The Christian as a Vessel
Scripture Reading, 2 Timothy 2:20-21
Passing from the classroom and the serious-minded student the Apostle Paul is led by the Holy Spirit to the metaphor of “a great house” and the variety of vessels within.
This brief passage poses a problem of interpretation, out of which two schools of thought have arisen. Some Bible students take the “great house” to refer to the invisible Church, that is, to the one true Body of Christ; whereas others in a much wider sweep of thought look at it as representative of Christendom, that is, to the visible, external Church in which there is a mixture — the tares among the wheat; unreality midst reality; unbelief midst belief; unfaithfulness midst faithfulness; false profession midst true possession; wolves and pigs among sheep.
There are recognized conservative scholars supporting both sides of the issue, though the majority seem to lean toward the Christendom school of thought. Personally, the writer prefers not to press the metaphor, but to look at it as any “great house,” in distinction from any little house, in which a variety of vessels and utensils would normally be found. Some vessels are prominent and some are not, yet all in their proper place are useful whether or not they are displayed. The metaphor would seem to suggest “the House of God” (see 1 Tim. 3:15), though the writer is by no means dogmatic about this. Many Bible students sincerely disagree with this line of interpretation, but it is hoped that such will agree to disagree without being disagreeable.
As our study progresses we shall seek to answer key questions which arise regarding the details of the passage and its interpretation. Presently, however, let us plunge into this interesting and intriguing subject of the Christian as a vessel and note first of all
The Apostle Paul classifies the various vessels in this “great house” as vessels of “gold … silver … wood … earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour.” Since no reflection is cast upon the vessels of wood and earth, it is unwarranted to say that these are vessels of dishonour and refer to the unsaved. First of all, such a view would tend to induce a sense of superiority on the part of the gold and silver vessels, that is, the saved. Surely, this would not be the intent of Paul, and we know only too well that sometimes (and unfortunately so for the sake of Christian testimony) the conduct and conversation of the unsaved person is superior to that of the saved person. Secondly, the word for “dishonour” is used only twice in the New Testament in the sense of “disgrace” (Rom. 1:26; 1 Cor. 11:14). Generally, it simply means “without honour” (cf. Matt. 13:57; Rom. 9:21; 1 Cor. 4:10; 12:23, 24; 15:43; 2 Cor. 6:8; 11:21).
C. F. Hogg has commented: “I judge that the illustration of the ‘great house’ points to the ‘House of God’ which certainly is not Christendom, for that is ‘a hold of every unclean spirit.’ In the House of God there are many kinds of service. Some servants serve under the observation of men and are honoured for their works’ sake. Some serve in obscurity, and are either little known or altogether unknown to men, though they are well known to God. These also have an honourable part in the work of the household; indeed ‘they also serve who only stand and wait’” (What Saith the Scripture?, p. 124).
To the foregoing might be added the reminder that “there are diversities of gifts” (1 Cor. 12:4) in the one true Church. Some have a greater gift (or gifts) than others, but whether we be classified as gold, silver, wood, or earth, all are equally precious in God’s sight and the same infinite price was paid for all (Eph. 1:7; 1 Pet. 1:18, 19). If the word for “dishonour” is taken to mean “disgrace,” it must be remembered that believers sometimes bring dishonour on the Name of the Lord (e.g., Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5:1-11; Demas, 2 Tim. 4:10). Because of this some will “suffer loss” (1 Cor. 3:15) at the Judgment Seat of Christ and thus be “saved; yet so as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:15). This is a sobering thought and something to keep in mind throughout our earthly sojourn. For the Christian the Judgment Seat of Christ should be one of the greatest of all incentives to holy living (2 Cor. 5:10, 11).
This brings us to the second major aspect regarding the Christian as a vessel — namely,
Regardless of the measure of his gift, every believer can and should seek to be “a vessel unto honour.” Though our Lord has graciously promised: “them that honour Me, I will honour” (1 Sam. 2:30), this is secondary. Preeminent above all else is the honour of our Lord Jesus Christ (Col. 1:18), and it is the Christian’s responsibility and privilege to always seek His honour midst an evil, dishonourable world that has rejected the Son of God.
The condition. The secret of being “a vessel unto honour” is disclosed in the opening words of 2:21: “If a man therefore purge himself from these…” The Greek word for “purge” is intensive and is found only one other place in the New Testament (1 Cor. 5:7). Its tense signifies decisive separation, and the word literally means “to cleanse thoroughly,” or “to cleanse out.”
Now, the question arises, to what does the word “these” refer? C. F. Hogg relates it to the things of 2:16, 17, 22 and 23, excluding any mention of Hymenaeus and Philetus (2:17). By way of contrast, William Hoste has pointed out that the Greek might mean either “these men” or “these things,” and that the exhortations to “shun” (2:16), “depart from” (2:19), etc., seem to cover “these things.” Therefore, in view of this he states: “Personally I am inclined, without wishing to be dogmatic, to hold that it was separation from evil teachers the Apostle had in view, which seems more consonant with the form of the Greek of ‘to purge ourselves out of.’ It is clearly impossible to purge ourselves from evil things, if we condone evil persons and teachers. There must be compromise and contamination. In teaching this the importance of cleansing the ‘inside of the platter’ is not minimised; the reverse is mere Pharisaism; but if we frequent men who are unsound in the faith, we must either testify against their error or tacitly admit it. In the latter case we grieve the Holy Spirit and prevent His filling us so as to be His ‘vessels unto honour’“ (Bible Problems and Answers, p. 372).
