2 Timothy 2:22-24 “Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.”
We meet here foundational truths about the Christian life, and I want to begin by speaking of the importance of change for every disciple of Jesus Christ.
- THE IMPORTANCE OF CHANGE.
These verses are all about change, spiritual change, moral change and growth. One of the great ends of preaching is movement, in other words, to move unbelievers from unbelief to saving faith, and then to move Christians from defeat to victory. Change is hard. We’re not so easy to change after all. Jeremiah quotes a proverb and then turns on the people abusing it; “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer. 13:23) because you are not mere animals. You are people who have the power of god to change. Here were people listening to Jeremiah calling them to repent and turn to God, to give up their unbelief, and drunkenness and the worship of Baal, but they smiled at him and they just shrugged, “We can’t. As the old proverb says, ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?’ This is how we are; this is our personality. Our parents were like this and so are we. We’d like to change, we admire religion, and morality, and all you say, but it’s not for us. We know we can’t change.”
These Old Testament people had contracted habits of unbelief and compromise by long practice. When Jeremiah preached to them he said, “I spoke to you in your prosperity; but you said, ‘I won’t listen.’ This has been your practice since your youth, that you have not obeyed my voice” (Jer. 22:21). This is what we are facing in the western world today. All of us have met people who have told us that they admire our faith but that it’s not for them; they cannot change. “It’s just the way I am.” But we say, “Yes you can change, but you don’t want to change.”
A minister whose life has revolved around preparing three messages each week, and visiting his flock, has to retire and change his routine. He can do that, He can change. Children who slam doors habitually can learn to close them quietly. Two people who get married can make the adjustments to sharing a home with a spouse. A wife who loses her husband can learn new patterns of singleness. Change is hard but it’s not impossible. One of the major reasons Christians stagger and limp and fail to make progress is that they are either unwilling to make changes or they don’t know how to make the changes that God requires of them.
If there is anything that God requires from you then God can enable you to do it. Any quality of life, any difference in behavior, any attitude of mind, any change of affection, any activity that God requires you can acquire it – you can do it – through the grace of Jesus Christ. That is a given. There is no debate about that. Whatever the Sermon on the Mount requires then by the grace of God you can achieve it. Jesus doesn’t teach impossible and hopelessly theoretical and unattainable behavior. You can love your enemy; you can forgive 70 times 7; you can turn the other cheek; you can pray without ceasing; you can bear the burdens of the weak; you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. And when you say to me, “I just don’t have the patience,” in other words, that that is the way you were born and your genetic code doesn’t allow you to live in the Christ-required way, then I say that you are wrong. Patience and self-control and prayer and strength to live a holier life can be acquired. These are the fruit of the presence of the Lord who lives in every Christian life. And while some of the gifts of the Spirit were for the apostolic period alone – principally the gift of apostles – all the fruit of the Spirit is for today.
So in our text Paul is not simply addressing the super-Christian Timothy, the pastor of the Ephesian church. He is certainly exhorting him, but he tells us he is also addressing “those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” (v.22). Many people say prayers. Men ask that there’ll be no policemen around. They ask that they can have that woman. Women ask that their ticket will win the lottery. They call on God to help them, but they’re not calling on him out of a pure heart. What do you do? That crying to God is where it all begins. You say something like this, “Lord, my life is in a mess. I have been ignoring you for too long. I am sorry. You promise in your word that all those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. I call on you to save me.” You put it in words like that, addressing God and telling him that you desperately need his salvation. And you keep praying for Jesus to become your Lord and Saviour until God hears and answers your prayers. Now to everyone who becomes a Christian Paul says something negative and then something positive. The negative thing he says here is, “Flee the evil desires of youth” and the positive exhortation is “pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace,” and I shall show you this pattern being repeated in the rest of our text.
Let me ask you an ancient riddle, the sort of riddle you get in cheap Christmas crackers or on the back of Penguin biscuits. This old riddle is not about why did the chicken cross the road but the other one, “When is a door not a door?” and you know the answer, “When it’s ajar.” Now let us ask that same question again but with a slightly different answer; “When is a door not a door?” And the answer is, “When it is something else.” Now that is how Paul is approaching Timothy (and every other Christian) here about changing his lifestyle. Changes take place all the time. Particularly New Year’s Day and the few days afterwards. Again, the first days of Lent when chocolate consumption temporarily goes down. Changes happen the day after the orgy, or after the drunkenness, or after the drugs bust, or after the arrest when people feel sick at heart and ashamed and then there are temporary changes. But a change of an activity is not the same as the change of a person. The former is stimulated by certain conditions; the latter involves a change in the fabric of your life in spite of the conditions, or even in the teeth of the conditions. You yourself have changed, and there is no going back. You have died to sin and now are living to righteousness.
