We're back in Paul's Second Letter to Timothy this evening – 2.14-26 to be precise, the section we've heard being read. And my title, as you'll see from my outline on the back of the service sheet, is simply: Be Useful. That, in two words, is the message of this passage. And that is what our earthly lives are all about. Be useful to Christ.
The other day I arrived home, unlocked our front door, and as I removed the key from the lock it snapped. The end came off. It was still there on my keyring, looking as if it ought to be useful. But that missing chunk rendered it utterly useless. It went in the bin and I had to get a new one. The same weekend I was washing up a glass (trying to be useful you see) and all of a sudden it fell apart in my hands. One moment it was useful for drinking out of. The next it was worse than useless – actually dangerous because of all those sharp edges that were liable to draw blood. Into the bin it went. The day before, the bathroom light stopped working. Changed the bulb. It still didn't work. It looked perfect on the outside. Inside, it had all gone wrong. It had become utterly useless. Down it had to come, and into the dustbin. We had to buy a new light. It was one of those weekends.
A useless key, or glass tumbler, or light fitting is one thing. A man or woman who is useless to God is quite another. So what about you and me? I love the title of the book by John Piper: 'Don't Waste Your Life'. Direct. To the point. And the same challenge that Paul is issuing here.
As you can see from the outline, I have one question and two exhortations for us this evening, arising from these verses. First, the question: will we be useful or useless in the Lord's service? Then those exhortations. So, secondly, let's not be like those who are useless to Christ. And thirdly, let's be like those who are useful to Jesus.
First, then: Will We be Useful or Useless in the Lord's Service?
I want to skip over the early verses of this passage to start with and dive in to that central section in verses 20-21. Because here Paul gives us a graphic illustration of what he wants Timothy – and us – to understand about our lives. Take a look at those. From verse 20:
Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honourable use, some for dishonourable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonourable, he will be a vessel for honourable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.
There's a certain amount of mixing of metaphors here, typical of Paul. But the thrust of what he's saying is crystal clear. In a great house, there are two kinds of things. The fine and valuable stuff that you're pleased for people to see and that you put on show and use when guests come round, all shiny and clean. And the worthless stuff that you hide away in cupboards and drawers, pretending it doesn't exist – cheap and nasty and quite possibly dirty with it. We have in our house a big bag of old rags in the corner of a cupboard. We don't use them as tablecloths when people come round.
Behind Paul's picture may well be the Old Covenant ritual distinction between the clean and the unclean. That was all a massive outward visual aid of the inward reality of the distinction between the holy and the sinful.
You don't use the toilet brush to brush your hair. Some things are public and clean. Others are private and dirty. God needs people who are out in the open and washed clean. Such people are useful to him. He can't use people who have to hide in the shadows because they prefer the dirt and won't let God near them with his spiritual washing powder. Such people are no use to him at all.
How do we become clean and useful, rather than dirty and useless? Well take a look at verse 19:
But God's firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: "The Lord knows those who are his", and, "Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity."
God's great house is his temple, the church. And Paul gives us another picture to imagine – this time of the foundation stone of the temple. On it are two inscriptions, such as foundation stones have. There is such a stone over at St Joseph's. Our renovation work has exposed it much more clearly for all to see. Inscribed on it is the date it was laid.
Carved into the foundation stone of God's temple, the church, says Paul, are these two inscriptions. First,
"The Lord knows those who are his."
He names them, calls them, saves them, washes them clean and equips them for a life of useful service. He does it. That is divine sovereign grace. He will never let you go.
Then underneath that one is this:
"Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity."
If we call ourselves Christians, and we're going to be clean and useful to Christ, then we have to get shot of the dirt in our lives. We have to be strong on personal spiritual hygiene. God gives us the means to wash. But we have to use them. That's our part. That's human responsibility. We must never let go of him. Divine sovereignty and human responsibility go together. God does it all. But we have to do our bit too. He will never let us go. And we must never let go of him. Both are true.
So there is a challenge that we have to heed. Will we be useful or useless in the Lord's service? That's the question for each of us. We must cleanse ourselves to be ready and useful in the service of Jesus. Then either side of that illustration of Paul's at the centre of this passage he urges Timothy, and us, not to be like those who are useless, but to be like those who are useful in the kingdom of God for the fulfilment of God's loving purposes for the world. So:
Secondly, Let's Not be Like Those Who are Useless to Christ
Let me just pick out the verses here that develop this theme. First of all verse 14:
Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.
Then verses 16-18:
But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.
Now on to verse 23:
Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.
And at the end of passage in verse 26 you can see how Paul describes the spiritual condition of the useless when he says that it is possible,
… they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
That is the reality behind what shows itself as being of no use to Jesus. It is a state of captivity to the powers of evil, all unawares. Satan blinds eyes and leads people by the nose. And they think they are in control of their own lives. In fact this is spiritual slavery.
