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Win Arguments or Win Hearts -- 2 Timothy 2:14-26

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 2 Timothy 2:14-26

Timothy is leading a church filled with people who don’t have the right direction or priorities. The solution? Study and teach God’s Word and pray that God’s Spirit changes their hearts. But Timothy must act like an “honorable vessel” if he is to be the best messenger of this truth and defender of God’s Word.

But reject foolish and ignorant disputes, because you know that they breed quarrels. 2 Timothy 2:22

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

What Are the Dumbest Things We Argue About?

It took a while to figure out the proper search phrase, but here it is: “most pointless arguments” or “dumbest arguments”. And wow, did I find some amazingly dumb things people argue about. And I think I’ve argued about every one of them. Ask your class about things they’ve argued about that was probably pretty meaningless. I’m thinking of things like “Android vs. Apple”, or “Star Wars vs. Star Trek”, or “standard vs. automatic transmission”, or “DC vs. Marvel”. And then there are fun things like “should you use an Oxford Comma?”, or “is a hot dog a sandwich?”, “is it soda or pop?”, or “do you put the toilet paper on over or under?”, or “do you turn the AC up or down to make it colder?”, or “is Stairway to Heaven a good song?”. And of course we argue about the best restaurant, the best sports team, the best band, and the best college. And then there are the never-ending arguments about things like “whose fault was it?” and “what if…?”.

Now—inside, I’ll mention a few arguments inside that could be really important, and some that are definitely important. But if you use this as a discussion starter, the point would be to establish that people can argue about silly things, and those arguments can cause real damage to a relationship. And then shift gears (assuming you can do this safely): are there arguments we’ve had in our churches that have caused great strife and disharmony? Absolutely. Dance away from controversy by asking if any of those arguments were blown out of proportion. (Color of the carpet, how many hours the pastor should work, proper attire for church, volume of the loudspeaker.) In our passage, Paul will tell Timothy to avoid silly arguments. Can your class begin to guess why?


This Week’s “Big Idea”: Famous Disputes about Words in Church History

In our passage, just like in 1 Tim 6:4, Paul tells Timothy to keep his church from fighting about words. However, there have been some very famous fights in church history about words. Here are a few examples:

Homoiousios vs. Homoousios”. The difference between those two words is an “i”, but the difference in meaning is profound. When church leaders tried to explain who Jesus was compared to God the Father, they came up with a word (“homoousias”) which means “of the same substance”. Some leaders, influenced by Plato, wanted to keep God the Father totally unique, and so they tried to call Jesus “homoiousias”, which means “of a similar substance”. Spot the difference? This was embedded in the Arian controversy which almost destroyed the church. It’s also why we try to make it clear today that Jesus is 100% God and 100% human, without confusion or lessening.

Filioque”. You might remember this from a few years back. In the Nicene Creed, there is the line about the Holy Spirit that says He proceeds from the Father and the Son (“filioque”). In the Greek-speaking East, they believed strongly that the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father, and so they rejected “filioque”. But in the Latin-speaking West, they didn’t have another word to explain how the Trinity worked, so they kept that word in their creed. This became one of the key triggers that led to the split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church (and one of the big reasons why they have been unable to reconcile).

Is”. No, this is not a Clinton joke. When Martin Luther was trying to establish his place in the ongoing Reformation, he argued with another reformer (Ulrich Zwingli) about the meaning of Jesus’ phrase, “This is My body”. Zwingli took the stance that Jesus was speaking purely symbolically (early Baptists were influenced by Zwingli). Luther believed that Jesus’ words had to have some sort of literal meaning, and so he created what is now known as the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation. (Calvin ending up taking a middle position between them.) That difference has proven large in preventing efforts to unite certain denominations.

Virgin”. This became a big deal during the rise of liberalism a few generations ago. When Mary is called a “virgin”, that Greek word can also be used to describe a “young woman”. Liberal scholars, who wanted to get rid of all traces of the miraculous in the Bible, argued that Mary was not actually a virgin (in the modern sense of the word) but just a young woman. If they could convince people of this, they would be able to take a big step in knocking down the “traditional” understanding of the Bible. Of course, conservative Christians immediately pointed out that there are theological implications for Jesus’ identity if He had an earthly father (like Joseph), so it can’t be as simple as using a different definition for a word.

