Becoming a Useful Tool in God’s Shed
Growing into a vessel of honor, a usable instrument–2 Timothy 2:20-26, part 1
Are you more concerned with image or integrity? The appearance of living for Christ or living for Christ when no one sees but God? Our world is caught up with image and appearance–but Christ is caught up with integrity and godliness. Chicago Sun Times columnist Sydney J. Harris put it, “Since most of us would rather be admired for what we do, rather than for what we are, we are normally willing to sacrifice character for conduct, and integrity for achievement.”
How about you? Is your life about looking good or living godly? Appearing like you’ve got it together or following Christ in secret? When Christ causes you to turn to Him in repentance and faith, He gives you a new heart that values integrity. You actually live for Christ when no one is looking. Second Corinthians 5:15, “He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.”
And what you do in secret, when no one can see you, and your parents aren’t around, or the boss will never know, or within the walls of your room, actually matters a great deal to God. The choices you make in private determine your fruitfulness in public. David said in Psalm 101:2b, “I will walk within my house in the integrity of my heart.”
Solomon talked about the danger of little compromises, little sins, when he said in Ecclesiastes 10:1, “Dead flies make a perfumer’s oil stink, so a little foolishness is weightier than wisdom and honor.” Just a few flies in the oil ruin it. Now in 2 Timothy Paul calls Timothy to pursue a life of integrity–even in secret, living with no compromise, as He wraps up chapter 2 of 2 Timothy.
In verses 20 to 26, Paul instructs Timothy how to become an instrument for God’s purposes. And that will require difficult choices which no one will see but God. In verses 20 to 26, Paul gives Timothy and each of you nine characteristics or choices to be a usable instrument for God’s glory. This will require four weeks to work through.
Paul informs Timothy, the fruitful believer makes difficult lifestyle choices to be useful to Christ. As chapter 2 has progressed, the flow moves from the call to “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” in verse 1, to being “a workman who does not need to be ashamed” in verse 15, in order to be “useful to the Master, prepared for every good work” in verse 21.
Remember where we are in this study–last week, in verse 19, Paul used the rebellion of Korah in Numbers 16 as an example to Timothy. He calls on Timothy to be a faithful man, chosen of God. Verse 19, “Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.’”
The New Testament teaches us God is the one who saved us in Christ before time began and called us with a holy calling–not based on our works but on his own purpose and grace. This choosing creates a unique community of believers who, indwelt with God’s Spirit, are loyal to Christ and will actually separate themselves from any type of entanglement inconsistent with their identity in Christ or mission for Christ–just as the faithful people of God did in Numbers 16 with the Korah rebellion.
Back then, the faithful Israelites stepped away from the rebellious liars and committed themselves to Moses and the truth. So by quoting Korah’s rebellion in verse 19, Paul might even be giving a promise of protection to those who commit to follow apostolic truth, and a warning of judgment for those who embrace error.
But more than separating ourselves from compromising Christians, Paul wants Timothy to excel in service to Christ–to become an honorable vessel. But to become a useful tool and be effective for Christ, Timothy and you must pursue 2 Timothy 2:20 to 26—read it aloud with me from your outline. And as you do, think in terms of becoming the sharpest tool for God to use for His glory and your good.
“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. 21 Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. 22 Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. 23 But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. 24 The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”
This paragraph begins with the key illustration which unlocks the rest of the chapter. Paul sets before Timothy the image of a house and its vessels. Let’s dig into the Illustration, “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.”
Paul uses the figure of a vessel to describe Christians. In Romans 9:21 for example, in defending God’s sovereign right to save and to condemn according to His own perfect will, the apostle asks, “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?”
Paul is pointing out our utter dependence on God’s enabling power in order to serve. Paul reminded Corinthian believers in 2 Corinthians 4:7 that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves.” The vessel is not the focus in verse 20–God is.
