“Honorable Vessels, Part 1: Separation” – 2 Timothy 2:20-21
“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. Therefore, if a man cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.”
Every week I consider my main objective to first understand and then to explain the biblical text in its context. I do not primarily concern myself with applying the text to the sheep under my care because if we truly understand the text, God the Holy Spirit will use that sword to lay us bare (Heb. 4:12). We’re not going to be taking on a very large portion of Scripture this week, only two verses. But these two verses must be clearly understood in order to pave the way for all that comes after.
In 2 Tim. 2:20-2,1 Paul has built a bridge that spans the gap between v. 19 and v. 22. In v. 19 Paul gave Timothy a fortifying encouragement that God’s firm foundation still stands. Upon that firm foundation, who is the Lord Jesus Christ, God has placed a seal as a guarantee. Inscribed in that seal are two biblical truths that are meant to encourage and strengthen Timothy in his duty.
Beginning in v. 22, Paul will give very pointed exhortations regarding the application of these biblical truths. What lies in between is an illustration and an interpretation of these biblical truths. We must always place understanding before application. Let us first hold the meaning of the text securely in our hands before we attempt to begin applying to our lives. That is exactly the function of these verses, to firmly express the meaning of v. 19 in anticipation to the application to follow. Before we begin to study vv. 20-21, let’s make sure we understand what they are connected to.
Reviewing the Korah Connection (v. 19)
“Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, ‘The Lord knows those who are His,” and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord abstain from wickedness.’”
This verse is given as an encouragement to Timothy in light of the false teachers, Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have walked away from the faith, denied the physical and future resurrection of the saints, and have led some away to follow in their apostasy. Nevertheless, Paul says, the firm foundation of God stands! There is some debate about what exactly this firm foundation is. Some will say that the foundation is the church, looking to 1 Tim 3:15 where Paul calls the church the pillar and support of truth. That is a wonderful explanation of 1 Tim. 3:15, but that is very far removed from our current text.
To reiterate, Paul is actually borrowing the language of Isaiah 28:16 here, therefore we look to Isaiah, not Paul’s first letter to Timothy, for the answer: “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD, “ Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, A costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be disturbed.” The firm foundation of God is clearly Jesus Christ, the stone upon which and from which He will build His church (Matt. 16:18).
Timothy’s encouragement is that Jesus Christ, the foundation and cornerstone of the church, remains standing. If the foundation remains, there is little to worry about. The seal that is mentioned is a guarantee and there are two inscriptions written upon it. The first is a direct quotation of Numbers 16:5 from the Greek Septuagint: “The Lord knows those who are His.” The second inscription is a combination of Numbers 16:26 (“and he spoke to the congregation, saying, ‘Depart now from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing that belongs to them, or you will be swept away in all their sin.”) and Joel 2:32 (“And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the LORD will be saved.”).
The context of the seal’s inscriptions draws the reader back to Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 16. After the nation of Israel had refused to enter the Promised Land on account of their lack of trust in Yhwh, they were banished back into the wilderness until the rebellious generation were dead. Needless to say, this was not a popular decision among the people and so they began to search for new leadership. Korah approached Moses and Aaron demanding that they step down so that others could take their place: “You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and Yhwh is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of Yhwh?” Korah, a Levite yet not from the family of Aaron, desired more than what God had ordained for him. He desired the priesthood, to be the one who would approach holy Yhwh on behalf of the people. Yet it was not Moses or Aaron who barred Korah from taking such a position, it was Yhwh. Korah is not picking a bone with men, but with Almighty God.
The account does not end well for Korah and for his followers. “Then Moses arose and went to Dathan and Abiram, with the elders of Israel following him, and he spoke to the congregation, saying, “Depart now from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing that belongs to them, lest you be swept away in all their sin.” So they got back from around the dwellings of Korah, Dathan and Abiram; and Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the doorway of their tents, along with their wives and their sons and their little ones. And Moses said, “By this you shall know that Yhwh has sent me to do all these deeds; for this is not my doing. If these men die the death of all men, or if they suffer the fate of all men, then Yhwh has not sent me. But if Yhwh brings about an entirely new thing and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that is theirs, and they descend alive into Sheol, then you will understand that these men have spurned Yhwh.” Then it came about as he finished speaking all these words, that the ground that was under them split open; and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men who belonged to Korah, with their possessions.” (Num. 16:25-32).
Yhwh made clear that day who belonged to Him and who did not. Korah desired to be a priest of Yhwh and a leader among Yhwh’s people, but that did not mean that he was a possession or chosen vessel belonging to Yhwh; quite the opposite. The message to Timothy is quite clear: If you are going to be one who calls upon the name of Yhwh (Joel 2:32), then you must separate yourself from those who oppose Yhwh’s will and word.
I know that this has been mostly review so far, but if we are to explain the bridge, we must understand the anchor point.
Illustrating the Seal’s Command (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.”
Obviously, this is an illustration or a metaphor. Paul is using the picture of a large house and the various vessels inside a large house to develop what he has just said regarding Korah, false teachers, and the need to separate from them. The large house brings the idea of a palace or mansion where we would expect to find all manner of finery. Paul admits that there is most certainly finery within any palace, but there are other things within those walls that fall far from decadence.
The word vessel is an extremely generic term that could be translated as things or stuff. The context alone dictates what manner of things Paul is speaking about, but the idea seems to be that of containers, dishes, jars, and things of that nature. Not all of the containers within a palace are gold and silver. Some of these containers are made of ordinary material like wood and clay. Not all of these containers are destined for honorable use; prominently displayed to admire or to serve food to welcomed guests. Some of these containers are destined for dishonorable use like taking out the garbage or being utilized as a chamber pot. In ancient times, these sorts of containers would be discarded along with their filthy contents. But what is Paul’s point?
