Take Hold of Usefulness

Biblical Truth: When God gives a person an opportunity to lead, He also encourages and empowers the person to lead.

Be Approved, Not Ashamed: 2 Timothy 2:14-19.

[14] Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. [15] Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. [16] But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, [17] and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, [18] men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some. [19] Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, "The Lord knows those who are His," and, "Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness."   [NASU]

[14]  The beginning imperative [remind] contains a strong appeal, directing Timothy to do his duty for the people. Paul charged Timothy to add solemnity to his exhortation by warning the Ephesians in the presence of God. The content of the warning includes an appeal to avoid quarreling about words. In the end disputing about words seeks not the victory of truth but the victory of the speaker. Paul outlined two results of such verbal quibbles. First, it accomplishes no good purpose. Second, it works to the ruin of those who participate in it. The word for ruin describes the tearing down of believers. It is the opposite of edification. Word splitting whets an appetite for argument rather than building commitment to the living God. In the heat of debate we must always ask ourselves if the subject is actually worth a fight and a searing disagreement.

[15]  What could Timothy personally do to prevent a growing interest in such misdirected actions? The best medicine against the disease of disputes about words is Timothy’s good conduct itself. This good conduct included three features. First, Timothy was to make it his supreme ambition to obtain God’s approval. Second, he was to be a workman with no reason to be ashamed. Paul was urging his Christian friend to work with such diligence that he would have no fear of shame for poor quality work. Third, this same workman was to be accurate in delivering the message of truth. The verb accurately handling means literally to cut straight; to cut a path in a straight direction. The word of truth is the apostolic faith which Timothy has received from Paul and is to communicate to others. To cut it straight or make it a straight path is to be accurate on the one hand and plain on the other in our exposition. Thus the good workman is true to Scripture. He does not falsify it. Nor does he try to confuse people, like Elymas the sorcerer, by making crooked the straight paths of the Lord [Acts 13:10]. On the contrary, he handles the word with such scrupulous care that he both stays on the path himself, keeping to the highway and avoiding the byways, and makes it easy for others to follow.

[16]  Paul urged Timothy to make a positive contribution to the fight against false teaching. The use of the present imperative for avoid suggests that Timothy had to remain continually alert to the threat of heresy. The term worldly shows that the debates of the heretics had nothing to do with real godliness. The term chatter pictures the discussions of the heretics as aimless and empty. The reason for avoiding these foolish discussions was that they led to progress in the wrong direction. With a twist of irony Paul stated that the heretics would indeed advance but only in the direction of ungodliness.

[17]  Not only would these people advance in ungodliness, but their teaching would spread to cause ruin. The spread of their heresy furthered the spread of ungodliness. Their influence on other believers would be disastrous. Paul compared the spread of the heresy to the spread of gangrene through the body. Just as gangrene progressively brought death to the human body, the sickening progress of the heretical teaching worked havoc with the body of Christ in Ephesus. These two tendencies of heresy are most revealing. We would be wise to ask ourselves regarding every kind of teaching both what its attitude is towards God and what effect it has upon men. There is invariably something about error which is dishonoring to God and damaging to men. The truth, on the other hand, always honors God, promoting godliness, and always edifies its hearers.

[18]  Paul asserted that these two ringleaders, Hymenaeus and Philetus, had gone astray from the truth. This verb suggests that they had missed the mark. The two heretics had asserted that the general resurrection had already taken place. Greeks often showed a contempt for the concept of physical resurrection. Because they viewed the body as evil, they shunned the concept of a future bodily resurrection. For such people a spiritualized view of resurrection was more agreeable. The Ephesian teaching concerning the resurrection may have denied a future bodily resurrection. It probably asserted that the resurrection had already occurred in the spiritual renewal of the believer by regeneration. In asserting that the resurrection had already occurred, the false teachers could deny both the past resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of believers. They could depreciate the body and promote asceticism. Both emphases can lead to moral indifference. For Paul the resurrection hope was foundational in Christianity. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul had shown that a denial of the possibility of resurrection jettisoned the gospel [15:3-11], brought the credibility of the apostles into question [15:14-15], and robbed believers of an incentive for sacrifice and service [15:29-34].

