The next thing that comes before us is the state into which Christianity, in its outward form in the world, has fallen: "But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master's use, and prepared unto every good work." vv. 20, 21.
It will be observed that the Apostle does not exactly say that the house of God contains vessels to honour, and to dishonour though this be true when we speak of the house of God as built by man under responsibility, according to its presentation in 1 Corinthians 3. It is a comparison rather that he uses; and hence he says, "in a great house." At the same time, it must not be forgotten that this is what the house of God on earth has become -- a sphere in which believers and mere professors, good and faithful servants and evil servants, have become so mixed that vessels of gold and silver are mingled everywhere with those of wood and earth.
When the house of God was formed on the day of Pentecost, it contained only those who were really believers; for the Lord then added "such as should be saved." But very soon, as Jude writes, certain men crept in unawares; and thenceforward that which called itself Christian was a mixed, corrupt thing.
Such was the state of things which had arisen even in Paul's days, and from which the Spirit of God takes occasion to lay down principles for individual guidance, both at that time and in succeeding days, when the confusion and corruption indicated should become more pronounced. We say "principles for individual guidance"; for it is of moment to remark that, to quote the words of another, "Discipline for individual faults is not the subject here, nor the restoration of souls in an assembly that has in part lost its spirituality, but a line of conduct for the individual Christian in respect of that which, in any way, dishonours the Lord." To apply this language indeed to the separate assemblies of the saints would be to falsify the teaching of the Apostle in other scriptures, and to justify the tolerance of almost any and every kind of evil in the midst of the saints. On this account it cannot be too earnestly insisted that the Apostle is dealing with the external form of Christianity, of which the believer himself forms part; "for he calls himself a Christian, and the great house is all that calls itself Christian." In these circumstances, what the Holy Ghost here affirms is the individual responsibility to be in separation from evil, according to what has been seen in the previous verse - "Let every one that nameth the name of Christ [the Lord] depart from iniquity." In verse 22, we have the nature of this individual responsibility more precisely described.
The Apostle then says, "If a man" (rather "any one") "therefore purge himself from these," etc. The language is very strong; literally it is, "purge out himself from." The word "purge out" is only found in one other place, where it is, "Purge out therefore the old leaven" (1 Cor. 5: 7), which was to be done by the Corinthians in putting "away from among yourselves that wicked person." But here - and it is in the contrast the teaching lies - we are to purge ourselves out from the vessels of dishonour The Corinthians had to put away evil from their midst, because it was sin in the assembly; we have to separate ourselves from evil (because it is instruction for the individual, and not, as in their case, for the assembly), in order to be approved for the Lord's service.
Such then is the Lord's mind for His people in a day of confusion and evil. Two questions, however, remain to he answered. The first is, What are the vessels to dishonour and, second, Has the Apostle the Lord's servants only in view? To take the latter first, it is abundantly clear, we judge, from the words, "If a man [any man] therefore purge himself." that all Christians are contemplated. If this be so, as we cannot doubt it is, the vessels to dishonour will mean not a class, but those, whether Christians or simply professors, who are defiled with evil of any kind, or engaged in anything that dishonours the Lord's name. And let the reader observe, that the responsibility is not to judge the personal state and condition of such vessels, but to purge himself from them, because he is under the obligation as naming the name of the Lord, to depart from iniquity.
The consequence of separating from such vessels is, that we shall be vessels unto honour, (and this will explain the meaning of the vessels of gold and of silver in the preceding verse), sanctified, set apart, and holy as so set apart, and meet, or serviceable, for the Master's use - prepared unto every good work. This is a solemn word for believers, and never more so than at the present moment. Do any then desire to be used of the Lord? Here is His own qualification for service; and be it remembered that the qualification is within our own reach and attainment, in dependence on Him who reveals it to us, and through the power which He will bestow. Then, when once qualified, it is His to take us up and use us how, where, and when He will; for by it we are "prepared unto every good work."
There is, however, also the positive side of separation; and hence the Apostle adds, "Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord. out of a pure heart." v. 22. This word is more especially addressed to Timothy, but its significance lies in the connection, following as it does upon the verses just considered. All the temptations that appealed to such as were young, or rather the desires to which the temptations were addressed, were to be shunned; and while, on the one hand, he was to "flee" from these, he was, on the other hand, to "pursue" after the things here indicated. Purpose of heart will be needed both for the one and the other; and nothing will beget this save having the heart occupied with Christ, and thus brought into communion with His mind, and, as a consequence, having the single eye. Righteousness, practical righteousness, comes first - that righteousness which is fulfilled in those who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Rom. 8: 4), and which is displayed in holiness of life and ways. Then faith - that faith which is a fruit of the Spirit, and which distinguished so many of the saints of old, as recorded in Hebrews 11, and was exhibited in their confidence in God under all circumstances of trial, adversity, and the manifested power of the enemy. Also "charity" - that is, love - which in its essence is the divine nature, and which is described, as it is seen in saints, by the Apostle in 1 Corinthians 13. And finally, peace - peace as between the saints, as a consequence of enjoyed peace with God in the soul, but which can only be pursued where the graces just named are previously found. (Compare Isa. 32: 17; James 3: 17, 18.)
