Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
2 Timothy 2:20–26
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.
What was it like for you when Truth broke into your life? For some of you it happened quietly, almost imperceptibly. That’s how it may have been for Timothy who learned the gospel from his grandmother and from his mother (2 Timothy 1:5). Some of you who are here this morning maybe are not yet even sure there is such a thing as ultimate truth, or if there is it has eluded you to this point. I’m so glad you’re here. We believe with all our hearts that coming to learn about Jesus is the right place to come. He said, “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free.” He also said, “I am the way, the TRUTH, and the life.
Truth invaded my life in October 1971. When truth grips a person it’s not always pretty. The Truth is beautiful, but the unbridled passions of youth don’t always display its beauty without a lot of mixture. When the light came on and the beauty of Jesus shined it, I had to tell people. But my youthful passion at times could very easily overwhelm the people I was trying to convert. My parents didn’t quite know what hit them when their mild-mannered son started trying to convince them that they had to accept Jesus into their heart NOW.
Not only did I come on pretty strong at times, I and many of my new Christian friends also were prone to focus on things that weren’t essential to the gospel. I remember the day in my high school library just a couple weeks after my conversion when Becky rushed in with a newspaper in her had that reported on the front page a major earthquake. She was so excited because the earthquake was a sign that Jesus was coming back soon.
She looked at me and saw the puzzled expression on my face. She said, “You know that Jesus is coming back, don’t you? I nodded yes, but inside I wasn’t sure if I ever heard about that before. She took me in one of the study rooms in the library and opened up her charts of the End Times. I became infatuated with the End Times and had it all figured out within a couple of weeks. I could interpret the signs of the times, had a pretty good idea of who the antichrist was, and was close to predicting when Christ would return.
When Truth breaks in, the awesome beauty of Jesus and the baggage of our personal lives and dispositions get mixed together, and it’s not always pretty.
What I want to press home today from our passage in 2 Timothy are three concepts that are prominent here: Truth, Gentleness, and the Sovereignty of God.
Let’s focus first on Truth and Gentleness together. Truth is of paramount importance to the Apostle Paul. It must not be compromised, it must be studied and embraced and it must be communicated. This is why we take teaching the Bible so seriously here. Preaching is expositional, our children’s Sunday School curriculum is soaked in Bible. The Precepts Studies for women are wonderfully training our women not only to know the Bible but to know how to study the Bible on their own. The Bethlehem Institute is passionately offering classes that seek to teach the whole counsel of God grounded in the gospel of Christ, the essence of Christian Hedonism, and tools for lifelong study of Scripture. We have even started a college and seminary …
But Paul is concerned not only that the truth is communicated but he is concerned how the Truth is communicated. He knows there is a tendency in each of us, especially in our younger years, to not be as concerned as we should be in how we convey the Truth.
Notice verse 22 in our passage in 2 Timothy 2. “Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” I always assumed Paul was telling Timothy to flee sexual temptation. This is definitely something we are to flee. It says in 1 Corinthians 6:18 that we are to flee from sexual immorality. But in the context of our passage, I don’t think that this is foremost in Paul’s mind. In verse 23 Paul says, “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” The context here suggests that the youthful passion that Paul has in mind is the passion that is in all of us, but more readily is obvious in young people who get fired up about something they think is really awesome. In my earlier years I could overwhelm people with truth at times—meaning well but not realizing that my forcefulness or dogmatism was proving to be a hindrance. The passion to fully know this truth also led me to go on some rabbit trails and make questionable issues more central and wanting to be seen as an expert in this Truth that recently invaded my life. I wanted to be an expert on the End Times.
Paul who loves Truth is concerned that the Truth be communicated in a way that doesn’t compromise the beauty of the Truth being passed on. He knows that when the mind perceives the truth, there is a tendency for knowledge to “puff up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). He even warns that a new convert probably shouldn’t be put into leadership too quickly or he “may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:7). The last thing I want to do is to discourage new believers from sharing their newfound discovery of the Truth of Jesus. Those of you who have recently been drawn to Christ you are perhaps more relationally connected with unbelievers now than you will ever be again.
Share the gospel with your friends, testify to them what has happened in your life. I would rather have you error on the side of sharing too brashly than not sharing at all. But I am encouraging all of us to beware of succumbing to our youthful passions of too much force or of too much interest in subtle insights into the Truth that may not be true at all. There’s something exhilarating about being marveled at by people who hear what you’re saying and say, “How did he get that out of the Bible?” They may give you credence because you say it with such force. Paul says to flee this passion to be exalted as a religious Einstein.
Paul’s letter is to Timothy who has been serving for a season in Ephesus, trying to raise up leaders for the growing number of churches. We know from Acts 19, which speaks of Paul’s three years in Ephesus, that the people in that area were infatuated with magic arts and superstition and idolatry. The Truth of the gospel penetrated many people who had been immersed in very influential pagan practices. When Paul is preparing to leave them in the care of the elders he gathers the elders together in Acts 20 and warns them that wolves are going to arise even among the elders. After Paul left Ephesus he became concerned enough that he sent Timothy, one of his right hand men, to spend years there to raise up leaders for the churches. So even after all this leadership development Paul knows that there is still a propensity amongst the churchgoers to get caught up in weird things that were not central and maybe even contrary to the gospel. In verse 23 Paul says, “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” Paul says similar things elsewhere in his letters to Timothy and Titus:
1 Timothy 1:3–7
As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.
