By John A. Huffman, Jr
Friday, April 01, 2005
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth (
2 Timothy 2:15).
Shun 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 stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels (
2 Timothy 2:22-23).
Paul is rich with metaphors for the Christian life.
He has called us to see ourselves as soldiers, willing to live disciplined lives, willing to suffer as we serve with our ultimate allegiance being only to Jesus Christ.
He has called us to see ourselves as athletes, who keep ourselves in daily spiritual condition, realizing we are running a long distance race until that day we step into the presence of Jesus Christ to receive our crown of glory.
He has called us to see ourselves as farmers, who know there will be good years and bad years. But we faithfully husband our spiritual gifts along with all the rest of the resources the Lord gives to us, so that, ultimately, we can participate in His harvest.
One of the early church leaders, Chrysostom, captured these three vigorous metaphors in the following words: "In a word, it is absolutely necessary for one who hopes to please God and to be acceptable and pure, not to pursue a relaxed and slippery and dissolute life, but a laborious life, groaning with much toil and sweat. For no one is crowned, Paul says, 'unless he competes according to the rules.'"
Now he shifts gears, challenging you and me with three more metaphors, calling us to be unashamed workers, clean vessels and gentle servants.
Let me put this to you in the form of three questions.
Question #1: Are you an unashamed worker?
Paul writes in
Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. Avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people into more and more impiety, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection has already taken place. They are upsetting the faith of some. But God's firm foundation stands, bearing this inscription: "The Lord knows those who are his," and, "Let everyone who calls on the name of the Lord turn away from wickedness."
An unashamed worker is someone who faithfully does the job they are employed to do.
Some years ago, I had a staff member at another church who was good at doing everyone else's job and unwilling to do the work of his own position description. When I say he was good at doing everyone else's job, I mean that he was filled with a lot of words, commenting constantly about how the rest of us, myself included, should do our work. It was a kind of "word-flurry" that he used, consciously or perhaps even unconsciously, to obscure his own failure to simply do the job he was called to do. Finally, the elders caught on and asked him to consider what opportunities God had for him elsewhere.
The theme of what I just read is capsuled in
Paul urges you and me to look at our lives through three specific lenses as we analyze whether or not we are qualified as unashamed workers.
First, he asks us if we are avoiding wrangling over words.
You know, it is fun to wrangle over words. We enjoy a good debate, a stimulating argument, in which we examine all the nuances of a topic. However, you and I know it is possible to take such verbal expressions too far, to the point that they become hurtful. He says they can actually "ruin" those who are listening.
I found this to be true in seminary. Many of us matriculated in seminary with the thought of giving our lives in service to Jesus Christ and His church. The more we studied the Scriptures and learned theology about God, the easier it was to become overly familiar with spiritual truth, to the point that we sometimes trivialized it in argumentation. Topics such as predestination and free will, which have puzzled theologians and even secular philosophers through the centuries, would be treated in a fashion that denied the grandeur of a Holy God, reducing that which remains mystery to what became slashing arguments between those of us who began to think that we were smarter than we were and could understand all truth. Too many times we would begin to sound like persons arguing over how many angels could stand on the head of a pin, forgetting what people really need to know is whether there is a God and how they can be in right relationship with Him and find His help to live their daily lives.
The first-century Greeks loved to engage in "sophistry." The Sophists were those who loved to hear themselves talk, taking this whole theme of wrangling over words to a very high level of sophisticated oratory.
In some ways, I must admit that I am jealous of those who can turn a purple phrase, highly-gifted writers and speakers who receive bouquets at the door of the church. However, early in my ministry, I made a tough decision. I decided that, as much as my ego liked the stroking that came when I pursued rhetorical eloquence as my goal, too much of the attention ended up on me instead of on Christ. I have tried to flesh out what Paul is urging all of us to do in very simple terms, using the Bible as our authority and telling our story in ways that glorify God, not ourselves.
Through the years, I have been touched by many faithful preachers and teachers. As I think back, reflecting on what touched me about their ministries, I have concluded it was not their great rhetorical skills. Some were excellent speakers and some quite ordinary. It was their faithfulness to the Bible, their deep love for Jesus Christ and their endeavor to, as singly as possible, preach and teach the Word of God. In addition, their words led to action. Their words and their lives were congruent. They fleshed out in actions that about which they talked.
I am reminded of the great John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement. A friend of his was Dr. Samuel Johnson. The two men were great talkers. Johnson loved to just talk and talk and talk. John Wesley, in addition to being a man who could talk, was a man who was committed to action. Johnson had one complaint about Wesley: "John Wesley's conversation is good, but he's never at leisure. He is always obliged to go at a certain hour. This is very disagreeable to a man who loves to fold his legs and have his talk out, as I do."