Note, moreover, that these things are to be "pursued" in company with those that call on the Lord out of a pure heart. It is often contended that separation from evil would, in a day like the present, lead to a path of isolation. This scripture is a complete answer to such a contention; and indeed it is evident that those who recognize their individual responsibility to depart from iniquity, and to follow after righteousness, faith, charity, peace, must find themselves in the same path, and be drawn together in the same company.
It should also be observed that the believer is expected to distinguish those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart, as well as those who are vessels to dishonour and that it is as much the Lord's mind for him to be in company with the former, as to purge himself out from the latter. The confusion is undoubted, but, wherever there is a single eye, there will be little difficulty in discerning the Lord's path through it; and it is no small consolation to know that there will never be wanting, even in the darker days yet to come, those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart, or guidance for those who seek to do the Lord's will, to direct to the place where such are to be found.
Once more the Apostle warns Timothy to beware of controversies: "But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes." v. 23; compare v. 16. It is, literally, foolish and "undisciplined" questions; and it has been pointed out by another that the word "undisciplined" is often used for a "mind not subject to God, a man following his own mind and will." This will explain the kind of questioning referred to - those which spring from man's own thoughts and reasonings, and which therefore could not fail to produce strifes.
The introduction of this last word, "strifes," furnishes the opportunity for a beautiful description of what should be the character and conduct of a true servant. "And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient; in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; and that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will." vv. 24-26.
The word translated "strive," as that also in the preceding verse rendered "strifes," should be rather "contend," and "contend" in the sense of fighting, coming into conflict in an evil way. While therefore the servant of the Lord must maintain the truth in spite of all opposition, withstand his fellow servant to the face if need be, as Paul did Peter when the truth of grace was in question, and contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints, he must never descend from the platform of the truth, as a positive revelation from God, and as entrusted to him as a witness, to engage in conflict with those who raise foolish and unlearned questions. He, on his part, should come out from the presence of God with the authority of the truth established in his own soul, and thus enabled to proclaim it dogmatically in the midst of all the uncertainties of human contentions, from entering into which he will also carefully guard himself. With a message for all, he ranges himself on the side of none in their conflicts, for he should speak to all alike in the name of the Lord.
Moreover, as to his own spirit, he in to be gentle unto all; undisturbed by the passions which govern men in their party contests; calm, as in the enjoyment of the presence of God; governed in all his thoughts and feelings by that mighty grace of which he has been made the subject, and thus, strengthened through the operation of the Spirit of God, enabled to present the gentleness of Christ to all to whom he is sent, and with whom he may have to deal. He is also to be "apt to teach"; for with questions raised on all sides affecting the Word of God, he should be ever ready to explain and affirm its meaning.
Next, he is to be patient, or rather "forbearing," in the sense of suffering any and everything that may come in the path of service, from the hands of opponents. It still refers to the spirit of the servant, as may be seen from the use of the word in the exhortation, "Forbearing [or bearing with] one another in love" (Eph. 4: 2). And hence the Apostle proceeds, "In meekness instructing [or setting right] those that oppose themselves"; that is, who oppose themselves to the truth of God. And to sustain the servant in such a spirit, he is ever to remember the possibility of the recovery of opponents. The enemy of today may, in the grace of God, be the friend of tomorrow; and never losing sight of this, he is to go on meekly instructing, and looking to God to give the opposers repentance to the acknowledging of the truth, and that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil.
The last clause of this verse (v. 26) has occasioned considerable discussion. The point raised is, whether "his will" is God's will or Satan's. If the former, the meaning is, "that they may recover themselves" (or come to their senses) "out of the snare of the devil" (who are taken captive by him) for His will - that is, for the will of God - the object of their recovery being that they might for the future be governed by the will of God. If the latter, it must be taken as it stands. and then it means that these opposers are taken captive by Satan to do his will. Whichever view may be adopted, the solemn teaching of the scripture cannot be resisted, that those who oppose the truth are the instruments as being in the snare of Satan, and that as such they have been taken captive by him as his prey.
Such is the revelation here made - that all who resist the truth of God, who refuse it, however eminent they may be in the world of intellect or science, are nothing more than the poor slaves of Satan, led of, if not inspired by, him, even as the servants of the Lord are led and taught by the Spirit of God.