In ET, October 2016, we looked at the marriage of Priscilla to Aquila. This month we consider the marriage of Eunice, the mother of Timothy.
Perhaps Priscilla’s marriage being such a good example has left some readers saying, ‘That’s all fine for Priscilla. She made the perfect marriage. Some of us have not had that blessing’?
But the amazing comprehensiveness of the Word of God provides a role model for women with difficult marriages too. Maybe the marriage was a huge mistake, through your own fault? Or maybe the man you thought would be an Aquila turned out otherwise?
If we know little about Priscilla, we know even less about Eunice, but that makes the little that the Holy Spirit has told us about her all the more noteworthy. We meet her as the mother of Timothy in Acts 16, when Paul arrives in her town on his second missionary journey.
Presumably, along with her mother and son, she had become a believer in the Lord Jesus when Paul was there on his first visit. What Scripture stresses was that she was ‘a Jewish woman’, but Timothy’s father was a Greek. Two verses further on, we are reminded that the fact that he had a Greek father was known by everyone in the area (Acts 16:1-3).
What had happened? We know from 2 Timothy 3:15 that she knew the Old Testament Scriptures because Timothy knew them from childhood. She must have known their prohibition of marriage with anyone other than a fellow Israelite. Was this an act of rebellion on her part? Was she supported by her parents in this decision, or forced into a marriage against her will? Or could it even be that there was no marriage?
Whichever the scenario, God’s law had been defied. However, the rest of the story is a wonderful reminder that one foolish act, though it may bring long term consequences, need not hold anyone back from great usefulness in God’s kingdom.
Just an aside about Lois (Eunice’s mother and Timothy’s grandmother): while we do not know her role for or against her daughter’s marriage, it is obvious that afterwards she stood by her. She was there for her in the difficult path her folly had brought about, whatever her fellow Jews thought of the situation. And she had a great part in the upbringing of little Timothy (2 Timothy 1:5).
We do not need too much imagination to put together some of the struggles they had. At home Timothy imbibed God’s Word with his mother’s milk. The word for ‘childhood’ in 2 Timothy 3:14-15 — ‘You [Timothy] must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus’ — refers to a very young child, an infant.
The word for ‘know’ here has the meaning of knowing by what you experience around you. The godly lives of his mother and grandmother were the formative influences on Timothy’s life. He knew the holy writings by what he saw in his home.
The absence of a father to lead Sabbath prayers, to put his hand on his son’s head week by week and pronounce the blessing, was doubtless keenly felt, but Lois and Eunice stepped into the gap and Timothy’s knowledge of the Scriptures was not lacking. Eunice had not allowed her failure to be final. That is not what defined her life as a mother. She lived out her faith in a way that reached Timothy’s heart.
Out of the home, it must have been different. All the Jewish community knew that Timothy’s father was a Greek. As a young boy growing up, he did not belong to the Jewish community, with its activities centred in the synagogue; he was always ‘the boy who has not been circumcised’.
Nor would he have been comfortable in the pagan society around. As he grew older, there was no godly father to provide direction and act as a role model. In fact, there is no indication that his father took any part in his upbringing. How much did mother and son suffer from alienation from the society around?
How the gospel of forgiveness and grace must have brought joy into this home when the apostle Paul visited Derbe and Lystra, and first Lois, then Eunice, then Timothy himself embraced the message of Jesus. At last, a community to which they truly belonged. What a joy too for Eunice to see the growth in grace of her son!
By the time Paul arrived on his second missionary journey, Timothy was ‘well-spoken of’ by the brothers both in their own town and in the bigger city of Iconium (Acts 16:2). Even more, the apostle saw such potential in this young man that he wanted him to accompany him on his journeys. This is probably the time when he was set apart ‘by the laying on of hands’ for his new role (2 Timothy 1:6). Imagine Eunice’s tears of joy!
What we learn of Timothy’s character in the New Testament indicates a sensitive young man. Paul urges the Corinthians to put him at ease. He tells them not to despise his youth (1 Corinthians 16:10) and warns Timothy himself of this danger (1 Timothy 4:12). That sensitivity was also a positive part of his character, as it enabled him to have a genuine concern for others, more than Paul’s other companions.
There is also some indication that he did not enjoy good health, as Paul instructs him to drink a little wine because of his frequent illnesses (1 Timothy 5:23).
Alongside this, we see a young man of great faithfulness and fortitude emerging. By the time he accompanies Paul on his third missionary journey, he is ready to take responsibility for missions on his own. The father-figure that he lacked as a boy was more than compensated for by the wonderful ‘father-son’ relationship that he enjoyed with the apostle Paul, which was such a blessing to both of them.
Paul refers to Timothy frequently in his letters: ‘my beloved and faithful child’; ‘my fellow-worker’; ‘as a son with a father, he served me’. As Jewish boys served their apprenticeship in their fathers’ craft, God provided a ‘father’ with whom Timothy could work at a higher calling.
Finally, as Paul writes his final letter from his dungeon in Rome (2 Timothy), he remembers Timothy’s tears as they parted, Timothy taking up responsibility for the church in Ephesus. He longs to see his son again before his own inevitable execution. The boy of the mixed marriage in Lystra has come a long way, by God’s grace.
Perhaps we should back-track to the early days of Paul’s third missionary journey, as accompanied by Timothy when he revisited Lystra and Derbe. Can you imagine the excitement of Lois and Eunice as they saw their boy again after all that time, as they realised how he had matured under the training of Paul, and as the apostle spoke warmly of his worth in the gospel?
Eunice had made a bad mistake, but she had the strength of character, encouraged by her mother, to live through all the disadvantages that it brought her and her son, and to bring him up in a godly way.
God greatly rewarded her faithfulness. He provided for Timothy what she could not. He overruled her mistake, so that she became the mother of someone greatly used of God in the life of the early church.
Priscilla and Eunice, their lives and their marriages so different, yet both were used by God to be a blessing to the early church. How we thank God for including the stories of these two women in his Word for the encouragement of us all. The grace that enabled them is the grace still available for us today.
Daphne Swanson is married to Andrew and lives in Northern Cyprus