While Paul makes a number of strong statements about the work of sisters in his writings, there can be no question that he respected, loved and honoured them and  prized their many contributions to ecclesial life,  for their names occur all through the brief report of his life that Luke has given us in the Book of Acts, and he refers to them frequently in his letters, particularly in the greetings with which he typically concludes, but also in other places.

The very first to appear in Paul’s life is Eunice, “a  certain woman, which was a Jewess, and believed”  (Acts 16:1). Eunice lived in Lystra, one of the cities  of Lycaonia, a province in central Asia where Paul and Barnabas had preached the gospel on their first  great missionary journey (14:6–23).

Lystra stood on an important east-west road, and Augustus had made it a Roman kolonia in 6 BC  to protect the lands to the west. Its citizens were a  curious blend of traditional peasants, still speaking  their Lycaonian language; cultured Greeks; retired  Roman soldiers, now become gentleman-farmers;  and the ubiquitous Jews, who had been deliberately  scattered across Asia two centuries earlier by the  Seleucid emperors because of their strong work ethic, commercial skills and international networks.

While preaching in Lystra Paul had healed a man born lame; the superstitious people had quickly  identified Barnabas and Paul as Zeus and Hermes, the chief of the gods and his messenger; the priest  of Zeus, seizing the moment, had endeavoured to lead the town in worship, and the two preachers  had barely succeeded in preventing the idolatry. The  people had been left confused and disappointed,  and the situation had been ripe for exploitation by  Jewish emissaries from Antioch and Iconium, who  insinuated that Paul was a deceiver with dangerous  powers, and persuaded the mob to stone him. Presuming him dead, they dragged him out of the  city, and left him to die.

The Jews of Asia were fanatical, and opposed  Paul bitterly. They had chased him out of Antioch.  They had planned to lynch him in Iconium. They  finally succeeded in Lystra. Later in Ephesus, he  would work for eighteen months “with many tears,  and temptations … by the lying in wait of the Jews”  (20:18–19) “from the first day” that he came into  the province of Asia. It was Asian Jews who spotted  him in the Temple in Jerusalem and set about to kill  him (21:27). Little wonder: for Paul had probably  belonged to “the synagogue of the Libertines, and  Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia,  and of Asia” during his early days in Jerusalem  (6:9), and they would have felt his defection to  Christianity keenly as a great stain on their honour.

It is telling that it was Jews from Antioch and  Iconium who descended on Lystra and engineered  the mob violence. It appears that the Jewish  community in Lystra itself was relatively small and  lacked influence. They made no move against Paul,  and are not blamed for what happened. All the  trouble is laid at the feet of the visitors.

“A certain woman, which was a Jewess, and believed”

Eunice was a Jewess, but she was married to a Greek,  of whom we know nothing, not even his name. Her  situation is possibly another indication that Lystra’s Jewish community was small and isolated. It is never  wise to marry out of the faith; and Paul’s instruction  is, “only in the Lord” (1 Cor 7:39). Her mother Lois was also Jewish.

How challenging it must have been for them, caught between two different perspectives! As  Jewish women they would have endorsed Paul’s emphatic rejection of the local idolatrous cult, and  his argument that the character of the one true God  had been presented to them in the good seasons year upon year. They were clearly drawn to his message, that in Jesus Christ God had fulfilled the promises to the fathers, fulfilled the types and shadows of the Law, and held out forgiveness of sins and salvation  to those who would believe and repent ahead of the day of judgment and His kingdom. But Jews had come from other towns to work behind the scenes  and stir up the Lycaonian townspeople against Paul!

The women “fully knew” what Paul had suffered  (2 Tim 3:10–11), a term that suggests they had been eyewitnesses of the mob violence inflicted on  Paul. They saw through the outward professions  of orthodoxy from their fellow Jews to the inward  malevolence that inspired these enemies of the  gospel, and they decisively rejected their spirit.  Eunice and Lois became believers.

Timothy, their son and grandson, also became a  disciple, “well reported of by the brethren that were  at Lystra” and even those who were at Iconium, 30  km to the north (Acts 16:1–2). When Paul came by  Lystra on his second missionary journey with Silas,  he was so impressed with Timothy that he desired to  take him with them. It was no light thing for Paul  to take an assistant, when we consider how strong  had been his prejudice against Mark at the outset  of this journey! But the sisters had done their work  very well. Eunice might not have circumcised her  son, but she had circumcised his heart, which was  the true circumcision that Moses had sought from  Israel so long before (Deut 10:16; 30:6).

As Paul would later challenge the Jews: “shall  not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the  law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision  dost transgress the law? For he is not a Jew, which  is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which  is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is  one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart,  in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is  not of men, but of God” (Rom. 2:27–29). Timothy  was the real thing; and in fact his name means,  ‘Honoured by God’.

An unfeigned faith

Paul remembered and commended Lois and Eunice  for two principal things. First, he remembered  the “unfeigned faith” that dwelled first in Lois (2  Tim 1:5): she had communicated that faith to her  daughter; and Eunice had instilled it in her son, Timotheus, in turn.