Wesley knew there was a time when the talking had to stop and the action begin. He not only evangelized and brought spiritual renewal to Great Britain. He also set in motion an application of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in social matters that challenged a younger generation of leaders to abolish the slave trade, institute child-labor laws and other social reforms that have changed the world.
During my years in Pittsburgh, I was privileged to have a young man on our staff by the name of Bill Robinson. He was our youth minister. Simultaneous with that ministry, he was doing his Ph.D. in communications at the University of Pittsburgh. Bill is now the president of Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington. One day, he gave me a plaque, a small, simple plaque, that says precisely what Paul is telling us and what I try to do in my preaching, teaching and conversational life. It reads:
When Aeschines spoke, they said.
"How well he speaks!"
When Demosthenes spoke, they said,
"Let us march against Phillip!"
Second, he asks us if we are rightly explaining the word of truth.
This is another way of saying what he has already said. Look this up in the Greek and you will realize that this means to "cut straight to the truth." We are to avoid leading people astray. We must be straightforward with what we say, not ashamed to speak the truth in love and clarity.
I have to be careful as a preacher to not keep "circling the field without ever landing." Some sermons are like that. When I do it, I have let you down.
Another translation of this verse is the phrase "rightly dividing the word of truth." It literally means that we are putting it out there in understandable terms.
This phrase was used by the Greeks in reference to driving a straight road across country. They also used it in terms of plowing a straight furrow across a field. And they also used it for the work of a mason, in cutting and squaring a stone so that it fit in its correct place in the structure of a building. We are called to be faithful to the basics of the faith, not making everything so complex people can't understand it.
Third, Paul asks us if we are avoiding profane chatter.
This again is another way of evaluating whether or not we qualify as unashamed workers.
At this point, he gets very specific. He names two men, Hymenaeus and Philetus, who he says "have swerved from the truth, claiming that the resurrection has already taken place. They are upsetting the faith of some." What did they do that was wrong? Apparently they had denied the future resurrection of the body and life in heaven with Jesus Christ for eternity. Apparently they hid behind a couple of rhetorical word displays. One argument they used was that our resurrection is in our baptism. We are buried and raised with Jesus Christ. The other was a rhetorical notion that the meaning of individual resurrection was that a man or woman lived on in his or her children, finding one's resurrection in the continuing life of one's progeny.
We need to remember it is not only in the 21st century that people deny the resurrection. In the first century, this was an argument carried on by Jewish theologians. The Pharisees were the conservatives who believed in the resurrection of the body. The Sadducees did not. According to William Barclay, any teaching that did away with the conception of life after death would appeal to the Sadducees. The trouble with the Pharisees was that they were wealthy, aristocratic materialists who had such a big stake and interest in this world that they weren't particularly interested in the life to come, even though they technically believed in it.
The Greek world of that time was more apt to emphasize the life to come, but in a way quite alien to the teachings of Jesus and the rest of the emerging New Testament Scriptures. They said God was a fiery spirit, and each human life had a spark of divinity that at death came back and became absorbed in that fiery divine essence.
So you see, the heretical teachings of Hymenaeus and Philetus were distressing to Paul, who was so clear in his teaching about not only the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but the immortality of every human being and the privilege of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ's death being only a passageway into the presence of Jesus Christ for eternity in heaven. Read
Profane chatter, whether it be theological heresy or simply filthy, degrading talk, in the first century or the 21st century, has a way of spreading, Paul says, "like gangrene." It brings theological, spiritual, ethical and moral decay.
At this point, Paul sort of mixes the metaphors, describing God's firm foundation which stands, bearing the inscription, "The Lord knows those who are his," and "Let everyone who calls on the name of the Lord turn away from wickedness" (
As followers of Jesus, our lives are to be built on that firm foundation of Jesus Christ and His truth! Written on our very countenance, words and actions should be that clear inscription. The bottom line for us is the affirmation of our confession of Jesus Christ being our Savior and our Lord.
This brings us to the second metaphor.
Question #2: Are you a clean vessel?
At first look, one might interpret this passage to say that all of us are special utensils, whether we are made of silver and gold or whether we are composed of ordinary materials, such as wood and clay. Some of the commentaries I have read have basically emphasized how important it is for us to accept whatever composition we are, just making certain that we are clean vessels in the service of Jesus Christ. After all, every house has its everyday ware of less expensive plates, eating utensils, cups, goblets and glasses. And every house has its special china, silver and crystal for the most special of occasions. It is important that both be clean. No one wants to eat from dirty plates, using unwashed spoons, forks and knives, drinking out of cups and glasses used by others, whether it is the everyday ware or that set aside for special occasions. Whole sermons could be preached on this interpretation of the text.