What’s my point here? Hopefully, I have demonstrated that not every argument about words is meaningless. Some Christians might argue that these debates aren’t a big deal, but I would counter that they are. Am I going against Paul? No. Paul argued about fine details throughout his ministry and his letters. Paul cared a great deal about the details. But there are some fights that aren’t worth it. Remember from 1 Timothy that some of these false teachers were literally making things up and then arguing about them. That’s not good for a Christian leader. As the saying goes, there are some hills to die on, but most are not. Paul is telling Timothy to make sure that he doesn’t “die on the wrong hill”. It’s important for us to know why we believe what we believe (like, exactly what Revelation means, or which version of the Bible is the best to read out loud, or how many pastors a church should have), but that doesn’t mean that we debate people fiercely and publicly about each and every matter. Sometimes the argument accomplishes nothing but discord.

Can you appreciate how difficult a task this is for Paul to convince Timothy? Paul is telling Timothy to stand firm on the truth—to not let anything get in the way of his bold proclamation of the truth. And yet, Paul is also telling Timothy not to get caught up in boldly proclaiming things that don’t matter (even if they happen to be true). That’s tough! I have a difference of opinion with fellow church members about multiple things, and we talk about our differences, but those talks don’t get heated, and they don’t interfere with our close relationships. I think that’s what Paul is talking about here.


Part 1: Two Groups (2 Timothy 2:14-19)

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to fight about words. This is useless and leads to the ruin of those who listen. Be diligent to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth. Avoid irreverent and empty speech, since those who engage in it will produce even more godlessness, and their teaching will spread like gangrene. Hymenaeus and Philetus are among them. They have departed from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and are ruining the faith of some. Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, bearing this inscription: The Lord knows those who are his, and let everyone who calls on the name of the Lord turn away from wickedness.

As you might expect, this is a favorite passage for pastor conferences. After all, what is the purpose of going to seminary, or to a conference, or to a convention? To learn more—to get better at being a pastor. It sounds like Timothy’s opponents weren’t focused on that; they were focused on winning arguments and making points. Paul seems to be fussing about one argument in particular: this idea that the resurrection had already happened. Paul had written about this topic extensively in his earlier letters (1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4), establishing why we doctrine of the physical resurrection of the Christian is so fundamental to our faith, and I’m sure he had taught Timothy about it during their time together.

Debating about the wrong thing (or being wrong in a debate) are signs of a pastor who has not learned the Bible (the word of truth) well enough to be a trustworthy pastor. You can establish a pretty good definition of a Christian leader from Paul’s words.

  1. A Christian leader truly cares about God’s opinion of him/her and diligently makes every effort to put God’s approval above man’s approval.

  2. A Christian leader is not ashamed of the unpopular elements of Christ’s teachings (like turning the other cheek, embracing persecution, etc.).

  3. A Christian leader learns the Bible well enough to teach it to others with clarity and accuracy.

  4. A Christian leader doesn’t waste much time on meaningless topics (the word for “irreverent” means worldly, so I’m thinking that Paul means we shouldn’t spend all of our time talking about the news of the day with people; the word for “empty” refers to “babble”, which makes me think of “small talk”).

Paul’s not saying that we shouldn’t make small talk, but he is saying that our goal should be to get beyond that and talk about things that really matter—like God’s truth.

Look at the outcome of those who spend their time talking about worldly matters (I do think Paul is including politics here, but I think he’s more leaning toward what we now call “pop culture”)—it’s serious. The people they talk to tend toward unchristian behavior. Why? How? Because they’re spending their time talking about meaningless and worldly things and not talking about what it means to follow Jesus. Such teaching spreads like a disease (see below)—despair is just as catchy as hope. In this case, these guys Hymenaeus (see 1 Tim 1:19) and Philetus (we don’t know anything about him) had said that the resurrection had already happened (which probably means that they believed the resurrection was purely spiritual). How discouraging would that be to hear that resurrection had already happened and you missed it! It would absolutely ruin people’s faith.

But Paul ends his point on an encouraging note. Regardless of what men teach, God knows who is his, and His truth is unshakable. It’s possible that Paul is saying that the people whose faith had been ruined by these false teachers are still safe in God’s grasp, but I think it’s most likely that Paul is simply affirming Timothy in his desire to stay true and faithful. God has given Timothy’s church a firm foundation, and he doesn’t need to fear his opponents.

At the same time, saying that the Lord knows who are His is also a warning (see Num 16:5 and John 10:14). Ask your class what they take away more from this passage.


