no mention of it until four chapters later in Acts Chapter 13, on Paul’s first Missionary Journey. Acts 13:9 says, “then Saul, who was also called Paul…”. This is the first mention of the name Paul in Acts and most scholar’s time-line date his first missionary journey approximately fourteen years after his conversion experience in Chapter 9!

Did God change Saul’s name to Paul and was this change done to minimize his Jewishness and emphasize his Christianity? Again, Scripture gives no indication that this is correct. In fact, it appears as if it was not a change of name at all, but another name that Paul also went by (Saul who was also called Paul; see above verse). Saul was a devout and observant Jew and remained one all his life (e.g Acts 17:2, Acts 18:18, Acts 20:1, and Acts 28:17 just to name a few). He was very proud of his Jewish name and the heritage it represented (Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin, the same tribe as Israel’s first king, also called Saul). He would have never wanted to change his name and renounce his Jewishness.

In English, it looks like Saul just switched an “S” for a “P” in order to have a different name. But, in Hebrew, his name was Sha’ul, and Paul is the English word for the Roman (Latin) name, “Paulus”. To go from Sha’ul to Paulus isn’t quite as catchy and takes away the Saul to Paul rhyme that we find in an English translation. It is also possible that Sha’ul had been given the Roman name Paulus early in life. Paulus in Latin means, “little”. Sha’ul grew up in a very Greek and Roman city, Tarsus, so he may have been called Paulus by his Hellenistic friends.

Sha’ul decided to start using his Roman name, Paulus only after going to the Gentiles and having an encounter with the Roman proconsul of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus (one of the top officials in all the Roman Empire). It is no coincidence that Sha’ul took the last name (Paulus) of the prominent man who was his first convert. By using the Roman name Paulus, possibly even at the suggestion of Sergius Paulus, Sha’ul now had easier access to the Romans he was trying to tell the good new of Jesus to. We know from the study of Acts that Paul spends the rest of his life trying to go to Rome to preach the gospel – often to the highest Roman authorities. The name Paulus undoubtedly helped him to gain access to Roman circles.

Whatever the case was, it certainly doesn’t appear from Scripture that Saul’s name was changed to Paul by God. It is likely that Paul changed or started using the Roman name of Paulus in order to be a more effective witness to the Roman world he was trying to reach. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:20-23 sum it up well, “To the Jews, I became like a Jew, to win the Jews… to those not having the law, I became like one not having the law, so as to win those not having the law…. I have become all things to all men, so that by all means I might save some.”

A Call to the Jews and Gentiles

Click the image for more information on Omrit

One of the most interesting places we visited on our trip to Israel was a recent archaeological excavation near the town of Omrit, in the northernmost part of Israel. Newly discovered ruins there have placed this as the location where the main traveled road through Israel turned northeast out of the Jordan River Valley towards Damascus. Archaeologists had never known the exact location of the Damascus Road that Saul was on when he was met and blinded by the Lord Jesus. An ornate temple complex to Caesar Augustus and elaborate colonnaded streets and shops confirm that this was the “doorway” into Israel from the North. This find made for an exciting visit for the New Testament believer because you could imagine this as a place that Saul came by on his way to persecute Christians in Damascus. Just a few miles north and east of here he was blinded by a light and heard the audible voice of Jesus speaking to him. This is one of the seminal events in Christianity and Saul’s life was completely changed by this miraculous encounter. Sitting in the temple ruins, near the paved street running to the northeast, we read Acts Chapter 9 out loud and heard the story of God calling Saul to be His chosen instrument to get his message out to both Jews and Gentiles.

There is a tendency to think of Saul’s Damascus Road experience as a unique and isolated event that God put in motion. However, if you look at the experiences of almost all the prophets in the Old Testament you will see some remarkable similarities. Because Saul knew all these stories, he would have probably identified with what happened to them when they were being called by God. Let’s look at some of these Hebrew prophets and see what the similarities are.

  • Exodus 3 – At the burning bush, Moses saw a bright light of fire and hid his face in fear. God told Moses, ”Go, I am sending you”. Moses asked God who He was. Also, God called Moses name twice.
  • 1 Samuel 3 – God called Samuel in a vision and called his name twice (See When God Calls Your Name – Twice)
  • Isaiah 6 – God called Isaiah audibly to His ministry; there was smoke and an earthquake, and a heavenly being spoke to Isaiah and said, ”Go Tell”
  • Jeremiah 1 – God spoke directly to Jeremiah and touched his mouth. God told him not to just tell Israel, but also the Gentiles
  • Ezekiel 1-2 – This is very similar to Saul’s experience. A huge storm with lightning, wind, thunder, and a brilliant light prompted Ezekiel to fall face down, unable to speak. God appeared and spoke audibly and said, ”Go Tell”.
  • Daniel 10 – Daniel saw the Lord in all His brilliance, but the men with him did not see God. Daniel fell face down as God spoke saying, “Go Tell”.
  • Jonah – God appeared and spoke audibly to Jonah and said, “Go Tell the Gentiles”. God appeared in a violent storm and Jonah was plunged into darkness for three days because he was doing the opposite of what God wanted.