Undoubtedly, included in the word “these” would be such dishonourable men as Hymenaeus and Philetus. Of course, it is obvious that the nearest antecedent to the word “these” is the word “dishonour” (2:20). The latter could refer to believers whose lives are unclean or whose testimonies are virtually nullified because of compromise, worldliness, and fleshly pursuits. From such the believer should separate himself (1 Cor. 5:11), that is, if he is going to be “a vessel unto honour.” This does not mean that he should not be friendly toward such or not pray for them, but he is not to have fellowship with them lest he soon find himself one of them and thereby no longer “a vessel unto honour.”
The consequences: Four things will be true of every believer who purges himself from all that is unclean, second-rate, and a hindrance (see Heb. 12:1, 2) in really living Christ.
“A vessel unto honour.” The word used here for “honour” occurs time and again in the New Testament (cf. John 4:44; Rom. 2:10; 9:21; 12:10; 13:7; 1 Tim. 1:17; 5:17; Heb. 2:7, 9; 1 Pet. 3:7; 2 Pet. 1:7 Rev. 5-12, 13; 21:24, 26). It is translated “price” in 1 Corinthians 6:20, and “precious” (lit., “the preciousness”) with reference to Christ in 1 Peter 2:7.
“Sanctified”: The words “saint,” “sanctify,” “holy,” and “holiness” come from the same root word employed here. Furthermore, the root word in both Hebrew and Greek has one uniform meaning throughout Scripture, and that is, to set apart. “The word never has reference to inward cleansing, still less to the eradication of the carnal nature” (A. W. Pink). That the word has nothing to do with inward cleansing is borne out in John 17:19. Sanctification is a work of the Triune God (Jude 1; Heb. 10:10 with 13:12 1 Pet. 1:2) and like salvation has a past, present, and future tense (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 7:1; 1 Thess. 3:13; 5:23). The effective ground of the believer’s sanctification is, of course, the blood of Christ (Eph. 5:26; Heb. 9:13). Christ’s sanctification is twofold: (1) He set Himself apart at the cross (John 10:18; Heb. 10:14; 13:12); and (2) He is presently set apart in Heaven as the glorified God-Man, the object of His people’s affection, gaze, and worship (Heb. 7:25).
The believer’s obedience to the Word of God is the measure of his practical sanctification (John 17:15 with 17). God grant that as saints we might be more saintly; that as those not now sinless we might sin less; that as sanctified in His sight we might be characterized by sanctity.
Since the Greek participle is in the passive mood, it is God who does the sanctifying.
Serviceable: The phrase, “meet for the Master’s use,” is actually one word in the Greek and is found only two other times in the New Testament (Philem. 11; 2 Tim. 4:11). In both instances it is translated “profitable.”
Guy H. King has rightly said: “That cracked plate … or that dirty cup, would not be meet for His use; it would be quite unusable for such a Master. There is a whole lot that He will have to do to us before He can make us really usable to Himself. Up to a point He can use anybody, in any condition: God has often used utterly godless men to work out His purposes in the world. We see that in the Bible, as well as in the history of the Christian Church; but He can never use us to the full, never use us as He wills, until, and unless, we are made usable” (To My Son, p. 76).
Set. The word for “prepared” is found many times in the New Testament (Matt. 3:3; John 14:2; Heb. 11:6), and it is also translated “make ready” (Mark 14:15). Since the participle is in the passive mood, the work of preparing is God’s.
Are we really ready for every good work? Philip the evangelist was! He had been preaching to great crowds in Samaria and revival had broken out, but when he was called upon to leave that great work in order to minister to just one — an Ethiopian eunuch — he obeyed, he was ready (Acts 8:5-8, 26ff.). It is feared that some are prepared unto every great or glowing work, but not unto every good work.
Only as we decisively cleanse ourselves from all defiling influences, including persons, shall we really be vessels unto honour, set apart by God, usable, and made ready by Him to spend and be spent, ready to do anything, anytime, anywhere, and at any cost. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself is the perfect and supreme Example of these great truths.
At the close of his comments on these two verses, H. C. G. Moule has prayerfully written: “Lord and Master, make us thus fit ourselves for that infinitely precious privilege, a state of consecrated readiness for Thy holy use. We are altogether Thine. Enable us as such to so ‘cleanse ourselves from’ complicity with evil within and without that we, when Thou requirest us for Thy purposes, may be found by Thee handy to Thy touch, in the place and in the condition in which Thou canst take us up and employ us in whatever way, on the moment, for Thyself” (The Second Epistle to Timothy, p. 97).