Let’s go back to the riddle. When is something not something? And the answer is when it is something else. When is a bully not a bully? When is a lustful young man not a lustful young man? And the answers are not when one stops bullying, or the other stops being a lustful young man. He can stop his bullying outwardly but in his heart he is still a bully. He can stop practicing his lusts but in his heart and imagination he is still lustful. Just for a moment, and just at present he is not bullying. He may be under surveillance. He may be waiting to appear in court on a charge. He may have made a resolution to stop. He may be in prison. But what will happen when the court case is over and he is discharged, or he may be released from prison on parole or he may need money very badly? We know that people do not display criminal activity all the time, and temporary bouts of abstinence are no sure indication that a change of character and behavior has occurred. So a badly behaving person is not a badly behaving person when he is something else.
- THE NEW TESTAMENT PATTERN FOR CHANGE.
So let me show you the approach of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament to this matter of changing our behavior and becoming more Christ-like people. You find it particularly in Ephesians chapter 4 but it also in the Sermon on the Mount and in Romans chapter 12, all the great passages in Scripture that explain how real change is attained. Let us see how it is set out in Ephesians 4 and the emphatic beginning in verse 17, “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord . . .” He is urging them to change and he does so at first by describing the horrible ungodly ways in which men and women all around them, made in the mage and likeness of God, behave, “indulging in every kind of impurity with a continual lust for more” (v.19). Then people like that were converted and Paul describes it in terms of a change of outlook and personality. He says that they have put off the old self – what they themselves usd to be – and they’ve put on the new self (vv. 23&24). Their whole lifestyle changes. The image is a change of stinking old garments, removing them and burning them in a symbolic bonfire, all the stuff you walked the streets in and strutted your stuff in, while becoming a Christian was like putting on beautiful, clean, sweet-smelling, elegant, modest, new clothes. That is the broad pattern, just as in our text in 2 Timothy, of [one] fleeing the evil desires of youth, and [two] pursuing these great virtues.
So true change that comes from God, has two prongs. Putting on would be hypocritical and temporary unless it were also accompanied by putting off. So we go back to the riddles; “When is a liar not a liar?” And the answer is, “When he is something else.” O.K. but what else? By what is lying to be replaced? So Paul in Ephesians 4 and verse 25 tells them to: “speak truthfully to his neighbour, for we are all members of one body.” You do not lie to members of your body. The brain does not say, “I am not telling the breast that it has cancer. I am going to tell it that it is perfectly healthy.” Wrong. Because you are in the same body and cancer in one part, unless treated, will affect every part. So when is a liar not a liar? When it has become a truth teller. In other words, when it has become reprogrammed or rehabituated, so that even when he is tired, and under great pressure he will still say the truth – even to his own hurt. Unless he has put on this new man he is going to be vulnerable to reverses under pressure. New patterns of response must become dominant.
O.K. Then there is another riddle: “When is a thief not a thief?” And we want to reply with something like, “When he stops stealing.” No. The answer is in verse 28, “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.” A thief is still a thief if he has merely stopped stealing. He is just a thief who for the time being is no longer stealing. Under pressure he is likely to revert to stealing again. Let me say something about the failure of the modern prison system. Reoffending costs up to 13 billion pounds every year. Two thirds of prisoners return to jail within two years. 70% of prisoners have committed at least seven previous offences. The average prisoner has 16 previous convictions. In other words prisons cost a fortune while confirming offenders even more deeply in their criminal habits. You stop a thief stealing while he is in prison but you don’t change his heart. He puts off his old thieving clothes but he does not put on new clothes of honesty. Two thirds of the thieves who come out of prison soon are stealing again. But if he is born again, and gets a job, works hard at earning money honestly, learns the blessings of giving, then he is no longer a thief. He is now reprogrammed by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ to working and sharing.
This is the pattern throughout Ephesians 4. Paul talks about anger in verses 26 and 27 and you put off the stinking clothes of resentment and hot words. You let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouth (v.29). Then you speak helpfully, “building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (v.29). Then, and only then is an angry man not an angry man. It is the same with bitterness, rage, brawling and slander and every kind of malice. Paul says you have to get rid of that (v.31) and what do you replace it with?
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” I am saying that that is the New Testament pattern from the time of the Sermon on the Mount. Don’t pray like the Pharisees on street corners, but pray secretly in your own room. Don’t give money splashily like the Pharisees but rather don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing. Don’t fast like the Pharisees showing everyone by the ash on your face that you are fasting. Anoint your face with oil at times of fasting as you do every day. This is the pattern in the New Testament with all the apostles. For example, John in his third letter says, “Beloved, do not imitate that which is evil, but that which is good” (3 Jn.11). Peter says, “Not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead” (I Peter 3:9).
