Please read 2 Timothy 2:14-26 in your Bible.
Image by James Best, (C) 2020, https://www.behance.net/gallery/90621713/Sermon-Illustrations-2020
I want to start by asking you to put on your thinking caps. I’m going to read a variation of the classic “Trolley Problem” and ask you to record your response on your bulletin.
You are part of a seven man crew working on a section of railroad track. You happen to be standing at a switch and notice that a out of control train barreling down the track. Directly ahead on the tracks are five of your coworkers who do not see the train that is headed straight for them. On a side track is one of your crewmates who has his back to the oncoming train. There is no time to warn them as they’re all wearing noise-cancelling headphones. If you pull the lever right next to you, the trolley will switch to the side track. You have two options:
- Do nothing and allow the train to kill the five people on the main track.
- Pull the lever, diverting the train onto the side track where it will kill one person.
You have to decide in a split second what to do. What is the right thing to do? Write a one or two on a piece of paper. We will come back to this situation later.
For now, we’ll complete our look at being a Worthy Worker by observing that discerning right from wrong and choosing to do right is very much at heart of our worthiness. God finds people of true faith to be useful to Him in the work of expanding His Kingdom. This passage tells us how.
Our aim is to be worthy workers.
- Two examples of unworthy workers. (16-19)
Be alert: evil can grow in a church just as it can anywhere. In v. 16, Paul warned THOSE WHO INDULGE IN [GODLESS CHATTER] GROW MORE AND MORE UNGODLY. GODLESS CHATTER feeds negativity and encourages divisive sins of the tongue like gossip, complaining, and back-biting. As we said in part one, CHATTER may sound harmless, but it is not. It results in greater ungodliness.
In v. 17, Paul wrote that UNGODLY TEACHING WILL SPREAD LIKE GANGRENE. GANGRENE is a flesh-rotting disease (one form of which is fatal in 48 hours), so Paul could hardly have chosen a more repulsive image to describe the effect of UNGODLY TEACHING. He identified two people who were among the UNGODLY in Timothy’s church: HYMANAEUS and PHILETUS. Who were these people?
In 1 Timothy 1:20 Hymaneus was one of two people whom Paul HANDED OVER TO SATAN TO BE TAUGHT NOT TO BLASPHEME (Alexander was the other). This probably meant they were put out of the church in Ephesus for serious errors in their teaching. PHILETUS is not named in 1 Timothy 1:20, nor anywhere else in the Bible. He apparently joined Hymaneus and Alexander in their error and suffered the same penalty. Putting them out of the church is somewhat similar to the treatment for GANGRENE; surgical removal of the bad tissue, usually in the form of amputation. For the survival of the body, the bad parts have to be cut off.
Their sin was to HAVE WANDERED AWAY FROM THE TRUTH. The word WANDERED is an unfortunate choice for translation of the Greek word that means “missed the mark, deviated, or went astray.” “Wandered” allows for an accidental deviation when Hymaneus and Philetus chose to believe an error, and worse, talked others into believing the same error.
Specifically, their false teaching was stating THAT THE RESURRECTION HAS ALREADY TAKEN PLACE. Paul does not explain their false teaching, merely noting that it attacked the most central teaching of the Christian faith: resurrection. (See 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, where Paul vigorously defends the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, our personal resurrection, and the importance of these doctrines.) What they did with this false teaching and how many people were taken in by it are details we are not meant to know. It is sufficient for us to know that it was false and that it had a negative effect on the church in Ephesus.
The effect of their falsehood was to DESTROY THE FAITH OF SOME. The word DESTROY can also be translated as “overturn.” It meant that the false teaching had so affected some people that they ceased to believe the truth. The health of the entire church was threatened, even though only SOME of the members fell in with Hymaneus and Philetus.
The good news is, though evil people and other circumstances can challenge our faith, the FOUNDATION God has set remains SOLID. This FOUNDATION is the undeniable facts of God’s existence and His reward of those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6).
There are two promises of God’s protection of His people. These promises are etched in the foundation like a cornerstone.
The first promise: THE LORD KNOWS THOSE WHO ARE HIS (Numbers 16:5). God knows false teachers like Hymanaeus, Alexander, and Philetus. While they may fool SOME of the people some of the time, they never fool God. God also knows everyone whose faith is real and based on the truth. Remain faithful, and He will help you overcome and reward you when you do.
