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Sermon Message

"Vessels for Honor"

2 Timothy 2:20-21
Theme: We're exhorted to become "vessels for honor" in the "great house" of God.

(Delivered Sunday, August 15, 1999 at Bethany Bible Church; reprinted for Sunday, December 8, 2002.  All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New American Standard Version, updated edition.)  


I'm excited about our getting to talk about God's exhortation to us from this passage today. I believe that, for some of us, it will be a turning point. I'm even daring to believe that some of us will remember this passage for the rest of our lives; and will be grateful to God that He called us to listen to it and do what it says.

"Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work."

* * * * * * * * * *

Note, first, a very basic principle that's found in this passage; that ...


I had the opportunity to visit the Armory, a museum in the Kremlin complex in Moscow. The Armory displays many of the beautiful household articles of gold and silver that were used throughout the centuries by the Russian aristocracy. Occasionally, you'd see common household articles; but most of what was on display were "vessels of honor" -- that is, bowls and plates and dinnerware that were used for elegant dinners and ceremonies. The same royal households, however, also used items for common, everyday purposes, such as garbage pails and dirty clothes containers -- even though you didn't see them in a display case. It should come as no surprise to us that vessels of honor, made of gold and silver, would be found together with vessels of dishonor, made of wood and clay, in the same "great house". In fact, the greater the house, the more we should expect to find both types of vessels.

Similarly, in God's "great house" -- that is, the Church -- we shouldn't be surprised to find vessels of honor together with vessels of dishonor. Paul says, "But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor."

The Greek word for "vessel", basically means "a thing"; and it usually refers to any sort of item that's meant to contain something else. In a literal sense, it's used to describe a household container of some sort, such as a bushel (Luke 8:16), pottery (Rev. 2:27), keep-sake boxes (Rev. 18:12), or even sheets of cloth that are used to hold and carry other items (Acts 10:11, 16, 11:5). But in a more figurative sense, it's used to describe people. It can be used to describe a person's body, for the godly use of which they are held responsible (2 Cor. 4:7; 1 Thess. 4:4; 1 Peter 3:7). In this sense, the body is being described as a "container" of a spiritual life that is precious in the sight of God. The word can also be used to describe the whole person in a moral sense. In this sense, a person can be called a 'vessel' in that God had called them to fulfill a specific task or purpose -- like Paul, whom Jesus called "a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel" (Acts 9:15); or, it can refer to a person's ultimate destiny, such as when Paul says that God "endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction" so "that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory" (Rom. 9:22-24).

When Paul says that, in a great house, there are different vessels, he's using the word 'vessel' in the sense of people in a figurative/moral way. In God's "great house", the Church on earth, one can expect to find both types of people -- people who are "vessels of honor", and people who are "vessels of dishonor."

Jesus told a couple of parables to illustrate the fact that we would find both vessels of honor and vessels of dishonor within his church so long as it's on earth. In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus taught one of His many parables about the Kingdom. In it, He said, "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while the man slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, 'Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then then does it have tares?' He said to them, 'An enemy has done this.' The servants said to him, 'Do you want us then to go and gather them up?' But he said, 'No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, "First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.'" You can see that a separation between them will be made eventually -- at the "harvest"; but until then, the master farmer allowed both wheat and tares to grow together.

He taught the same truth through a similar parable about catching fish in Matthew 13:47-50. "Again," Jesus said, "the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind, which, when it was full, they drew to shore; and they sat down and gathered the good into vessels, but threw the bad away. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, and cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth." Again, there was to be an eventual separation; but until then, both useful fish and unuseful fish were found in the same dragnet.

Sometimes, people who profess to be followers of Jesus will avoid gathering together with others of His people in a church, because they find both godly people and ungodly people in it. "The church is full of hypocrites," they'll say; and to a certain measure, they're right. Sometimes, a church is literally full of ungodly, unholy, dishonorable "vessels". In other cases, it may be that there are very few such vessels. But we should understand that, to some degree, until Jesus returns, both vessels of honor and of dishonor are found together in God's "great house". God hasn't rejected His "great house" because of this, though. In fact, based on the testimony of our Lord Himself, we can see that He expects this to be the case; and will see that a separation is made on the great day of His just judgment. He will not confuse the final purpose of either vessels of honor or vessels of dishonor. We need to remember that, as Paul says, "Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: 'The Lord knows those who are His,' and, 'Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity'" (v. 19).

