The journey through first and second Timothy takes us behind the scenes in early church life. We begin to feel something of the struggle and joy and difficulty and need among those who first confessed Jesus as Lord. While external opposition grew as the century progressed in to the early 2ndcentury, internal opposition to the unity and purity of the church seemed to grow exponentially. At every turn there seemed to be either a false teaching creeping into the church or a false teacher getting a foothold on a congregation or a one-time faithful disciple falling back into the world or a good brother overcome by the weightiness of the strains. Faithfulness did not seem to be easy in the early church.
Yet it also did not seem impossible given that the Lord of the Church promised His Spirit to help and enable. Apostles and prophets regularly gave instruction to the various churches, sometime personally, other times by their appointed emissaries or through personal letters. In just such a situation we find Timothy serving as Paul’s emissary to the church in Ephesus, a church where the apostle had invested 3 years of his ministry and had written to them one of the most magnificent letters ever penned to a congregation.
But Timothy had an uphill battle. The city of Ephesus in ancient Asia Minor appeared to be a center for an amalgamation of ideas, philosophies, and beliefs. Some of those had settled into the church in that city. Timothy had the task of trying to strengthen the leadership, encourage faithfulness in the body of Christ, and uproot the false teaching that had confused the proper understanding of the resurrection. Timothy’s courage had to be steeled so that he might continue addressing hard issues and obstinate people. He felt the strong temptation to be brash, harsh, and have an “in-your-face-I-told-you-so” attitude. We might think he would be justified in doing so given the fickle spirit of the church. He likely ransacked his mind for ideas of how to get the church back on task of being a faithful body of Christ in the community, living as a kingdom outpost in a pagan world.
However, there was something more important than his bright ideas. He needed to pay close attention to himself and his teaching (1 Tim 4:16) so that he might remain a useful vessel to the Lord.
None of us walk in his shoes. But neither does he walk in ours. Each of us faces our own unique challenges of being useful instruments in the Lord’s hands for whatever ministries or tasks or opportunities He has laid before us. We’re not Timothy in Ephesus but we’re Christians concerned with how to be a witness to our friends or how to give a good defense for the gospel in the workplace or how to display the beauty of union with Jesus Christ to those in our extended family or how to serve Christ cross-culturally. Usefulness is not automatic. Usefulness calls for attentiveness and action. Just as Timothy had to give attention to this matter, becoming something of a micro-picture for us, so we too must be attentive toward usefulness for the sake of Christ and His kingdom. What lessons do we learn from Paul’s instruction to Timothy on usefulness to the Master? We will consider two aspects of usefulness: actions for usefulness and qualities for usefulness.
I. Actions for usefulness
It seems that Paul is quite given to metaphors in this letter. He’s told Timothy to suffer hardship “as a good soldier of Christ Jesus,” to compete as an athlete who is qualified to win the prize, and to be the hard-working farmer that receives his share of the crops. Now he moves to another, more extended metaphor in order to explain what is meant by usefulness to the Lord.
1. A metaphor
A metaphor is a word picture that is not to be taken literally but to help us understand a more important reality. For instance, when you’re facing a difficult challenge, someone might say, “I hope that you have good spikes and a strong walking stick in climbing that mountain.” You’re not literally climbing a mountain with spikes and stick but the picture that your friend uses helps you to visualize what he means.
Paul used a simple metaphor to help Timothy visualize what it meant to be useful to the Lord.“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 takes us to a large house of an important person. Maybe it was the governor of the region or a wealthy merchant. In that house were lots of different types of containers. There were cups, bowls, jars, vases, and urns. The master of the house would insist on the very best of these vessels for his personal use. So he might have a golden cup from which to drink or a silver platter on which his food would be served. But outside the kitchen area were other vessels. Not vessels of gold or silver but vessels hewn from wood or made of an inexpensive pottery. Food and table scraps would be thrown into them to be given to the animals on the estate. Southerners would know this as the proverbial “slop bucket,” a container that a human would not dare to use for his own food but that contained the food scraped from plates to be given to the farm animals.
The honorable vessels were those that the lord of the house used for his eating and drinking; the dishonorable vessels were those that were not fit for holding food or drink for him. Both kinds of vessels were in the house. Only one kind would be useful for the master’s table.
2. An explanation
Paul’s “therefore” in verse 21 shows that he’s giving explanation for the metaphor.“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.” Obviously, he has something in mind that has brought dishonor into the church and the lives of some of the professing Christians.“These things” is probably referring back to the kind of folly evidenced in those who were engaged in useless wrangling about nonsense, and in Hymenaeus and Philetus who had a warped view of the resurrection that had unsettled many in the church (2 Tim 2:14, 17–18). He’s emphatic on cleansing oneself from these things. It literally means ‘to clean out thoroughly.’ In other words, whether Timothy or anyone else, including us, if we give attention to repentance and confession and turning from those things that dishonor the Lord and those beliefs that contradict sound doctrine, then we become vessels“for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master.”
