The Life God Blesses
II Timothy 2:14-26
July 6, 2003
Almost five years ago we started sending free copies of my books to prisoners across America. Through a partnership with Prison Fellowship, we have distributed tens of thousands of copies of Keep Believing, What a Christian Believes, and An Anchor for the Soul. The response has been overwhelming. To date we have received well over 10,000 letters from prisoners. The letters have come from almost every prison in every state. If you stacked up all the letters, the pile would be over 12 feet tall.
Most of the letters fall into two categories: The first group comes from prisoners who are already saved and write to say thanks for the free book. We also hear from prisoners who trusted Christ after reading the book we sent them. We don’t often hear from prisoners who read the book but haven’t yet trusted Christ. But last month we received two letters on the same day from prisoners on opposite sides of the country who were in exactly that situation. Here is a portion of the first letter:
I am writing to you today after I finished reading your book What a Christian Believes. As a Muslim I had very limited knowledge about Christianity until I read your book which took me step by step toward understanding your religion.
It seems very obvious to me now that Christianity really stands for peace and righteousness and that I had a great deal of confusion about the fundamentals of Christianity. I still have unanswered questions and I have hope that my search will answer it for me.
He goes on to ask if I know anyone who could talk with him “and perhaps answer some of the remaining questions I have before I leave the U.S.” He added that he would write more details about himself after he heard from me. I did write him back and am waiting to hear from him again.
The second letter comes from a man in jail in Seattle, Washington. His situation is quite different.
I did something real bad, I got on drugs and killed my family. I hope to ask you what I must do to be saved. Please help me to know God, like in your book, An Anchor for the Soul, it is so good for me. Am I like Jeffrey Dahmer and Mother Teresa. (That’s a reference to an illustration in the book.) I need God in my life, please help me.
He then lists the crimes he was convicted of: “Two charges Aggravated Murder and 1 Attempted Murder.”
I need you, Mr. Pritchard, to send me some of God’s words like the Anchor for the Soul book, because I can read this, I have only a 9th grade education in school. So help me to read your books, sir. God bless you, Mr. Pritchard. Please help me.
Then he added, writing on the side of the page, “O Sir, I have no money and no family. Please help me.”
I wrote him back as well and have yet to hear from him again.
As I think about these two remarkable letters coming from men on opposite sides of the country, from vastly different backgrounds, yet both seeking in their own way to know the Lord, I am struck by three facts. First, there is no sinner beyond the hope of salvation. Think of these two men—one a Muslim, the other a murderer. One man follows a different religion; the other murdered his family. Is there any hope for these men? Thank God, the answer is yes. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. There is no man who has sinned so greatly that he cannot be saved. Second, there are hungry hearts all around us, often in the most unlikely places. Jesus said the fields are white and ready for harvest and he declared that the harvest fields are plentiful but the laborers are few. There are hungry hearts all around us, if only we have eyes to see them, ears to hear them, and hearts open to reach out to them. Third, we can reach those hungry hearts if we are willing for God to use us. This is where the message of my text today becomes so powerful.
Paul is writing to his young protégé, Timothy, to encourage him to be strong in the face of the difficult times to come. He wants him to know that God can use him if he will make himself available to God.
“If we are willing.” Are you willing to be used by God? Or do you prefer to spend your short life on planet earth filling your days with things that don’t really matter? I am sure that all who read these words would say, “I truly want to be used by God. And I want to live a life that God can bless abundantly.” If that is your answer, then read on because this powerful passage reveals the pathway to blessing and usefulness for all who are willing. Verse 21 even says it explicitly when it challenges us to be “useful to the Master.”
In order to be blessed by God and be used by him, we must be grounded in the Word, confident in God, cleansed from unholy habits, and gentle with our adversaries.
I. Grounded in the Word
“Keep reminding them of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some” (II Timothy 2:14-18).
