Strong in Grace - Part 4

Theme: Images of Encouragement

This week’s lessons remind us that we do not only need God’s grace for our salvation; we also need God’s grace to provide strength to carry on in God’s service in the midst of difficulties.

Scripture: 2 Timothy 2:1, 2

Yesterday we looked at the first three metaphors of encouragement. We now need to look at the other three.

A workman (v. 15). A good workman knows his materials and can cut, fashion, or mold them to make the object he wants or has been told to make. In Timothy's case, the material to be used is the Word of God, the Bible, and the work is to teach it clearly. The Greek text of verse 15 (“to cut straight”) means a bit more than any of the translations seems to convey, since the true meaning is probably to be measured against the errors of Hymenaeus and Philetus, whom Paul mentions. They had “wandered away from the truth” (v. 18). That is, their teaching was off the straight track. It was faulty. Consequently, anyone who followed it would go astray and miss the right destination. The Bible teacher who is “approved” by God does not deviate from the straight path of Bible teaching and therefore does not lead his listeners astray.

But that takes hard work. To begin with, the teacher has to understand the Bible itself, and that is not easy, since God's ways are not our ways nor are his thoughts our thoughts. To become a “Bible man or woman” means to have our whole way of thinking reordered. Second, the teacher needs to concentrate on things that are central rather than those that are peripheral. This requires judgment honed by long hours in the Word. Third, he must work to develop true godliness in his listeners, and for that he must himself be godly. Finally, the teacher must seek approval of God and not that of other human beings. To seek human approval is a very great danger.

A household vessel (vv. 20, 21). The image of a workman or artisan probably suggested Paul's description of a Christian worker as a vessel used in a large house, since workmen make vessels, and a vessel alone of these metaphors is an impersonal object rather than a profession. Yet the image adds something new. It enables Paul to distinguish between impure vessels and those that have been cleansed for “noble purposes” and “good work” (v. 21). He means that the worker must possess personal godliness or holiness.

A servant (vv. 24-26). The idea of a clean or pure vessel carries over into the last of Paul's six images, for he speaks of the worker being a servant in verses 22-26, and his emphasis here is on the servant's gentle, godly, and helpful character. Paul might have emphasized the hard work a slave was called upon to do, but he has already emphasized that sufficiently in the earlier metaphors. Here he is saying that the good servant must be like his good master. That is, we must be like Jesus Christ.

So how are we to be like this? And how are we to be able to endure the kind of hardship this chapter describes? In this case the answer is at the beginning of the chapter in the verse that mentions grace. It is by the help the God of grace supplies (v. 1). It is only in the Lord's strength and protected by his armor that we can fight these spiritual battles and be victorious (cf. Eph. 6:10-20).

The third chapter of 2 Timothy is the chapter best known to most of us because of its description of the Bible as “God-breathed” and as being “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The Bible is useful because it is “God-breathed.” That is, it is unlike any other book. B.B. Warfield argued that point well many years ago.

But this is not all that chapter three of 2 Timothy speaks to, and, in fact, it may not even be the most essential thing, since Timothy was certainly not questioning the Bible's character or truthfulness. He knew the Bible was the Word of God, just as we do. That was not his problem. The problem was: Is the Bible able to meet the needs of the hour when “evil men and impostors” go from bad to worse, “deceiving and being deceived” (v. 13)? Will it suffice? Will the ministry Timothy was given as a teacher of the Bible prove effective in the long run so that he can continue in it and not quit? Or do we need something else, something more relevant or attractive or more powerful? Should Timothy abandon his position to those who are more attractive or entertaining?

Let's begin by noting that the days about which the apostle was warning Timothy are our days, or are at least indistinguishable from them. Paul calls them “the last days” (2 Tim. 3:1). That can mean either of two things. It can mean the very last days, those immediately before the return of Jesus Christ. Or it can mean the period of time that will elapse between his first and second comings. I could argue for either. But I am most concerned to see that the characteristics of these days, wherever in time they are to be located, aptly describe the days in which I live. We do not call the characteristics of our time by these words, of course. We rename our vices, as sinners regularly do.

Lovers of themselves? We call that the “new narcissism.” We have even made it a virtue to which we cater in our mass advertising appeals. “I know it's expensive, but I'm worth it.” There is nothing nice or attractive about this vice. It is self-love, the root of all sin.

Lovers of money? The biblical word is “greed,” but we call it simple materialism. Our economic system is based upon it. In our system men and women sell their souls and perish forever for the sake of material goods that do not even last for a lifetime.

Boastful, proud, abusive? We call this “self-esteem,” but there is nothing worth esteeming in these terms. The first one actually refers to braggarts, the second to haughty people, and the third to blasphemers. These persons think so highly of themselves that they look down on all others and despise God particularly.

Disobedient to parents? We call this the “generation gap” and so make light of it. But the Bible has harsh words for children who fail to respect their parents, as well as for all who reject authority.

So it continues. It is hard to think of a more apt or comprehensive description of the times in which we live, unless it is the more devastating catalogue of vices found in the latter half of Romans 1.

Study Questions:

  1. What are the last three metaphors Paul uses to encourage Timothy not to abandon his calling? How is the meaning of each one meant to strengthen Timothy?
  2. Why is the Bible said to be useful?
  3. From the study, what was Timothy’s challenge concerning the Bible and how to deal with the difficulties in his ministry? In other words, what did Timothy need to believe about Scripture?

Reflection: Paul lists a number of sinful characteristics that mark what he calls “the last days.” What examples can you give of these same things today?

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