The point of this little study is that Saul, a devout student of the text (a Pharisee of Pharisees), would have been familiar with all these prophets and God’s call on their lives. When God spoke out of the heavens in an audible voice, calling his name twice, in the presence of blinding lights and shaking earth and terrified companions, Saul knew that he was being called by God to something special! Then Saul, like Jonah, was plunged into darkness for three days! Saul obediently responded just like all the others after being visited by God. He boldly went and told both Jews and Gentiles without fear of what man could do to him! God met Saul on the Damascus Road and commissioned him in a very familiar way, and Saul was equal to those great prophets of old in every way.

The Games

We don’t normally think about there being sporting events or Olympic style games during Bible times, but in fact this was the time period when the Olympics began and actually were flourishing. The Olympic Games themselves can be traced back to 776 B.C. in ancient Greece. These ancient games, which pitted Greek city-states against each other, consisted of running events, jumping, discus, javelin, boxing, wrestling, and equestrian (horse) events. The sporting aspect of the games tied closely into the Greek’s religious beliefs. There were always ritual sacrifices to Zeus and the other Greek gods that were associated with the events that took place. The games were held every four years and this time period was know as the Olympiad. Winners of the events were given a garland wreath as a crown. Well-known Olympians were immortalized in poems and statues.

The Olympic Games were still very important during the time that Jesus lived. King Herod the Great was himself an Olympian that excelled in fighting, the javelin throw, and in bow and arrow marksmanship. Herod built Olympic stadiums in Jerusalem and in Caesarea Maritima. In fact, Caesarea, Herod’s magnificent seaport city, was dedicated to Caesar Augustus in 12 B.C. by the holding of Olympic Games there.

The apostle Paul evidently enjoyed and was familiar with the Olympic Games. Many of his illustrations and examples involve running, boxing or wrestling. Consider these verses:

However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me —the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.
— Acts 20:24

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
— 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
— 2 Corinthians 4:8-9

…as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.
— Philippians 2:16

I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
— Philippians3:14

I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain.
— Galatians 2:2

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?
— Galatians 5:7

Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come
— 1 Timothy 4:7-8

Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.
— 2 Timothy 2:5

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
— 2 Timothy 4:7

In these verses Paul talks about being pressed but not pinned, knocked down, but not knocked out, fighting the fight, finishing the race, running for the prize, pressing towards the goal, and finally receiving the prize. Paul knew that these images would be familiar to his readers and he used them to describe what the pursuit of the Christian life was like.

The writer of Hebrews seems to sum up this imagery of life perfectly. The writer spends all of Chapter 11 telling about the men and women who have run the race before us, men and women who finished the race and ran it well, with patience and endurance. Then he sets up the imagery in Chapter 12:1 of a great amphitheater or coliseum, with this great crowd of people who have gone before us, cheering for us, saying, “Come on! You can do it! Hang in there! Keep working at it! Don’t quit!” This crowd is not a crowd of spectators, but inspiring examples of the people that have gone before us. The crowd is made up of our aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, and mothers and fathers who have gone before us and run the Christian life well. They are cheering us on, telling us that we can make it, also!

The Christian life is a marathon, not a short sprint. It calls for training and discipline in order not to come up short and quit or have to stop and take a break. The picture is of someone training for an Olympic event, every day, giving it all they have. Do we know anyone who is training and disciplining themselves in this way for God’s Olympics? Are we holding back, or are we training our body to make it a slave, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27? Or, are we saving some back for the finish line? Are we treating life more like a walk in the park? Are we running with perseverance the race marked out for us? Will we have to tell God that we still had some left in the tank when we crossed the finish line? Will we have to tell him that we walked or set on a bench for part of the race? Training is not that pleasant. It involves hard work and pain. You have to discipline your body so that it will perform. We are not willing to pay the price as a general rule, to run the race like it should be run.

Our forefathers are crying out to us, “Don’t Quit! Don’t give in! You can do it! Keep trying, you can go a little farther!” We must hear what the great crowd of witnesses are saying. They are encouraging us on to our own finish line. Run with passion the race marked our for you! You can do it!

