Was Timothy a Failure?

Here in North America we hear a lot of advice for how pastors can grow their ministries; perhaps we need to talk more about how to simply stay in ministry in the first place.

Chris Hutchison on June 9, 2022

Earlier this spring we finished a series on 2 Timothy, and I’ve been looking for a chance to post some follow-up thoughts on Timothy and his mission to Ephesus. In particular, I want to ask the question, “was Timothy a failure?”

Let’s review a brief history of the Ephesian project. Timothy and Paul first visited Ephesus on Paul’s third missionary journey (Acts 19). In fact, that whole third journey was spent mostly in Ephesus. Paul’s time there was one of the longest stays he made anywhere. After three months’ ministry in the synagogue, he set up shop in a hall where he taught daily for two whole years (Acts 19:8–10).

So thorough was his teaching that Paul was later able to say to the elders of the church, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God… for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears” (Acts 20:27, 31).

Ephesus was a major centre, and one of the largest cities in the ancient world. Through Paul’s ministry there, the entire Roman province of Asia was exposed to the gospel (Acts 19:10). Within Ephesus itself, so many people became Christians that the local idol-making industry started to crumble (Acts 19:23-27).

After all this, while Paul was in prison in Rome, he wrote a letter to the Ephesian Christians, which was preserved in Scripture as the book of Ephesians. In this time Ephesus received the ministry of Timothy (1 Timothy 1:3), a godly young man who got parts of the Bible sent to him in the mail as he was personally coached by the Apostle Paul.

And then, though it’s not in Scripture, there is evidence from church history that the Apostle John made Ephesus his headquarters for a number of years. According to two early writers, it was from Ephesus that the Gospel of John and the letters of 1-3 John were written.

Talk about a place that got the best of the best! Multiple godly pastors poured their life into the Ephesian Christians. If we could think of one church in the 1st century that should have been strong and healthy, the one in Ephesus should be it, right?

Maybe not. Ephesus does come up in the Bible one more time, and it’s in Revelation 2:

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: “The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”

Revelation 2:1–7

After so many years of faithful shepherding and godly leadership, Ephesus stood on the brink of judgement by the Lord Jesus. Perhaps 40 years after Timothy’s tenure, their very existence as a church was in question.

Did Timothy Fail?

So did Timothy fail? Was his time in Ephesus a waste?

My answer is no. And that’s because the letters of 1 & 2 Timothy were never about being successful, at least in the way we tend to think about success these days. 2 Timothy in particular gives an unflinching assessment of the kinds of hardship and opposition to be expected in church ministry. Not once is Timothy promised that if he just does a few things right, his church will grow and stay healthy long into the future.

There is a particular kind of success Timothy was to pursue, however, and that is the success of personal faithfulness. Timothy could not guarantee what would happen to his church, but he was responsible to make sure that he himself stayed faithful to the end.

But as for you, O man of God, flee these things… You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus… You, however… But as for you… As for you...” (1 Timothy 6:11, 2 Timothy 2:1, 3:10, 3:14, 4:5). Timothy’s success lay in his own faithfulness. Anything past that was up to the sovereign God.

The Nature of True Success

In this context, consider 1 Timothy 4:6: “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus.” Aren’t there some parts missing from that verse? Shouldn’t Paul have said, “If you put these things before the brothers, and if a lot of them listen to you, and if you build a big church, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus”? Nope. Timothy’s status as a “good servant” depended on his faithfulness as Jesus’ messenger, and nothing more.

Or what about 2 Timothy 4:2? “Preach the word.” Why? What’s verse 3 say? “For expository preaching is really hot these days, and if you’re a good preacher you can draw an audience and build an awesome platform for yourself.” Nope. Timothy needs to be a faithful preacher precisely because people are not going to be interested in listening to him (2 Timothy 3:3-4).

So were Paul and Timothy successful? Not by many modern standards. Their ministries were full of painful opposition, their popularity shrivelled by the year, and less than a generation after their careers ended, Jesus was threatening to turn the lights off in a church they had poured much of their lives into.

And yet, from God’s perspective, there could not be a higher example of success. While we don’t know for sure how Timothy finished, Paul was faithful to the end. He did not turn aside. He guarded the deposit that had been entrusted to them. He made it to the finish line, still running strong.

Three Take-Aways

In summary, here’s three major lessons we can see in all of this.

First, let’s remember that God may not have the same idea of “success” as we do. As we evaluate our lives and ministries, are we using His scorebook, or one that we copied from our godless culture?

Second, don’t forget that faithfulness is hard. Finishing well is tougher than any of us think when we start out. Here in North America we hear a lot of advice for how pastors can grow their ministries; perhaps we need to talk more about how to simply stay in ministry in the first place. (The same goes for the Christian life in general: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” [Revelation 2:10].)

Finally, understand that churches which are healthy today have zero excuse to assume that they will remain healthy into the future—apart from constant vigilance. A church will stay healthy only as long as its people actively pursue health today. Resting on yesterday’s laurels won’t cut it.

By God’s grace, may we each hear the call to faithfulness echoing through the centuries into our own ears, and may we each pursue our Master’s “well done” as we seek to please Him with our lives, right up until they end.


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