Here Paul is teaching Timothy how to be a useful Christian. The apostle has already advised him, ‘Give diligence to present yourself approved by God, a workman who doesn’t need to be ashamed’(2 Timothy 2:15), and then, using the analogy of household utensils, teaches ‘If anyone therefore purges himself… he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, and suitable for the master’s use, prepared for every good work.’(2 Timothy 2:21). The subject here is not salvation, which Christians already have, but sanctification leading to useful service.
First there’s something to flee; ‘youthful lusts’. It’s instructive that Paul felt it necessary to warn the young Christian Timothy in this way. We must be realistic about our vulnerabilities, potential or otherwise; then not just turn away from them, but ‘flee’ them. If not we’ll be useless in God’s service. To be a ‘vessel for honor, sanctified, and suitable for the master’s use’ we must ‘call on the Lord out of a pure heart’.
It’s easier to flee sin when focusing on something to pursue instead. Otherwise the very thing we’re running from monopolises our attention, our hearts then feet follow our gaze, and in no time we’re back where we started. Paul gives Timothy four things to pursue to dethrone his youthful lusts, or any worldly appetites we might have. We’re to focus on these four things, craving after them with an energy greater than any ungodly passions a young man might have. We’re to cultivate a craving for righteousness, faith, love and peace. Develop a taste for these and worldly pleasures will seem bland, boring and childish in comparison.
Crave righteousness: In English this word doesn’t usually set the pulse racing, even in Christians. But unpack righteousness and you’ll find spiritual dynamite. Ignite it in your heart and the resulting blaze will drive out the darkness. Basically righteousness is everything that’s just and right, fair and good in God’s sight. If the Holy Spirit is in you, meditate on what this involves, then feel your heart race with a holy passion for action. Of course we can never attain God’s pure proactive perfection, but we need not be discouraged. We have Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to cover us. Timothy knows full well that he’s seen by God as clothed with Jesus’ pure righteousness, whilst Jesus wears Timothy’s soiled rags to the cross. But here Paul’s encouraging Timothy to build on this saving righteousness, to thirst after a sanctifying righteousness, and so to become a useful instrument in God’s hands.
Crave faith: There are several aspects to the fully developed mature Christian faith Paul has in mind here. The starting point is belief, but not belief in anything. Earlier in the letter Paul has been earnestly encouraging Timothy to guard the truths he’s been taught. We’re to be faithful to that apostolic Biblical faith. But belief in the truth is not enough. Real faith involves personal trust in Jesus work on the cross for salvation and for personal guidance. Moreover, true trust is evidenced by faithfulness. Earlier in chapter two Paul encourages Timothy to serve like a soldier who wants to please his commanding officer, unencumbered by worldly distractions.
Crave love: This, to us, is a more obvious substitute for misplaced affections. But Paul isn’t referring to quenching immoral lust with a love marriage relationship (appropriate as that may be and taught by Paul elsewhere). It’s about cultivating first love for God by gazing on the beauty of His holiness, and by thus growing into Him, becoming thrilled to express that love, the very essence of God, back to others. This is perfectly modelled for us in the self-sacrificial life of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul is encouraging the young Timothy to become obsessed with gazing upon and imitating the love of God in Christ.
Crave peace: Peace in the Bible is not slothful ease but beautiful order. It’s about leading a beautiful life in that sense; disciplined discipleship. The old hymn expresses it perfectly, ‘let our ordered lives confess the beauty of Thy peace’.
So we are to shun tempting distractions and instead get fired up by just and good causes; we’re to desire the well developed maturity of Christian faithfulness; we’re to adore our God and experience the thrill of channelling and modelling His love and peace to the world. Then we’ll each be ‘a workman who doesn’t need to be ashamed… a vessel for honor, sanctified, and suitable for the master’s use, prepared for every good work.’(2 Timothy 2:15&21)