Aside: Gangrene

Our word “gangrene” is a transliteration of the Greek word gangraina. Today, we know that gangrene (tissue death) is caused by a loss of blood flow which is itself usually caused by arterial disease or infection. The primary treatment is to remove the affected tissue (i.e. amputation). That’s not far off from how the Romans understood it (about the only difference is they would call various open sores “gangrene”). What often happens is the dead tissue becomes infected (not being able to resist infection) which spreads rapidly to the living tissue attached to it. If it is not dealt with quickly and drastically, it can very easily kill the person. Paul wouldn’t have known the biology behind it, but the use of “gangrene” as an illustration for the importance of getting rid of false teachings is extremely apt.


Bonus Aside: The Great Disappointment of 1844

When you read this, please remember all that I have said that put Adventists in the camp of conservative evangelical Christianity. But if we’re honest, they were born out of the sort of debate that Paul was specifically talking about in 2:18. During the Second Great Awakening, William Miller calculated that Jesus’ Second Coming was going to happen in October of 1844. He spread the news far and wide, and because there was so much religious fervor in the country, many people believed him and sold their possessions to get ready for it. October came and went, much to the disappointment of many. Some people went back to their old churches, some people left the faith completely, some congregations were literally attacked in violence (the kinds of outcomes that Paul warned about). The majority of those who continued to follow Miller adopted a variant belief: Jesus wasn’t coming to the earth to cleanse it in October of 1844; rather, Jesus began the work of cleansing heaven then, and His return to earth wouldn’t happen until heaven was completely cleansed. This doctrine has been continued in the modern successors to Miller’s followers, the Seventh-Day Adventists.

There is a near-literal parallel with what Paul might be talking about in our passage. Today, we would read the claim that some people say the resurrection had already taken place and wonder how anyone could believe that. After all, no one had been resurrected! No one had been raptured! What event could have possibly happened that didn’t affect anyone who was a Christian? It seems that, much like the Millerite pivot that Jesus’ had only returned “spiritually”, these false teachers were saying that the resurrection was something that happened “spiritually”. Perhaps they were saying that it only affect certain Christians who had died, and now their souls were resurrected, but everyone else was lost. Wouldn’t that cause some alarm?


Part 2: Two Vessels (2 Timothy 2:20-22)

Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also those of wood and clay; some for honorable use and some for dishonorable. So if anyone purifies himself from anything dishonorable, he will be a special instrument, set apart, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. Flee from youthful passions, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. But reject foolish and ignorant disputes, because you know that they breed quarrels.

I explain my confusion with this passage in the Focus above. In 1 Cor 12, Paul speaks highly of “common” people, or people who are less “honorable”. But here, “dishonorable” is bad. There’s a key difference: in 1 Cor 12, Paul is talking about people (some people are less beautiful/talented than others, but in the church everyone is equally valuable). Here, Paul is talking about actions. He uses the same images, but the metaphor has changed. Here, the gold and silver refer to the finery that someone would bring out to honor a guest at a dinner. The wood and clay refer to the cleaning utensils and (probably) the chamberpot (see below). We all know that cleaning and sanitation are necessary for a healthy family and society, so Paul is not doing an about-face on his “all-people-are-equal-before-God” stance; rather, he’s establishing two choices. (1) We can live and serve others in a way that like a fine banquet, a public celebration, or (2) we can retreat to the shadows and be associated with things that people ought not talk about. In other words, I think Paul is likening the false teachings of Hymenaeus and Philetus to defecation. He is making it as clear as possible to Timothy that Timothy needs to stay far away from that garbage and continue on the path that Paul started him on.

We do get a practical description of what Paul means: the negative is “youthful passions”; the positive is “righteousness, faith, love, and peace”. Remember that Paul doesn’t have anything against youth itself (remember 1 Tim 4:12), so ask your class what he probably means by “youthful passions”. Sexual desires are probably included, but I venture that hotheaded arguments and theological immaturity are included in this warning. The solution is everything he mentions here and following: a life that focuses on righteousness, on reliance on God, on demonstrating love for all people, on being gentle and patient, and on knowing God’s truth well. It’s certainly possible for a young person to demonstrate those qualities! But we tend to associate them with older people who have learned—perhaps the hard way—what it means to be a “honorable” vessel for God.

Ask your class members if they see the way they spend their time as honorable or dishonorable. What do they need to “purify” themselves from?


Aside: When Paul Talks about “Honorable” and “Dishonorable” Vessels

I’ll admit that this has confused me. In our passage, Paul talks about “honorable” gold and silver vessels and “dishonorable” wood and clay vessels, and it is definitely better to be honorable. And in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul talks about “building” our lives with gold, silver, wood, or hay, with the implication that the wood or hay will be burned up in the judgment. BUT—in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul talks about diversity in the body of Christ saying, “And those parts of the body that we consider less honorable, we clothe these with greater honor, . . . Instead, God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the less honorable, so that there would be no division in the body.” Do you see my dilemma? In one passage, it seems as if God frowns on the dishonorable, but in another, it seems as if God gives special honor to the dishonorable. What’s going on here?