[19]  Although the faith of men can be upset, the foundation of God remains secure. This is the true church which He is building. It has a twofold seal or inscription. The first is secret and invisible, namely The Lord knows those who are His and will therefore keep them safe forever. The second is public and visible, namely Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness and so proves that one belongs to the Lord by his holiness. Ultimately, Paul is saying, it is only the Lord who knows and recognizes His own people, and can tell the true from the spurious, for only He sees the heart. But though we cannot see the heart, we can see the life, which is the one reliable evidence of the heart’s condition, and is apparent to all.

Be Special, Not Ordinary: 2 Timothy 2:20-21.

[20] Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. [21] Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.  [NASU]

Paul now changes the metaphor from good and bad workmen to noble and ignoble vessels. The two kinds of vessels (gold and silver for noble use, wood and earthenware for ignoble) represent true and false teachers in the church. It would be difficult to exaggerate the privilege which the apostle here sets before Timothy in verse 21. Indeed he extends it to any and every Christian minister or worker who will fulfill the condition, for his statement is couched in quite general terms: if anyone cleanses himself from these things. The privilege is described by simple, yet beautiful expressions. He will be a vessel for honor. This is then elaborated by three further expressions: sanctified (consecrated, permanently set apart), useful to the Master and prepared for every good work. No higher honor could be imagined than to be an instrument in the hand of Jesus Christ, to be at his disposal for the furtherance of His purposes, to be available whenever wanted for His service. The master of the house lays down only one condition. The vessels which he uses must be clean. His promise hinges on this. It is evident at once that some kind of self-purification is the indispensable condition of usefulness to Christ, but exactly what is it? The context suggests that we are to hold ourselves aloof from the kind of false teachers who both deny some fundamental of the gospel and (according to 1 Tim. 1:19-20) have also violated their conscience and lapsed into some form of unrighteousness. But Paul’s condition is more radical even than this. What we are to avoid is not so much contact with such men as their error and their evil. To purify ourselves from these things is essentially to purge their falsehood from our minds and their wickedness from our hearts and lives. Purity of doctrine and purity of life is the essential condition of being serviceable to Christ. That this is the correct interpretation is confirmed by the fact that the metaphor of the great house and its vessels is sandwiched in between two clear allusions to personal holiness. Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness [19]. Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace [22]. It is perfectly true that in His sovereign providence God has sometimes chosen to use impure vessels as the instruments both of His judgment and of His salvation. But these were exceptional cases; they were also national, rather than personal. The overwhelming emphasis of Scripture is that God chooses to use clean vessels, instruments of righteousness [Rom. 6:13], for the fulfillment of His purposes. Certainly in Paul’s exhortation to Timothy he must purify himself if he is to be fit for the Master to use.

Be Wise, Not Foolish: 2 Timothy 2:22-26.

[22] Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. [23] But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. [24] The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, [25] with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, [26] and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.  [NASU]