Such a message would be a true message but somehow miss what Paul is trying to say in this passage. He takes this whole metaphor to the next level, basically articulating the doctrine of sanctification.
He is saying that it is possible for us to be cleansed by the Holy Spirit in a way that even the most ordinary utensil can become special. Wood and clay can be converted into gold and silver as we are willing to open our lives to God, who is the owner of the house.
I spent some time this week going back and reading the comments of the early church fathers on this passage of Scripture. It was interesting to note that some of them, along with many contemporary commentaries, combined this teaching with what Jesus said about the wheat and the tares growing up together. The church of Jesus Christ is not made up of perfect people. We are only clothed in Christ's righteousness. There are some who are part of the visible body of believers that are technically not part of the invisible body of believers. Take the field. The wheat is planted. It grows up, and, alongside it, weeds grow up. You dare not go along and rip out all the weeds or you will disturb the wheat. It is important to distinguish that which is healthy growth and that which is destructive growth. Ultimately, God is the One who knows precisely the difference between the wheat and the weeds.
Our job is to make certain that we are wheat, not weeds.
Our privilege is that of being transformed by the Holy Spirit of God from ordinary vessels of wood and clay to those special utensils of gold and silver. We are to emphasize truth, in contrast to error, clearly distinguishing between the two. At the same time, we are not the ones who make the final judgments. That is reserved for the Lord. Our responsibility is to steward faithfully what God has entrusted to us and, through the refining process of the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, be clean vessels, usable in the service of Jesus Christ.
St. Augustine wrote:
And we know that the apostle said of the vessels placed in the great house, 'If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honor, sanctified and ready for the Master's use, and prepared for every good work.' But in what manner each man ought to purge himself from these he shows a little above, saying, 'Let everyone that names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.' This is so that he may not in the last day be blown away with the chaff from the threshing floor. Nor may he be separated at the last by hearing the command, 'Depart from me, you that work iniquity.'
At this point, a clear distinction is made between an unclean life and a clean life.
Paul tells us to shun youthful passions.
You know the story of Joseph in the house of Potiphar in Egypt. This young man had been sold in slavery by his brothers. In God's amazing providence, Joseph surfaced in Egypt. The integrity of his life and the diligence of his workmanship commended him to this wealthy and powerful Egyptian. Potiphar put Joseph in charge of his whole household. Potiphar's wife was attracted to Joseph. She flirted with him. When Potiphar was out of town she overtly endeavored to seduce him. He fled from her presence, shunning his youthful passions, only to have her turn on him, telling Potiphar upon his return that Joseph had tried to rape her. In this story of the refining process of a person endeavoring to be a clean vessel, Joseph ends up in prison. How often have you and I done the right thing, obedient to God's way, only to wonder where God is when the right action backfires? Joseph didn't know the end of the story when he was sold into slavery and then had his life turned around. Now, betrayed because of his faithfulness to God, he ends up in prison. You know the rest of the story. His life in prison commends itself. He seems to have great wisdom. Ultimately, he comes to the attention of the Pharaoh, prophetically predicting seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. He is placed in one of the highest positions in Egypt, in a way that saves his own family from the famine. In God's providence, he and his family become reunited. This whole story didn't happen over night. He had fled youthful passions and paid a negative price for his faithfulness. Only, at the end, do we see how God had been at work all the time.
How sad it is to see our tendency, even as followers of Jesus, to be caught up in youthful lusts, forgetting the high calling that is ours to live lives faithful to God's Word, clothed in Christ's righteousness.
Paul then challenges us to specific positive actions and attitudes.
He urges us to pursue righteousness. We are to give God and our fellow human beings that which ministers to their best.
He calls us to pursue faith. We are to be men and women who have a growing trust in God that makes us reliable as we serve Him and our fellow human beings.
He calls us to pursue love. You and I are to have at the heart of our existence the desire to serve the highest good of God and our fellow human beings, no matter what they do to us.
He calls us to pursue peace. At the core of our existence, our desire is that of wholeness for others and ourselves, that completeness that defies all outward disrupting circumstances.
And, we are not to do all this alone. He urges us to do this with others. We are to do it in the company of those " . . . who call upon the Lord from a pure heart." The church of Jesus Christ is to be seen as men and women who are not caught up in stupid and senseless controversies.
Do you resonate with this? Is it your desire, with God's help, to be an unashamed worker and a clean vessel? Now this is not enough. Paul adds one more metaphor.