When I was a young man one of the books that got me into serious Bible study and that was formative for my Christian life was John Stott's Bible Speaks Today volume on 2 Timothy called 'Guard the Gospel'. I still use the copy I had as a student. John Stott comments on what Paul says here about this Satanic snare that traps people in uselessness in these terms:
"… it enables us to see behind stage in every Christian evangelistic and teaching ministry. Behind the scenes, invisible to men on the stage and in the audience, a spiritual battle is being fought out. The devil's grim activity is graphically depicted… From such a captivity, in which men are both trapped and doped by the devil, only God can deliver them…"
So what do those who are useless to Christ look like? How does Paul describe them? They have swerved from the truth, and instead are full of irreverent babble. Their false teaching spreads like gangrene. That is, not only can it get a strong grip on an unwary church, but it spreads spiritual death. Saving and living faith is destroyed. The faith of some, says Paul, is upset – that is, it doesn't just suffer slight turbulence, it is picked up, turned upside down and hurled down. These people are in fact out and out opponents of faithful gospel ministry, though to the undiscerning that might not be immediately obvious.
Last week one of our number told me about a recent visit to a Church of Scotland parish of the now retired American bishop John Spong. He has in the past also spoken in this city. He is by all accounts charming and articulate. He is also an outspoken advocate of a wholesale rejection of all the main truths of the Christian faith including the divinity of Jesus, his death for our sins, his bodily resurrection, and even the existence of God. So for instance listen to these views:
"The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed."
"Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history."
"There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in Scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behaviour for all time."
This, you might think, is a flat denial of the Bible and the gospel. You would be right. Many leaders within Anglicanism agree with at least some aspects of his denials of the biblical gospel. Yet such talk is spiritual gangrene, and will bring death to the church as far as any usefulness in the cause of Christ is concerned if it is left unchecked. The gospel is fatally compromised and fades from view, replaced with another message, full of deceptive talk of God and Jesus and the Spirit and resurrection. Some, says Paul in verse 18, say …
…that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some…
So they still talk about resurrection as a spiritual experience. It's just that they deny the reality of the bodily resurrection of Christ and therefore also destroy the hope of undiscerning believers. Their dangerous babble is deadly spiritual gangrene. Though they may talk of being servants of Christ, they are utterly useless to him. In fact in reality they oppose him.
Let's not be like those who are useless to Christ. Instead let's make sure that, in Paul's words in verse 21, we are:
… set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.
Which brings me to the last of my simple headings:
Thirdly, Let's be Like Those Who are Useful to Jesus
This is contrasting portrait, a picture of the faithful servant of Jesus who bears fruit for the Kingdom. We can see that in all the alternate bits that we missed before. So he's there in verse 15:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
And again in verse 22:
So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.
And then in verses 24-25:
And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth …
So we are to seek God's approval above all. We are to work – putting in focussed, consistent effort for the long haul. We are to speak the truth. We should have clear consciences, not because we don't sin, but because we're honest with ourselves and God about it, we confess it, we are cleansed from it as we are washed by the blood of Christ, and we start afresh in the power of the Spirit with our consciences washed clean and pure. We are to pursue Godliness; to be committed to the life and growth of the church; to be kind and gentle; and persevering; and ready and able to correct and teach as Jesus requires it of us.
In other words, we need to be the real thing. The genuine article. Real servants of Jesus. Not the spiritual equivalent of dodgy builders.
The other day we had some men round from a roofing firm who we didn't really know, to do some repairs on our roof, which had been leaking. They came and went. It looks OK to me. I'm not sure yet. But the time will come when I will be sure. And that will be when serious rain starts to fall. Will the roof repair hold? That'll be the test of whether guys who looked good were actually useless cowboys, or whether they did a good and reliable job.
For us too, and for our ministry and service, those tests will come. Will we be found to share those characteristics of those who prove themselves useful to Jesus?
Do your best [says Paul] to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
Reflecting on that challenge, someone has said:
"It is one thing solemnly to charge others and quite another to take oneself in hand. The danger of self-neglect was certainly not confined to Timothy, for its symptoms are universal… But this is not easy."
Guthrie, D., The Pastoral Epistles: An Introduction and Commentary
But it is possible, by the grace of God. It is possible for a useless life, a life that is being wasted, to become useful to Jesus. There is a marvellous and moving example of that later on in this letter, in 4.11. There Paul says to Timothy:
Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.
This must be the same Mark who some time before Paul would not have on his evangelistic and church planting team, because he was unreliable and more of a liability than a help. So Acts 15.37 reports:
Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.
How wonderful to see that by the time we get to 2 Timothy, things have completely turned around. Evidently Mark did take himself in hand, with God's help. And now Mark is, to quote Paul:
… very useful to me for ministry.
Paul wanted him by his side. Mark had learned to be useful to Jesus. How we need to do the same.
I am finding watching our church very moving as we go through this process of going multi-site that we're engaged in. It's a tough time for us as a church in so many ways. But I see all around an impressive spiritual seriousness in so many, as we wrestle with big questions about how and where we should be using our time, talents and treasure. I thank God for the evident desire there is among us not to waste our lives, but to be useful in whatever ways Jesus wants us to be.
Praise God for how far we've come. We still have a long way to go. But as our spiritual foundation stone says:
"The Lord knows who are his", and "Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity."
Divine sovereignty and human responsibility hand in hand. So let's be like Mark. Let's be like those who are useful to Jesus.
And let's bow our heads to pray:
Lord Jesus we know in our heads that apart from you we can do nothing. Help us by your Spirit to know it deep in our hearts. Lord, we say to ourselves that we want to be useful. Help us to mean it. Help us by your grace, and by the power of your Spirit at work in us, to become those who can be approved by you, workers useful to you, with no need to be ashamed, rightly handling your life-giving word of truth. For your glory and for the extension of your Kingdom we ask it. Amen.