Here’s what I think is going on. In 2 Tim and 1 Cor 13, Paul is talking our works. In 1 Cor 12, Paul is talking about people. Those are two separate conversations. When Paul talks about people in the body of Christ, he’s making the point that everyone is equally valuable (precious to God), and so we should treat everyone equally. Those people who clean toilets, who visit prisons, who collect trash—not dishonorable but less honorable—we need to go out of our way to honor them because they cannot do much to bring honor to themselves.

But in our passage, Paul is telling people to purify themselves from anything dishonorable, so he can’t be talking about the people themselves; he must be talking about their works. Verse 22 explains the difference: “dishonorable” works involve youthful passions; “honorable” works involve righteousness, faith, love, and peace. Paul’s not saying that people who literally clean chamberpots are dishonorable. He’s simply saying that some people’s works are spiritually honorable, and some are not. We have control over what kinds of works we do, and we are to pursue the honorable kinds.


Part 3: Two Approaches (2 Timothy 2:23-26)

But reject foolish and ignorant disputes, because you know that they breed quarrels. The Lord’s servant must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient, instructing his opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth. Then they may come to their senses and escape the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

Here, Paul basically re-states everything he’s been saying, but he attaches helpful stakes to it. Don’t be the dishonorable vessel but the honorable one. That means avoiding foolish disputes (like the arguments about words we talked about earlier) that lead to quarrels. “Ignorant” is the opposite of the “informed” stand on the truth that Paul has encouraged Timothy to pursue. But it’s not just the content of the argument that Paul worries about—it’s also the manner. The right way to “have a disagreement” is not to quarrel or be hotheaded or provocative. Rather, the person who follows Jesus is to be level-headed, gentle, patient, and kind. Being “gentle” is so important that Paul repeats it; why do you think that is? What role does gentleness play in resolving disputes?

I really like Paul’s stakes: perhaps God will grant them repentance. (Note: Paul is assuming that Timothy is only pursuing arguments in which he is on the side of truth!) If Timothy argues gently, graciously, and always while teaching truth, perhaps God will bring them to their senses. I’m running out of space, so let me get to my main point: we cannot argue our way to spiritual victory. Do you see Paul’s wording? Timothy isn’t going to be able to prove his point so well that his opponents will all have a heart transformation. No, that’s for God. Timothy’s manner and message will bring them to the point of awareness, but it takes God by His Spirit to bring them to true repentance. (Does that make sense? Timothy’s opponents have caused all of this trouble by winning arguments but not accomplishing anything of spiritual value. Timothy is to be bigger than that; he is to present the truth in love and pray that God will bring them to that inward change and repentance.) In Ephesians 6:12, Paul tells the church at Ephesus that their battle is not with people but with the principalities that manipulate them (in our passage, Paul identifies the real enemy as the devil). That always helps me keep thins in perspective—the people we disagree with are not our enemies. We are to reach out to them in love. That is the perspective a Christian is to take. Ask your class how these verses help them evaluate their effectiveness as a gospel witness? (Google “Bible Project Satan” for an excellent video about Satan’s power.)


Closing Thoughts: The Chamber Pot

When we do “potty training” with our toddlers, we’re basically making use of the ancient “chamber pot”, which is a freestanding container for human waste that is eventually dumped outside. They are still used in parts of the world today that don’t have access to indoor plumbing.

Anyhoozie, they’ve been in use for almost 3,000 years. I have a picture of a clay Greek chamberpot from 600BC and a wood chamberpot just like one I saw in a frontier-era hotel/museum. The long and short of it is people didn’t want to have to go out to an outhouse at night, so they would keep a chamber pot near the bed. And then, usually, they would take the pot to a window and dump it outside. In a crowded city like Rome, it would often hit a drunken partier, or a drunken partier would trip and fall into a new pile. If you want to get disgusted, look up “chamber pots in Victorian England”.

Because people in those centuries didn’t understand disinfecting or the spread of disease, chamberpots were often the cause of significant outbreaks and death. Put in those terms, does it make sense why I think Paul was referring specifically to chamberpots when he wrote these verses? I don’t know if you can use this illustration in your class—it’s kinda gross—but it helps me establish how Paul is here talking about function/action and not people (why it’s bad to be “dishonorable” here but good to be “less honorable” in 1 Cor 12).


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