3.PAUL’S PATTERN TO TIMOTHY AND ALL OF US.
So this section of our text in 2 Timothy reflects all that we see in these other portions of Scripture.
i] Flee youthful passions but pursue every virtue. The first riddle here is “How do we know you have really fled from the evil desires of youth?” And the answer is, “When we see you pursuing righteousness, faith, love and peace.” The evil desires of youth of course include sexual desires, but more common than them, impatience, and self-confidence, and self-assertion (wanting other people to hear your opinions), enjoying disputes, and a love of novelty. They are all matters that need sympathetic correction. They all come from an immature, unrealistic and idealistic view of things. Flee from them. They’re not helpful. They are not helpful to you, nor are they helpful to the congregation.
So you run away from all of that, but you don’t stop at that, but rather now you’re running and running after glorious graces, righteousness and faith and love and peace. Righteousness is giving to God and man what is their due. Faith here consists of loyalty and reliability – faithfulness which comes from trusting in God with all your heart and leaning not on your own understanding. Love means the strongest affection for fellow believers, but then towards your enemies you are determined to wish them no ill but offer them forgiveness for what they’ve done to you and said about you with no bitterness and no desire for vengeance. Peace is keeping the bonds of gospel unity and not behaving in a way that strains it to breaking point. Peace is deeming other people better than yourself. Peace is bearing all things from others.
And you pursue these things not as some self-consciously wise decision-maker, but as someone who is aware of the bonds that unite us to everyone who calls on the name of the Lord, the people from whom we shall never be apart, never, never, never. We can never be aloof; we can never be detached from our fellow Christians; we are always dependent for strength and counsel from the Christian fellowship and so we are fearful about putting strains on its limits. A man must treasure his Christian friends for no one ever went to heaven alone. Then there is the next contrast . . .
ii] Watch your tongue, but be kind to everyone. Again, see here, Paul is speaks about our words, and the unbridled tongue. This is the subject which most disturbs Christian righteousness, faith, love and peace. “Foolish and stupid arguments” are condemned. Have nothing to do with them because what happens if you get involved in them? Quarreling! Anyone who has got involved in them knows just how sadly accurate this is. And, adds Paul, “the Lord’s servant must not quarrel” (v.24). Do you ever find the Lord Jesus quarrelling with his family or disciples or even his enemies? Never. To quarrel is to sin. Then he adds these two words, “not resentful” (v.24) because resentment always follows quarrels. To be resentful is to sin. Who has anything but regret for all of this, foolish and stupid arguments, quarrels and resentment? Better not to say anything. We are urged to be slow to speak and swift to hear. We are told that a gentle answer turns away wrath. We are urged not to provoke one another. But it is not enough to be silent, not to do certain things, once again there are positive exhortations. Another riddle: when is a foolish, resentful and argumentative quarreler not a foolish, resentful and argumentative quarreler? And the answer is not when he doesn’t open his mouth. The answer is when he is “kind to everyone, able to teach and gently instructing others” (vv.24&25).
- ESTABLISHING NEW PATTERNS OF LIFE.
The challenge for the Christian is constantly to follow the example of our Lord, motivated by love for Jesus Christ who has done everything for us, by the power of the indwelling Spirit and in obedience to the word of God. That is the Christian life. It is, in other words, not to do the things God forbids and to do all the things we are exhorted to do, and to continue to do them, moment by moment, and day by day, often enough and long enough until they become a part of us.
Many things become a part of you because you do them each day and don’t think about them. What do you put on first your right shoe or your left? You can’t remember because you do it without thinking about it as you’ve done for thousands of morning. You probably can’t remember which arm you put into your shirt or blouse first of all. We no longer think of details. It is not necessary because God has given us the capacity to live like that. Think of when you first began to drive. It was a frustrating experience. Three pedals but only two legs. There was in addition the signalling and dipping the lights as you changed gears. How could anyone coordinate all of that, and at the same time the streets were narrow, and there were other cars and pedestrians about. How would you ever do it? That was then. Do you think like that now? You know what happened last night? You got into the car at midnight and effortlessly fastened your seat-belt and slipped the ignition key into the slot, turned on the motor, shifted the gears, depressed the petrol peddle went out into the traffic, slipped a CD of hymns into the CD player and argued about predestination with your companion. How amazing when you think about it. You have learned to perform highly complex behaviour unconsciously. Think of what Lee Halfpenny and Dan Biggar on the rugby pitch have also learned to do by the same means. How did you learn? How did they learn? By practice, disciplined practice, watching how other great players have done it, and listening to their coaches. You watched Dad or Mam drive; you listened to your driving instructor and then you drove your car long enough until driving became a part of you. It has become second nature to you. That is what Paul tells Timothy in his first letter. He says, “Train yourself to be godly” (I Tim. 4:7). Discipline yourself for godliness. There is no other way.
