Approved Workers Are Not Ashamed
My wife read this to me the other day: “I needed to do the laundry, but then I realized I was out of detergent, so I went to write a shopping list and realized how unorganized the junk drawer was, and started checking pens for ink. When I went to toss all the junk, I saw that the trash was full but before I took it out I wanted to get rid of old food in the fridge. That's when I realized a juice jug had leaked so I needed to clean it up but when I went to grab a rag, I saw that the pantry closet was a nightmare so I started organizing it. And that's how I ended up on the floor looking at my old photo albums from 1990's and not doing laundry.”
Have any of you had that experience? Isn’t it true that if we want to accomplish anything, especially anything important, we need to avoid sidetracks. We need to avoid distractions. We need to focus on the main thing.
Sidetracks were a big issue for Timothy at Ephesus. You’ll remember that a big part of Timothy’s job at Ephesus was to deal with a group of false teachers who were causing trouble in the church or churches there.
And what we saw back in 1 Timothy is that these false teachers were not necessarily teaching what we might call “heresy.” They were not necessarily denying the core truths of the Christian faith. They weren’t like the false teachers in 1 John who were denying that Jesus came in the flesh.
They weren’t like the Judaizers in Galatians, who were telling people they had to follow the law of Moses in order to be saved.
Instead, their problem was that they were wasting their time—and everybody else’s time—talking and picking fights about things that don’t really matter. They weren’t necessarily denying the gospel, but they were distracting from the gospel. They were getting majorly sidetracked. And Paul took that very seriously—seriously enough that it was one of the main reasons he sent Timothy to Ephesus. Timothy had to deal with these sidetracks.
But as Timothy dealt with these side-tracked guys, it was just as important that he himself not get sucked into their sidetracks. He had to stay focused as he tried to help these guys who needed to get focused.
And that’s what today’s passage is all about: Timothy’s responsibility to help these guys stop being so sidetracked, and to made sure that he himself doesn’t get sidetracked.
What Timothy Was Up Against, and Why It Was Wrong
Let’s start by just reviewing in a bit more depth what our passage tells us about this Ephesian brand of false teaching, and why it was so dangerous.
Verse 14 tells us that these people were quarrelling about words. That’s the same phrase we heard back in 1 Timothy 6:4.
Paul is not afraid of splitting hairs over words when those words matter. But his problem with these Ephesians was that they were arguing about words that don’t matter. Their arguments were pointless.
What we see in verse 14 is that they weren’t just pointless—they were damaging. These quarrels about words were doing no good, but were actually ruining the hearers. The people who listened in on these debates were walking away in worse shape then when they came.
We see the same thing in verse 16, where this talk is described as “irreverent babble.” Once again, this is a phrase first used in 1 Timothy 6:20, where Timothy was told to “Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith.”
And that’s again what verse 16 tells us: “avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.”
This word for “gangrene” means, according to one dictionary, “a disease involving severe inflammation and possibly a cancerous spread of ulcers which eat away the flesh and bones—‘ulcers, gangrene, cancer.’”1Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, in Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 271.
Sometimes ulcers, or gangrene, or cancer, starts off really small. Barely noticeable. Barely harmful. But you know what happens when it spreads? It gets really dangerous. It can kill you.
And that’s what has happened to these two guys mentioned at the end of verse 17—Hymenaeus and Phuletus. Their pointless talk might have seemed harmless enough when it started, but now they have “swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened.” These guys were teaching some crazy stuff, probably denying that our bodies will be resurrected when Jesus returns.
Hymenaeus is another echo of 1 Timothy. We read in 1 Timothy 1:20 that he had “made shipwreck of his faith” and had been removed from the church. And so we get a picture here of what happens when the disease of “irreverent babble” spreads: it hurts people’s faith. It leads people into worse and worse error. Like verse 18 says at the end, “They are upsetting the faith of some.”
That’s what happens when you major in the minors. That’s what happens when you get distracted from the gospel. That’s what happens when you spend your time having pointless arguments about words that don’t matter.
What Timothy Had to Do
And so Timothy had to shut this down, which is what we see in verse 14: “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers” (2 Timothy 2:14).
The phrase “Remind them of these things” brings us back to everything we heard last week, and especially the words about suffering and dying with Christ in order to live and reign with Christ in verses 11-13. Those words were not just for Timothy. They were words for his church, too, and they needed to hear them again and again. They needed to be reminded, on an ongoing basis about these things that really mattered.
Paul has been reminding Timothy of the truth in this letter (2 Timothy 1:6, 2:8). And now he tells Timothy to remind his people about these truths.