Verse 15 is the key to this whole section. If we are going to be used of God to reach others, we must be “approved workers” who are not ashamed because we correctly handle the word of truth. The phrase “approved workers” speaks of craftsmen who are gifted and dedicated to doing excellent work. Let me illustrate. A friend asked me to recommend a good auto body shop because his car had been in a wreck. I didn’t hesitate but was glad to mention a certain establishment in Oak Park. A quick check of the phone book shows that there are many auto body shops in our area. I don’t know about all of them, but I do know about some of them, and there is only one that I would recommend. It’s a shop that our family has used on numerous occasions, starting with the time eight or nine years ago when our van was totally wrecked all the way to this summer when we’ve had both our cars in the shop. The owner is a good friend of mine and I have gotten to know him well over the years. But I do not use his shop because of our friendship. We keep going back because of the high quality of service. I know from experience that his people take great pride in what they do. They are totally dedicated to doing the job and doing it right. And (though I can’t say this for certain) I have the feeling that my friend can be pretty tough on his own people if he thinks they aren’t giving a full effort. As far as I am concerned, he is an “approved worker” who does not need to be ashamed because he correctly handles the cars that come into his shop.
Those who serve the Lord must take care in the way they handle the Word of God. In the King James Version, the phrase reads “rightly divide.” The Greek word means something like cutting a straight furrow or making a straight path. We must not use the Word of God to support a pet theory or our own ideas, but must follow the true teaching of the Word of God, making it the straight pattern for life. This involves knowing the Word and being able to explain it accurately to others.
First, I must know the Word.
Second, I must apply it to my own life.
Third, I must diligently study it in order to teach it.
Fourth, I must teach it correctly so that others will understand it.
This command applies not only to pastors and missionaries, but also to every Christian. It certainly applies to Sunday School teachers and to small group leaders. It applies to everyone involved in personal discipleship. It applies to parents who must teach their children. It applies to believers who want to win their friends to Christ.
If you are grounded in the Word, you will avoid quarrels (v. 14) because they produce spiritual catastrophe in those who listen. You will avoid “godless chatter” (v. 16) because it is a kind of spiritual gangrene that destroys the soul. You will be aware of false teachers (vv. 17-18) who have wandered away from the truth. Paul even names two false teachers who had once been leaders in the church, but had drifted into serious doctrinal error that was corrupting other believers. They denied the truth of the bodily resurrection of the dead, thus robbing believers of the hope of seeing again their departed loved ones who died in the Lord.
All Christians are either “approved workers” or “ashamed believers.” To be approved means that we have built our lives on the Word of God and therefore, our ministry to others can stand the test of time. Because we know the truth, we can teach the truth to others and make them strong. An “ashamed” believer is one who is weak because he does not know the Word and therefore is tossed back and forth, always following the latest fad. Such a person is gullible, easily deceived, easy prey for false teachers, unstable, unsteady in the time of crisis, and prone to follow bad advice. Such a person will always have a negative influence on others.
How do you become an “approved worker?” The King James Version says “study to show yourself approved.” Other translations use phrases like “be diligent” or “make every effort” or “do your best.” The point is, it doesn’t happen by accident. My friend who runs the auto body shop sets high standards and holds himself to those standards. When he hires a new worker, he takes the time to show them how to produce high-quality work and he won’t accept less than that. If we were as serious as that in our walk with the Lord, we would soon be “approved workers” who correctly handle the word of truth.
Knowing the Bible is absolutely crucial for your spiritual growth. Years ago our church was called the Madison Street Bible Church. We put the word Bible right in our name to show that we want to be biblical in all we say and do. That’s why the Bible is the basis for every sermon, every program, and every class we offer. We want to grow a congregation that is Bible-based and Bible-saturated.
So how are you doing in your knowledge of the Word? Do you read the Bible on a daily basis? What steps have you taken to grow deeper in the Word? If you want to be an “approved worker” whom God can use, you must be grounded in the Word. And remember, it doesn’t happen by accident. Make it your aim to know God’s Word deeply so God can use you greatly.
II. Confident in God’s Ability
“Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness’” (II Timothy 2:19).
