I taught a Sunday School lesson on Pastor Timothy two weeks ago, and one thing went unresolved in my research and I resolved to pray about it in hopes that God would reveal the answer. I will spare you the details of what event occurred every few hours to remind me to pray, but pray I did, and searched various resources. No-one seemed to have an answer and hardly anyone else seemed to even care that this was an issue. My scholarly hero, Dr. Johnny Mac, realized it was an issue, but wrote it off somewhat hastily.
Old Testament Background
First of all, a Shibboleth is a test to determine the genuineness of someone's standing, either in a national or spiritual sense. It has its roots in the Gileadite/Ephraimite war of Judges 12, at which time spies were routed out and slaughtered for their inability to pronounce shibboleth, instead pronouncing it as sibolet. This pronunciation difference showed their cultural background. In modern day Christianity, this may be similar to asking someone if Christ is the only way to the Father, if he is God manifest in the flesh, if keeping the Sabbath or calling God by a certain name has any bearing on entry into Heaven, and asking if the Faultless Son of Man had any fault in him. These questions answered incorrectly unfailingly show the unregenerate condition of someone's heart and their exclusion from the kingdom of Heaven; Shibboleths are useful in working out your salvation with fear and trembling.
New Testament Background
Now, let me give you a little background before I tell you of Timothy's test, which he failed miserably, by the way. Fortunately God is patient and kind and redeemed Timothy anyways.
Paul's first missionary journey put him in the region of Lystra in AD 47, this was Paul's first harsh persecution and he was driven out of town, followed, and nearly killed by Jews from Antioch and Iconium. They had done their best, and thinking him dead, left him. Of this event, he later wrote to Lystra, "Let no man trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." (Galatians 6:17)
Having introduced the Gospel to Lystra, Paul returned to Antioch in Syria debriefing his missionary stories for "no short time", then in AD 49, he was called to a tribunal in Jerusalem. This council was to combat a works-based teaching that, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." (Acts 15:5) Peter delivered the death blow to this works-based Judaizer heresy with the statement, "we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as [the Gentiles] will." (Acts 15:11) Letters were sent out to the churches mentioning nothing about the works-righteousness requirement of circumcision, only exhorting every believer to abstain from sexual impurity, pagan practices, and idol worship. (Acts 15:28-29)
Paul returned to Antioch, just in time to receive word that the churches in Galatia, which were Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, and others, had abandoned the Gospel that he had preached to them. They had been led astray by those that say that circumcision was a necessity for salvation. Paul immediately wrote a long letter to these churches defending salvation by grace through faith in Christ's giving himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age. This occurred at the end of AD 49. He called those who would require circumcision or any works, anathema, which means accursed. These churches were near and dear to Paul's heart, since he had spent much time with the peoples and they were his first mass converts, so he decided to visit them in order to set them straight and check on their progress. (Acts 15:36)
Arriving in early AD 50, we meet young Timothy, half-Greek and half-Jew, raised in the Christian faith by his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois, and spoken well of by the churches in the area. Being spoken well of by an apostate church is not a good thing, beloved, for many love the heresies preached from Lakewood's pulpit, or the events in Lakeland, and yet these men are preaching a false gospel and are, by Paul's clear statements, anathema. This young man called himself a disciple, which in the Bible is synonymous with Christian, and as we learn from the disciple Judas Iscariot, it is more than possible to think you are a Christian and not be one, for Christ fed thousands of disciples on more than one occasion, and yet only 120 could be found to fill the Upper Room on Pentecost.
Paul wanted this young man to accompany him, so he gave him a test. He took him, and circumcised him.
While researching for an exposition through First and Second Thessalonians, I realized something interesting, Timothy is not mentioned from Lystra to Berea, a time span of nearly a year. Timothy was not in Thessalonica in the autumn of AD 50 with Paul and Silvanus, this I am absolutely sure of.
Where was he? Paul had given him a test to determine the veracity of his conversion to Christianity and his understanding of the Gospel. Paul had given him a simple test straight out of his Epistle to the region, and Timothy had shown that he had not read that letter, nor did he understand what was written in it. Paul said, "Say Shibboleth" by telling Timothy to be circumcised, and Timothy answered, "Sibolet" by being circumcised.
Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. - Galatians 5:2-6
Timothy, well spoken of by an apostate church, was caught not reading his Bible. Now here is where I have to make an assumption from what is written in the Bible and what I believe happened. The Bible is silent on this occasion, but God has, as he often does, given us just enough clues to paint the whole story.