The apostle tells the Hebrews that they have heard great apostolic preaching but they have not profited from it as they should have. And the reason was that they had not used the teaching they’d heard – they hadn’t applied it. So when they should have been teachers they still needed to be taught. This is what he says as he diagnoses their weakness. It is very important; it is the last two verses of chapter 5 of Hebrews, “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Hebs. 5:13&14). They were not acquainted with this teaching that I have taught you again today. It is by constant use of what you hear from a gospel pulpit week after week that you train yourself to distinguish good from evil. The practice of godliness leads to the life of godliness.
You protest and say, “But I don’t seem to be able to do it.” That’s an excuse. You have already done it. You have practiced and repeated things. You’ve developed some unconscious patterns, for example, with your I-pad and computer games and they have become a part of you, just as they have become a part of us all. You have learned to juggle, and though you haven’t juggled for a while you can pick up three juggling balls and away you go straight away. The capacity of developing new habits is in you today. The problem with some of you is that the habits you have built up are working against God not for God. Let me illustrate this: a Scottish ship-builder would sit in church and during the sermon he would build a ship in his mind. Then one day he heard George Whitefield and God worked in his life in the preaching and destroyed that evil habit and he never built another ship during a sermon again. It is what you feed into your life that matters. It is what you feed into your computer that matters. A computer is no better than the data with which it operates. Peter talks about certain people in 2 Peter chapter 2 verse14 and he says about them, “they are experts in greed.” They have trained themselves in greed. They have exercised themselves in it. They have become stronger and stronger in greediness. They have faithfully practised greed so that now greediness has become second nature. They automatically behave greedily in various situations.
So look at your lifestyle. Look in the mirror of the word of God. Today we have been warned about the evil desires of youth, and about foolish and stupid arguments that result in quarrels. Has the Holy Spirit convicted you of such sins? Positively we have been taught about righteousness, faith, love and peace, and calling on the Lord from a pure heart. We have been spoken to about being kind to everyone, and able to teach people the Christian way. Has the Holy Spirit encouraged a longing in your heart to live like this? Do you desire new patterns of behaviour?
There is only one way to become a godly person and that is to orient your life towards godliness, and that means line by line, precept by precept, pattern by pattern.
The old sinful way, as you discover them, must be replaced by new happy, life-giving patterns from the Bible. That means saying ‘No’ daily to sin and practising following Jesus Christ in new ways, by the guidance and strength that the Holy Spirit provides. It is not simple; it is not what you do while dreaming about other things that interest you more. But it is a serious and solid and satisfying way that leads to eternity. Anything that centres on God is serious and solid and satisfying.
You are capable of change if you are fifteen or if you are fifty. God never said that when a person was 75 change was impossible. Look what Abraham achieved when he was a very old man. Look at the tremendous things God asked him to do in the last years of his life. He did them! If anything then our age, and our experience of change should help us. We are people of hope because we have changed so much in our lives. The Holy Spirit can change any Christian, and he does. Do not fear change! The Christian life is a life of continual change. Christianity is called in the book of Acts, ‘the Way.’ There is constant movement. It is a walk; it is not a rest. We may never say, “I have finally made it.” We must never think that there is nothing more to learn from the Bible, nothing more to put into practice this week, no more skills to develop, no more sins to mortify, no more graces to develop. Jesus tells us that the Christian life is a daily striving to change.
So that is why we have discovered that one great theme from this letter is endurance. Go on and on and on and on. No one learns to juggle, or to use a yo-yo, or to drive a car, or to operate a computer unless he persists long enough in doing so. He learns by enduring, in spite of many failures, and through times of embarrassment, until what he desires he begins to do. He trains himself by constant practise to do what he wants to learn to do, and, of course, he does it all by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. He works out his salvation with fear and trembling because God is working in him to will and to do of his good pleasure. The Holy Spirit works through Scripture. He works through men he has called and gifted who preach the word of God and by willing, prayerful, persistent obedience to the requirements of the Scripture new godly patterns of life are developed such as these before us today, and they become a part of us and will be a part of us more completely in a new heavens and earth. This is what we will one day become. When we see him we will be for ever pursuing “righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart”; that will be our blessed future together in a new heavens and a new earth.
21st February 2016 GEOFF THOMAS