But Timothy had to do more than just remind them about the truth. He needed to confront the error.
And so verse 14 instructs him to “charge them before God not to quarrel about words” (2 Timothy 2:14). Notice how intense this language is. “Charge them before God.” This is not just a suggestion. A “hey guys, maybe sometime you could stop quarrelling about words, if you’re into that kind of thing?” No, this is a strong, dead-serious, in-God’s-presence kind of command.
Paul gave Timothy charges like this. 1 Timothy 5:21: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality.” 1 Timothy 6:13-14: “I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Or, later on in this book: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:1–2).
This is serious stuff. And Timothy was to deliver this kind of charge to his people, commanding them in God’s presence to stop this pointless babbling and arguing.
When someone’s toes are rotting away with gangrene, you don’t play nice. You don’t just give them Tylenol. Do you know what you do with tissue where gangrene has set in, and nothing else will stop it? You cut it off. You amputate. You have no other options if you want someone to live.
And so Timothy needs to do the hard job, the unpopular job, the painful job, of shutting this worthless babbling down, charging them before God to stop their quarrelling.
Who Timothy Had to Be
Now there’s some important lessons from all of this that we need to really think about, but before we get there we need to deal with one last major element in this passage—which has to do with Timothy himself. See, Paul is not just concerned that Timothy shut down this worthless babbling around him. Paul is concerned that Timothy himself is going to get sucked into it himself.
That’s why, in verse 16, he tells him to “avoid irreverent babble.” Not just to tell other people to stop, but to make sure he doesn’t get sucked into it himself.
It would be so easy for this to happen. Timothy could hear these guys going on with their nonsense, and think “Oh, they are just confused. I’m going to set them straight. Let’s talk, guys.” But Paul knows that it won’t work that way.
If someone is intent on blabbering on about things that don’t matter, the moment you engage with them you’re going to get sucked right into it with them. And so you’re only option is just to avoid it.
It’s like what Paul told Titus: “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3:9). Don’t get into these conversations in the first place. Don’t feed the trolls.
And instead of getting sucked in, Timothy is to put his effort into doing the right things that God has asked him to do. And that’s where we land at verse 15, which is really at the heart of this passage. Instead of engaging in patty arguments, here is what Timothy was to put his time and effort into:
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
This is such an important verse and so we’re going to walk through it, phrase at a time, to make sure we don’t miss anything.
First, look at that phrase “do your best.” Timothy wasn’t supposed to just dabble with this. He wasn’t just supposed to “let go and let God.” He was supposed to do his best, which comes from a word that speaks about putting eager and motivated effort into this.
Now we already know that this isn’t Timothy working away on his own. He’s supposed to “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” But empowered by this grace, Timothy is supposed to work diligently and eagerly.
And what he was supposed to work at was to present himself to God as one approved. This word “approved” here has the background idea of testing. That’s why if you have an ESV Bible it will have a note that says “one who is approved after testing.”
As a pastor in Ephesus, Timothy was under constant evaluation from people. But that evaluation wasn’t what really mattered. What really mattered was God’s approval. And so Timothy was to work hard, do his best, to present himself approved to God.
I trust that this idea of God testing us and evaluating us and approving us is not a strange idea to you. We should remember that this is not referring to our salvation.
Timothy had been saved by grace through faith as a pure gift, just like every Christian. His right standing before God was based not on his works but on the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.
But now that he has been saved, what he does matters. What he does with what God has given him matters.
We see this idea in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Jesus has entrusted His disciples with resources, and He is evaluating us as we invest those resources, and what we do matters. It counts forever.
And so Timothy, being strengthened by Jesus’ grace, was to put all his effort into being able to stand before God and experience His approval for his work.
These ideas are developed in the next phrase, “A worker who has no need to be ashamed.” Timothy was a worker. A labourer. And he needed to be the kind of labourer who could stand before his master without shame. Without being embarrassed by his work.
Have you ever had that experience of doing work in a shoddy or lazy way, and your supervisor or teacher comes to check it out and you’re just embarrassed? That’s the opposite of what Timothy is going for here. He is to do his best so that his master will say “well done, good and faithful servant.”
And what does that actually mean? What is Paul after here? What is the crucial element in Timothy’s work that will make the difference between being ashamed or being unashamed before Jesus? What is the thing that will bring God’s approval instead of his disapproval?
And the answer comes in the final phrase of this verse—“Rightly handling the word of truth.”
That’s what Paul is after here in this passage. This is what all of those other guys aren’t doing. By arguing about words and wandering from the truth they are playing games with the word of truth. But instead, Timothy is to rightly handle the word of truth.