So in verse 20, Paul is using an illustration of a large affluent house with many rooms and lots of furniture. Paul says there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and earthenware, some to honor, others to dishonor. A large house would have buckets, jars, and cups made of wood and clay that would be used for dishonorable purposes, such as disposal of garbage and human waste. It would also have vessels of silver and gold that were used for noble functions, such as dining and entertaining.
The context strongly suggests that “the firm foundation of God” of verse 19 describes the Church. So here, “a large house” is also Paul’s metaphor for the Church. In a large house, meaning in the Church–look at verse 19, God’s ownership of, or seal, on the Church is in two parts. From the divine perspective, it is His sovereign election of “those who are His.” And from the human perspective, it is the righteousness of the faithful believer who will be one “who names the name of the Lord and abstains from wickedness.”
Now see verse 20 in context. The large house represents the body of Christ–all true believers, the vessels in the Church, representing individual believers. The honorable gold and silver vessels, those committed to Christ, His truth and holiness–and the dishonorable vessels of wood and of earthenware, those toying with error and living in wickedness.
The Greek word for vessel was used of a wide variety of domestic implements, utensils, and furnishings, including furniture and tools–thus the title today, “God’s Sharpest Tools”. The valuable items would be prominently displayed as decorations or used for serving important guests as a gesture of honor.
The inferior articles were strictly utilitarian. They were common, plain, replaceable, unattractive, often dirty and sometimes vile–because these pots were used for garbage, and as the ancient toilet for human waste. They were used for those duties that were never seen and were kept out of sight as much as possible.
To display these items before guests would be an act of unspeakable dishonor. In this text, the wood/clay vessels are despised from the Lord’s perspective, whereas in 2 Corinthians 4:7 Paul is glad to be an “earthen vessel,” because he is there using the analogy to express his personal self-evaluation and humility. But here in 2 Timothy, vessel is used differently.
Honor and dishonor do not refer to true and false Christians, or true and false teachers. Jesus is clear in the parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24 to 30), and in His teaching about the sheep and goats judgment of the nations (Matthew 25:31 to 46), that the visible Church on Earth will contain both unbelievers and believers until He returns and orders the final separation.
Paul is not speaking about that distinction in this context. Nor is Paul describing the God-given differences among believers–like Romans 12, where each of you has a different measure of faith and a different function in the body because of a different giftedness. No–the honorable vessels represent believers who are faithful and useful to the Lord. They are the good soldiers (verses 3 to 4), the competitive athletes (verse 5), the hard-working farmers (verse 6).
By contrast, the dishonorable vessels are the cowardly, entangled soldiers, the cheating unfocused athlete, and the lazy farmer–the defiled, so-called believers, possibly listening to false teaching, even living secretly wicked (verse 19), fit only for the most menial, undistinguished purposes. Honor and dishonor therefore refer to the ways in which genuine believers are found useful to the Lord in fulfilling the work to which He has called them.
All believers should be, but are not always, vessels of honor. Some Ephesian leaders, including Timothy, were becoming discouraged and apathetic. Part of the problem was their apparent intimidation by false teachers such as Hymenaeus and Philetus, whom Paul specifically denounces in verse 17.
Because Paul repeats many of his strong admonitions to Timothy and the other leaders in Ephesus over and over, the serious problems he sought to correct must have been ongoing. And because this letter is addressed to Timothy, Paul’s apostolic representative in the church at Ephesus, Paul’s admonitions in 2:20 to 26 seem directed first of all to the leaders in that church, and then to every believer who desires to be used of God in any church. The leadership focus is supported by the reference in verse 24 to “the Lord’s bond-servant” which, in this context, is probably used as an official term for elders.
Once Paul establishes his illustration of the house and the faithful and unfaithful, truth-pursuing and truth-negating vessels in verse 20, now in verses 21 to 26 Paul describes nine commitments enabling a Spirit-filled believer to become that honorable vessel–the gold bowl, the silver spoon, the expensive plate, meaning a useful tool in God’s hands. How can you be a usable instrument to God? Paul will tell us the fruitful believer will make difficult lifestyle choices to be useful to Christ. What does it take to be an effective tool in God’s hands?