[22]  Paul now elaborates what he means in an outspoken appeal which is both negative and positive. Negatively, Timothy is to flee from youthful lusts. This is not to be understood exclusively as a reference to sexual lust, but to self-assertion as well as self-indulgence, to selfish ambition, headstrong obstinacy, arrogance and indeed all the wayward impulses of youth. Positively, Timothy is to pursue the four essential marks of a Christian: righteousness, faith, love and peace. And he is to pursue these in the company of those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. As we listen to Paul’s moral exhortation, it is important not to miss the sharp contrast between its negative and positive aspects and in particular between the two verbs flee and pursue. Flee means literally to “seek safety in flight” or “escape”. It is used literally of flight from physical danger. When the verb is used figuratively, it denotes flight from spiritual danger. All Christians are commanded to flee from idolatry, from immorality, from the spirit of materialism and the love of money, and here from youthful passions [1 Cor. 10:14; 6:18; 1 Tim. 6:11]. We are to recognize sin as something dangerous to the soul. We are not to come to terms with it, or even negotiate with it. We are not to linger in its presence. On the contrary we are to get as far away from it as possible as quickly as possible. The verb pursue is the exact opposite. It means to run after, to chase, in war or hunting. Metaphorically, this verb is used to portray the Christian’s pursuit of the will of God. In particular, the Christian is urged to pursue moral righteousness with the same attention to detail that the Jews pursued legal righteousness [Rom. 9:31]. Thus we are both to run away from spiritual danger and to run after spiritual good, both to flee from the one in order to escape it and to pursue the other in order to attain it. This double duty of Christians is the consistent, reiterated teaching of Scripture. We are to deny ourselves and to follow Christ. We are to put off what belongs to our old life and to put on what belongs to our new life. We are to put to death our earthly members and to set our minds on heavenly things. We are to crucify the flesh and to walk in the Spirit. It is the ruthless rejection of the one in combination with the relentless pursuit of the other which Scripture enjoins upon us as the secret of holiness.    

[23-26]  The metaphor changes again. The vessel in the house becomes a slave in the household. Paul instructs Timothy to refuse foolish and ignorant speculations. They are ignorant, literally “uninstructed” or even “undisciplined”, because they go beyond Scripture and do not submit to the intellectual discipline which Scripture should impose upon us. They also inevitably produce quarrels because when people forsake revelation for speculation, they have no agreed authority and no impartial court of appeal. They lapse into pure subjectivism and so into profitless argument in which one man’s opinion is as good (or bad) as another’s. The fundamental characteristic of the Lord’s bond-servant is to be gentleness. In his teaching Timothy must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all. Second, he must be able to teach. The term in this context calls for both the ability and the willingness to teach. Third, he must avoid resentfulness (patient when wronged). The word describes someone who can control irritability because he has learned to bear patiently the wrong in others. Fourth, he is to instruct his opponents in order to correct their error of heresy. The call for gentleness demands a tolerance in spirit without a weakening of evangelical orthodoxy. Timothy’s opponents included both hardened antagonists and those duped by their deceitful ways, and Timothy had to be prepared to deal wisely with either group. Moreover, if the Lord’s servant adorns his Christian teaching with a Christian character, and if he is meek in his dealings with the wayward, lasting good may follow. God Himself, through such a gentle ministry, may perform a conspicuous work of salvation. We must observe carefully in verses 25-26 how these opponents of apostolic truth are regarded. They are evidently sinful, for they need to repent, and also in error for they need to come to know the truth. But most striking of all is that the evil and the error in which they are involved are both seen as symptoms of the snare of the devil from whom they need to be rescued. Behind the scenes, invisible to men on the stage and in the audience, a spiritual battle is being fought out. The devil’s grim activity is graphically depicted. He is likened to a hunter who captures his quarry alive in some clever snare or trap. From such a captivity, only God can deliver them by giving them repentance unto an acknowledgment of the truth. Yet He effects the rescue through the human ministry of one of His servants, who avoids quarrelling and teaches with kindness, forbearance and gentleness.

Questions for Discussion:

1.    Paul calls upon Timothy to remind the Ephesians of these things. What are these things? Why is it so important for Christians to remember these things? What must happen for Christians to remember and not forget the important truths of the gospel?

2.    What does it mean accurately handling the word of truth? What things can you do to become better at handling the word of truth?

3.    What does Paul instruct Timothy to do in order to be a vessel useful to the Master [see verse 22]? Note here the double duty of every believer: flee and pursue. Why does Paul focus on these things in order for Timothy to be useful in dealing with both false teaching and false teachers?

4.    According to these verses how should a Christian respond to foolish arguments? How does Paul instruct Timothy to respond to the false teachers themselves?


2 Timothy, Thomas Lea, NAC, Broadman.

The Message of 2 Timothy, John Stott, Inter-Varsity Press.

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