As he approached the end of his life, Paul wrote a letter to his young fellow worker Timothy. Tragically, we may feel, this last-preserved of the apostle's writings has as its burden the sad fact of spiritual declension and departure. Yet it is just because that spiritual departure had set in even before the death of the apostles that there is found within the pages of the New Testament guidance for th saints under those circumstances today.
In an hour when many are losing their faith and hope, and are lowering their Christian standards, it is easy to become confused. We are tempted to say, If the faith of God's children can so change, is there anything that cannot? True, the Lord himself never changes; but while we can look up and praise him, nevertheless we look around and are troubled. So the Spirit through Paul shows us something else that is unchanging. "The firm foundation of God standeth, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his: and, Let every one that nameth the Lord depart from unrighteousness (2 Tim. 2.19).
Men may go; Phygelus and Hermogenes (2 Tim. 2.17-18), Hymenaeus and Philetus, yes, all Asia too, may prove unfaithful to the Lord; and when one by one they do, we begin to look around and wonder who at all is to be counted upon. But the Lord knows them that are his: that is the first seal inscribed upon this sure foundation. We may be mistaken; God never is. We need to confess before him that we may estimate wrongly but that he sees into all hearts. We overrate men because God in mercy uses them; but he has used us too, and yet, God knows, we need his mercy! Let us beware of thinking we know human nature. Only God has that knowledge. Men may disappoint, but have we not all of us at some time failed the Lord?
So there is a second element in this seal or inscription, a command laid upon all who would "call upon the Lord out of a pure heart" (2 Tim. 2.22). They who name his name are to depart from unrighteousness. The unshakable foundation of God tells us this. When we see spiritual breakdown around us, we are to look to ourselves. For they who are the Lord's are to be sanctified men. The verses immediately following elaborate on this. They speak of a great house with its furnishings, vessels of gold and silver, wood and earth, suitable to various tasks. Men are likened to such vessels, but are urged to qualify themselves for places of honor there.
"But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master's use, and prepared unto every good work" (2 Tim. 2.20-21).
What is this "great house" (2 Tim. 2.20) with its vessels destined to honor or dishonor, and the implications of moral qualities behind those words? In 1 Timothy the Church of God is the house of God ("the house of God, which is the church of the living God" 1 Tim. 3.15); but here Paul has in view not that, but the outward profession of Christianity. The "Church of the living God" could never itself be in ruin; it could never degenerate into this "great house" with its element of mixture. But the Church's outward testimony may, alas, at any particular time be in ruins.
What now distinguishes between these vessels? We note at once that only their materials are specified, not their function. Clearly, in keeping with the construction of the house which we considered earlier, here again it is not relative usefulness but quality of the materials that count. Gold and silver vessels are less practically useful than wooden furniture or earthenware pots, but God is not here discussing with us what they will be used for; he is judging their lasting value to himself. In a day of declension God looks beyond mere usefulness to intrinsic worth, and a few ounces of gold may equal in value a whole hall full of wooden benches! In spiritual terms, two different men may utter almost identical words, but the power lies not merely in what they say but in who they are. Balaam and Isaiah both spoke of the Kingdom, but we know well to which of the two we would turn in personal need.
What do we prize in a day when values are slipping: the wood and earth of human cleverness and worldly resources, or the gold and the silver of divine origin and redemption through the Cross? Many things in Christianity have become too cheap today, but there is no easy shortcut to spiritual worth. Preaching, praying, witness, these may not seem difficult, but to be of value they will be costly in years and blood and the discipline of God's dealings. The "vessel unto honor" is the man who has waited for the Spirit to teach him, and who has not been ashamed meanwhile to admit he does not know. For there comes a day when the true character of things is tested. Preaching, in an hour of departure and confusion, is of little value unless men see God in it. At such a time they can tell whether the speaker has really been taken by God through things of which we speak. What has not already touched him deeply will have little power to touch others in that day.
Though the very idea of a "vessel" suggestion formation for something, 2 Timothy hints at circumstances in which we should do well to leave to God the destiny of the vessels, and to concern ourselves above all with their quality. "If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honor."