EVERYONE WHO CONFESSES THE NAME OF THE LORD MUST TURN FROM ALL WICKEDNESS. Here Paul paraphrased Numbers 16:26. Though we do not do good in order to be saved, we do good in order to demonstrate our salvation, the change Jesus has made in our lives. A commitment to discipleship is part of the faith that saves. As we learned again last week, turning away from wickedness is half of being a worthy worker. The other half is pursuing good. Sometimes TURNING FROM ALL WICKEDNESS involves separating ourselves from people and sometimes it requires us to avoid places or circumstances that tempt us to do wrong.
- An illustration with household items. (20-21)
Paul contrasted two kinds of household items. In order to understand the illustration, we must first see the LARGE HOUSE is as a symbol of the world in which we live. In this world, people are either living for the Lord or not. God made all of them, but not all of the people in the world are useful for God’s purposes. In many of our homes, we have one set of dishes for special occasions and another set for everyday use. All the dishes are useful for serving food, but some of them are reserved for special uses. The contrast between noble and ignoble ARTICLES (pots, bottles, pans, etc.) is a contrast of spiritual status and resulting usefulness to God.
The ones used for NOBLE PURPOSES are made of GOLD AND SILVER. They are less numerous but more valuable in the sight of the Lord. In the world, some people are “gold and silver” because they have faith and are obedient to God’s will. Timothy is an example of a “noble article.”
The ones used for IGNOBLE purposes are made of WOOD AND CLAY. These are common, worldly, and less valuable pieces. They are not useful to God because they refuse faith and practice disobedience. Hymenaeus, Alexander and Philetus are examples of “ignoble articles.”
Paul used similar imagery in Romans 9:21 = DOES NOT THE POTTER HAVE THE RIGHT TO MAKE OUT OF THE SAME LUMP OF CLAY SOME POTTERY FOR NOBLE PURPOSES AND SOME FOR COMMON USE? The phrase THE SAME LUMP OF CLAY indicates that we share a common humanity. Tragically, we do not share a common destiny. As Jesus observed in Matthew 7:13-14, there will always be more people who do not refuse faith and service to the Lord.
Like a handy kitchen gadget, a follower of Jesus becomes a fit INSTRUMENT FOR NOBLE PURPOSES when he has, with God, cleansed himself from IGNOBLE PURPOSES. NOBLE refers to doing what God has called you to do. It is NOBLE to be obedient to God. IGNOBLE refers to doing what you selfishly want to do, or what the world wants you to do; all kinds of disobedience. Moreover, IGNOBLE refers to sinful acts because Paul wrote that the worthy worker must be CLEANSED of it before he is useful to the MASTER.
Having been cleansed, the worker is MADE HOLY and is thereby USEFUL TO THE MASTER AND PREPARED TO DO ANY GOOD WORK. In this world household items never CLEANSE themselves (wouldn’t it be great to have dishes that washed themselves?!) and neither do people – not on their own, anyway. God cleanses us from sin and its effects, but He waits for us to repent and ask His forgiveness.
This cleansing is part of what Paul means when he says we are to be MADE HOLY. Moral purity is part of holiness and the other part is being set apart from worldly and ungodly things to spiritual maturity and godliness.
People who are MADE HOLY are then USEFUL to God, just as clean pots & pans are useful to a cook. People who are MADE HOLY are PREPARED TO DO ANY GOOD WORK. Truly good works begin with holiness.
Our aim is to be worthy workers.
Let’s return to the train problem. You may be interested to know that this is not merely an intellectual exercise, In 2003 Union Pacific dispatchers in Los Angeles, CA had to make a decision very much like this one.
Did you choose #1? Five people are dead.
Did you choose #2? Only one person is dead and you are among the 90% of people who made this choice when presented with this problem.
Did you make no choice or want to know more about the six people on the tracks before deciding? Then five people are dead because you hesitated too long at the switch. Not deciding is making a decision.
My point here is that everything you’ve done, every choice you’ve made, everything you believe goes into making that decision about the switch. Life doesn’t always conveniently present us with choices that include a lot of time for research and weighing out values and deciding on priorities.
Spiritually maturing people will know God’s leading before the train starts barreling down the tracks. They will have studied the word, been faithful in prayer, and experienced in good deeds. In so doing, they will have replaced sinful instincts with godly ones and are better equipped to do, as Paul promised, every good work.
Zondervan Bible Commentary, Alan G. Nute
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, #11, Ralph Earle
A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Walter Bauer.