“If anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (v. 21).
Broken relationships are one of the many ways we experience suffering for the gospel. It hardly seems possible to be a Christian and never suffer the end of a Christian bond, for most of us have known someone that appeared to be in the faith and then later fell away. No matter how hard we encouraged a friend to repent, he would not listen. We were severed from formerly close ties, yet still hoping that this broken bond would help him realize his sin. And despite our confidence that we were right to make clear where we stood (with the gospel), we still feel the hurt when we think of a friend who now seems lost.
Even Paul had friends who later showed themselves bereft of the faith they professed. Imagine the pain he felt in casting Alexander, Hymenaeus, and Philetus out of the church (1 Tim. 1:18–20; 2 Tim. 2:16–19), watching former ministry partners fall headlong into deeper error. Still, Paul knew the health of the church was more important than any one relationship, and so he broke them off when necessary, but only after counseling them to return to the faith.
Separation is sometimes the only way to progress in holiness, which is the apostle’s point in the analogy he uses in today’s passage (2 Tim. 2:20–21). Rich persons in antiquity had several different plates, bowls, and other vessels in their homes. Those made of precious metals were used for honorable ends such as displaying food at important meals. Clay and wood vessels could be used for such distasteful purposes as disposing of excrement. Given the choice, we would always rather be the precious vessel than the one made of clay or wood.
This analogy might prove that believers (fine vessels) and unbelievers (dishonorable vessels) will be in the church until the return of Jesus. Yet while the idea of the visible church as a mixed body of believers and unbelievers is biblical (Matt. 13:47–50), it is likely too much to say that Paul intends to convey this meaning here. All he is saying is that those who, by God’s grace, depart from such doctrinal and moral errors and avoid impurity in their lives prepare themselves to be “useful to the master” and “ready for every good work.” This is God’s promise of blessing to all those who pursue holiness (2 Tim. 2:14–21).
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
John MacArthur notes, “Even a common wood bucket or clay pot becomes useful when purged and made holy” (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1,809). None of us can claim to be a worthy vessel in ourselves, for God takes us when we are dishonorable sinners and makes us honorable through the work of His Spirit. Still, we have a part to play in sanctification, and we must actively avoid false beliefs and immoral situations that tempt us to disobey our father.