August 4, 2019
Brian Tabb (Downtown Campus) | 2 Timothy 2:14-26
Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. But God's firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”
Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.
So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.—2 Timothy 2:14–26
Not everything that glitters is gold.
Now, except for buying a wedding ring, I don’t have much first-hand experience with gold. But every year brings a new story of dishonest sellers duping people into spending thousands of dollars—or more—buying fake gold. To most people, fake gold looks just like real gold, so it is necessary to test that gold is genuine. You can check if the dealer is approved by the appropriate authorities. You can put the metal on a scale—fake gold is lighter than the real thing. You can hold a magnet to the metal—if it sticks, it’s fake. You can scratch lightly on the jewelry’s surface and apply a drop of nitric acid—if it turns green, you don’t want it. The genuine article is tested and approved.
People are also tested and approved in a variety of contexts. Anyone who wants to drive a car must be tested and receive a license; attorneys are approved to practice law only after passing the bar exam, etc. Our passage for today addresses a more ultimate sort of approval—approval by God himself. In 2 Timothy 2:15, the apostle Paul writes, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” The word “approved” carries the idea of being found genuine on the basis of testing. What does it mean to be approved by God? That’s the focus of our text.
In the early church and today, not everyone who desires to teach or lead in the church is qualified to do so.
Main Point: Second Timothy 2:14–26 shows us the doctrine, devotion, and demeanor of one who is approved by God. We will see that God’s servant rightly handles God’s word, is ready for every good work, and pursues peace with gentleness.
Before expounding our passage, let me give a bit of context to this sermon. In June, Pastor Ken introduced a new series on 2 Timothy here at the Downtown Campus with a focus on being a healthy, mature Christian. Second Timothy is Paul’s final letter. He writes from prison to Timothy, his trusted coworker and spiritual son. Paul calls young Timothy to follow his example of faithfully guarding the good deposit of the gospel even through times of suffering and opposition. Paul and Timothy have run together for many years as comrades and coworkers in gospel ministry. Now the apostle signals that his own race is over, so he is passing the baton to Timothy, who must put into practice what he’s seen and heard from Paul and faithfully carry out his own ministry.
In 2 Timothy 2:1–10, Paul gives four directions to Timothy:
He then draws attention to a trustworthy saying in vv. 11–13 that reminds us of the blessed hope we have in Christ and of our need to follow him faithfully. With this in mind, let’s consider the profile of one who is approved by God. We will take this in three parts.
Earlier in v. 8, Paul urged Timothy, “Remember Jesus Christ,” and verse 14 begins on a similar note: “Remind them of these things.” “These things” are the truths that Paul has just shared in the previous verses about the salvation and hope we have through our risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Amidst the busyness and pressures of our lives, we all need reminders to stir us to action lest we forget important things—to call family members on their birthdays, to bring our passport to the airport, to pay a bill on time. My phone regularly sends me notifications of upcoming meetings, deadlines, and important events so that I remember to do what I need to do and want to do. But we don’t just need reminders for tasks at work and at home; we need to remember God. In the OT, we read that Israel repeatedly “forgot the Lord their God” and served other gods (e.g., 1 Samuel 12:9). As the hymn says, we are “prone to wander … prone to leave the God [we] love.” One of the main reasons we gather together as a church is to remember and remind one another of the gospel through the songs, Scripture readings, sermons, and the Lord’s Supper. My hope today in this message is to stir you up to remember our glorious God and Savior.
Paul particularly highlights the need for pastors to be able to teach and rightly handle God’s word, but true doctrine has everyday practical relevance in each of our lives. What do we think, feel, and do when adversity arrives unannounced? We need to remember that the Lord Jesus is sovereign over our suffering and has suffered himself and so can truly help us in our suffering. We need to remember and remind others of what is true and good—the gospel of Jesus Christ, our identity, and our calling as his followers. This is the true doctrine that we must believe ourselves and encourage others with.
Verse 15 summarizes the big idea in our passage:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
The command “do your best” communicates speed, urgency, and zeal: “Hurry up, make every effort, be diligent.” Here, the apostle highlights the minister’s highest priority: To be approved by God and—his essential task—rightly handling his true Word. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul writes, “Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” People want approval and fear rejection—from family, friends, coworkers. Most of us think far too much about human approval and rejection and not nearly enough about being tested and approved by God. Is our great ambition to please God or to please people?
