The first type of mentoring role I suggest we examine is that of Paul.
What do you think of when you think of the Apostle Paul? We often think of Paul as the great preacher and missionary who spread the Gospel across the Roman Empire. From the very moment of his dramatic conversion, Paul was a preacher. (See Acts 9:20.) Paul was such a firebrand, such a take-it-or-leave-it kind of guy, that in one place the book of Acts tells us that the churches had more peace after Paul left the scene. (See Acts 9:31.)
Thus, we often think of Paul as the great herald of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Less often do we think of Paul as one of the greatest mentors of all time. However, three of the New Testament letters which bear Paul’s name are addressed to two of the most significant people whom he mentored: Timothy and Titus.
For our purposes, I want to focus on Paul’s relationship with Timothy. Paul apparently met Timothy for the first time on his second missionary journey through Asia Minor. In Acts 16:1-5 we read:
He came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek. The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.
There are at least two interesting things we can learn from these brief verses. First of all, for some reason Paul was drawn to Timothy. Luke doesn’t tell us exactly why, but Paul was drawn by the testimony of the believers in Lystra to want to take young Timothy along with him on his mission. This goes to show that mentoring relationships are, quite often, initiated by the “Pauls” in life.
The second thing we learn from these brief verses is that Timothy “owned” this mentoring relationship. Why else would he have submitted to circumcision as an adult? He wanted to be able to join the Apostle Paul in his work. Paul had fought for the fact that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised to become followers of Jesus. But Timothy had a Jewish mother. So, out of a desire to win Jews to Jesus, Paul had Timothy circumcised. Paul could fight valiantly for points of principle. But when it came to winning others to Christ, he was willing to become all things to all people that by all means he might win some. Apparently, Timothy had the same desire.
Perhaps Timothy had been around during Paul’s first visit to Lystra when Paul was stoned and left for dead outside the city. It was on that occasion that Paul got up and walked right back into the city where the Jews lived who had tried to kill him. Timid Timothy must have been inspired by the courage of the Apostle Paul to want to follow him in his ministry. Thus there was a mutual drawing together which happened in their relationship, and which happens in every good mentoring relationship.
A very deep relationship indeed was formed between Paul and Timothy. Paul later says of his young protégé,
I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the Gospel. (Philippians 2:20-22)
One of the most personal letters of the New Testament is Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Toward the end of the letter Paul pleads with his son in the faith, from the darkness of a dingy Roman dungeon: “Do your best to come to me quickly.”
Perhaps Paul and Timothy’s relationship was similar in some ways to the relationship between a much later mentoring pair: Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan. On the advice of Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, the parents of Helen Keller sent for a teacher from the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts. Anne Sullivan, a 19- year-old orphan, was chosen for the task of instructing 6 year old Helen. It was the beginning of a close and lifelong friendship between them. By means of a manual alphabet, Anne “spelled” into Helen’s hand such words as doll or puppy. Two years later Helen was reading and writing Braille fluently. At 10, Helen learned different sounds by placing her fingers on her teacher’s larynx and “hearing” the vibrations. Later Helen went to Radcliffe College where Anne spelled the lectures into Helen’s hand. After graduating with honors, Helen decided to devote her life to helping the blind and deaf. As part of that endeavor, she wrote many books and articles and traveled around the world making speeches. Since Helen’s speeches were not intelligible to some, Anne often translated them for her. Their nearly fifty years of companionship ended when Anne died in 1936. Helen wrote these endearing words about her lifelong mentor:
My teacher is so near to me that I scarcely think of myself apart from her. I feel that her being is inseparable from my own, and that the footsteps of my life are in hers. All the best of me belongs to her– there is not a talent or an inspiration or a joy in me that has not been awakened by her loving touch.
The best of mentoring relationships can be very much like the relationship Anne had with Helen, or like that which Paul had with Timothy.
Will Vaus (M.Div., Princeton Seminary) is the author of several books including Mere Theology: A Guide to the Thought of C.S. Lewis and Keys to Growth: Meditations on the Acts of the Apostles.