Usually, when a Christian says that a certain person led them to Christ, they mean that person was instrumental in their initial conversion. However, being led to Christ doesn’t end at conversion. You need people to lead you to Christ, not only as a matter of initial conversion, but also as a matter of daily discipleship. Therefore, you need to learn how to follow people, and to follow them in such a way that you are actually following Christ.
Part of following is imitating. As a follower, you can and should learn to imitate other people, and to do so in a way that leads you closer to Christ, not further away from Him. There is a way to respect and honor other people that will increase your reverence for Christ. That’s the way to learn effectively from leaders.
Timothy imitated his spiritual father, Paul, but he did not idolize him. Therefore, Timothy was very useful to Paul, and became more useful as time went by.
Imitation is temporary. I am convinced that, as he grew, Timothy became less like Paul and more like himself; he developed his own style over time. I’m convinced of this because this is what happens with sons. Both spiritual and natural sons and daughters start out acting like their parents or role models, but end up becoming parents or role models themselves.
On the other hand, people who idolize other people get stuck. They don’t grow. Neither do they help the people they idolize. To idolize someone is to try to put a burden on them that they were never meant to carry. You’ll never learn anything from an idol. You’ll learn from leaders, even from heroes, but not from idols.
2 Kings 2:9-13 describes how the prophet Elijah, at the end of his life, passed his ministry on to his disciple Elisha:
“And so it was, when they had crossed over, that Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?’
“Elisha said, ‘Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.’
“So he said, ‘You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.’ Then it happened, as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
“And Elisha saw it, and he cried out, ‘My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen!’ So he saw him no more. And he took hold of his own clothes and tore them into two pieces. He also took up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood by the bank of the Jordan.”
Elijah left this world in a most dramatic fashion, which was fitting considering how he lived in the world. It was not enough, however, for Elisha to see the chariot of fire and the whirlwind. Elijah said to him, “If you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you.”
As Elisha followed Elijah during his lifetime, he learned to look past the whirlwind of heavenly activity that characterized Elijah’s ministry. He looked past the ministry and saw the man. He was a good student, and he passed this final test at the end of his master’s life. He saw the chariot of fire, he saw the whirlwind ascending to heaven, but he also saw the man. And because he saw the man, he got the mantle.