Jeremy Sarber

Learning from Paul to make disciples

Sadly, we often avoid talking to others about Christ. Fear or awkwardness overcomes us. A lack of confidence whispers in our ear, You’re not qualified.” Maybe we presume the people in our life wouldn’t be interested, so why bother? God forbid we ever think, Making disciples isn’t my responsibility. Or perhaps we’ve tried in the past, but we never experienced anything resembling success.

We would likely be surprised if only we could see the impact of our evangelistic efforts from God’s vantage point.

Every now and then, my wife will struggle to open a jar, then pass it to me. I’ll get a firm grip, twist as hard as I can, pop the lid off, hand the jar back to her, and say, You must have loosened it for me.” While that may be the polite thing to say, it also happens to be true more times than not. I couldn’t have opened the jar without her.

Paul once described his ministry among the Corinthians this way: I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth (1Co 3:6). Though the apostle witnessed many conversions as a direct result of his preaching, he also understood that individual Christians do not work in a vacuum. God designed the body of Christ to grow as each part fulfills its particular function (Eph 4:12, 16). One member of the body may plant while another waters. Furthermore, neither the planter nor the waterer may see the fruit which God eventually produces. As far as they’re concerned, they accomplished little to nothing.

Timothy, however, is an example of what a single seed from just one person can produce when God gives the growth (1Ti 1:2; 1Co 3:6).

Paul preaches in Timothy’s hometown

Paul visited the region of Galatia on his first missionary journey. Specifically, he stopped in the city of Lystra after unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles in Iconium, poisoning their minds against him, forcing him to flee (Ac 14:6, 1, 2). Paul, the former hunter of Christians, had become the hunted, but he didn’t let threats to his life stop him. Less than twenty miles away, he continued to preach the gospel in Lystra.

Unfortunately, Paul could not evade his persecutors for long. Luke tells us, 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 (Ac 14:19). They believed they had put an end to the heresy by putting an end to Paul. But with the help of his friends, Paul was on his way to Derbe the very next day (Ac 14:20). And when they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra (Ac 14:21).

Circling back, Paul revisited the cities of Galatia, starting with Lystra. When he arrived this time, however, he discovered something other than rampant idolatry among the Gentiles and cold rejection from the Jews. He found Christians. The gospel had taken root in that place despite its fierce opposition. Paul no longer needed to call upon them to believe and repent. Instead, he was able to spend his second visit strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith (Ac 14:22). The church, though still in its infancy, was alive in Lystra.

Meanwhile, somewhere in that city was a young man by the name of Timothy (1Ti 1:2). Perhaps he heard Paul preach the gospel (Ac 14:7). Maybe he witnessed Paul heal the man who had been crippled from birth (Ac 14:8). He may have watched as some of the men attempted to worship Paul, believing him to be one of their false gods. Perhaps he listened as Paul implored those same men to turn from vain things to a living God (Ac 14:15). Maybe he stood close when the Jews stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city (Ac 14:19). We can’t know the specifics, but Timothy was in that place, and Paul’s impact on him would soon be evident.

Paul’s success in Lystra

After returning to his home base in Antioch of Syria and taking a brief excursion to Jerusalem, Paul returned to Lystra on his second missionary journey (Ac 16:1). When he arrived, he met Timothy, a disciple of Christ who was was well spoken of by his brothers in the church (Ac 16:2). Paul was so impressed by this young man that he invited Timothy to join him on the road, and as they say, the rest is history. Timothy became a vital part of the apostolic church and ministry from that day forward, traveling with Paul until Paul’s death, leaving the apostle’s side only when his pastoral oversight was needed elsewhere.

Paul preached in an obscure city of Galatia. The people responded with idolatrous worship. Then, they attempted to stone him to death. What do you suppose he felt as he limped away from that first visit to Lystra? If I were in his shoes, I would have considered myself a failure. What good did I accomplish? I stirred up the city and got their attention, but was anyone saved? Did my efforts move anyone closer to Christ?All appearances would say no. I nearly killed myself for nothing.

Appearances can, of course, be deceiving. Paul returned to find a body of believers. He, then, came a third time to find even more believers, including Timothy who is one of only two people in Scripture Paul refers to as my true child in the faith (1Ti 1:2). (Titus is the other.)

One sows and another reaps

Chances are, Paul’s ministry in Lystra indirectly led to Timothy’s conversion. When Paul writes his second letter to Timothy, he remarks, I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well (2Ti 1:5). If anyone in the family was directly influenced by his preaching, it was Timothy’s mother and grandmother, not Timothy himself.

Even so, Paul claims Timothy as his true child in the faith, his genuine, albeit spiritual son (1Ti 1:2). While Paul may be thinking about their mentor-protege relationship within the ministry, perhaps he has even more in mind. After all, Timothy’s sincere faith is a byproduct of Paul’s evangelism (2Ti 1:5). No matter how many times the stone skipped across the water before reaching Timothy, Paul knows he tossed that stone. He cherishes the thought of God using him as an instrument to save this young man and, consequently, thinks of Timothy as his own child.

Keep in mind, Paul didn’t know his efforts would start a chain reaction that would eventually transform Timothy’s life. He didn’t even know Timothy existed until he came to Lystra a third time. We may assume our own attempts at evangelism are vain because we’ve not seen any evidence to the contrary, but please do not undermine the power and providence of God.

One sows and another reaps, and you may not be reaping, but you are likely sowing valuable seeds which God causes to grow according to his perfect timing (Jn 4:37). He may use a multitude of his ambassadors to reconcile one sinner to himself (2Co 5:20). Maybe you planted, but someone else must first water. Or maybe the growth God gives springs up from a place you never anticipated.

Our spiritual influence

If you are a Christian, think back over your life. Focus on those people who played even a small role in driving you closer to Christ. Did they know how vital they were to you? In most cases, probably not. They passed you a book, read you a Bible passage, or spoke a few words in passing, but they couldn’t know the impact they would have on you. As I consider the people whom God used in my past, I realize some of them don’t know what wonderful things they did for me because I never told them.

You are not the apostle Paul, and neither am I, but the same God calls us to preach the same gospel to the same lost world. And whether the evidence becomes tangible to us or not, our influence reaches further than we probably know.

Undoubtedly, Paul and Timothy shared a special relationship. Most of it grew out of their time traveling and ministering together which offers its own lessons. Our responsibility to unbelievers doesn’t end when they become believers. We continue to disciple one another within the church, and the bonds between us grow stronger and stronger as the years pass. As a pastor, I have more than a few true children in the faith whom I have raised up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (1Ti 1:2; Eph 6:4). I can’t begin to express how deeply I love them.

Until Christ returns, the urgency of our ministry both outside and inside the church will not diminish. In fact, it only increases, for salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light (Ro 13:11-12). Let us also encourage others to do the same.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord (1Ti 1:3).