#1 A useful tool will have a CLEANSED life Verse 21a
Paul applies the key illustration to the very next verse. “Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor” (verse 21a). Cleansing your life will make you an honorable vessel with great usefulness. This is the exact opposite of the contemporary delusion that your character is irrelevant.
A holy inner life, a pure heart, a desire to please God when no one is looking, a commitment to dependently obey the Word 24/7 is essential to doing any good work in this life. Verse 21 calls for a conscious, willful cleansing—“if anyone cleanses himself.” It involves your will–you must act on this. Paul says this as a choice that might be made.
But always in Paul’s thinking and in New Testament doctrine, it can never be apart from grace. Cleansing can never be done purely in our own strength, but by the Spirit through us. We engage in cleansing, working out our salvation with fear and trembling, but God must empower–He is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
You choose to cleanse, you engage your will to cleanse–but dependently upon the Spirit as God accomplishes cleansing in and through you. Cleanses is the Greek verb where we get the English word catharsis, which means to clean out thoroughly, to completely purge—purging. And Paul says “cleanses himself from these things.”
These things refers to the vessels of dishonor from the illustration in verse 20. The faithful, godly believers cleanse themselves from those vessels of dishonor. Separate yourself from the, verse 19, so-called Christians who embrace doctrinal error in order to live wickedly. The vessels of dishonor are defiled people in the church–the false teachers and the churchgoers who embrace them.
Honorable believers must reject their errant instruction and immoral life. So Paul’s exhortation is for godly believers to separate themselves from the fellowship and example of impure believers who are not clean, not obedient, not submissive to the Lord, and not eager to serve. Sin is contagious and association with openly sinful, so-called Christians is spiritually dangerous.
Proverbs 13:20, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” An immoral or doctrinally corrupt believer, especially a leader who is influential, is more dangerous than an atheist college professor, because careless believers may rationalize that certain practices and ideas they teach and live are permissible, simply because they are practiced or embraced by this errant church leader.
Turn to 1 Corinthians 5:9 to 13 where Paul spells out who’s the most dangerous person to a believer. Parents, it is more dangerous for your child to be around a wicked, so-called churchattender, than a wicked non-Christian. For you, it’s harder on your soul to be around make-believers and marginal-believers than anti-believers. How does Paul say it?
First Corinthians 5:9 to 13, “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; 10 I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. 11 But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? 13 But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.”
John MacArthur writes, “You do not expect unbelievers to think, talk, and behave like Christians, and your guard tends to be up against their influence. But, like “worldly and empty chatter” that leads “to further ungodliness” and spreads “like gangrene” (2 Timothy 2:16–17), willing association with ungodly believers, vessels of dishonor, inevitably will cause some of their sin to infect you, whether you realize it or not.”
Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Do not be deceived, bad company corrupts good morals.” Fellowship with defiled church members develops tolerance for their defilement. This is why Paul warns the young Thessalonian church in 2 Thessalonians 3:14, “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame.”
No Christian should associate with professing Christians who are morally defiled. We should not want to be around those whose lifestyle does not honor Christ. We should not want to associate with so-called believers who have a critical tongue, who tolerate evil in their lives and in the lives of other believers, or those whose commitment to the Lord is shallow without any desire to grow deep.
The name Timothy means honor–and Timothy can’t live up to his name unless he, verse 21, “cleanses himself from these things, [so that] he will be a vessel for honor.” This conditional sentence explains the second half of the quote from verse 19 and applies it to Timothy’s situation. To be an honorable vessel, Timothy, and you, must depart from wickedness (verse 19) by “departing from those who practice wickedness.”