Question #3: Are you a gentle servant?
And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, and that they may escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.
A gentle servant is a kindly person who puts God and others first, even when having to stand firm for truth.
This may be the toughest of all the metaphors to accomplish. At least, I find it the most difficult.
I have had an almost impossible week, trying to do two things simultaneously. I have had to study this passage and prepare a sermon on the one hand and, on the other, I have had to deal with two major issues in two entirely different geographic settings that have challenged everything within me in the light of this passage.
Tuesday and Wednesday I was in Houston for a meeting of our General Assembly task force on "Hearts and Hands Together," a mission initiative to renew our denomination by raising $20 million to send new missionaries, plus an additional $20 million to build new churches. Serving on that task force with me are a couple of people who are leaders on the other side from those of us who believe the Bible is clear in declaring certain forms of human sexual expression to be sin, in spite of the political correctness pressures to declare what the Bible says is sin to no longer be sin. Some of us have been engaged in this rigorous theological debate for almost three decades. I first testified before the Task Force on Human Sexuality in 1976 at our General Assembly in Philadelphia. Those on the other side assumed that they could force the church to change its position. Twenty-eight years have passed, and those trying to change the church have not yet prevailed.
This week, three significant actions have taken place. The Archbishop of Canterbury has pled with the American Episcopal Church to repent of its recent actions. The United Methodist Church has defrocked an avowed, practicing lesbian pastor. The Evangelical Lutheran Church has taken a similar action. And I, in the hallway outside the meeting of the task force in Houston, confronted one of my colleagues, who is a major strategist for the other side, and begged him to change his ways before they completely wreck our great denomination, whose confessions of faith and constitutional standards are still in accordance with Scripture.
How do you have such a conversation that endeavors to correct an opponent and do it with gentleness? Three hours later, I had to go back to him and apologize, not for the truth of what I was saying, but for the impassioned way I expressed myself that was dehumanizing of his personhood. It isn't that we aren't to correct another. It isn't that we are to back off from the truth. It is that we are to hold to the truth firmly, in a spirit of love, yes, and even gentleness.
Paul writes, "God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, and that they may escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will" (
Later this week, I was stunned to read a letter to the editor in the Daily Pilot, written by one who put in writing allegations that she has been spreading through the community for over two years that I and the leadership of St. Andrew's promised, back in 1982, that we would never ask for any expansion of our facility. Several times, I have, in as kindly a way as possible, tried to explain to her that I never made such a promise. The only promise made was that we would never encroach across onto the other side of Clay Street past our present parking lot. Our great regret was that we did not have the resources in that early 1980s building program to have a youth center at that point. Everyone is entitled to their opinion on the merits or demerits of our building program. But when a newspaper article with a malicious headline accuses one of lying, it is hard to take. I don't question the sincerity of the one who thinks that is what we promised. But we didn't! How do you speak the truth in a way that isn't quarrelsome, but kindly, "correcting opponents with gentleness." Not always easy, is it?
What I find so reassuring is the teaching of our mentor, Paul, to his mentoree, Timothy, in the first century and to us in the 21st century is that these kinds of issues are addressed head-on.
You and I are privileged to have mentors as we face these challenges.
Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple the same week He wept over Jerusalem and went sacrificially to the cross to die for our sins.
The Apostle Paul never minced his words. He spoke up strongly for the truth. He did it with love, courage, and at great personal risk. He was determined, with God's help, to be an unashamed worker, a clean vessel, and a gentle servant. Are you?
I am convinced that's why Dr. Billy Graham, at age 86, is still taken seriously. As great a speaker as he is, his message remains the simple Gospel. In the 1950s, he turned down Cecil DeMille's offer to make him a multi-millionaire Hollywood star. Few people know that in 1964, he turned down Lyndon Johnson's invitation to become his vice-presidential running mate. His words have always pointed to Jesus Christ, even when they made people unhappy. Two weeks ago, interviewed by Michael Jackson on KNX, he was asked, "Dr. Graham, do you really believe and tell people, with all the religions in the world, that Jesus Christ is the only way to God?" Very graciously, in a non-quarrelsome way, Dr. Graham responded, "Yes, Michael, that's what I say. That's the message given to me in the Bible. Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes unto the Father except by me.' That's the central message of the Christian faith."
Thank God for mentors such as Jesus, Paul and Billy Graham. And thank God for the many other examples, much less known, who have combined words with action to the glory of God.
Not only do I want to be an obedient soldier, a good athlete, and a faithful farmer in the service of Jesus Christ. I also want to be His unashamed worker, a clean vessel and a gentle servant!
How about you?
John A Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.