Sunday, February 01, 2015

Vessels of Another Sort

Stephen Fry alleges that of all languages English “has the largest vocabulary … by a long, long, long, long way”. The language columnist of The Economist disagrees, or at least provides sound reasons why Fry may not be correct.

Regardless, there are only so many available words in any given language, and sometimes a writer of scripture elects to use similar language to describe vastly different spiritual scenarios.

In such instances, studies that depend on exhaustive investigation of the etymology of similar words are less useful than those that explore the context of each usage.

In short, dictionaries will not help anywhere near as much as meditation.

Vessels of Wrath and Mercy

For instance, during a discussion of Calvinist beliefs a while back, I considered the meaning of a couple of phrases Paul uses in Romans, “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” and “vessels of mercy … prepared beforehand for glory”.

I made the case that in Romans, Paul is not referring to people with respect to whether or not they are saved, but rather to groups of individuals that God raises up throughout human history for the purpose displaying his wrath or glory.

More Vessels

In a different context, however, Paul speaks again about vessels of another sort entirely
“Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, 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.”
To conflate these vessels with those to which Paul refers in Romans just because the same word is used both places makes for muddled thinking, to say the least.

Vessels in a House

The context of Paul’s instructions to Timothy is the household of God, not the great movements of human history, and the “vessels” of which Paul speaks are individuals (“he will be a vessel”), not groups of people. Rather than existing out in the world at large, these people are “in a great house”, presumably Christendom (or as the Lord referred to it, the kingdom of heaven), and their responsibility is the same as that with which Paul charged Timothy, to “guard the good deposit entrusted to you” by the apostle and to in turn “entrust it to faithful men” who would themselves pass it on.

It is Christian service, not politics, which is in view here.
Accordingly, these vessels are not destined to wrath or mercy, but rather to honor or dishonor. It is the use to which the servant of God puts himself during his lifetime that Paul contemplates, along with God’s evaluation of that work. As when the subject of the other vessels came up in Romans, Paul is not specifically addressing the issue of whether one is saved or not saved.

Saved or Not Saved

As an example of a dishonorable vessel Paul mentions Hymenaeus, whose name appears in 1 Timothy among those “handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme”. 

Was Hymenaeus merely a carnal, mistaken proponent of false doctrine or an outright unbeliever? I’m not sure we’re in a position to say. There’s no reason to assume that Paul even knew for sure. In this context he tells Timothy “The Lord knows who are his”, which seems to leave the issue unresolved. And Paul’s purpose in his discipline of Hymenaeus seems designed for his benefit. After all, what does Paul care if unbelievers blaspheme?

For the purpose of identifying “vessels for dishonorable use”, I’m not sure it matters whether such individuals are saved or not. What matters is that they have made a confession of faith and are functioning as members of the household of God, though they are doing damage rather than good.

Vessels for Dishonorable Use and Separation

Hymenaeus had blasphemed, that much we already know. Further, Paul tells Timothy here that he is a false teacher who has upset the faith of some by teaching that the resurrection “has already happened”.

From this statement it seems likely that Hymenaeus was telling his fellow believers that “resurrection” was a concept to be understood figuratively rather than literally. Proving that a literal resurrection had already taken place might be hard to pull off, but teaching that “resurrection” is to be understood as an awakening from sin rather than a revival of the body has the dual benefit of being both spiritual-sounding and quite impossible to disprove. Some suggest that Hymenaeus was teaching a form of Gnosticism, rejecting the body as essentially evil.

Regardless, the effect of his teaching was to deny a coming, literal resurrection and the consequence was to make him not simply quirky or ineffective in the household of God, but destructive and dishonorable. He had not only made shipwreck of his own faith but had upset the faith of others.

There are other ways to dishonor, of course. Paul contrasts the “approved” worker, one who handles the word of God rightly, with “irreverent babblers” and those who “quarrel about words”. This would seem to cover everyone at both ends of the spectrum who fails to teach the word of God according to the principles by which Paul taught and modeled it. Irreverent babblers are people who get caught up in neat-sounding speculations and wander away from the plain and obvious emphasis of scripture. Those who quarrel about words may well refer to the sort of individual who gets so obsessed with individual units of communication that he misses the main message.

Either way, the result is error and danger to the church. From these types of teaching and from these sorts of men, Timothy was required to set himself apart.

How to Separate Yourself

Notice that Paul doesn’t instruct Timothy to throw a tantrum, make a scene or abandon the church in which false teaching had made inroads. He tells him to “cleanse himself” from what is dishonorable. In fact, the effectiveness of and reward for his own service depends on it.

It is quite possible that Paul’s “handing over” of Hymenaeus to Satan had already taken place and had involved the entire church. It is also possible that he had done so personally and in prayer from a distance, and that the church had yet to take corporate disciplinary action. Either way, it was necessary for Timothy to put distance between himself and both Hymenaeus and Philetus, who seems to have taught the same error.

Much of this distance has to do with personal conduct. You can make a big public statement about having nothing to do with certain sorts of evil, but a much more profound statement is made by making choices that are very different in character from those made by blasphemers, nitpickers and speculators:
“So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”
I suspect one of the “youthful passions” Paul has in mind may be the energetic inclination to aggressively take on all comers, to make every battle into a war and to be willing to kill or die (metaphorically, of course) over every doctrinal divide. Rather, Paul says, patiently endure evil and correct opponents with gentleness. That is not easy when you know the sort of damage false doctrine can do, but it does demonstrate a mature, balanced reason and demeanor that is both appropriate and effective in persuading others.

Honor and Dishonor

Almost everyone who has attended a church for any length of time has seen controversy come and go. New teachers come on the scene with new teachings. It may be a full-time pastor and it may simply be someone passing through, but when mishandling of scripture draws away followers among the people of God, the lines need to be drawn. It needs to be clear that while we love all our brothers in Christ, we will not abide the ruination of the church that results from quarreling about words, the rampant ungodliness that results from irreverent babble or the upsetting of the faith that comes from false doctrine.

The foundation of the church is Jesus Christ. There can be no other. And there is a day coming when we will all give account for the way we have built on that glorious, perfect and sure foundation. It will be a day of fire that will test the work each one of us has done.

All those of us who serve build either with gold, silver and precious stones or with wood, hay and straw. Those appear to be our available materials. We build with materials that will stand the test of time and trial, like love, patience and the word of God, or we build with those that will not, like warm and fuzzy feelings, speculation and credentialism. Will what you have built in your lifetime as a believer last under the fiery gaze of the Head of the Church, or will it go up in smoke? Will you be a vessel of honor or dishonor?

Vessels of honor are “useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work”. I’d like to be one of those.

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