Paul and Silas were kicked out of Thessalonica in the spring of AD 51 and were not allowed back in, for Thessalonica's pastor, Jason, had promised on a sum of money that they would not return. Indeed, Paul nor Silvanus would see the port city of Thessalonica for another six years. Timothy, having been left in Lystra to memorize, but more importantly understand, the letter against the Judaizers, joined them in Berea. How the logistics worked out is unclear, but somehow Timothy found Paul and Silas and reunited with them. Paul was soon forcibly extradited from Berea and visited, by armed escort, the beautiful city of Athens. While preaching in Athens, he sent for Timothy and Silvanus to join him, which they did. While in Athens, the hasty departure from Thessalonica became too much for Paul to bear (1 Thessalonians 3), and he sent the only one of the three of them who was allowed to set foot in Thessalonica, that being the young man Timothy, to check on their spiritual status, which Timothy was pleased to report was thriving.
Paul had determined that the young Timothy was redeemed and capable of being a minister of the Gospel. Oh how Timothy must have beamed at the task that Paul appointed to him, to serve as the interim pastor of a church in a precarious area, wont to fall into paganism and sexual immorality. Truly, if Timothy had memorized and understood the Epistle to the Galatians, then he was more than equipped to minister effectively in the name of the Lord Jesus in any setting.
Timothy went on to pastor the church in Ephesus, with ministerial visits to Corinth and Philippi. He pastored his church faithfully for twenty to thirty years, doing wonderful things with the church. Timothy lost his life under the Domitian persecution sometime in the '80s, and unfortunately Ephesus never recovered and was spiritually dead by AD 95, never to revive. (Revelation 2:1-7)
The Lesson to Be Learned
Now then, if you can't tell, I love history, and that is the history. Timothy was a false-convert, a works-righteous Gentile deceived by those who call themselves Jews, but are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. (Revelation 2:9) Fortunately, Paul was a great discerner, which was strengthened through his constant practice and the power of the Holy Spirit. (Hebrews 5:14) He saw this young man, and something piqued his interest as to the genuineness of the boy's salvation. How it was that Paul questioned Timothy's salvation on the merits of circumcision is unclear, but apparently the boy jumped at the opportunity to be justified by the Law, and thus showed his unconverted state, for if righteousness is by the Law, then truly, Christ was sacrificed in vain.
Timothy was the offspring of two very godly ladies (2 Timothy 1:5), but the Apostle Paul takes responsibility for Timothy's salvation experience (which of course was ultimately Christ's doing with the help of his coworker Paul (1 Thessalonians 3:2)), by calling him, "my true child in the faith." (1 Timothy 1:2)
Timothy's hiatus in Lystra was probably spent with him working out his salvation with fear and trembling, pouring over the Epistle that Paul had written to the region, reading the letter sent from Jerusalem (Acts 15:23-29), in prayer, counting the cost of following the Risen Saviour, and in acceptance of the grace available only through the cross of Christ, and not available in any way through works of the flesh. Thank God for this young man who was at some point spiritually slain by the Law, spiritually crucified with Christ, and was raised to life in his resurrection (Galatians 2:19-20); young Timothy was saved, and became a valuable minister of the Most High God.
So, without further adieu, God gives us yet another example of those who call themselves Christians, but are really children of the devil. The Gospels are full of these accounts: Wheat and Tares, Sheep and Goats, Good Fish and Bad Fish, Wise Virgins and Foolish Virgins, etc.
Beloved, you're not a Christian because you were raised by Christians; Timothy was raised by two incredible Christians. Just because someone says you're a Christian doesn't make you a Christian; many would vouch for Timothy in his home town, and yet Paul discovered his works-righteousness, his anathema beliefs.
You're not justified by the Law, for if you seek to be justified by the Law, you have fallen away from grace, and you are obligated to keep the whole Law. We know from Paul's letter to Rome that none seeks after God. That is the very First, and the summation, of the 10 Commandments. If you think you will be accepted into Heaven because you are a good person, or because you got dunked, sprinkled, or effused in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost, or because you attend church unfailingly, know that you have submitted to a yoke of slavery.
You are freed by grace, redeemed from the curse of the Law by the Perfect, Sinless, Son of God becoming a curse for you—for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree", and this grace received only by faith working through love. (Galatians 5:1-6) Christ's righteousness granted to you and your sins paid for in the sacrifice of God manifest in the flesh on Calvary's cross is the only way to the Father, not through works, but entirely through grace.
And how do we know these things? Through the Bible. Timothy didn't know his and it led to a painful and unnecessary removal of a sensitive part of his body; fortunately for him it didn't result in the loss of his soul as well! Beloved, you have to know this book, it is what people bled and died for, it has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its content. As I am fond of saying: this book will keep you from sin, but sin will keep you from this book. Take a lesson from something written to Timothy years after his conversion,
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. - 2 Timothy 3:16-17
Timothy went on to be a great pastor, once he was redeemed from his works-righteousness. Paul trusted this Lycaonian boy to check on the Thessalonicans, to correct the Corinthians, and to shepherd the Ephesians. Repent, and believe the Gospel, that when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons, for you are saved by grace, through faith, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast...and by "any man", Paul means me, you, and Timothy.
If you'd like to know more, Paul devoted two letters to this burgeoning pastor, they can be found under First and Second Timothy in your Bible.