“Keeping your focus in a world of distractions”


By Mark Ellis

Artist's rendering of Mamertine Prison
Artist’s rendering of Mamertine Prison

Second Timothy was written by Paul as he languished in the Mamertine Prison, only a stone’s throw from the Coliseum in Rome.

Prison is actually too good of a term for this place. I’ve seen it and it was more like an underground dungeon – dark and dank – really an awful place to spend your last days. For some prisoners it would be a potent foretaste of hell itself.

Paul’s words are very important and very precious to us as they represent his last will and testament to Timothy and to the church.

Paul left Timothy to oversee the church in Ephesus, which had many problems. Paul’s strong word here is that Timothy must not lose his focus. He must keep his focus in the right place, and not allow himself to get distracted by the wrong things.

“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.

“Avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.”

In verse 16, when Paul says to avoid “irreverent babble,” some translations say to avoid stupid or senseless controversies. Paul doesn’t want Timothy to get involved in foolish, trivial matters that distract him from advancing the cause of Christ.

I can still remember when some Christians analyzed President Ronald Reagan’s name. And because Ronald Wilson Reagan, his first, middle and last names have six letters each – or 666 – they jumped to wild conclusions about Ronald Reagan being the antichrist.

There are people who spend inordinate amounts of time theorizing, quarreling, and debating about the first book of the Bible and the last book of the Bible – so they almost lose touch with the other 64 books. There are people who become obsessed by conspiracy theories on all manner of topics.

In the category of irreverent babble, we should include gossip, one of the most dangerous and damaging sins in any church. We can also include many of the talk shows on TV and radio, where the fighting and quarreling seems to have no end.

Some years ago, there was a little five-year-old boy in our church named Jason. I was talking to his mother one day about some things they were going through and it seemed to be affecting her son. A rough, abusive marriage ending in divorce had scarred both of them, but out of all this Jason seemed to be developing a remarkable spiritual sensitivity.

She told me how they were driving together at night along one of those vast stretches of highway between NY and LA, and it was a very dark night and she had the radio playing.

Jason was sitting next to his mom in the front seat. And he turned to her and said, “Mommy, will you turn the radio down?

She glanced down at him and said, “Why honey?”

And he said, “If I’m really quiet I can hear Jesus talk to me.”

If Jesus was trying to get your attention, would he be able to break through the noise of our culture? I know I can get distracted by the information overload coming at me from the TV, internet, and talk radio. I am a “news and information junkie,” so when I’m making lunch I have news on the TV, and when I walk upstairs to brush my teeth, I’ll have news on.

My wife Sally asked me once, “Can’t you be in a room with just silence?” I resisted the impulse to see her comment as nagging, instead, I recognized her wisdom.

One of my favorite books is “Amusing ourselves to death” by Neil Postman, written in 1985. It’s not a Christian book, but he predicts that we will be spiritually undermined as a culture by our amusements, by the things that entertain us.

He says the enemy that destroys us may not be wearing boots or carrying an AK-47 or wearing a turban; it may be a seductive image on your TV or computer screen.

Now he wrote the book before the dominance of the personal computer, before the internet, before social media, smart phones and tablets. Was there life before these things existed? Can we live without them? We have some serious distractions Paul and Timothy knew nothing about.

In verse 14, Paul says irreverent babble does no good, it only ruins the hearers. Ruin is a pretty strong word. The Greek word here is katastrephe, from which we get the word catastrophe.

Paul says in verse 17 that irreverent babble can spread like gangrene. Gangrene is a very serious medical condition that can spread so rapidly, often parts of the body have to be amputated to save the patient’s life.

The Apostle Paul lists two people who set a bad example of this, Hymenaeus and Philetus. One was a false teacher Paul had kicked out of the church in Ephesus, but apparently he set up his own church down the street and he and Philetus were teaching that the resurrection of the dead had already happened.

Without the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise of our bodily resurrection in the future, Christianity crumbles into dust.

Paul doesn’t want Timothy to lose his focus, and that’s easy to do when you get involved in foolish quarrels and controversies. When I get involved in these things I find myself waking up at two or three in the morning, arguing in my mind with another person, obsessing about the situation.

Then Satan does his best (or worst) to rob your joy and get your mind distracted from what’s really important.

The great golf legend Arnold Palmer tells the story about being on the final hole of the Masters tournament and he had a one-stroke lead. He just hit a great shot off the tee and felt confident he would win the whole thing. As he approached his ball for his second shot, he saw an old friend standing on the sidelines.

The man waved at Palmer to come over, stuck out his hand and said, “Congratulations.” Palmer took his hand and shook it, but as soon as he did, he knew he had lost his focus. His next shot he hit into the sand trap. Getting out of the trap, his ball sailed over the edge of the green. Then he missed his putt and lost the whole tournament.

Palmer said he would never forget that mistake and was determined not to do it again. Focus matters!

There are so many things that can get us distracted, rob us of our joy. Let’s keep our focus on the main thing – Jesus – and our high calling as His ministers.

In our church we have pastors, elders and deacons, but we say that all of the rest of the congregation are ministers. When you leave these doors, we want you to walk in your high calling as ministers of His love, grace, and truth.

In verse 19 Paul says that even with all the things that Satan can throw at us to distract our minds, be confidant that God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: The Lord knows those who are his.

God’s church, built on a firm foundation of His truth, will stand forever. No matter what has come against the church down through the ages, God has preserved it in remarkable ways. Jesus Christ will keep building his church until His return and He promises the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

The church is you. It’s you people, not a building. He knows you by name. He’s holding you in His strong grip. You are His for eternity. It’s as if the King put His seal of ownership on you, with his signet ring and sealing wax. With that seal He says, You are mine.