Everyone, then, is a vessel. Either one is a vessel of gold or silver -- a vessel for honorable use; or a vessel of wood and clay -- a vessel for dishonorable use. There's no middle ground; we are either one or the other.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; you'll notice that this "seal of God" has two sides to it. On the one hand, while we may not know with absolute certainty those who truly belongs to the Lord, He does. It's not for us to be going about labeling one another either vessels of honor or of dishonor. That's for the Lord alone to do.

But this same seal also displays something of our own human responsibility in that it says, "Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity." This leads us to the next point; that ...


Many have speculated from this that our salvation is a matter of our own choice -- that in an ultimate sense, we can choose to purify ourselves and make ourselves a vessel that God is obligated to use for honorable purposes on the basis of our free choice -- apart from God's sovereign decree. But this isn't saying that at all.

For one thing, the Bible teaches that the salvation of God's "vessels of honor" is a matter that He has settled long before the creation of the world. Paul says, in Ephesians 1:4, that God "chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love". How could anyone claim responsibility for that which God had decreed before the foundation of the world -- let alone before they were even created?

For another thing, even our becoming "cleansed" is a matter of God's elective grace and not of our own free will. Peter says that God's people are "elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:2).

This verse isn't saying that our salvation is dependent upon our choice as opposed to God's sovereign election. The command to cleanse ourselves is a matter, not of the proof of our ability to save ourselves, but of the proof of God's having saved us being displayed through the evidence of our obedience. What this verse is telling us is that it's our responsibility to cleanse ourselves as is fitting vessels of honor; and that in doing so, we prove in actual practice to be what God chose us to be from the beginning. If we are numbered among "everyone who names the name of Christ" and who gives evidence to that claim to His name by departing "from iniquity", then we can be sure that we are also among those that "the Lord knows" to be "His".

And so, given that understanding, God holds us responsible for choosing which sort of vessel we will be. And the good news is that, even if we've lived the life of a vessel of dishonor in the past -- or even if we're living the life of a vessel of dishonor now -- we can repent of our sin and, by God's help, thoroughly and progressively cleanse ourselves for His honorable use. Doing so, we, in the end, prove ourselves to have been chosen by God to be the recipients of the riches of His glory as "vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory" (Rom. 9:23). "Therefore", Paul says, "if anyone cleanses himself from the latter, he will be a vessel for honor ..."

Notice, first, how we're to cleanse ourselves. The word Paul uses literally means "to clean out" or "to clean completely." Think again with me of some of the articles on display in the Armory. Suppose that a bowl had been used by a member of the Russian aristocracy as a spittoon (which, I'm sure you'll agree, would constitute a dishonorable use for a bowl). But suppose that, a generation or so later, someone else in the royal family found that, in reality, this dried up, crusty old spittoon was a beautifully designed, ornate, elegant, silver gravy bowl. It belongs on the Czar's dinner table, not on the floor next to someone's boots full of tobacco juice. How would you clean such a bowl? Think of that; and that will give you an idea of the thoroughness of cleaning intended in this word -- a "clean out completely" sort of cleaning.

That's the sort of thoroughness God expects from us. He will gladly welcome us if we desire to be a vessel of honor on His Son's banquet table. But there must come with that desire a willingness to be thoroughly cleansed of every remnant of dishonor in us. He has vessels of honor in His house, and vessels of dishonor; but He won't accept a vessel on His table that is committed to being both at the same time. That's why he urges Timothy, "Flee also youthful lusts; but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart" (v. 22).

And notice, second, from what it is that we're to be cleansed. Literally, Paul says, "if anyone cleanses himself from these"; and in this context, the "these" he speaks of are the vessels of dishonor -- that is, people whose moral lives constitute spiritual dishonor. Paul specifically urges Timothy to remind the people under his care

"Of these things, charging them before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. And their message will spread like cancer. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some" (vv. 14-18).

Or, as he says in 2 Cor. 6:15-17;

Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? for you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will dwell with them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people." Therefore "Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the LORD Almighty" (2 Cor. 6:15-17).

When Paul tells us to "cleanse ourselves" from people who constitute vessels of dishonor, it may sound judgmental and harsh. But these are words given to us under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; and behind them is the motive that God's people be made presentable to Him as vessels of honor, fit for His use. A devotion to God for honor demands a separation from dishonor.

This doesn't mean becoming "separatists", in the sense that we remove ourselves from all meaningful contact with unsaved people. If we were to do so, we'd essentially destroy our ability to be used by God to reach the lost. The believers in Corinth thought that Paul meant that they were to be separatists. But he told them emphatically,

I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolators, since then you would need to go out of the world. but now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolator, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner -- not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore "put away from yourselves the evil person" (1 Cor. 5:9-13).