When the Rabbi says, “Come” and When the Rabbi says, ”Go”

”Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men” – Matthew 4:19-20
”Go make disciples of all nations” – Matthew 28:19-20
“You will be my witnesses in Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” – Acts 1:8

Paul in Ephesus

Paul in Ephesus; Acts 19

At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus called twelve disciples to follow and learn from Him. He spent three years teaching them to be just like Him. They followed him twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and watched him do everything; from simple, mundane things, to healing sick people and even raising the dead.

When the end of this three year training period had ended and Jesus had been crucified and resurrected, His call to His disciples changed. He had finished teaching them to be like Him and now they were ready to go out on their own to spread the gospel that they had witnessed for those three years. And, they went! These eleven former trainees went literally to the ends of the earth to spread the good news about their rabbi. Jesus didn’t spread the gospel; he had his disciples do it! They went to far away, pagan cities such as Ephesus, Pergamum, Collosae, Corinth, Athens, and Rome to carry on the training that they had received from their rabbi.

One striking example, that I had never noticed before, that shows how Jesus’ followers tried to be just like their rabbi is found in the book of Acts in the 19th and 20th chapters. The story is of Paul, in the city of Ephesus, and says in verse 19:7 that Paul had about twelve disciples, and in 20:31 that he taught those disciples for about three years! That is following the outline pretty closely!

We don’t often think about why we have Christianity in America in the twenty-first century. It is because of the discipleship training model of Jesus and his disciples’ determination to follow their rabbi’s instructions down to the last jot and tittle. Those eleven men (and women) followers changed the world forever because of their training and their commitment to their rabbi and His message. We are being challenged by Jesus in the same way today. He asks us to follow Him and to go and make disciples. Are you up to the challenge?

The Royal Roads

One of the most fascinating components of the ancient Roman Empire was their unbelievably extensive road system. The Roman Empire built over 57,000 miles of paved roads throughout their conquered lands. These roads connected the Far East and Mesopotamia with Asia Minor, Egypt, Israel and ultimately Rome, itself. Names such as the “Royal Road” and the “Via Maris”which meant the “Way of the Sea”, were given to these ancient super highways.

Harbor Street, Ephesus

Harbor Street, Ephesus

These roads were as wide as our two lane highways of today and were paved with huge limestone rocks that were quarried, then shaped to fit like bricks on the road bed. As the roads came close to each city, they would get wider and they would place columns on each side of the roadway. Shops would be set up among the columns to trade and sell to the travelers coming and going on the road. The Roman engineers even laid sewer channels for the cities by placing them underneath the roadbed and then straddling the channel with large stones to conceal it and make it sturdy. Way stations were placed one days travel apart, along the main roads. These road side inns were called “caravanserai” and catered to the estimated 3 million travelers that traversed these highways on a yearly basis. All the labor was performed by Roman slaves. It has been estimated that almost half the population of the Roman Empire were slaves they had conquered and used to accomplish their building projects.

These roads were in place and being built during the time of the New Testament. You can actually walk on some of the same road beds that the apostles walked on as they went to spread the gospel in Asia Minor and other parts of the world. Cities such as Ephesus, Pergamum, Sardis, Collosae and Laodicea were on these roads and they steadily increased in size and commerce because of the traffic on the road. These cities became stopping places for the apostles as they went and spread the good news about Jesus Christ.

What is the faith lesson here? When Jesus commanded his disciples in Matthew 28:19-20 and in Acts 1:8 to ”go and make disciples out of all the nations and that he would be with them to the ends of the earth (age)”, He already had the roads in place! One hundred and seventy years before Paul, God began building a road system that would allow the disciples to reach all the known world for Christ. And, they went on those roads literally to the ends of the earth, as far as they could travel! On those main roads, God had set up a ready and accessible congregation in the bigger towns and cities that were intersected by the roads.

The apostles must have been convinced by what they saw at the resurrection and ascencion of Christ, because they fearlessly went to these pagan nations to spread the story about the Jewish Messiah. It is over 1,300 miles on foot, which is a 60 -80 day journey, to Ephesus from the Galilee. This was a huge commitment from the disciples to leave their homes and family to go to these far away places. They must have really believed their message and had a passion that is hard for us to grasp. Because of their faithful witness, we have the blessing of Christianity in America today.

What is the moral of the story?  If God is sending you to Asia Minor, He will already have the roads in place! All you have to do is be willing to walk the path that He has called you to! “Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us” Ephesian 3:20.