We live in days of enormous moral, spiritual and cultural confusion. Long-held tenets of proper moral behavior are increasingly doubted and even denied. And the trends in society have made their presence felt in the church. Just this morning I read where the Archbishop of Canterbury is wondering what God is saying to the Church of England after a homosexual minister who had been appointed as a bishop withdrew from the position. Well, let’s see. We know what God says about homosexuality. It’s condemned every time it is mentioned in the Bible. So God’s Word is perfectly clear. That’s not the problem. What could God be saying to the Anglican Church through this fiasco? How about this? ”Don’t appoint homosexual bishops,” and maybe even, “It’s time to take my Word seriously.” I don’t think that’s exactly what the Archbishop had in mind, however. The greater point is that the modern-day followers of Hymenaeus and Philetus seem to be everywhere in the world. They claim to be Christians, they claim to be following the Lord, they claim to be true to the faith, but by their words and by their deeds, they deny the very truth they claim to uphold.
It would be easy and perhaps even tempting to give in to despair. This verse reminds us that the church does not belong to us, it belongs to God, and even in the worst times, the Lord knows his own children. The inscription written at the base of the house of the Lord says, “The Lord knows those who are his.” They are his by the miracle of regeneration, they partake in his divine nature, and they show forth his family likeness. The Lord is not fooled one bit by the false teachers who claim to be part of his family but are not. As a true Father, he knows his children and he calls them by name. If you take my three sons and put them in a crowded auditorium, I can pick out Josh, Mark and Nick immediately. I know what they look like, I know their voices, and I probably even know what they are up to. I know them through and through. If I know my own sons, is it any surprise that the Lord knows his own children the same way?
The second inscription reminds us that what God knows on the inside may be clearly seen on the outside: “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.” Here is an infallible test to help you spot false teachers. If a so-called Christian minister promotes that which God calls wickedness, you may be sure that he is no true follower of the Lord. God’s children are called to moral purity. They are called to depart from the wickedness of the world. The Lord knows who truly belongs to him, and we may see the same thing (though not as perfectly) by the moral choices of those who claim to be following Jesus. In the end, the children of God will never be comfortable living in sin. They are called to something higher and better, and deep inside, they truly want to please the Lord and they want to depart from wickedness.
All of this is meant to increase our confidence in God’s ability. That’s why even in days of moral decline, the Lord says to us, “Nevertheless.”
Do false teachers seem to abound? The Lord says, “Nevertheless.”
Are perilous times upon us? The Lord says, “Nevertheless.”
Do we fear for the future? The Lord says, “Nevertheless.”
Are we worried for our children’s safety? The Lord says, “Nevertheless.”
Do we wonder how the church will survive? The Lord says, “Nevertheless.”
Do we see some falling away from the faith? The Lord says, “Nevertheless.”
Are we tempted to despair? The Lord says, “Nevertheless.”
Could persecution come to us? The Lord says, “Nevertheless.”
Do evildoers rise to power? The Lord says, “Nevertheless.”
God is still in control because the “solid foundation” stands firm. God’s church is built on the solid Rock—Jesus Christ our Lord. He is the cornerstone of our faith. The church will not fail because it rests on the eternal promises of God who cannot lie and will not be defeated. Fear not, child of God. Do not give in to despair. God is still on the throne. He knows his own and he will not let them utterly fall. Rough times may come, but God does not forget his children. They are safe in his hands even when the waves of turmoil and clouds of compromise seem to temporarily blot out the sun. The Lord is on the throne and he will not be moved. Those who trust in him will be safe forever.
If we are going to be used by God, we must be grounded in the Word so we won’t be swept away in days of spiritual confusion. And we must have our confidence firmly fixed on the Lord whose purposes will not fail. That leads us to the moral requirement, which Paul now mentions in verses 20-22.
III. Cleansed from Unholy Habits
“In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble. If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work. Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (II Timothy 2:20-22).