At the end of verse 19 he says, “Let everyone who follows me depart from iniquity,” or, in other words, turn away from your sins.

“Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.”

Here Paul contrasts the idea of being an honorable vessel in the hands of the Lord, useful for His service, versus being a dishonorable vessel.

In our kitchen and pantry, my wife Sally has some pieces of fine China that have been handed down from mother to daughter over several generations. And that China is very meaningful to her heart because of that bond with all the women who went before her. She uses that china for our guests and special dinners.

On the other hand, out kitchen trash pail is hidden away under the counter. It is not something you would want to eat from or show off to guests. It handles the garbage.

If you are cleansed and ready for use, you will be like a piece of fine china in the master’s house, and Jesus can use you for his highest purposes.

If you’ve been cleansed by confessing your sins and you’re walking close to God, there is no greater thrill than to be used by Him as his vessel. There is an excitement, a satisfaction, a fulfillment that comes from being an instrument in the hands of the Lord to bring blessing to another.

Think of it, God could use you to help change the direction of someone’s life.

On the other hand, I know I’ve missed opportunities to be that useful vessel because I’ve lost my focus, gotten distracted, fallen back into sinful patterns from my past so I’m not very useful in God’s hands.

These missed opportunities to respond to God become sins of omission, the things I failed to do when prompted by His spirit, because I was too distracted or dulled by sinful choices.

If you want to be cleansed and honorable vessel, Paul says in verse 22, “Flee youthful passions.” Other translations say to flee youthful lusts. The problem with youthful passions is they don’t end in youth.

Pastor John MacArthur tells about visiting a 79-year-old man on his deathbed, who confessed to him he was sorry that he had never been able to overcome his addiction to pornography.

We live in a dark and depraved world – and it seems to be getting darker all the time. How do you stay clean? Don’t play with dirt. If you are his child, you won’t be happy playing in the pigpen, rolling in the mud for very long. You will want to clean yourself off and return to your Father’s house, and feel His warm embrace once again.

So flee the things that can hurt you and your family, destroy your witness, put you on the back shelf, so you are not very useful to God.

In Timothy’s case, maybe his youthful passion wasn’t sex. It could have been sports, maybe he liked to spend time at the arena, watching the gladiators fight, or betting at the Hippodrome on the horses or at the chariot races.

The first part of verse 22 tells us what we should run from, the next part of the verse tells us things we should run toward: we are to go after righteousness, faith, love, and peace.

So we repent, we do a U-turn away from the things that dishonor us, and pursue these good things Paul lists. What is wonderful about the four things listed here is that every one of them is presented in the Bible as a gift from God.

When you surrender your life to God, he gives you a new heart disposition to want to do what is right. He gives you a gift of saving faith – the faith to believe. That faith may only be as small as a mustard seed, but in His hands, it can grow.

He gives you a new capacity to love others – even unlovely, difficult people in ways you never loved before. And will also give you a peace unlike anything the world can give.

Paul says these are available to all those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Well who are the people with pure hearts? I don’t feel all the time like my heart, my thoughts, my motives are pure.

The late Pastor Ray Stedman made the case that a better translation here, instead of the word pure, is cleansed (past tense) — having a cleansed heart. That applies to all of us who have confessed our sins to God, come to Him in humility, and are born again.

That cleansing continues for me day by day. I know I need a spiritual shower in the morning as much as I need a physical shower to get ready to face the day.

So in a posture of humility, you can come alongside someone else who is struggling, not from a position of spiritual superiority, but you can say, “I know your struggle because I’ve been there too and God picked me up and showed me His great forgiving love.”

Ultimately, our motivation to be a cleansed vessel, to stay cleansed, should be love for God. He loved us first while we were still in rebellion. Then Jesus says he calls us a friend. We stay cleansed because we don’t want to let down a friend. We want to be faithful to the one we love.

In verses 24 and 25 Paul gives us the qualities of a good servant unto the Lord. The word for servant could also be translated as slave, although usually we attach some negative connotations to the word slave based on the horrors of American slavery.

But the beautiful irony of God’s economy is that if you become His slave, you find real freedom. You find freedom from sin that so easily enslaves. You find the freedom to be the person God created you to be.

Pastor Chuck Smith once said that when you grow up as a Christian, you will be a servant. Paul introduced himself in his letters as a slave of Christ. James calls himself a slave. Peter calls himself a slave. John and Jude call themselves slaves of God.

So what are these qualities of a slave or servant? In verse 24 Paul writes: “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.

Here the word gentleness could also be translated meekness. And meekness, as some have observed, does not mean weakness. Meekness is the Bible is selflessness, thinking of yourself less, not letting your ego get involved, not taking things too personally, not being thin-skinned, easily provoked.

There is a quiet strength in meekness that contends for the truth and endures suffering. In that quiet strength spiritual authority can emerge. Paul says we should have a gentle, kind demeanor in dealing with those who have gone astray. We shouldn’t be judgmental, harsh, or abusive toward them, but sensitive to their weaknesses.

In verses 25 and 26, it says that when the Lord’s servant corrects his opponents with meekness or gentleness, then “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”

It’s amazing to me that even repentance is not something a person does on their own; repentance is also a “grant” or a gift from God.

When a person repents, God can free them from the trap of the evil one — His truth can set them free.

If you feel like you are stuck in a trap…perhaps you were once cleansed, felt like a vessel used by God, but now you feel like you’re on the back shelf, I pray that God would open your spiritual eyes and you will come out of your spiritual stupor.

When you are a cleansed vessel – and stay cleansed so you can keep the right focus — an amazing and fulfilling adventure with God awaits you. Be ready to bless others with His amazing love.


The previous is adapted from a sermon delivered September 21, 2014 at Church by the Sea in Laguna Beach, California. To hear the audio of this message go here

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