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Sunday, September 14, 2008

What Kind of Vessels? (2 Timothy 2.16-23)

September 14, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Last week we looked at this passage for the first time, focusing on verses 14-15. There we were challenged to study God’s Word, the Bible, in order to present ourselves to God as approved workers or disciples. Particularly as we try to become better at being “lighthouse” and “searchlight” Christians – that is, people who live out our faith as a witness to Jesus Christ, both in and outside of the church – it is critical for us to study and be grounded in the Bible. We must learn to “accurately handle the Word of Truth.”

In order to learn the Bible better, I challenged you to commit to exercise spiritually at least three times a week – Sunday morning Sunday school and worship, and Wednesday night Bible study. There are also other times and places to study the Bible, like the women’s studies on Monday night and Tuesday morning. If we are going to be effective as outwardly focused Christians, we must be committed to and grounded in biblical knowledge and truth.

Today we continue through the passage, looking at verses 16-23. Paul is writing Timothy to prepare and equip him to lead the local church in ministry and mission. That is the same task we are engaging as we try to become more of a “lighthouse” and “searchlight” church. There are challenges and dangers all around – sometimes from without and sometimes from within.

This chapter is dominated by a danger in the local church community where Timothy was pastoring. We’ll begin by looking at that situation and an analogy Paul made to describe it, then we’ll look at three dangers he notes to Timothy, along with some defenses against the danger.

A Useful Vessel for God

We’ll start in vv. 17-18, which describe the challenging situation in the local church community:
Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place…
I mentioned this situation last week, when we looked at the phrase “wrangling with words” in v. 14. That phrase literally means “to fight with words as with swords” and I noted that the false teaching about the resurrection was wounding and carving up the local body where Timothy served. That led to Paul’s charge to study and apply God’s Word carefully and accurately.

Note that these men were not outside the church, where there were also plenty of dangers and pitfalls for the mission-minded Christian. The surrounding culture of 1st century Greco-Roman culture was as over-sexed and appetite-centered as anything you could find today. But this passage reminds us that the church itself has never been pure and perfect on this earth. Because it is full of human beings, it is a mixture of “wheat and tares” (to use Jesus’ analogy). And Paul gives his own analogy for it in vv. 19-21. Let’s look at that.

First, he says several important things about the earthly church in v. 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.”
First, the mixture and impurity – of right teaching and wrong teaching, the pure and the impure, the wheat and the chaff – does not threaten the foundation of the Church that God has established in Jesus Christ. Indeed, Jesus said that on the foundation rock of His name, even the gates of Hell would not stand against this Church. Secondly, that foundation is sealed with the affirmation that God is not confused by the mixture and impurity. God knows who are His; God can see the human heart; God is not fooled by words, arguments, or anything else. Nor, as one Presbyterian pastor commentator said recently of our own mixed, wheat-and-chaff denomination, is God surprised or somehow sucker-punched by the things we do.

Paul goes on to explore the nature of the mixed and impure earthly church, offering his own analogy for it in v. 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.
He compares the earthly church, and particularly the Ephesian situation where Timothy is pastor, to a large house, which has gold and silver vessels, which are lasting and serve a lasting purpose, and earthenware vessels, which have a temporary and limited purpose. The language of “vessels” is interesting, for it is the same word used elsewhere in Paul’s writings to describe human beings, created for God’s purpose and glory. Specifically, Paul uses this word in 2 Corinthians 4:7, where he writes:
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves…
It is the power of God, poured into us “vessels” through His Holy Spirit, that transforms us from clay pots into the “gold and silver vessels” of v. 20. Like a household, Paul analogizes, the church contains those who know and trust in Jesus Christ, are filled with His glory and Spirit, and serve the honorable purposes of God through “every good work.” The church also contains those who are “in the right house” but who do not know Christ or serve him – and are vessels of dishonor.

And yet, Paul is not ready to consign anyone living to be “gold” or “earthenware” as he did in hindsight with Moses and Pharaoh in Romans 9. While Paul would uphold God’s sovereignty and perfect knowledge and will, all we can measure and know while we live is our own response to God’s grace in Jesus Christ. So, Paul holds out hope for Timothy and others to repent and change and prove themselves vessels useful to the Lord. So he can write in v. 21…
If anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.
Look to your own life. Clean up your act. How do you do that? It is through conviction, repentance (turning to God in humility), receiving God’s gracious forgiveness, and responding to God’s invitation to serve Him.

And we will see at the end of this passage (in vv. 24-26) – and this is the subject of next week’s sermon – that Paul holds out hope, even for those who currently seem to be showing themselves to be vessels of dishonor.

