What is the significance of 2 Timothy 2:20–21?
The passage in question reads:
Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.2 Timothy 2:20–21
This question is quite general so I will focus this discussion on three aspects: (1) what is “a large house”, (2) what is the significance of the material from which the vessels are made, and (3) what is the significance of someone “cleansing” themselves from other vessels.
Before looking at the particulars of this passage we need to think about the general context. If we think about 2 Timothy as compared to 1 Timothy and 2 Peter as compared to 1 Peter we notice that there is a very definite declension presumed among those being addressed. If we also remember the poor condition of the last church mentioned in Revelation 3, Laodicea, then we see a pretty uniform picture of general decline as we approach the end of the age (2 Tim. 3:1). So, we expect that the verses we are considering reflect a poor condition among the people of God.
First, to understand the significance of a “great house” we need to think about how “house” is used in Scripture. If the context is the Old Testament then the most likely image brought to mind would be the tabernacle or Solomon’s Temple. In the gospels the Lord frequently taught in the temple which He referred to as “my Father’s house” (Jn. 2:16). In 1 Timothy 3:14 we read that the “house of God” (YLT, DBY; or “household of God” ESV) is the “church of the living God”. So, it is clear we have the church as seen as an orderly place of worship and God’s presence.
So, the “great house” is set in contrast to the “house of God.” In particular the phrase puts before us the orderliness that would be expected in a “house.” In 2 Timothy the vessels in the house are of various types. This reminds us that in the Old Testament the vessels in the temple were to be sanctified. This term means that they were set apart from ordinary vessels specifically for use in the temple. They were not to be used in an ordinary activity. Furthermore, it was by being sprinkled with blood from a sacrifice that they were set apart. So, the term “great house” suggests a failure to maintain proper order in this house.
The designation of the various types of vessels supports the need for the sanctification suggested by the Old Testament example. In our verse we have vessels of “gold and silver” which are clearly in contrast with those of “wood and clay.” We are told that some of the vessels are “to honor” and some “to dishonor.” It is easy to connect these materials with these conditions. In addition, in 1 Corinthians 3:12 we see a similar distinction made where the works of a believer are characterized as wood and are burned up. The materials mentioned suggest heavenly or permanent characteristics in contrast to earthly or temporary characteristics. But, we need to be careful not to go too much beyond this. We were warned previously (in v. 19) that “the Lord knows those that are his.” The implication of this passage is that the state of things in the “great house” is so confused that we cannot even know for sure who is an actual believer.
Nevertheless the command is “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” And, if we are to be “useful to the master of the house and ready for every good work” (v. 21) we must “cleanse” ourselves from these. So, we are faced with a very important responsibility. Furthermore, we must be careful not to fall into a ditch on either side of the truth. That is, we must avoid either a latitudinarianism which denies holiness or sectarianism which simply divides God’s people unnecessarily (Rom. 16:17).
We must acknowledge that the clear implication of these verses is that, although the objective is not to separate from individuals, to separate from evil might necessitate doing just that. To emphasize this point, verse 21 might be read “If therefore one shall have purified himself from these, in separating himself from them, he shall be a vessel to honour, sanctified, serviceable to the Master, prepared for every good work.” (1 Tim. 3:21, DBY). Mr Darby adds the phrase given here in italics to give a fuller sense of the Greek text. Our objective should never be to separate from others. This simply allows division on the basis of hurt feelings or other unscriptural grounds. Romans 16:17 referenced above notes the condition of “contrary to the doctrine you have been taught.” Our objective must always be to walk with God according to his Word (Ps. 119:105, 1 Jn. 1:7). This can only be accomplished with true humility and our personal devotion to the Lord. “Our Path and Our Associations” referenced in the Resources section below makes this very important point. This short paper is highly recommended.
Finally, there is no thought here of being able to leave the “great house” or of forming some new (not so great?) house. Our responsibility is actually given in the verses that follow our passage. We are to follow the Lord with those who “call on the Lord from a pure heart.” Note that “pure” here means “undivided.” Our desire must be to be above all faithful to the Lord. Again, I recommend the papers listed in the Resources for further study.
Grant, F. W., Our Path and Our Associations. Stempublishing.com (accessed 11/1/2021).
Grant, F. W., A Divine Movement and Our Path With God Today. Biblecentre.org (accessed 11/1/2021).
Grant, F. W., “A Circle of Fellowship” or Independency?. Stempublishing.com (access 11/1/2021).