This word for “rightly handle” is so interesting. The word originally referred to cutting a path or guiding along a straight way. In the Greek Old Testament it’s the same word used in Proverbs 3:6: “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:6).
And what’s so interesting is that in 2 Timothy 2:15, what Timothy is supposed to cut straight is not a path or a road but “the word of truth.” The gospel truth, in the words taught by the apostles, preserved for us today in the New Testament Scripture.
And Timothy was supposed to handle it rightly, straightly, truly, not getting distracted or turned aside by the sideways, crooked paths of the false teachers. As Denny Burk has written about this verse, “Timothy may not play fast and loose with God’s revelation but must handle it with care and accuracy. It is not permissible for Timothy to say whatever comes to mind; he is to make known and to apply only what God has said. He is not to be an innovator of new revelation; he is an expositor of a revelation already given.”2Denny Burk, “2 Timothy,” in Ephesians–Philemon, ed. Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar, vol. XI, ESV Expository Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 474.
It is possible, isn’t it, to handle the word of God poorly? To seem to use the Bible but really get it all twisted up in your own ideas? I’ve sure read my share of Christian books or listened to my share of sermons where the people quoted from the Bible often enough, but what they ended up actually saying actually had nothing to do with what the Bible itself was actually saying.
2 Peter 3:16 talks about the letters of Paul and says that “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).
That word there for “ignorant” simply points to a lack of knowledge or learning. It’s not an insult, but it is a recognition that some people, through a lack of understanding, twist the Bible in a way that is destructive. Like we read about in 1 Timothy 1, they may want to be teachers of the law, but they don’t understand “either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Timothy 1:7)
And in contrast, Timothy is supposed to handle the word of truth rightly. Cut a straight path, so-to-speak. And as he does his best to do that, reminding people of God’s truth, charging them not to quarrel about words, and avoiding irreverent babble himself, he can look forward to unashamed approval in God’s presence.
Putting it All Together
So what we’ve just done in the past minutes here is work our way through this passage, but not quite in the order in which it was written. It just made the most sense to me to group the material together the way we did. And so what I’m going to do now is read through the passage again for us, and trust that, having done what we’ve just done together, you’re able to see what’s going on and how it all fits together.
“Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity’” (2 Timothy 2:14–19).
We’re going to pick up on verse 19 again next week, but as we look at this passage as a whole, I have two observations I want to make, and one question I want to ask. And this is how we’ll get at the lessons for us today. Two observations and a question.
Observation 1: Sound Doctrine is Healthy Doctrine
The first observation is that good doctrine is healthy doctrine. Good teaching is good for God’s people. Back in 1:13, when Paul talked about the “pattern of the sound words,” that word for “sound” means healthy. Same as in 4:3 where Paul talks about “sound teaching.” It means healthy. It’s teaching that is not just true and accurate but actually helpful. Actually good for God’s people.
In contrast, the babbling arguments of the false teachers were wrong because they did no good, but only ruined their hearers. It creates ungodliness. It was bad for God’s people.
Even if it may have been correct at a factual level. Maybe one of those guys who was all into genealogies could trace his ancestry all the way back to some famous guy in the Bible and he had all of the proof for why he was a descendant of so-and-so. Maybe he was right about that.
Even if he is right about that, he’s still wrong, because that genealogy isn’t good for anything. It’s not helping anybody. It’s not healthy. It’s just one giant distraction from the gospel. And down the road, it is going to cause people to wander away from the truth.
So here’s why this is important. We live in a day and age where, if you want to, you can be bombarded by messages from people who claim to be speaking for God. Who claim to be teaching you the Bible. And you need to evaluate those things. You need to be so discerning.
And you have to discern more than just “is this accurate or not?” You have to discern, “is this healthy or not? Or is it just distracting us from the main thing?”
Someone shared a video with me the other day where this guy claimed to have had a vision of Jesus, and he went into all of this detail of what it was like and how he felt and what Jesus said to Him.
Now one set of questions you can ask is, is that accurate? Did that actually happen? And we could maybe debate that.
But today’s passage asks us to ask, is that healthy? Is it going to do any good for God’s people? And I would suggest very strongly that no, it’s not. Even if that guy did have that vision from Jesus—which I have my doubts about—is getting all excited about that video really helpful to anybody?
Most Christians today barely know what’s in their Bibles and barely understand the gospel well enough to share it with someone else. And what we need is to be spending time with the word of truth instead of getting distracted by the latest thing on YouTube.