1 Timothy 6:2–5
Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.
1 Timothy 4:7
Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness.
But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.
2 Timothy 2:14
Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.
From all these texts we can see that Truth is vitally important. In our passage it says that the Lord’s servant MUST be able to teach. Sound doctrine is essential. Paul is passionately urging Timothy to pass this truth on, this apostolic truth breathed out by God himself. But he knows that truth when it’s only apprehended in the brain can puff up, make one conceited, can be twisted by people who want to use that truth to exalt themselves, to achieve worldly power or material gain. This is so far from Paul’s aim in his theological education. His aim is love from a pure heart, a good conscience, a genuine faith. His goal in teaching is the transformation of the followers of Jesus more and more into the likeness of Jesus, in thought, word, and deed. Theological wrangling puffs up, causes division, and can ruin people.
But we need to be careful here. The history of the Church, beginning in the churches of the New Testament, is a history of theological debate and controversy. We must praise God for the Church’s debating and wrestling through issues like …
- Do Gentiles need to become Jews and get circumcised and keep the food laws before they can become Christians? NO
- Do we need to add our works to our faith in order to be justified? NO
- Are sex and food something the truly spiritual should view as something that’s inconsistent and to be avoided even in marriage? NO
- Is it wrong to worship Jesus as the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity? NO
- Is homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage a legitimate way to live out the gospel? NO
- If we have enough faith, will we be completely healthy and wealthy in this present age? NO
We must praise God for theological debate and discussion of meanings of words and the preservation of and recovery of sound doctrine throughout history. Theological debate is crucial. Pursuing the author’s intended meaning of words and ideas is essential.
So how does one know when theological debate is to be pursued and when it is to be avoided? This is a complex issue. When the gospel is at stake we must follow Paul’s example and contend for the truth of the gospel of faith alone in Christ alone grounded in Scripture alone for the glory of God alone. When religious talk is leading away from love and the deepest welfare of people, it must be exposed and confronted and corrected.
But how is this to be done? What is the manner? What is our disposition as we convey truth. And how does all this related to the sovereignty of God?
Let’s move on to verses 24–26.
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.
First of all, it should be noted that the context is focused primarily on the leaders (servant of the Lord—Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:10; Titus 1:1; Colossians 4:12; 1 Corinthians 7:22; “able to teach”—1 Timothy 3:2) of the church, but of course, it has implications for each of us. This verse is a powerful verse because it shows that not only is the Truth of utmost importance, but how the Truth is communicated is crucial. If it is crucial for elders to be kind and gentle, it is certainly true for every believer! Paul is very clear. We must be kind to everyone, we must be patient when wronged, we must be gentle when we correct those who are in opposition to the truth.
Let’s focus in on the word, “gentleness.” Some synonyms for this word are humility, courtesy, consideration, meekness. When we hear meekness we sometimes thing that it implies weakness. Let’s try to get that idea out of our head. It has nothing to do with weakness. Paul says, “with gentleness, correcting opponents.” What helps me think about this word is to look at it in the context here of God’s sovereign goodness in Christ. If you are weak, you hide or run away from opponents. But Paul wants us to be willing to move toward opponents loving them enough to correct them where they are missing the truth of God’s Word. We correct with gentleness rather than with overbearing, man-centered, manipulating force because of what follows in the text.
Let’s read it again, 2 Timothy 2:24–26:
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.
The reason we must correct the opponents not by quarrelling but rather with kindness, patience and gentleness is that GOD is the one who ultimately grants the repentance. He may or may not do it, and if he does he will do it at his time. When we are engaging with people about ultimate issues of Truth we are entering into a cosmic battle. Paul says in Ephesians 6 that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. In this passage Paul makes it clear that we are not sovereign over our opponent’s heart. God is. The bondage of incorrect thinking and acting goes deeper than this person’s lack of education or even his or her sin. God’s arch enemy, Satan himself, captures people to do his will and to do whatever he can to lock people into the craziness of thinking they don’t need the gospel.
In 2 Corinthians 4:6 we are told that the devil blinds the minds of the unbelieving so that we can’t see the glory of God in the face of Christ. There is a spiritual battle going on. But that does not mean that we are to be passive, we are to do what we can to teach the truth and correct. But we do it from a humble, tenderized disposition, trusting the outcome to God himself. God loves to work through his Word communicated in human words.
I want to close by drawing our attention to another passage in the pastoral epistles that shows how our gentleness is grounded in and tenderized by the gospel. It’s found in Titus 2 and 3:
But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us. Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior. For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.
Closing point: As we ponder how we communicate about the most glorious realities in the universe we all have some house cleaning to do. Let the first two verses of our passage encourage us:
2 Timothy 2:20–21
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.
“May the Mind of Christ My Savior”
May the mind of Christ, my Savior,
Live in me from day to day,
By His love and power controlling
All I do and say.
May the Word of God dwell richly
In my heart from hour to hour,
So that all may see I triumph
Only through His power.
May the peace of God my Father
Rule my life in everything,
That I may be calm to comfort
Sick and sorrowing.
May the love of Jesus fill me
As the waters fill the sea;
Him exalting, self abasing,
This is victory.
May I run the race before me,
Strong and brave to face the foe,
Looking only unto Jesus
As I onward go.
May His beauty rest upon me,
As I seek the lost to win,
And may they forget the channel,
Seeing only Him.