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Monday, September 22, 2008

Vessels of Honor (2 Timothy 2:24-26)

September 21, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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This month we are focusing on truth and error using the verses you heard again today from 2 Timothy 2. Specifically, this passage deals with the question of how to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ in a context where truth and error are so mixed together. We saw last week that this is not only the challenging context “out there” outside the church, but even within the walls, where there are “wheat and weeds” or, as Paul writes, “vessels of honor and dishonor in the same house.”

Two weeks ago we read that to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ in this mixed up world, it is crucial that we be trained and equipped to study and live out God’s Word of Truth, the Bible. That is why we put such a high value on Sunday school, Bible study, and Christian education. That is why it is essential for your spiritual health and development to be plugged into Bible study beyond what you get in a short sermon each week. I’d remind you that our Wednesday night study is explicitly set up to equip you for personal and group study and we are just getting started. Now is the perfect time to build that into your weekly routines.

Last week we looked at some warnings or cautions to those who would be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, or “vessels of honor.” Paul warned us to avoid empty or meaningless talk, to grow up and grow out of immature pursuits, and to refuse to engage in angry arguments or quarrels.

Today we continue that same topic of how to be “vessels of honor” – but we see the positive side of those warnings. If we are to avoid certain things, now we look at the patterns and behaviors we are to emulate and practice. Remember that there is a special emphasis on confrontation and argument (quarreling) because of the particular issues in the church in Ephesus.

First we will look at four qualities highlighted for those seeking to be faithful followers of Jesus in a culture full of truth and error. Then we will consider the rationale for those qualities. Finally, we will see that there is a spiritual dimension to all this beyond what may be obvious and apparent.

Four Qualities of Vessels of Honor

Having given three warnings or dangers to avoid in the verses we studied last week, Paul now gives four qualities which characterize “vessels of honor” – those seeking to follow Jesus Christ and be approved by God. These qualities are set against the example of Hymenaeus and Philetus, and the damage being caused within the church as they use words like swords to harm and cut up the body of Christ.

Kind to all (v. 24)

First, the Lord’s bond-servant must be “kind to all.” There is the same danger here as with “meekness” – confusing kindness (or meekness) with being a kind of human doormat… getting pushed around by the bullies and never standing up for anything. But this is set precisely in a passage all about standing up for truth! The whole point is about HOW one stands up for truth. Do you do so by arguing, quarreling, lashing out angrily in truth? If you’ve ever wielded the truth in this way, you may have seen how ineffective it seems to be. I’m specifically tying this to the “word-wrangling” which means “to wield words as swords.” Truth and God’s word is indeed like a sharp blade, but more like that of a surgeon’s knife than a thug’s weapon. It only confuses and masks truth to wield it in anger. Here Paul is repeating his admonition from Ephesians 4:15 to “speak the truth in love.”

To illustrate the difference simply, consider the difference between me coming up to you and saying, “You’re wrong, you unthinking idiot” and “You’re wrong, friend.” Magnify those examples by mannerism, posture, tone, and attitude, and you can so deafen people with your posture that they will be incapable of hearing the truth, no matter how truthful it is. Contrast that with kindness, which opens the other’s ears, fosters trust and maintains relationship.

Paul’s advice here goes beyond confrontations about church teachings. It’s good advice for any conflict or confrontation you face.

Able to teach (v. 24)

A second quality of a follower of Christ is the ability to teach. This need not be a Sunday school teacher to a class of 20, but lines up with verse 15 from two weeks ago. We need to be able to handle God’s Word accurately. A Christian should neither be ignorant of Scripture nor mis-handle it from lack of study. This is a re-iteration of the plea and challenge to diligently study the Bible. Likewise, I want to continue to urge each of you to commit to Sunday school and a mid-week study. It’s not to fill our classes or get a Sunday school pin, but to train your mind, heart, and spirit so that God’s Word and will shapes your life, your speech, and your choices.

We have always put a premium on Bible study at Good Shepherd, but we are extra-focused right now on equipping you to read and study the Bible. I can’t commend Wednesday nights highly enough – we are offering seminary level training at everyday relevance and language. Do you want to know what to do with Scripture when you crack open your Bible and find yourself reading laws, or genealogies, or history, or long poems? Come find out! Right now we are covering basics about where the Bible came from and why we believe it to be the Word of God. In three weeks, we’ll jump into how to study it effectively.

