Is Timothy as Young as you Think?
Timothy could be called the patron saint of youths. Christian teachers and preachers point to him as the role model all young Christians should follow. This is good. Timothy certainly was one of Paul’s top disciples. Paul thought of Timothy as young.
But how old was Timothy?
Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.- 1 Timothy 4:12
We need to start here. Pastors quote this verse when they hold up Timothy as the example for young people to emulate. Paul calls him youthful. The New King James Version says it this way, “Let no one despise your youth.” We get the idea: Timothy is young.
In 2 Timothy 2, Paul mentions Timothy’s mother and grandmother, bringing to mind the image of Timothy as a son and grandson. More than that, Paul calls him his beloved and faithful son in the Lord (1 Corinthians 4:17), my true child in faith (1 Timothy 1:2) and my beloved child (2 Timothy 1:2). Paul also describes him “like a child serving his father” (Philippians 2:22). Timothy is addressed as a child and a son so often, it should be obvious that he is a youth.
Actually, Timothy isn’t as young as you think.
Determining Timothy’s Age
Paul’s first letter to Timothy was written between 63 and 65 AD. This is near the end of Paul’s ministry. Paul will be executed around 67 AD. Yet, we know that Timothy first met Paul all the way back during his First Missionary Journey, which took place between 46 and 48 AD.
Timothy, who was from Lystra, heard Paul and Barnabas teach and saw the miracles they performed the first time they came into town. He saw Paul being stoned and left for dead. He also saw him miraculously get up and continue on to Derbe (Acts 14:8-20).
When Paul went on his Second Missionary Journey between 49 and 52 AD, he returned to Lystra and took Timothy with him (Acts 16:1-3). Hence, even if Timothy was a teenager during Paul’s First Missionary Journey in 48 AD, by the time of Paul’s first letter to Timothy, at least 15 years have passed.
Timothy is probably around 30 years old when 1 Timothy was written.
Timothy was actually Mature
Timothy is one of Paul’s most dependable co-workers. He assists in the planting of the churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea (Acts 16:1-17:14). He and Silas are left in Berea to help establish the church without Paul (Acts 17:13-15). Timothy was sent to the Thessalonians to strengthen them (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2) and to the Philippians to encourage them (Philippians 2:19).
All of these things occur before Paul writes 1 Timothy.
Around 60 AD, Paul pens the letter to the Philippians. In it, Paul writes about Timothy:
But I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, so that I also may be encouraged when I learn of your condition. For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus. But you know of his proven worth, that he served with me in the furtherance of the gospel like a child serving his father. – Philippians 2:19-22
Paul sees Timothy as one above all others because he seeks after the interests of Christ rather than his own. He recognizes Timothy as an encourager. Paul is using Timothy as an example of humility here. Earlier, Paul puts Timothy on the same level as himself when he writes, “Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 1:1).
Philippians is written around 10 years after Paul first took Timothy with him. During those 10 years, Timothy has witnessed Paul’s example. He has heard Paul’s teaching. He has travelled throughout Asia and Greece with Paul. He has had individual discipleship and private tutoring from Paul.
To use an illustration, imagine a seminary student having the best professor for class. Not only that, but the professor takes this student under his wing, makes him his personal companion, and for 10 years travels, teaches and explains all he knows. In 10 years, that person is not a young student anymore. He is a mature adult with a pedigree that surpasses everyone but his mentor’s.
How much more is this true about Timothy!
So why does Paul Think of Timothy as young?
It certainly was not because he was a child. Nor was he immature in the faith. First, it is not strange for an older person to label someone younger than himself a “youth.” To a 70 year old, a man of 50 is considered a youth. More significantly, during that time, it was understood that a youth could be up to 40 years old (Irenaeus, Book II Chapter 22 Section 5 (II.22.5), “Against Heresies”).
Hence, although Paul would have considered Timothy as young, we have clarified that Timothy was a man around 30 years old and not a “youth” as we understand it. So now the real question we ought to ask is why Paul wrote 1 Timothy. It was not to train an immature disciple.
Many assume Timothy to be young or immature due to some of the things Paul instructs in his letter. John Rutherfurd writes about this in his entry on Timothy in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:
Various defects have been alleged to exist in Timothy’s character. These defects are inferred from the directions and instructions addressed to him by Paul in the Pastoral Epistles, but these inferences may be wrong, and it is a mistake to exaggerate them…
The Purpose of 1 Timothy
So then, we ask again, why does Paul write 1 Timothy? It was to lay out the objectives for Timothy’s stay at Ephesus.
He was to remain there and make sure that certain teachers there were teaching correctly (1 Timothy 1), ensure that the gospel was resulting in proper behavior (1 Timothy 2), and set and establish the best system of church leadership (1 Timothy 3).
For over a decade, Paul and his co-workers have been planting churches throughout Asia Minor and Europe. They have learned as time has passed the best way for churches to succeed. 1 Timothy is written to Timothy who is acting on Paul’s behalf, in his stead. It reminds Timothy what they have learned and prioritizes his objectives while in Ephesus.
Timothy as an Example
Certainly, Timothy should be used as an example. We return to 1 Timothy 4:12:
Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.
Paul tells Timothy to set himself as an example. He also lays out what that example looks like. However, this model is not simply for youths. Timothy is not a youth as we understand it. He is a man who has a tremendous amount of experience and has learned under the one of the greatest teachers. We misuse and under-apply Timothy’s example when we hold it up for youths.
Even the most mature of Christians should be striving to emulate Timothy. I suspect even the greatest of us can learn from his life. From Foxes Book of Martyrs:
Timothy was the celebrated disciple of St. Paul, and bishop of Ephesus, where he zealously governed the Church until A.D. 97. At this period, as the pagans were about to celebrate a feast called Catagogion, Timothy, meeting the procession, severely reproved them for their ridiculous idolatry, which so exasperated the people that they fell upon him with their clubs, and beat him in so dreadful a manner that he expired of the bruises two days later. – Chapter 2, Second Persecution