Here’s what we must see. Usefulness in God’s kingdom is not automatic. If we are careless about what we believe or careless about how we behave, we may be short-circuiting our usefulness as instruments in God’s hands for His glory. Despite lots of big talk as Christians, despite being outspoken we may have little effectiveness for the sake of Jesus Christ and the gospel in other people’s lives.
Now, someone may say, ‘Well, what’s the big deal? I have plenty to take care of with myself much less thinking about being useful in influencing anyone else for God’s kingdom.’
That pinpoints one critical issue that stands at the heart of much Christian complacency in our day: thinking that we are Christians only for ourselves. The Christian faith is a community or corporate faith. The Lord does not save us to isolate us from everyone but to thrust us into the action of serving others in the name of Jesus Christ. That was one keen point that Jesus made to both the Twelve and the Seventy that He sent out in His name. They were to selflessly serve others for the sake of Christ (Matt 10; Luke 9–10).
We must do no less. Just as Jesus sent the nameless Seventy into the harvest as laborers, as lambs in the midst of wolves, and as ambassadors who represent Him, He sends us as well (Luke 10:2–3, 16). He intends to send us as useful vessels who might be instruments of blessing in His hand. He does not send out “slop buckets” but vessels cleansed by applying the gospel to one’s life, repenting of sin, embracing obedience, restoring broken relationships, turning from besetting sins. When we realize that there are issues of sin and disobedience and need for reconciliation in our lives, then it’s not time to sweep that under the rug. It’s time for action. In so doing, the believer finds himself “a vessel for honor, sanctified (set apart, belonging to the Master), useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.”
3. Three actions to take
Paul’s “now” in verse 22 shows that he’s further explaining how we can take action to cleanse ourselves from these things and be useful vessels for the master, prepared for the good works that He’s entrusted to us. He builds this on three imperatives (commands).
First, “Now flee from youthful lusts.” We typically think of “lusts” as referring to sensual issues, and in many cases it does. It is certainly applicable here. If there are sensual matters that are keeping you from being a fit vessel for God to use in blessing others, then dally no longer! Repent of those matters of the mind, eyes, and physical involvement. There are some who may be admirable in most every way except in this matter of sensual lusts. It gets excused and nursed instead of crying out to the Lord for grace to repent; building sufficient accountability into the life to maintain a repentant heart; running from the things that lead to sin in this area.
But it may be that Paul has something else in mind that tends toward “youthful lusts.” Youth is often a time of indiscipline, exaggeration, and lack of control. Sometime young people say things that hurt and wound others that they would not dare to say when they get older. Or sometime a youth may lose self-control in a relationship and damage what has been a good friendship because of it. Or sometime there’s a youthful rebellion against authority so that some poor decisions are made under the guise of freedom. It seems that Paul has something of this in mind.
Flee from breaking relationships by carelessness with your comments! Flee from the lack of self-control that gets you into the middle of squabbles and gossip and unprofitable chatter. Flee from the indiscretion that casts a shadow over your testimony of Christ.
Second, “pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” He calls for beginning in good company with those who make it their practice to deal with heart issues, to keep their sins confessed, to maintain a holy walk with Christ, so that they call on the Lord from a pure heart.
Here’s what struck me as I contemplated this passage. I find myself much more focused onfleeing instead of pursuing. We can creep into the legalistic mindset that we’ve done what we need to do because we have run from some particular sins. But that can create a vacuum in our lives in which we find pride, arrogance, judgmentalism, and self-centeredness creeping in. The only way to cure that is to have the right kind of pursuits. In this case, Paul identifies four pursuits.
“Pursue righteousness,” that is, go after the kind of behavior that is a good reflection of the Lord. He uses righteousness in its moral dimension. Pursue the kind of behavior that makes others think of Jesus as they look at your behavior.
“Pursue . . . faith,” that is, the kind of trust and confidence in the Lord that is grounded in His character and His promises. Especially, pursue an ongoing confidence in the promises made in the gospel. Live in the forgiveness, union with Christ, reconciliation with God, righteousness before God, assurance of salvation that belong to us in Christ.
“Pursue . . . love,” that is, the outworking of Christ’s love for you overflowing into your love for others. Love smashes the barriers of prejudice and selfishness and isolationism. Love is giving yourself to others in a selfless way, just as Jesus has given Himself to you in a selfless, reconciling death. Love seeks to serve others instead of living for self.
“Pursue . . . peace,” that is, go after those with whom you may have strained relationships and try to reconcile with them. This means that if we desire to be used of the Lord we must be given to building up good relationships with others. You may not be able to secure peace with everyone but pursue nonetheless.
Third, “but refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels.” Paul had some of the outlandish things in mind that had been going on in Ephesus. Disunity had erupted in the church because people focused on minor issues or speculative matters. “Foolish and ignorant speculations” does not mean that Christians cannot talk about disagreements or ask questions or probe biblical issues. But the gauge that he gives to determine whether or not it is legitimate is whether it breeds useless quarrels or disunity. These are things that have nothing to do with interpreting Scripture but everything to do with things beyond the teaching of Scripture. For instance, think of the things that churches squabble over. Is it usually some doctrinal issue? Rather, it has to do with the color of the carpet or the use of the church facilities or who gets to serve on a committee or what authority a person has in a class or which church officer will call the shots in the church. It is true that doctrine can divide due to misunderstanding and disobedience. But it is also very true that many divisions and quarrels are over senseless issues that have nothing to do with Scripture or God’s kingdom. Refuse them!