A vessel for honor can’t remain honorable, nor usable, if he or she is continually contaminated by vessels of dishonor. They cannot remain pure apart from true fellowship. Faithful service to the Lord requires separation from those who can contaminate you.
Are you willing to pick new friends? Are you willing to lose friends who believe error and practice wickedness? Are you willing to avoid association with churchgoing, so-called Christians who are not clean, not obedient, not submissive, and not eager to serve? And are you willing to build new relationships with those who embrace sound doctrine and serve Christ? Paul says that is what it takes to be an honorable vessel.
Are you willing to stop being curious about error, not allow yourself to get hooked on books filled with error, not watch shows saturated in error, not listen to music filled with error, not speculate about error, not be living closely around people of error. “If anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor.” The fruitful believer makes difficult lifestyle choices to be useful to Christ. What choices do you need to make? Nine commitments enabling a Spirit-filled believer become a usable instrument.
#2 A useful tool will desire a SANCTIFIED heart Verse 21b
Added next is “sanctified”—“if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified.” The useful tool in God’s hands desires sanctification. Sanctified is from a word which basically means being set apart. A Christian is sanctified, set apart, in two ways. Negatively, a sanctified believer is set apart from sin. Positively, a sanctified believer is set apart for God.
Sanctified means to make holy, consecrate, holiness and sacred. All the instruments in the tabernacle were set apart from everyday uses and dedicated solely to God and His service. Believers who are vessels of honor are also set apart, meaning sanctified. Their supreme purpose is to serve God. To remain usable, they keep themselves pure, pursue holiness, desire obedience and avoid wickedness.
There is no way you would use a bowl for a toilet pot, then immediately use the same bowl for a drinking bowl. An honorable vessel is kept pure. That’s what Paul says in verse 21–sanctified is a perfect passive participle, telling us this is a condition that already exists and must continue. There are two kinds of sanctification–one that happens once at salvation, and another that is ongoing in the life of a true believer as they grow to be like Christ.
The moment we trust Christ as Lord and Savior, we are sanctified–set apart for Christ. Salvation itself is a sanctification, setting us apart to God. But it also is the beginning of a lifelong process. It is both a reality and a progressive experience. And here in verse 21, Paul is telling Timothy the only useful tool in God’s hands is the one who is currently fleeing sin and pursuing Christ in the process of sanctification—flee and pursue.
Christians live like they belong to Christ, set apart for Him with righteous living. Honorable vessels run from sin and pursue becoming like Christ in every action. With sexual purity, you don’t post provocative selfies, talk dirty, dress trashy or live loosely–but reserve your body as the greatest gift of love you can give to your spouse. God is not trying to rob you of fun, but fill your heart with joy in marriage. If you’ve already gone too far, repent and today marks your commitment to purity.
Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 and 7, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; 7 For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification.” Progressive sanctification always means a negative movement away from sin, from the world, from the flesh, and from Satan. And pursuing sanctification means a positive movement toward love, holiness, service, purity, and doing what is right. Christian, pursue sanctification. The fruitful believer makes difficult lifestyle choices to be useful to Christ–do you need to make sanctified choices?
#3 A useful tool will pursue becoming USEFUL to God Verse 21c
Another phrase is now added—“useful to the Master.” A vessel for honor is useful to the Master. In 2 Timothy 4:11, later in this letter, Paul speaks of John Mark as “useful to me for service.” The apostle wanted Timothy to be useful to Jesus Christ, the Master, just as Mark was useful to him in his apostolic work.
Paul’s deepest desire was to be useful, and his greatest fear was to be disqualified from usefulness. God doesn’t mark you as disqualified, but you can become disqualified. Like Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:27, “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
Paul tells Timothy, a fruitful instrument will be useful to the Master. Useful means being able to serve, to furnish what is necessary, valuable and beneficial. As a Christian, one of your main goals, with few exceptions, is to be the valuable employee, the one the boss doesn’t want to lose, the student every teacher wants in their classroom, the neighbor every neighborhood counts on around them. And the servant every ministry leader depends on and appreciates.
