Beneath Milan’s iconic cathedral Il Duomo lies a hidden gem from the ancient world. A narrow staircase leads to an underground archeological area that preserves the ruins of a basilica and a baptistry from the mid-fourth century. It was here, on Easter Sunday in the year 387, that Ambrose, the renowned bishop of Milan, baptized into the Christian faith a new convert from northern Africa whom he had catechized, discipled, and mentored. The convert’s name was Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis, better known to us as Augustine, a man who would go on to become bishop of Hippo and indisputably one of the most important theologians in the history of the Christian church.

The relationship between Ambrose and Augustine was not merely one of pastor and parishioner. Ultimately, what Augustine found in Ambrose was a spiritual father. “That man of God,” Augustine recalls, “received me like a father and expressed pleasure at my coming with a kindness most fitting in a bishop.”1 When he first arrived in Milan in the autumn of 384, Augustine was a restless and disillusioned man. He had spent the first thirty years of his life seeking satisfaction in achievement, sex, and philosophy. His ambition and quest for fulfillment led him from his backwater hometown of Thagaste to the cosmopolitan city of Carthage, then to prestigious Rome, and finally to influential Milan, which at that time was the seat of the Roman Empire. But his journey was not merely geographical; it was also spiritual. As he climbed the ladder of success, his ravenous heart consumed everything yet ended up with nothing. The turning point for Augustine was Ambrose. Through the ministry of Ambrose, Augustine came to realize that the deepest chambers of his soul could not be satisfied by ambition, self-indulgence, or the applause of others but only by the God for whom he had been made. Yet what first piqued Augustine’s interest was not Ambrose’s arguments but his kindness and generosity. The celebrated bishop of Milan was able to disciple Augustine and help him over many intellectual hurdles by first loving him as a father.

Is there a Paul or Ambrose in your life, someone mature in the faith whom the Lord has used or perhaps is still using to develop and mold you in the Christian life?

The concept of spiritual fathers and sons is found in Scripture. For example, the Apostle Paul refers to Timothy as his “beloved son” (2 Tim. 1:2; 2:1), for he had become Paul’s “beloved and faithful son in the Lord” (1 Cor. 4:17), his “true son in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2), who served him “as a son with [his] father” (Phil. 2:22). As Ambrose was to Augustine, Paul was instrumental in leading Timothy to Jesus. As John Calvin put it, Paul “had begotten [Timothy] in Christ; for, although this honor belongs to God alone, yet it is also transferred to ministers, whose agency he employs for regenerating us.”2 Paul uses this language of the spiritual father-child relationship in other epistles to describe his bond with those whom he led to Christ and subsequently discipled. For example, writing to the church in Corinth, he says, “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15, NKJV). Likewise, he calls Onesimus “my son . . . whom I have begotten while in my chains” (Philem. 10, NKJV).

A faithful gospel ministry will have this mark. It will beget spiritual children and make disciples of Jesus Christ. We should thank God for the men and women He has used in our lives to lead us to Christ and nurture us in the truth. The late John Stott once reflected publicly on a man who was something of a Paul in his own life:

I thank God for the man who led me to Christ and for the extraordinary devotion with which he nurtured me in the early years of my Christian life. He wrote to me every week, I think, for seven years. He also prayed for me every day. I believe he still does. I can only begin to guess what I owe, under God to such a faithful friend and pastor.3

Stott wrote that in 1973, after nearly three decades of service in the Christian ministry.

Is there a Paul or Ambrose in your life, someone mature in the faith whom the Lord has used or perhaps is still using to develop and mold you in the Christian life? Give thanks to God for him or her. Such a mentor is a priceless gift from God. Is there a Timothy or Augustine in your life, someone who is younger than you in the faith and looks to you for guidance and encouragement as a Christian? More than likely, that tender soul sees you as a spiritual father or mother, or at least as a big brother or big sister in Christ. Such a tremendous responsibility is understandably daunting and can fill us with fear. Yet what an awesome privilege to be used by the Lord in such a way. Ask God for wisdom, patience, and love. Or perhaps there is a non-Christian in your life who is attracted to your kindness. Sometimes the turning point for a nonbeliever is not an argument but a person, as it was for Augustine when he met Ambrose. Pray earnestly for that precious person as you seek by God’s grace to model the love of Jesus. Pray that the Lord will give you the opportunity to explain the reason for the hope that is in you and that the Lord may open that person’s heart to trust in Christ and find rest in Him.


  1. Augustine, Confessions 5.23, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2008), 88.
  2. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Second Epistle to Timothy, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol.21 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1999), 184.
  3. John R.W. Stott, The Message of 2 Timothy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 29.

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Hermeneutics: Knowing and Living the Text