That brings us to the qualities for usefulness
II. Qualities for usefulness
Paul shifts gears from the use of the imperative to the declarative. He uses a little word translated as “must” in this text that implies a moral necessity. He’s speaking of things that matter so much that we must not be careless with them. Keep in mind that Paul exhorts Timothy as “the Lord’s bond-servant” who had particular responsibilities in Ephesus. But no less than Timothy, we have responsibilities for the ministries and opportunities that the Lord has given to us. “Bond-servant” is a good way to remind us that we belong to the Lord; that each day is His; each thing in which we engage is to be done for His glory. So what must we keep in mind?
1. Emphasis on relationships
Notice what the fruit of each declaration results in: improved relationships. “Quarrelsome”refers to the tendency to engage in a war of words. It’s a term that was used for hand-to-hand combat. Do you have a combative spirit toward others? Do you have to get the last word in a conversation so that you feel like you’re on top? Do you argue for the sake of proving yourself right despite the fact that the process will wound or divide a relationship? That’s sin to turn from because it fractures relationships which matter to Jesus Christ for His church.
“Be kind to all” calls for gentleness in our relationships. Are you intentionally gentle toward others? Some are more naturally wired toward gentleness and so have the edge on the rest of us! But some are wired more toward harshness or abruptness. Or the circumstances of our upbringing may tend toward running over others or cutting others off at the knees. For the sake of Christ, be kind to all just as Jesus showed kindness to the multitude when He saw them as sheep without a shepherd.
“Able to teach” or ‘skillful in teaching’ [ELKGNT] particularly speaks to those entrusted with shepherding others in the Word. For Paul to tell Timothy to be skillful in the way that you teach meant that he should not just rely on his natural abilities or not seek to improve his teaching gifts. Instead, the emphasis on relationships for those engaged in teaching implies that you need to think about those you teach and not just what you teach. What I mean is that you are not just to be an information dump. You are to seek to skillfully communicate God’s Word to others so that their lives might be changed through understanding and applying the Scripture. Dumping information does not necessarily change lives! It may overwhelm the very people that you need to carefully instruct in the life-giving truth of Scripture.
“Patient when wronged” refers to the capacity to bear with people’s foibles and misstatements and impulsive comments. In other words, because of the priority on relationships in the body of Christ, there may be times that instead of reacting to a comment you absorb it, and gently work toward helping the one opposing you.
2. Danger: our relationship interactions may hinder doing good to others
This patience when being wronged is further explained: “with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth.” Here’s the point: God may be pleased to work in someone’s life with whom we’re feeling the ugliness of their opposition. So we want to make sure that we’re not a stumbling block to their response to the gospel. We want to make sure that we don’t confuse the gospel by harshness or retaliation or vengeance or bitter invectives or a lack of tenderness toward others. Especially those who are involved in the ministry of the Word must be unusually sensitive to this!
There are a number of people who will not go near a church or listen to the counsel of a gracious Christian because of some harsh, mean-spirited Christians who may have told the truth but did it in an ungracious, unloving way. Listen to what Matthew told of Jesus in His ministry to others: “He will not quarrel, nor cry out; nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets. A battered reed He will not break off, and a smoldering wick He will not put out, until He leads justice to victory. And in His name the Gentiles will hope” (Matthew 12:19–21; quoting Isa 42:3). In the face of the rudeness and harshness of the Pharisees toward the common person and especially toward the Gentiles, we’re reminded of the gentleness of Jesus in the way that He corrected others.
Let us so study the life of Christ, so immerse ourselves in meditation on the cross, that when we speak to others we do so with gentleness. Let us seek to make sure that we don’t hinder God’s working through His Word by our behavior as professing Christians.
3. A ministry of hope in God’s mercy
I love this last part! Paul has exhorted Timothy in areas of attitude, relationships, conversations, and teaching because God might be pleased to work in the very relationships in which you find yourself.“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.” The emphasis is upon the sovereign mercy of God breaking into the life of someone snared by the devil as though an animal in a trap. They have no way of escape—they are held captive to do his will. Only the mercy of the Lord can deliver them. Yet, what Paul points out, is that God’s mercy often comes on the wings of Christians living out the gospel and speaking the gospel into other’s lives. Can God use a rude, harsh Christian who says the right things in the wrong way? Yes, but it seems that what Paul stresses is that God more than likely works in settings where Christians are attentive to their usefulness in the kingdom and take the actions necessary to truly show forth the gentleness of Jesus toward others.
May we so live out the gospel, so give attention to our usefulness before the Lord that we become vessels that the Lord is pleased to use to deliver His message of mercy!