As you read and study Paul’s second letter to Timothy, it is natural to wonder what great memories and human impulses must have accompanied the miracle of inspiration that was taking place as he wrote. Without a doubt, as Timothy read the letter he surely had great memories from all that transpired during two extensive missionary journeys when he traveled with the apostle as a disciple and companion in service to Christ.
This letter was written under unusual circumstances, to say the least. Paul was in Mamertine, Rome’s dreadful dungeon. He was living under the shadow of the headman’s axe. . . martyrdom was near. There is a sense of urgency in the letter. In spite of Paul’s repeated plea to Timothy to come visit him, there is an underlying sense of finality; perhaps this would be Paul’s last communication with a special friend he dearly loved. What vital truths was he compelled to send to Timothy, and to us?
The Lord’s Servant is…
While there is a clear intent to encourage Timothy along in his service to Christ in this epistle, there is a strong teaching content as is found in all of Paul’s letters. In chapter 2 this teaching comes as a summary of vital dimensions of the life of a true and effective servant of the Savior. The apostle presents a series of metaphors drawn from everyday life in the Empire in that first Christian century. Perhaps this is a summary reminder of what he had taught Timothy during the years they had been together. The focused intent is to present a many-faceted perspective and solemn requirements of “a servant of the Lord.”
These teaching metaphors are:
- a steward (v. 2)
- a soldier (v. 3, 4)
- an athlete (v. 5)
- a farmer (v. 6)
- a construction worker (v. 15)
- a vessel (v. 20-23)
- a bond slave (v. 24-26)
Each of these metaphors (word pictures) conveys certain truths or necessities of the Christian worker. Virtually all of these can also be found in other Pauline epistles. They are brought together in summary form in this inspired communication to Timothy (and to us). While all are urgent and vital, in this study we will focus on the metaphor of the vessel (v. 20-23).
The Useful Vessel
The word itself would be in everyday use in conversation, and it is found 23 times in the New Testament. It is most commonly translated: a vessel or container; sometimes it is translated: a useful instrument of some kind.
Paul presents the scene of a great house and its furnishings. Look around and you will find many different containers, perhaps glasses, cups, bowls, cooking pans, storage containers, even garbage cans. You will also notice these containers are made of a variety of materials — gold, silver, wood, clay, etc.
After presenting his metaphorical picture the apostle gets to the urgent teaching. Some containers have an “honorable” (pricey, held in high value) use, some a “dishonor” (mean, vile). Imagine the contrast of a clean sterling silver goblet used to serve a beverage to an important guest. Also, imagine a garbage can by the back door. Surprisingly, Paul does not emphasize the difference in the material of which the container is made. What does he emphasize? Is it clean!
If you are going to serve a refreshing beverage to a thirsty guest on a hot day would you use a dirty, unwashed glass, even if it is crystal stemware? Do you think a holy God is eager to use a dirty vessel to serve living water to a thirsty soul?
The clear teaching of this Scripture is that for those who would serve Christ, there is no substitute for a holy life; God uses clean instruments. An individual may be gifted, skillful, brilliant, eloquent, and “well-placed in Christian work.” But if the life is not clean the person is not used by God, even though doing religious things may seem important and impressive.
A Clean Vessel
Listen to the apostle’s appeal: “If anyone cleanses himself. . . he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work” (v. 21, NASB). If you want God to use you, keep your life clean. Note the language, “cleanses himself.” Scriptures present a whole doctrine of how Christians deal with sin in their lives. On the basis of the sacrifice and blood of Christ forgiveness and cleansing from all sin is available through confession to God. (1 Jn. 1:5-10).
A Sanctified Vessel
Note that cleansing yourself also includes a sanctified lifestyle. Timothy was urged to “flee from youthful lusts.” Given our human propensity to sin and the strong appeals all around us of that which is sinful, the moral discipline of turning or running away may seem impossible. But the commands of Scripture are accompanied by divine enablement. By His Word and His Spirit who lives within every true believer God gives grace to help in time of need. Also, our faithful God controls the intensity of temptation so that it is never, in fact, too strong to escape from it (1 Cor. 10:13).
However, in a fallen world one cannot flee to a moral vacuum. To effectively live a holy life we must pursue Christlike virtues, righteousness, faith, love and peace. This is one of the wonderful mysteries of a godly life. These virtues are fundamentally produced as the Holy Spirit works in the Christian’s life (Gal. 5:22-24). At the same time, our accountability to God involves moral commitment to live a Christlike life. This is one reason we must keep our eyes focused on Jesus by regularly reading and studying the gospels (Heb. 12:2).
The Importance of Fellowship
There is another apostolic instruction about cleansing yourself. Timothy is instructed to “flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22). A holy life is not a lone-wolf, freelance operation. Christians need each other. Fellowship is a vital part of the life of the church. In a dark world we need to “encourage one another and build up one another” (1 Thess. 5:11).
Even the apostle Paul did not work alone in his apostolic life. He always built and worked with a team. He had earlier told the Corinthian believers, “bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33). But the Bible does not merely leave us as victims of our environment. This is one reason we should read and re-read the book of Proverbs. This will teach us that if we intend to avoid moral and ethical corruption we will need to be selective in our close friendships, even among professing Christians.
In our society without moral standards and absolutes you will need to look hard and discerningly for those who are consciously committed to a holy life. No doubt you have heard testimonies from Christians who found strengthening friendships while in school, or military service or in places of employment. Prayerfully look for spiritually harmonious and uplifting companionships. You will need these for a life of holy service to Christ.
Useful to the Master
Look at the “if” in 2 Timothy 2:21. Anybody can do religious things, but to be useful to the Master, your life must be clean. In the household of God our Lord is busy serving living water to thirsty souls and providing healthy food for His people. Are you a clean glass or fork, or a dirty dish or a garbage can?