As another example I think about is those TV preachers who come up with a new theory on the end times every second week. And one question we can ask is, “Is this accurate? Is that true?” But just as importantly we need to ask, “Is that healthy? Is that actually helping anybody? Is that actually doing any good?”
We need to be discerning, and as we discern, we shouldn’t just ask “Is this true?” That’s important. But we also need to ask, “Is this healthy? Is this good for people? Is this distracting us from the Bible, from the truth of the gospel, from the apostle’s teaching?”
So that’s my first observation. Sound doctrine is healthy doctrine. It’s good for the people of God.
Observation #2: Heresy Is Not the Only Thing That Matters
Here’s my second observation from this passage, which is really connected to the first one: heresy is not the only thing that matters.
And here’s what I’m getting at. Paul did not look at these guys in Ephesus and think, “Ya, they’re getting into all of this weird stuff, but at least they still believe the gospel. At least they still believe in Jesus. They’re still brothers and sisters in Christ. So, we won’t make too big of a fuss about them quite yet.”
I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve been in where good Christians have used that kind of reasoning. “Ya, they’re teaching some wacky stuff, but they’re still a Christian. They can still sign our statement of faith. They’re still our brother in the Lord. So we’re just going to let this slide.”
It’s this idea that if it’s not heresy, it’s not a big deal. And that idea is just bonkers, according to our passage. It’s like a doctor looking at you and saying, “Well, you do have a small tumour, but it’s not stage 4 terminal cancer, and you’re otherwise healthy, so go enjoy your life.”
Paul does not think that way. Paul sees what direction things are headed. He knows that this unhealthy teaching is like cancer or gangrene—it starts small but it will lead to death if it’s not checked.
So I think of an issue like, “Can Christians believe in evolution?” Some people would say that there’s many godly Christians who love the Bible and do believe in evolution and they’ve got some interpretations that make it work. And they can sign our statements of faith and they preach the gospel so we shouldn’t make a big deal out of this issue.
And my response is, “Sure, they believe the gospel today. But where is this headed? Given enough time, how are these ideas going to develop? What is the long-term damage from this idea that we won’t see until years from now?”
Now please understand that this isn’t about being paranoid. You don’t go get a CAT scan for every tiny ache or pain. But this is about being wise and thinking about where things go when they grow. And here is where church history is an important guide to helping us see how certain ideas tend to develop and what they develop into.
Question: How Do We Know if It’s Worth Fighting For or Not?
So those are the two observations. Good doctrine is healthy doctrine, and heresy is not the only thing that matters.
But now here’s the big question: how do we know if something is worth talking about or not? How do we know if something is worth taking a stand on or not? How do we know whether something is a worthless discussion that we need to just avoid or an important topic that we need to engage with?
And my answer is that we do what verse 15 says: we rightly handle the word of truth. We allow the apostle’s teaching to shape how we think and direct where we point.
I hope you know that the Bible is not just a collection of religious quotes. The Bible has a plot to it—it tells us about God’s big plan to glorify His son Jesus, and how Jesus lived, died and rose again to purchase for Himself a worshipping people, and how today God is gathering people from all nations into the kingdom of His son, and how God is using His word, on the lips of His praying people, to accomplish His purposes in the world today.
And so when we understand the big picture of the Bible, and when we’ve spent enough time with the Bible to see how the parts fit together into the whole big story, then we’ll be able to tell whether something is healthy or not. Whether something is helpful or not. Whether something is worth talking about or not.
And it all comes down to understanding the word of truth so that we can handle it rightly.
So my encouragement for you today as we end is that you take advantage of every opportunity you can take to better understand the word of truth. Many of you know about all of the ways that we do that here at EBC. You know about how we do Sunday school for all ages, and we meet in small groups to dig deeper into the sermon passage, and we do Awana for kids once a week, and studies for teenagers and men and women throughout the month, and we’ve got all kinds of resources in our foyer or on our website we want to make available to you.
And what’s behind all of this is our desire to help you rightly handle the word of truth, so that you don’t swerve from the truth but can stand before God one day with no need for shame, hearing His approving words “well done, good and faithful servant.”
And so the question for you is simple: are you doing your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who had no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth?
Are you doing your best?
And, if not, why not?
And if not, what’s a step you could take this week to move in that direction? You’re not going to become a Bible expert in one week. But what’s a step you can take this week to move in this direction of doing your best to presenting yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth?
If you’re not sure how to answer that question and you’d like some help or ideas, I’d love to talk to you and help you out with that. So would Curtis or Brad or Jason, or your small group leader, or any of the many trustworthy people you’ll find around this place.
But whatever you do, please don’t ignore these questions. The stakes are so high.