The large house Paul has in mind represents what we might call the professing Christian church. It includes not only all true believers, but it also encompasses all those who claim to be Christian and all church members of every church regardless of their personal faith or personal relationship to Jesus Christ. Paul points out that in every large house, there are bowls or pots used for different purposes. For instance, most people have good china that they bring out for special occasions. Then there is the ordinary dinnerware that they use on a daily basis. And most people have garbage cans that they keep hidden from view. If you are going to invite some friends over for a meal, you won’t serve them food from the garbage can. If you do, it will be the end of your friendship. Garbage cans are used for storing waste that you intend to throw out. You serve the meal using nice dinnerware. It’s the same with the Lord. There are “gold and silver” Christians who by virtue of their character are very useful to the Lord. They are men and women of integrity who take their faith seriously, who walk in the Spirit and demonstrate the character of Christ in all that they do. And there are also “wood and clay” Christians who lack that character and therefore are not very useful to the Lord. They are “garbage can” Christians—filled with the waste products of life. They are not fit for noble purposes, they are not “made holy,” they are not useful to the Master, and they are not “prepared to do any good work.” They are “ignoble” believers—that is, they are not fit for high purposes but are useful only for the lower purposes of life.
The good news is, no one needs to stay that way. You may cleanse yourself of low living, and if you do, you will then be like gold and silver to the Lord. If you have been living in the garbage can of life, you don’t have to stay there. This is wonderful news because it means that life truly can be different for all of us.
You may be angry, but you don’t have to stay that way.
You may be bitter, but you don’t have to stay that way.
You may have given in to lust, but you don’t have to stay that way.
You may have a critical spirit, but you don’t have to stay that way.
You may have a foul temper, but you don’t have to stay that way.
You can change. “If a man cleanses himself.” You can change, but the change must start in your own heart. You will never change until you want to change. Jesus once asked a crippled man, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6). Great question. Not every person wants to be well. Sometimes we get so used to our anger, so comfortable in our sarcasm, so accustomed to our compromise, that we can’t imagine anything better or different. I believe the most important thing any of us can do is to cry out to the Lord to change us. Have you ever done that? Many people are stuck where they are because they believe everything depends on them, and having failed so many times, they are resigned that they can never be different or better or changed at all. If you know your life needs to change, cry out to the Lord. “This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles” (Psalm 34:6). Cry out to the Lord, ask for his help, admit that you are powerless to change. Tell the Lord that without him, you will always be stuck right where you are. God will never turn away those who cry out to him in sincerity and humility.
But notice how Paul puts it. He tells us to flee the evil desires of youth. That’s a reference not only to sexual temptation, but also to all the headstrong impetuosity of youth that leads us into anger, arrogance, pride, envy, and the need to win at all costs. We must flee that inner desire that makes us want to be in control of our little corner of the universe. We are to flee those things, and then we must pursue what is right. The order is crucial. In order to pursue the Right Things we have to flee the Wrong Things. You can’t pursue good and evil at the same time. One will always win out—usually it is evil that wins the day.
To pursue righteousness we must abandon living by our own rules.
To pursue faith we must abandon self-sufficiency.
To pursue honesty we must abandon dishonesty.
To pursue purity we must abandon self-indulgence.
To pursue love we must abandon selfishness.
To pursue peace we must abandon revenge.
And having made that commitment to follow what is right, we must not go back to the darkness for one final visit. To flee means to run away from. You can’t dabble in the darkness while walking in the light. It’s darkness or light, and nothing in between. This means that we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of “just a little” moral compromise. The journey from light to darkness is very short indeed. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “If you don’t want to slip, don’t go where it’s slippery.”
IV. Gentle toward Our Adversaries
“Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (II Timothy 2:23-26).
The final condition for being used by God involves how we deal with those who do not know the Lord. Paul begins with the negative. Don’t waste time in foolish and stupid arguments. The word “foolish” comes from a Greek word that means “moronic.” Sometimes people will say things just to see if they can get us riled up. They will try to stir up trouble by pushing our hot buttons. Most of us know people (some of them very close to us) who seem to have the “gift” of getting under our skin. Paul’s advice is simple but not always easy to follow: Don’t let them do it. Don’t let them get you riled up so that you lose your cool, blow your top, say things you shouldn’t say, and end up in a bitter shouting match.
