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The Priority of Mentoring

The Priority of Mentoring

Paul planted churches and preached the gospel worldwide—but perhaps the most important thing he did was mentor men like Timothy and Titus. Following Paul’s martyrdom, these men would be able to continue his ministry. Just like Jesus had a group of followers—the Twelve—so Paul had the “Pauline circle”—men like Luke, Mark, Barnabas, Silas, … and Timothy and Titus.

Also, consider this: Paul mentored two of the four evangelists! In addition, Luke also wrote the book of Acts, the history of the mission of the early church. Either directly or indirectly, Paul had a hand in writing sixteen of the twenty-seven New Testament documents! That’s 60% or almost two-thirds of the New Testament!

Paul, Timothy & Titus

Paul was called by the risen Christ on the road to Damascus to be an apostle, messenger, representative, and ambassador (Acts 9). Being a messenger means being under authority, representing one’s sender. The faithful ministry of a divinely sent messenger is seen supremely in Jesus the Son sent by the Father.

Timothy and Titus were Paul’s true “sons in the faith” (1 Tim 1:2; Titus 1:4). This doesn’t necessarily mean Paul led them to the Lord (though some think he did). It does mean, however, that Paul was like a spiritual father to them. He took a special interest in them, cared for them as individuals, and took them under his wings and trained them for effective ministry.

Leaving a Legacy: Making It Stick

Many of us are in a stage of life where we’re thinking about leaving a legacy. That’s the stage Paul was in as well when he wrote his letters to Timothy and Titus. Most likely, he was in his early sixties and had only a few more years to live. So, mentoring was not merely a luxury for Paul, or simply a function of practicing delegation so Paul didn’t have to do all the work himself; it was both forward-looking and proactive, and vital for leaving a permanent impact for Christ.

What were some of the reasons why Paul needed to train trusted associates to carry his mission forward? First, imprisonments temporarily sidelined Paul, or at least restricted his ability to travel. Second, he was plagued by various ailments, such as possible poor eyesight (cf. Gal 6:11), and other afflictions, most notably his mysterious “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:6–9). Third, he was advancing in age and would soon be facing martyrdom (2 Tim 4:6–8).

Backdrop: Chronological Timeline

In discussing Timothy’s and Titus’s assignments, it’ll be helpful to be aware of the following timeline that can serve as a backdrop for understanding the part they played in the early church’s mission. (For these dates, see the timeline in my book Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, pp. 109–10.)

48/49 Paul writes Galatians; Jerusalem Council is convened; Paul recruits Timothy, takes him on 2nd missionary journey (Galatians; Acts 15–16)
51-54 Paul plants the church in Ephesus; farewell to Ephesian elders (Acts 19–20)
55-60 Paul is arrested in Jerusalem; first Roman imprisonment, writes Prison Epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, Philippians)
60 Release from first Roman imprisonment (following Acts 28)
60-66 Further ministry: Paul writes 1 Timothy from Macedonia and Titus from an unknown location
66/67 Second Roman imprisonment: Paul writes 2 Timothy from Rome, is beheaded by the sword under Roman emperor Nero

OK, then, let’s look for a moment at the kinds of assignments Timothy and Titus were given.

Timothy’s Assignment

In Timothy’s case, he was sent to an established church, the church at Ephesus. What do we know about that church from other writings in the New Testament? We know that Paul planted the church in Acts 19, and that he spent three years establishing the church and equipping the leadership (see the farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20). Later, Paul wrote Ephesians to that church (a circular letter; few names or circumstances given). Later still, Paul wrote 1 Timothy to Timothy who was in Ephesus. Finally, Ephesus is one of the seven churches in Revelation 2–3.

What was Timothy’s assignment as Paul’s apostolic delegate (note that Timothy and Titus were not resident pastors but apostolic delegates, assigned to a specific location on a temporary basis)? At the outset, Timothy is told to confront false teachers (1 Tim 1:3–4; cf. 6:3). Later, we read that Timothy is to confront—and, if needed, remove—sinning elders (5:17–25). It’s entirely possible that Paul’s prediction to the Ephesian elders a few years earlier had come true that “even from your midst wolves will arise, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20). Do you think Timothy’s was an easy assignment? No; but Paul was confident that he was up to the challenge. Why? Because he had taken him under his wings and trained him for the better part of fifteen years.

Let’s get a little more background on how Paul trained Timothy. They first met in Lystra (Acts 16:1–2). First Timothy was written approximately fifteen years after their first meeting, from Macedonia, with Timothy being in Ephesus. Paul speaks of Timothy’s relative youth (1 Tim 4:12), meaning Timothy was most likely in his late thirties or early forties and Paul in his early sixties. Later, Paul wrote 2 Timothy from a Roman prison, with Timothy still in Ephesus.

Titus’s Assignment

But what about Titus? On the face of it, Titus had the easier assignment. Rather than confront sinning elders and false teachers, Titus’s task was to appoint first-time elders “in every city” on the island of Crete (Titus 1:5). Nevertheless, Titus met with certain challenges as well. First, Cretan culture was immoral (1:12–13): Where would he find godly men and women who could mentor young believers in the faith? Second, Crete was known for its many cities ever since Homer; when Paul told him to appoint elders “in every city,” this may have meant establishing leaders in over twenty cities! Third, the island was mountainous and didn’t have a good road system, so there were probably logistical challenges as well.

Titus was a Gentile (Gal 2:1–3; written in ca. AD 48). He was used by Paul as “Exhibit A” that Gentiles need not be circumcised. Intriguingly, Titus isn’t mentioned in Acts. However, Paul refers to him repeatedly in 2 Corinthians (written in the mid-50s AD). In Corinth, Titus was faced with a sticky situation—church discipline was needed, Paul had sent a strongly worded letter, and decided to dispatch Titus rather than going to Corinth himself. Then, Paul anxiously awaited Titus’s report, which was favorable. Titus was also involved in the collection for the church in Jerusalem. The present letter finds him on the island of Crete. Later, when Paul writes 2 Timothy, we learn that Titus is now in Dalmatia (modern-day Croatia)!

Conclusion: The Priority of Mentoring

Paul placed a priority on mentoring. For him, mentoring didn’t just happen; it was something he intentionally pursued over several decades. Consider the template given by Paul in 2 Tim 2:2: “And the things you’ve heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” You’ve heard it said before that in this verse we find four levels of mentoring: (1) Paul the apostle; (2) Timothy his apostolic delegate; (3) faithful men taught by Timothy; and (4) those mentored by the faithful men Timothy taught! Where do you and I fit in this continuum. Who is mentoring you? Whom are you mentoring?

A second key verse on Paul’s intentional pursuit and practice of mentoring is the following. Addressing Timothy, Paul writes, “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecution, sufferings …” (2 Tim 3:10). We can see in this passage that mentoring calls for transparency, life-on-life intentional mentoring over time. For my part, I love taking my sons on errands on Saturday mornings. I also enjoy, and am committed to, mentoring my students in the areas of writing, editing, and even growth in character and maintaining a proper balance between family and work (see Excellence).

Like Jesus, and like Paul, you and I should place a priority on mentoring. But mentoring will be effective only if we are equally committed to a second important priority: the importance of virtue. On this, see my second, related post “The Importance of Virtue.”

Note: I originally gave this talk (and the second related post) at a men’s Saturday morning Bible Study at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC. Both posts are edited slightly and based on my book Commentary on 1-2 Timothy & Titus (BTCP; Nashville: B&H Academic, 2017).


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