Paul urged Timothy in chapter 1, “Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner”—that is, don’t shrink back from publicly standing with the gospel and Christ’s servants because of social pressure. In 2:14, the one approved by God has “no need to be ashamed,” as he rightly wields the Word, because he will one day hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Verses 16–18 offer a sharp warning: “Avoid irreverent babble” that leads people astray. “Babble” could be translated “empty talk” or “vain chatter”; it’s the opposite of “the Word of truth.” Babble distracts from, distorts, and diminishes the true gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul calls out false teachers—Hymenaeus and Philetus—who have swerved from the truth and promote distorted doctrine that destroys people’s faith (v. 18). Their “word” is likened to spreading “gangrene,” like cancer that must be treated aggressively lest it infect more and more of the body.
In the face of opposition and doctrinal error, Paul turns in v. 19 to remind Timothy that “God’s firm foundation stands.” Even when false teachers promote heresy, even when the nations rage, God is God, and his plan is sure. Jesus is the promised cornerstone, the only true foundation on which we can build our lives and stake our futures. This verse ends with two sayings: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”
These are references back to a famous showdown in Numbers 16. A man named Korah from the tribe of Levi joined with 250 well-known chiefs from Israel to oppose Moses and Aaron as God’s chosen mediators. They claimed that Moses exalted himself and led them away from the good land of Egypt to kill them in the wilderness. Moses responded, “In the morning the LORD will show who is his, and who is holy, and will bring him near to him” (Numbers 16:5). Moses then summoned Korah and his 250 chiefs to come to the tabernacle the next day ready to burn incense before the Lord with priestly censors. Moses then urged the people of Israel to “depart from the tents” of Korah and his allies. Then the earth swallowed up Korah’s household, and heavenly fire consumed the 250 chiefs who challenged Moses and Aaron. The Lord knows who are his, and he showed his choice of Moses and Aaron in a dramatic way in Numbers 16. In the same way, we should take heart that the Lord knows his people and will, in the last day, judge his foes and vindicate his followers.
We’ve considered the true doctrine of one approved by God (vv. 14–19), now look at vv. 20–21, where Paul presents the total devotion that God calls for.
Paul gives an illustration of a great house that includes various dishes or objects made of different materials—gold, silver, wood, and clay. They also have different purposes: Some are reserved for honorable use, others for dishonorable use. Even though both have plastic handles and nylon bristles, you don’t want to mix up your tooth brush and toilet brush. You would not want to serve filet mignon to your dinner guests in a dog bowl, and you would not serve dog food in your grandmother’s fine china.
First Corinthians 12 uses household imagery to teach that some Christians who seem less honorable or presentable are really indispensable for the church’s proper functioning. I love seeing this reality play out week after week in our church family. But I think Paul’s point in 2 Timothy 2 is rather different. Here “dishonorable” things don’t refer to weaker members of the church but to doctrinal error and moral impurity characteristic of the false teachers Paul just mentioned.
“A vessel for honorable use” is not an exclusive category of the most gifted super Christians; Paul says, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, then that person lives and serves for honorable use. To “cleanse oneself” in this context relates to the earlier calls to avoid false teaching and depart from iniquity (v. 19). Elsewhere Scripture teaches that God cleanses us from our sin and guilt through the atoning blood of Christ (1 John 1:9), but we are also called to “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). Anyone who is cleansed by Christ’s blood and has made a clean break from sin and heresy is a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. Set apart as holy is the language used in the OT for the priest and the tabernacle. God is supremely Holy, in a class by himself, and his people are set apart for his praise and his purposes. We are like gold taken out of Egypt, refashioned according to God’s instructions, set apart as holy, and then given a sacred purpose as a lampstand in the Lord’s tabernacle. Once cleansed and set apart as holy unto God, we are useful to the Master. Paul uses the same word useful to describe his coworkers Onesimus and Luke. The point is that God is absolutely sovereign over our lives, and he has given us valuable work to do for his honor. We are ready or fully prepared for every good work. We do not work to win God’s approval; rather, good works are the evidence or fruit that God has loved us and is changing us. Every good work encompasses all the various things that we do with God’s help to bless others and bring glory to God.