We are not permitted to yell back at those who yell at us.
We are not to curse at those who curse at us.
We are not to intimidate those who try to intimidate us.
In short, we are not to match the tactics of those who may oppose us and ridicule our faith. We must keep our cool all the time, at all costs. One reason for this is very practical: You can’t argue a person into the kingdom of God. You can’t insult them into becoming a Christian. You can’t intimidate them into accepting Christ as Savior. It is quite possible to argue them away from the kingdom, but you can’t argue them into it. Salvation is a miracle of God that takes place in the human heart. Only the Holy Spirit can convert the soul. It’s not our arguments that win the lost. Unless the Lord works on the heart, all our words will be of no avail.
Therefore, we must be gentle under pressure and kind even when pushed to the limit. We must be patient toward those who oppose us and we must with meekness tell them the truth. If we lose our temper, we may win the verbal battle but we will surely lose the war for the soul.
The last several verses contain valuable truth about the state of the unsaved. Every lost person on earth is held captive by the devil. Even though the unsaved may think they are free, they are actually enslaved by the devil to do his will. They are not thinking clearly even though they may be brilliant people. Their hearts are darkened and their minds are set on the things of the world. Their condition is so hopeless that unless God intervenes, they will never be saved. God must “grant them repentance” that leads to eternal life. If God does not grant them repentance, they will never repent, they will never believe, and they will never be saved. Because they are spiritually dead, only God can bring them to life.
Only God Can Change the Heart
This perspective actually helps us greatly in the work of evangelism. For one thing, it takes the pressure off us because it frees us from thinking that we somehow win the lost in our own power. Evangelism is telling the Good News in the power of the Holy Spirit and inviting unbelievers to trust Christ as Savior. That’s our part, and it’s also as far as we can go. We cannot change the heart of a lost person. Only God can do that. This is why we can keep cool under pressure. Why get upset when lost people act like lost people? Why get angry when lost people don’t understand or don’t agree or say unkind things to us? They truly have not “come to their senses,” and until they do, what we are saying will sound like foolishness to them. If we get angry, it’s because we’ve lost our faith in God to convert the unsaved. When we get angry, we demonstrate that we think winning the lost depends on us and not on God.
Our part is clear. We are to be kind to everyone, to be ready and able to teach the truth, to not take it personally when others oppose us, and to gently instruct our adversaries. We are to speak the truth in love no matter how others speak to us or about us.
If we believe what Paul is saying, then we will …
Always be kind,
Be ready to speak to anyone who will listen,
Know what we’re talking about,
Be patient when we are attacked,
Teach the truth with a smile,
Trust God for the results.
Lost people are in the devil’s trap, and they don’t know it. Only God can set them free. Our part is to speak the truth gently and patiently even when people don’t want to hear it. God’s part is to do everything else.
That brings me back to those letters I mentioned earlier. Those two men—one a Muslim, the other a murderer—represent the world without Christ. You never know whose life you may be touching. There are hungry hearts all around us if only we are open and ready to used by the Lord. God can use us if we are grounded in the Word, confident in his ability, cleansed from unholy habits, and gentle toward our adversaries.
If we are grounded in the Word, we will not waste time in godless chatter and we will not be taken in by false doctrine. Instead, we will be approved by the Lord and our work will stand the test of time.
If we have confidence in God, we will not give in to fear in days of darkness and spiritual confusion.
If we are cleansed from unholy habits, we will make godly choices to turn from evil and we will chase after what is right. When we do that, our lives will be useful to God.
If we are gentle to our adversaries, we will prove to be the Lord’s true servants. If we refuse to quarrel, if we are kind with people, we may yet see God grant them repentance so they can have eternal life.
This is the high calling that is ours as we serve the Lord. Let no one be discouraged about the moral darkness. These are great days to serve the Lord and there are open doors on every hand. May God make us useful to the Master and instruments of noble purpose in his name. Amen.