Vigils Reading – SS Timothy & Titus
The Virtue of St Timothy as a Pattern for Christians6
from a sermon by St John Henry Newman
“Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and for your other infirmities”. This is a remarkable verse, because it accidentally tells us so much. It is addressed to Timothy, St Paul’s companion, the first Bishop of Ephesus. Of Timothy we know very little, except that he did minister to St Paul, and hence we might have inferred that he was a man of very saintly character; but we know little or nothing of him, except that he had been from a child a careful reader of Scripture. This indeed, by itself, in that Apostolic age, would have led us to infer that he had risen to some great height in spiritual excellence; though it must be confessed that instances are frequent at this day, of persons knowing the Bible well, and yet being little stricter than others in their lives, for all their knowledge.
Timothy, however, had so read the Old Testament, and had so heard from St Paul the New, that he was a true follower of the Apostle, as the Apostle was of Christ. St Paul accordingly calls him “my own son”, or “my true son in the faith”. And elsewhere he says to the Philippians that he has “no man like-minded to Timothy, who would naturally” or truly “care for their state”. But still, after all, this is but a general account of him, and we seem to desire something more definite in the way of description, beyond merely knowing that he was a great saint, which conveys no clear impression to the mind. Now, in the text we have accidentally a glimpse given us of his mode of life. St Paul does not expressly tell us that he was a man of mortified habits; but he reveals the fact indirectly by cautioning him against an excess of mortification. “Drink no longer water,” he says, “but use a little wine.” It should be observed that wine, in the southern countries, is the ordinary beverage; it is nothing strong or costly. Yet even from such as this, Timothy was in the habit of abstaining, and restricting himself to water; and, as the Apostle thought, imprudently, to the increase of his “frequent infirmities.”
There is something very striking in this accidental mention of the private ways of this Apostolic Bishop. We know indeed from history the doctrine and the life of the great saints, who lived some time after the Apostles’ age; but we are naturally anxious to know something more of the Apostles themselves and their associates. We say, “Oh that we could speak to St Paul – that we could see him in his daily walk, and hear his oral and familiar teaching! – that we could ask him what he meant by this expression in his Epistles, or what he thought of this or the other doctrine.” This is not given to us. God might give us greater light than He does; but it is His gracious will to give us the less. Yet perhaps much more has been given us in Scripture, as it has come to us, than we think, if our eyes were enlightened to discern it there. Such, for instance, is this text; it is a sudden revelation, a glimpse of the personal character of Apostolic Christians; it is a hint which we may follow out. For no one will deny that a very great deal of doctrine, and a very great deal of precept, goes with such a fact as this: namely, that this holy man, without impiously disparaging God’s creation, and thanklessly rejecting God’s gifts, yet, on the whole, lived a life of abstinence.
I cannot understand why such a life is not excellent in a Christian now, if it was the characteristic of Apostles and friends of Apostles then. I really do not see why the trials and persecutions, which surrounded them from Jews and Gentiles, their forlorn despised state, and their necessary discomforts, should not even have exempted them from voluntary sufferings in addition, unless such self-imposed hardships were pleasing to Christ. Such were the holy men of old. How far are we below them! Alas for our easy sensual life, our cowardice, our sloth! is this the way by which the kingdom of God is won?
6 Parochial and Plain Sermons, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987, p. 1193.