We’ve considered the true doctrine (vv. 14–19) and total devotion of one approved by God (vv. 20–21). Let’s turn now to the third section of our passage, which describes gracious demeanor of God’s servant (vv. 22–26).
Paul gives three commands in these verses:
Let’s look at these in turn. First, “flee youthful passions” (v. 22). Here Paul is not talking about a “passion” for God’s supremacy. Passions here means the sinful desires and lustful impulses that control us. Galatians 5 refers to “the desires of the flesh” that are contrary to the Holy Spirit and lead to sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, and other works of the flesh. Flee means take urgent and decisive action to resist sin and temptation. Joseph offers a biblical example of this in Genesis 39:12. When Potiphar’s wife grabs his garment and tries to seduce him, he “fled and got out of the house.” Brothers and sisters, don’t make peace with sinful desires and habits. Flee youthful passions, get away, put sin to death. Why? Because sin dishonors God, robs us of our true joy, and threatens to destroy us unless we act.
But Christians do not just flee youthful passions; we must also positively pursue what pleases God: “Pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” This is not mere behavior modification but an expression of heart transformation. We need a pure heart—a heart cleansed by God—to feel, think, and act as we ought. Moreover, we pursue what is good in community with other believers—“with all who call on the Lord,” a rich biblical expression for prayerful dependence and reverent praise for the one true God.
The final command comes in v. 23: “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies.” Pursuing peace means avoiding disputes that will not benefit others but only lead to quarrels. Here Paul’s counsel resonates with the wisdom found in Proverbs:
Verses 24–25 fill out the picture of a peacemaking servant who avoids disputes:
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.
The apostle repeatedly emphasizes the importance of believing and promoting sound doctrine, but he also emphasizes how we must handle the truth. These qualities—not quarrelsome, kind, able to teach, patient, gentle correction—are so rare in our culture today. Heated arguments, quarrels, belittling comments, foolish assertions, and self-promotion have become the norm in talk shows, public speeches, debates, and social media exchanges, and it must not be so in the church. Paul’s instructions here recall the profile of an overseer in the church in 1 Timothy 3: “above reproach … self-controlled … able to teach … not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome.” The Lord’s servant does not aim to win arguments at any cost but to speak the truth in love, to be ready for good works, to pursue peace. The response to criticism and controversy Paul calls us to cannot be produced by mere education or natural effort. This is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in our lives producing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We pursue peace because Jesus has made peace through the cross.
Verse 25 reminds us that God may perhaps grant [opponents] repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth. Notice that Paul does not call for God to strike his opponents with fire or bury their houses in the earth; he longs for God to show them mercy. The apostle elsewhere recalls that he was formerly a blasphemer, an ardent persecutor of Christians, an insolent opponent of Christ, yet he as the chief of sinners received mercy. The Lord opened his eyes to see Christ as worthy and transformed him from a persecutor to a preacher. Repentance and knowledge of the truth are gifts from God, and he is free to give them to whom he will. This truth reminds us that we who have repented of our sins and trusted in Christ alone did not do so because of our innate wisdom and godliness but because God showed unfathomable love, kindness, and patience to us when we were his enemies. As those who have received such treatment from God, shall we not respond to critics with kindness, forbearance, and gracious correction?
Let’s return again the main idea of our passage in v. 15: Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved—as one who is found genuine through testing. The Lord tests and proves the faith and character of his servants in a variety of ways, including personal trials, suffering, and uncertainty. As we close today, I want to highlight our response to criticism and disagreements as a subtle yet significant way that God tests and proves his people. You can test gold’s genuineness by scratching the surface and putting nitric acid on the metal; in a similar way, disagreements and criticism get under our skin and provoke a revealing reaction. Do we respond sharply or slowly? Do we respond with gentleness or hostility? Do we dig in and prove our point or do we patiently trust God to reveal the truth in his time? As the preacher today, I am asking these questions of myself and readily admit that the acid test of criticism has revealed areas of sinful pride, self-reliance, and ungraciousness in my life. I need Christ’s forgiveness and the Holy Spirit’s power to increasingly speak the truth in love and respond to criticism and controversy with kindness and charity.
May the Lord grant us fresh grace as a church family to seek God’s approval above all by holding fast to true doctrine, by doing good works with total devotion to Christ, and by pursuing peace with a gracious demeanor.