And so, "cleansing ourselves from vessels of dishonor" doesn't mean avoiding contact with sinful people altogether. It means disassociating ourselves from someone who professes to be a vessel of honor, but is committed to persistent dishonor in their lifestyle.

But another thing that's not meant by such "cleansing" is that we avoid our responsibility to confront and rebuke sin in each other's lives. Paul told Timothy that,

A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will (vv. 24-26).

We need to remember that each one of us is a vessel. We're either a vessel for honorable purposes, or a vessel for dishonorable purposes. When we're being called upon to "cleanse ourselves" from "dishonorable vessels", it's a means to an end. The end that God is calling us to in such "cleansing" isn't so that we could pursue a merely pietistic separateness as a goal in and of itself. Rather, the end we're being called to is "honor". God, here, is inviting us to become vessels that have been washed and cleansed for His honorable use.

The Spirit of God has led Paul to state this matter in the form of a conditional statement: "If this one thing is true, then this other thing will be the consequence." If someone cleanses himself or herself from vessels of dishonor, then he or she will be a vessel for honor.

* * * * * * * * * *

And this leads us finally to our last point: the benefits that come with being a vessel for honor; that ...


The first blessing is that of being "sanctified." The Greek word here translated "sanctified" refers to the state of being 'set apart for special use.' The NIV translates it "made holy"; and the RSV translates it "consecrated". We have objects in our own homes that we consider "common." They're things that we use for everyday uses. But then, we also have things in our home that are "set apart" from common use. You wouldn't use a fine crystal goblet to hold your toothbrushes on the bathroom counter; nor would you set a silver chalice on your desk to hold your pencils. You'd reserve these objects for the finest uses. We even have some objects in our homes that, under ordinary circumstances, would be considered common; but because they have come to mean something special to us, we set them apart for special uses. That's the idea behind the word "sanctified" -- set apart by God for special use.

The man or woman who sets themselves apart from dishonorable things will be set apart by God for honorable use. What could be a greater blessing than sinners such as you or I -- formerly devoted to unholy and unrighteous things -- to become "set apart" by God for His honorable and holy purposes?

The second blessing is that of being "useful for the Master." It's not just a matter of being set apart for something special that makes being a "vessel for honor" such a blessing; it's who we're being set apart for! Jesus is the Master of His "great house"; and when we cleanse ourselves from dishonorable things, we become set apart in His great house for Him!

And it's not just a matter of being set apart for Him; but we also become set apart for Him as useful to Him! He has no interest in using sinful, unholy, vessels of dishonor. And because He uses vessels that have been thoroughly cleansed for honorable purposes; then, in a very real sense, we are as useful to Him at this very moment as we choose to be. What a blessing to be useful to Him! What an honor it will be to hear Him say, "Well done, good and faithful servant!"

The third blessing is that of being "prepared for every good work". It's a great matter of God's grace that we don't have to go out and prepare good works for ourselves to do and to present to God. It's not our responsibility to create good works for ourselves. That's the job of our Father. The Bible tells us, in Ephesians 2:10, that "we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them." God has good works, already pre-planned and pre-arranged, that He has already prepared in advance for us. As we walk along in fellowship with His Son, He brings us into encounter with them one by one.

The great issue for us, then, isn't to prepare good works for ourselves, but rather to be prepared for the good works that God has already prepared for us! And the man or woman who has cleansed himself or herself from dishonorable things becomes a vessel for honor, "prepared for every good work".

* * * * * * * * * *

To be "set apart" for Christ; to be "useful" to Him; to become prepared for "every good work" -- the blessings that come from being a "vessel for honor" in Christ's "great house" are wonderful! And they're available to you and me.

God gives us a great invitation in these two verses. In His great house, there are only two sorts of vessels -- vessels for honorable purposes, or vessels for dishonorable purposes; and you and I cannot be anything else but one of the two. Right this moment, you are either one or the other. God calls you to make the choice which one you'll be.

Let's be vessels for Christ's honorable purposes. By His help, let's thoroughly cleanse ourselves from that which is dishonorable. Let's allow the Spirit of God to search out in us anything that remains of sin and moral impurity. Let's devote ourselves to Christ -- in word, in deed, in thought, in attitude, in associations -- and become His vessels for His honorable uses. And may He be pleased with us as a result.

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