Patient when wronged (v. 24)

A third quality of one who would serve the Lord is that he or she is “patient when wronged.” This is getting into “turn the other cheek” territory and is evidence of some Christian maturity and what the Bible calls “fruit” of God’s Spirit. Again, this is set in the context of the internal church conflict in the Ephesian church, but it has broad application. A follower of Jesus starts to look like Jesus. One of the results of diligently studying the Bible and obeying God is that we start growing up spiritually and otherwise. Remember last week? Staying immature in faith is something to avoid. We are to grow; patience is a sign of maturing in faith, even in the face of being wronged.

With gentleness correcting those who are in opposition (v. 25)

The fourth quality of one who follows Jesus – a “vessel of honor” – really takes the first three qualities, combines them together, and puts them into action. When confronted with error, we are to correct that error with gentleness and the truth. This is kindness lived out in our speech. This is “able to teach” in the most applicable kind of way – that we aren’t just imparting knowledge, but leading people to God’s truth. This is “patience when wronged” because one of the hardest times to be patience is when one is verbally or otherwise opposing you. It is Christian maturity and the presence of Jesus that enables one to correct gently and not retaliate against angry words with angry words.

It would be enough that we are simply to reflect the character of Jesus in our speech and behavior, but Paul goes on to give an additional and important reason for exhibiting these qualities in our lives.

Why these Qualities?

Paul holds out this hope in the rest of these two verses:

… perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses… (vv. 25b-26a)

God’s grace and His ability to transform the heart, mind, and soul of a person extends far beyond anything we can imagine. The hardest heart, the most stubborn spirit, the most entrenched position – it can all be changed if God is involved. This isn’t to say that my persuasive words will change someone, but that I do not find myself working counter to what God would do.

It’s interesting also to note that what happens in this hopeful scenario is not that my opponent would become convinced of the truth, but that my opponent would be repentant. That is, the one to whom I am being kind, truthful, and patient, would turn toward God in faith. It is that broken and repentant heart that then leads someone to know God’s truth.

I see this scenario played out and subverted all the time, from the embattled positions held in our local presbytery to my years in youth ministry to my own parenting. Attacking an opponent, even if we are “in the right” usually just pushes them further from you and from the truth. Cultivating kindness and patience in a relationship opens hearts to hear the truth and change.

It’s Not All Good Guys and Bad Guys

I left off the very last part of verse 26 in order to speak to it as its own topic. Paul finishes the description of the hopeful outcome of a repentant heart led to God’s truth with this additional phrase:

… [that they might] escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. (v. 26b)

Paul observes here what he does in Ephesians 6:12… that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but is part of a larger spiritual battle between God and His enemy, Satan. While other human beings can and do hold opinions and beliefs that are contrary to God’s Word, it is not enough to simply think of truth and error in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys.” Satan is the “Father of Lies” (John 8:44) and would deceive human beings any time and any place he can.

That recognition coupled with the qualities Paul describes here should cause a follower of Jesus not to see others as enemies, but as fellow human beings in need of God’s redemption and truth. Even conflicts of truth and error, which lead us so easily into quarrels, then become for us another mission field, a place to be salt and light, as carriers of the winsome and inviting Good News of Jesus Christ. This connection between truth, error, and mission, also provides some depth of understanding to what Jesus meant when he charged us to “love our enemies” (Matthew 5:44ff).

Summing Up

This passage from 2 Timothy is rich. It is a challenge to all who would be followers of Jesus in a culture and setting where the Father of Lies would deceive and distract many from the Truth. Diligently study your Bible; guard your behavior and turn away from an immature and shallow faith toward a mature faith imprinted with the character of Jesus Christ. Let this faith be evident in word and deed, as even the confrontation of untruth becomes an opportunity to be salt and light for Jesus Christ.

Want to accept that challenge and get better at those things? Then commit to Bible study, worship, and prayer. Our church ministry is here to cultivate that kind of followership of Jesus. Take advantage of the rich resources we offer here.

Next Week: testimony, application, and invitation

I’m very excited about next Sunday’s service. All this study about what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus will come to a head as we personally consider the question, “What is God doing and how can I be a part?” We will hear stories from a number of our own church family who have and are using their gifts and talents to be a part of what God is doing.

We will see how people are applying these scriptures to get up and get out, to be salt and light for Jesus. And I will be challenging and inviting each person to make a commitment to respond to that “How can I be a part?” question. I hope you will come ready and willing to respond to God’s Holy Word and Spirit. Amen.

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