You should be VIP and not the VDP–very important person, not the very draining person. You accomplish that through dependent diligence and actively serving Christ in everything you do. For as you are, then you are useful to the Master. Master translates despotēs, from which we get despot. You Christians are not simply related to God–you wholly belong to God. He is your sovereign Master, your loving and benevolent Lord who actually owns you–right?
We don’t belong to ourselves anymore–it’s not about me, it’s not about what I want. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19 and 20, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.”
To be a useful tool in God’s hands means you treat all of life as for Him–even the mundane, life-maintaining, regular driving, mealtime, hangout times. There should be no difference between cleaning the house and teaching the Word, in that both are done for Him, when you’re useful to the Master. I can’t have a Christlike ministry if my regular life is not lived for Christ. The fruitful believer makes difficult lifestyle choices to be useful to Christ.
#4 A useful tool will choose to do WORKS for God Verse 21d
The concluding phrase in this verse is, “prepared for every good work.” Christian, you are to be known for good works–doing Christlike actions for others. Doing good works is more important than you know, my friends. You are to witness with good works.
Matthew 5:16 says, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Women do good works–1 Timothy 2:10, “rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.” Widows do good works–1 Timothy 5:10, “having a reputation for good works.” The rich do good works–1 Timothy 6:18, “Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share.”
And if you don’t do good works, you are in a scary place. Titus 1:16, “They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed.” Paul tells Timothy, and you, all honorable vessels, all of God’s sharpest tools, all useful believers are verse 21, “prepared for every good work.”
The Greek word for prepared carries the idea of willingness, readiness and eagerness. You can’t wait to do something for Christ in service to people. The participle, prepared, is a perfect passive, pointing to a condition that already exists. You are already created for good works. Ephesians 2:10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”
When you were saved, the Lord placed you in a state of divine preparedness, in which you received His own Holy Spirit to indwell you and empower you, and prepared you to live out preselected good works. But don’t miss this point–you also have His divine Word in Scripture to teach us (His truth and His will) about good works.
But unlike a metal, earthenware, or wooden vessel, a human vessel has a will. Our full preparedness for the Lord’s service demands more than simply having His Spirit within us, possessing the particular talents, gifts He has provided and knowing the truth He has revealed. Being an honorable vessel also demands our genuine and unreserved willingness to submit to His Spirit, and pursue using your spiritual gifts through you according to His revealed Word in service to His Church–for His glory.
You have to act, sign up to serve, do something in the church for His glory, get involved, give to others, care for people, and choose to do good deeds. Are you? “Chris, I thought you said there are nine commitments enabling a Spirit-filled believer to become a useable instrument.” Yes, and next week Paul tells us an honorable vessel is pure–purity of heart, mind and body that no one sees but God. Whether you are 15 or 65, God desires you to be pure.
1. Being useful means CHARACTER is important
What you are inside determines what you do outside. What you are is first what you do, comes from what you are. Are you a gold vessel or a clay pot? Don’t boast about being earthenware from this passage, because here the Lord despises earthenware and desires you to be a gold vessel in behavior and in heart. God wants you to be cleansed, sanctified, be useful and do good works.
2. Being useful means Christ is LORD
Is there any area of your life where Christ is not Lord? What is out of control? What sin must be repented of? What habit must be broken? To be useful to God, Christ is to be your Master. Is He your Lord? Have you surrendered to Christ by turning from your sin and trusting in Christ alone? Do you believe Christ died for your sin, rose to give you life and do you trust in Him fully?
3. Being useful means Christ is your PASSION
In order to become a useful tool in God’s service, Christ must be your passion. You won’t be useful to Christ unless you are in Christ and Christ is in you. If you love Christ first, He will be first with your time, money, and service. Church will matter. Obeying His Word will be your passion. Useful vessels want to do what He wants us to do. Let’s pray.