An unfeigned faith is a faith anupokritos, a faith  “without hypocrisy”. It is not a forced faith. It is  not a spirituality turned on for special occasions.  It is not a faith that has been overdressed to  impress. It is utterly genuine. What is in the heart  is also on the surface. And given that this is Paul’s  commendation, Paul with his very high view of the  importance and power of faith, the unfeigned faith  that characterised mother and daughter must mean  not only assent to the great doctrines of Scripture,  not only a belief in the great promises of God, but  a steadfast commitment to the wholly trusting life  that is utterly focused on God and His great power  to save and bless.

There is another indirect tribute to these sisters  in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. Challenged by  those who claimed to see deep things in the Law  but failed to follow through with godly living, Paul  nailed the purpose of the Law: “the end of the  commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of  a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned” (1 Tim  1:5). Although Paul does not name Lois and Eunice  in this place, it is is quite probable that here, as in  his second letter to Timothy, he is drawing on the  wonderful spiritual qualities displayed by Timothy’s  grandmother and mother to make his point: the  same terms occur in both places.

Despite their difficult situation, therefore, Lois  and Eunice had a faith that was clear-eyed and  whole-hearted, a love that was pure-souled, and  “a good conscience”. Their relationship with God  was untroubled by any secret sins or manifest faults.  They were perfect expressions of “the righteousness  of the law” (Rom 8:4) which all sincere Jews strove  to keep, but which could only be fulfilled in those  who were transformed by the death and resurrection  of the Son of God, and who walked in the Spirit.

Timothy himself was well-placed to know this.  He had been reared by them. He knew that Paul’s  description of them was perfectly true.

Devotion to Scripture

The second thing for which Paul remembered them was their devotion to Scripture. We do not even know whether there was a synagogue in Lystra; and  it would have been unusual for a private citizen to  own even one scroll of the Bible, as they were so  expensive to produce.

However Lois and Eunice came by their  knowledge of “the holy scriptures”, they did exactly  what Moses commanded in his great declaration,  Sh’ma Yisra’el: “Hear, O Israel, Yahweh our God,  Yahweh is one: and thou shalt love Yahweh thy God  … And these words, which I command thee this  day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach  them diligently unto thy children …” (Deut 6:4–9).

Poignantly, Eunice and Lois were very far from  the Land promised to their fathers, in a small city  with a small Jewish population somewhere in the  semi-barbarian backblocks of Turkey. But they  clung to their faith, and they lived by their faith,  and they taught it diligently to the young boy who  was the heart and soul of their little family. As far back as Timothy could remember, he had  “known the holy scriptures”: and Paul reminded him  not only from whom he had received his extensive  knowledge, and what he had learned, but also what  he had “been assured of ”. They had communicated  everything they knew, and their absolute confidence  in the inspiration of the Scriptures as the very Word  of God written, profitable for teaching the truth  and refuting error, correcting our waywardness and  instructing us in righteousness (2 Tim 3:14–17).

Goodbye, Timothy

It would have been heart-wrenching for mother and  grandmother to see Timothy leave home with Paul.  The boy had never been in the best of health, with  a poor digestion and subject to “often infirmities”  (1 Tim 5:23). They would naturally have worried  about his wellbeing. They knew something of the  dangers of travel – slippery mountain trails and  perilous sea crossings, bandits and shipwrecks. They  could not have foreseen the great perils which we  know Timothy did share with Paul – more Jewish  antagonism, more mob violence, compounded  by biased magistrates and cynical proconsuls and  jingoistic silversmiths; and in the background, the  constant threat of the assassin’s knife. For Timothy  was Paul’s constant companion while the apostle  assembled that daunting catalogue of troubles  and tribulations, perils and pains, not to mention  “the burden of all the ecclesias” (2 Cor 11:23–29).  “Without were fightings, within were fears” (7:5).

Yet they were no doubt content to know that  their years of diligent discipling had led to this:  that they had trained a “man of God”, “the servant  of the Lord”, and that it was now time for him to  leave home and do God’s work.

We do not know whether they ever saw him  again. Perhaps reports filtered back of the work  Timothy was undertaking for Paul in Philippi and  Thessalonica and Athens and Corinth and Ephesus  – and eventually, in Rome. Ranging far and wide on  difficult missions; at the end left alone, without his  great father in the gospel, charged with the grave  responsibility to carry on the work begun, to make  full proof of his ministry in “perilous times”, and  train the next generation of preachers and teachers.

Meanwhile his mother and his grandmother sat at home, a little more isolated, a little more lonely,  “content to fill a little space if God be glorified”,  confident that in the end the great family of God  would be brought back together in a day of unmixed and irreversible joy and gladness, the great rest for  the people of God.

What an extraordinary impact these two sisters  had on the first century ecclesias, and through them, on us! Then who would presume to discount their  contribution? Give us a hundred grandmothers and  mothers like Lois and Eunice, and the gates of hell  will not prevail over the ecclesia of God: for it will  indeed be built upon the Rock