The context is of the unashamed workman who labors over the word of truth (v. 15) and thus avoids poisonous heretics (vv. 16-17) who have departed from the truth and are taking others with them (v. 18). The large house is a picture of Christ’s visible church. It is grand and beautiful, but until He comes for those who are truly His, there remains the unpleasant reality that not all who walk through the doors, sing the hymns, and sit under the preaching of the Word are actually redeemed. Some, in fact, are wolves sitting among the sheep.
The vessels indicate people. The visible church (what we can see on the outside) is not only comprised of redeemed saints (honorable vessels of gold and silver) but includes rebellious sinners (dishonorable vessels of wood and clay). While we understand this truth, there is a very important distinction that must be made.
The vessels are not divided according to their material but according to their purpose. The NASB translates the Greek preposition εἰς as to (some to honor and some to dishonor) but the force here indicates purpose: some are purposed for honor and some are purposed for dishonor. The vessels of honor are not purposed because of their material. The gold and silver vessels were made out of gold and silver because their Maker already had their purpose in mind.
Paul makes a similar argument in Romans 9: “You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use?” (vv. 19-21). The word common here is the same term translated dishonor (ἀτιμία) in our text.
The fact of the matter is that not every church, though glorious because it is a portion of Christ’s bride and is comprised of His elect, contains only the elect. This is why we continue to preach the gospel; for our edification and so that the lost might be redeemed. But the issue here goes beyond that of simply saying that there are reprobates in the pews. The context is within the realm of heretics, false teachers, and wolves. There are chamber pots full of dung in your midst, Timothy. So, what must Timothy do about it?
Interpreting the Seal’s Command (v. 21)
“Therefore, if a man cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.”
The illustration is complete, so Paul begins to build the inference that Timothy must understand. Because the visible church is a mixed bag that includes wolves hiding among the sheep, there is something that Timothy must do. Paul explains Timothy’s necessary actions by using a conditional statement.
The Condition of Honor – IF a man cleanses himself from these things…THEN he will be a vessel of honor. If Timothy wants to be a vessel of honor, then he must cleanse himself, thoroughly rid himself from these things. But what are these things?
The only grammatical option points back to the vessels destined for dishonor back in v. 20. A person must cleanse themselves from the vessels purposed for dishonor. The verb is very forceful and indicates a thorough cleaning or even a cleaning out/discarding of all that pollutes. The wording here is quite general and thus is open for any and all Christians. If anyone cleanses themselves, rids themselves of vessels of dishonor, then they will be vessels of honor. But what makes a person a vessel of honor? Who determines or decides what constitutes honorable use?
The Definition of Honorable Use – Paul defines honorable use for us as that which is useful to the Master. The master of the church is Christ. There is a direct line between usefulness and being honorable. The underlying idea is that of obedience.
Do not fall into the trap of thinking that prominence determines whether or not we are being used as honorable vessels. That idea is not found in this text. Our life’s ambition is to please the Master of the house, not to be displayed on the mantle piece. The question is never, do people know what I do? But is rather, is the Lord pleased with His vessel? Do I pursue holiness through obedience and faith? Am I making disciples at home and within the church? Do I confess and repent of my sin? Have I counted the cost and am ready to suffer for the sake of Christ? Christ’s church is filled with vessels like these that may not ever be displayed with prominence until He comes for them. But these are useful to the master and are most honorable. But how does one become honorable?
The Means of Becoming Honorable – As we have seen on several other occasions, there is a balance between obedience and faith. We are commanded to obey and follow Christ. But we have also been enabled to obey and follow Christ. Paul makes it clear how Timothy, or anyone, can cleanse themselves and thus become honorable.
The one who is honorable is one who has been sanctified. This is a passive participle, meaning that the action is done to the subject. Our English terms do not reflect this, but the word sanctified (ἁγιάζω) is the same root as the word for holy (ἅγιος). To be sanctified is to be made holy/set apart. This is the work of God alone. If there’s anything that the Old Testament made clear, it is that man cannot make himself holy. This participle is also given as a past and completed action: one who has been made holy. Only one who has already been made holy by the Master is able to cleanse himself from polluting influence and thus be useful to the Master. But there’s more.
Not only must one be sanctified, but they must also be prepared for every good work. The word we read as prepared is yet another passive participle. This is also a work of God, not man. We have been redeemed for a purpose. We have been brought out of the domain of darkness into the Kingdom of Christ for a purpose. God has prepared us for service.
It is nearly blasphemous to consider that God predetermined, elected, chose, called, converted, and redeemed us just so that we might live our lives in a hedonistic pursuit of self-gratification. We are not associates of God; we are His slaves. We are not acquaintances of God; we are His sons and daughters. Obedience is never an option. But neither is it in our power. We cannot will ourselves to become vessels of honor. We are made by our God as vessels of honor. Therefore, we must flee from those vessels who have been prepared as vessels of dishonor so that we might be useful to the Master of the house.
It is important that we understand the call to separate is a call to separate from false teachers. Korah was the Beth Moore of his day, rejecting God’s revealed will in how He is to be worshiped and who must lead His people. Hymenaeus and Philetus were akin to men like Andy Stanley or C. S. Lewis who either plainly deny or completely misrepresent key doctrines of the Christian faith. We do not avoid upsetting the wolves, we avoid the wolves themselves. We are concerned with being useful vessels for the Master’s use.