What remains, though, in the verses for today, are some practical warnings against the kind of dangers that can distract a Christian from God’s calling and purpose. There are (at least) three dangers that can keep us from serving as “vessels of honor.” Let’s look at those and consider how we may respond in faithfulness.

Danger #1: Empty Talk (vv. 16-17)

The first danger is “empty talk” or “worldly and empty chatter.” In verse 16, we read that we should avoid this kind of talk, because it has at least three negative results. It will “lead to further ungodliness” (v. 16); it will “spread like gangrene” (v. 17); and it will “upset the faith of some” (v. 17).

A faithful Christian should speak truth with substance. This is one of the results of studying scripture as we talked about last week. When our minds are soaked in scripture, it is far easier not to be characterized by “worldly and empty chatter.” Unfortunately, it is not simply a matter of braving the “worldly chatter” out there – but it is a danger within the church as well. We’ve seen that Paul cites a local example of men (Hymenaeus and Philetus) speculating and teaching about the resurrection in a way that did not accord with scripture. Their words evidently were wreaking havoc within the church and upsetting the faith of some believers.

Paul’s advice to Timothy and to us: avoid this kind of talk, whether it’s inside the church or outside. Let your words be full of truth and substance, bearing witness to Jesus Christ. Don’t engage in the chatter or add to it. Guarding the tongue is the best defense; grounding in the Bible is the best offense.

Danger #2: Immaturity and Distraction (v. 22)

Look at v. 22. A second danger is distraction because of immaturity. Our pew-Bibles translate this verse “flee from youthful lusts.” Your first thought at hearing that probably is a warning against sexual immorality, and certainly that is part of the danger here. But, the original words are broader than that, meaning “youthful passions” or “distractions of the young.” This is a broad challenge to grow up in Christ. The breadth of this can be seen in the contrast with what follows. In the place of these youthful distractions, we are to “pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace.” And we are to look for examples, mentors, and fellowship with “those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”

This language is chosen, in part, because Timothy is so young. He may well have been an older teenager or in his early 20s. Elsewhere Paul encourages him to not let people look down on him because of his youthfulness. Here, Paul cautions him against the kinds of things that can distract a young person (or an immature believer of any age!): “Don’t get sidetracked by these men who are stirring up the church – I know you’d love a good fight – but keep pursuing godly character and draw to you those who are calling on the Lord from a pure heart.”

This is a very timely word for our church as we ponder our ongoing role in our larger denominational context. Last Wednesday night, the elders and I met with the congregation to share our calling and respond to questions. We are trying to find that fine balance between pursuing godliness in our public witness and getting dragged down by Presbyterian church debates and arguments. This passage is such a helpful guide in recognizing both the calling and the dangers as we ultimately pursue faithful and obedient service to God.

Danger #3: False Teaching (v. 23)

Finally, in v. 23, Paul describes a third danger: false teaching…
But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels.
From “word wrangling” to “idle chatter” to “spreading like gangrene” to several uses of “quarrel,” it is clear that Paul sees great danger in what was going on in Ephesus. It’s not just the false teaching in and of itself, that can lead one astray; it is also the arguing and fighting that can disrupt and damage a church community.

One of the real dangers I have discussed with our elders is that we get so focused on righting the wrongs or fleeing the people with whom we disagree that we fail to focus on the primary and first order ministry and mission God has put before us as a church. And so we’ve talked of finding a godly priority and balance.

Coming Next…

As a church, we are still working at the questions, “What is God doing and how can I/we be a part?” This passage in 2 Timothy charts the path for answering that question in difficult times.

In order to be a faithful and healthy church, we must be grounded in God’s Word. That’s the starting place – studying and applying God’s Word of Truth. Come to Sunday school; worship regularly; get involved in one of our weekly studies. It’s essential to becoming vessels of honor in service to the Lord.

That grounding in God’s Word will also help us avoid the quarreling that is primarily a fight between two people’s opinions. To return to scripture as the arbiter of truth is to seek God’s Word and will over and above our own.

That grounding in God’s Word will also help us grow spiritually such that we can turn away from immature and ungodly behaviors and inclinations and be transformed by the power and presence of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives.

Paul is not done, though. Having warned against quarreling, he goes on to describe a means of engaging, confronting, and correcting those in error. His goal is not the purification of the Church, but the correction and redemption of people, outside and inside the human construct of the church. He also points ultimately to Satan as the source of this discord:
The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 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. (vv. 24-26)
We will continue next week with this passage as we move towards a fuller engagement with the question, “What is God doing and how can we be a part?” Amen.

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