Rightly Handling, not Wrongly Wrangling

I. The use of words reflects our grasp of reality and truth. (14-19). This section indicates at least one way in which persons demonstrate that they are faithless (2:13). and proposes the evidence also to the contrary. Paul wants Timothy to remind his hearers of these very things. The short confession stated above in brief says the true believer identifies with Christ in all situations. The hope of eternity has grasped his soul so that the intimidation of the present continually recedes in strength. This should serve as a check upon their tendency to vain talk and speculation. “Remind them of these things.”  In fact, the charge Paul issues is so serious and the consequences of such magnitude that he wants Timothy solemnly to charge them “in the presence of God” of the consequences of a frivolous treatment of words when issues of eternal truth are at stake.

A. Avoid empty but ruinous words. Calvin observes, “Let us notice first that teaching is rightly condemned on the sole ground that it does no good.God’s purpose is not to pander to our inquisitiveness but to give us profitable instruction.  Away with all speculations that produce no edification!”

  1. Words are useful when they reflect reality and substance, but meaningless when no substance, but mere speculation, generates them (14, 16).
  2. Such words, if taken for substantial reality, lead to numerous errors.
  • Wrangling about words instead of making progress in the knowledge of divine revelation brings about ruin [catastrophe] and ungodliness (14, 16). If we are led by the subtlety of argument and the clever use of words to a speculative mind-set rather than a deeply-ingrained desire for holiness, then the connection between truth and transformation has been broken.
  • “Their talk [word] will spread like gangrene” (17). Such meaningless talk is infectious, destructive, and finally killing. Others become infatuated with the delight of clever speculation and soon begin to give credit to pure fabrications.
  • Beyond mere foolishness, personalized and clever words can lead to heresy, the loss of truth and faith. In the subtleties of Hymenaeus and Philetus, we do not find a denial of the resurrection, as in Corinth, but an assertion that it already is past – “the resurrection has already taken place” (18). In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul gave a full discussion of the resurrection, its certainty, its bodily character, and its centrality to the gospel. It fits the body for operation in the spiritual presence of God, and replaces its mortal and corruptible nature with incorruptibility. Whatever the error of Hymenaeus and Philetus, it resulted from speculation unfounded on the certainty of revelatory truth and was antithetical to the gospel that Paul preached (1 Corinthians 15:1-4, 12-13,20-22, 42-44).
  • To embrace such language as representative of reality, implies that true faith was not present from the start (18b).


B. Salvation is demonstrated in the meaningful use of right words (15, 19).

  1. To show the distinctive difference between his trustworthiness and the upsetting speculations of false teachers, Timothy had a way of demonstrating his approvedness. In the manner recommended by Paul, Timothy could personify the one who is tested and shown to be genuine with no need for shame in the day of Christ. Nor would he have cause to be put to shame as aworker for the gospel, for he does not present his own truth, but the revealed truth of Scripture. Following Paul’s exuberant admonitions for careful communication of truth, Timothy would be “a workman unashamed.”  The emphasis is not that he has no needto be ashamed but that he works actively in an unshameful manner.
  2. Diligence, zeal, concentration on this task should occupy the energies of the one who handles God’s Word. Lackluster efforts in both preparation and delivery of teaching opportunities do not adorn the stewardship of the minister of the gospel.
  3. Timothy is instructed to derive his doctrine and view of the world from Scripture, the Word of truth. This gives substance, edification, and eternal life. One’s manner of exposition should always be with a view to disclosing the meaning of the text at hand as it relates to the overall truth of God. An exposition of a text should not serve to fragment the Bible into disparate parts with no sense of inner connection but should always aim toward a greater sense of the truth of the whole. In all of this the aim is to glorify God and edify the saints.
  4. Adherence to Scripture is an evidence of the eternal pleasure of God toward the person (19). Instead of having faith destroyed, God’s foundation in their lives stands firm. The foundation relates both to the truth which they have believed and the genuineness of the faith that constitutes their believing. While the speculations of some lead to denial of essential truth, a mark of grace is continuation in those truths. The particular errors Paul is addressing are inextricably connected with the historical activities of God in Christ essential for salvation. God will always sanctify his people through his truth. See John 17:17



II. Set Aside for the purpose of usefulness 20-26

A. The Christian minister must purposely avoid unedifying conduct.

  1. The analogy of vessels is reminiscent of Romans 9:20-23, vessels of wrath and mercy. The warnings of the traits of the elect and reprobate are clear in Scripture. That task that lies in the hand of the one who reads and understands is the pursuit of the honored vessel. None should be satisfied to be a vessel of wrath or a vessel of dishonor. Those traits that characterize godliness and true faith should occupy our attention, while the evidences of dishonor should be put away and shunned with all the energy we have. While the work of salvation is of divine grace alone, it is revealed in such a way as to make us both empty of self-righteousness and hope in ourselves, yet zealous that the marks of the new birth, election, sanctification, adoption, and calling be ours. “If anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor.” It is always the obligation of all persons to cleanse themselves of all dishonorable things, and it is always the effect of grace when it is done.
  2. The Man of God must flee moral perversity and intellectual vanity (22, 23, 24).
  • Captivity to fleshly lusts shows that one has not repented. A mind beclouded by the lust of the flesh does not have a clear perception of the glory of the righteousness that the law portrays. Until the glorification of the body in heaven, these lusts will be present, but grace gives strength and determination to flee them, to put them to death (Romans 8:13, 14).
  • Quarrelsome activity shows a cavalier disregard for revealed truth in Scripture. Our task is not to show that we are more clever than others, but to demonstrate confidence in the power of God’s revelation. It is the true wisdom among the mature (1 Corinthians 2:6-8) and the only means for prompting repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thes 1:4-7; 2 Thes 2:13-15).  Because the task of reclaiming is often a slow and difficult process, the Lord’s servant must take a long look at these things and thus show gentleness, not quarrelsomeness, and must realize that he will often be misunderstood and misrepresented. Thus, he has to be “patient when wronged” (24).

B. In taking this caution, he will be useful for eternal purposes

  1. Pursue the genuine fruits of true teaching and a transformed heart (21, 22).
  2. His knowledge of Scripture, combined with humility, will make him useful to reclaim those who are in error. Perhaps some who fall briefly into doctrinal error through speculation may be reclaimed. Normally, perhaps without exception, this occurs not through combativeness, but through gentle instruction focusing strictly on the word of God. If they are among God’s elect, they will find grace in the truth of biblical instruction and in that way be reclaimed. Otherwise, they show that they have not escaped from the snares of the devil but still are in his power. (Ephesians 2:2; 1 John 5:18-21).



IV. Warnings

A. Forsaking personal autonomy for submission to authority of truth produces life here and hereafter.

B. Being engrossed in personal speculation with regard for neither the morals nor the doctrine of Scripture indicates forsakenness.

C. Note carefully that the warning against striving or wrangling about words does not mean that words are unimportant or that contending for the faith is not a Christian duty. Rather, it means that words should not be used in such a way that the plain truth of Scripture becomes a matter of philosophical speculation. The minister is not to “wrangle about words” but is indeed to be one who rightly handles the “word of truth.” He is not to quarrel but is to labor in order to “correct those who are in opposition.” Truth itself is set forth in words; some have strayed from, or erred, concerning the truth and must be dealt with in gentleness with the goal of their knowledge of the truth. The father of lies and therefore the arch-enemy of the truth is Satan himself. To lead a person to truth is to set that person free from the soul-destroying sinful corruptions of his heart and the death dealing hands of Satan.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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