GOD’S FIRM FOUNDATION
April 22, 2007
One of the wonderful things about Paul’s last three letters is the great verses, the single statements of our faith, which are found in them. For example, in 2 Timothy 3:16 there is the beautiful statement that all scripture is inspired of God and is therefore profitable for our spiritual needs. We love the statement in 1 Timothy 1:15 that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Our hope is based on that great truth. And we treasure the encouragement of a statement like 2 Timothy 1:12 where Paul, even in the midst of suffering, proclaims that he knows whom he has believed and remains convinced that he is able to keep what has been committed to him.
The expressions of confidence are valuable because they are short enough that we are able to keep them with us in everyday life and to be reminded from time to time of what keeps us going. One of my favorite of all of these verses, though, is the one we will use as a basis for our study today, 2 Timothy 2:19. Here Paul says, “But (some of the versions will have “howbeit” or “never-the-less” or some such statement) God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.’”
It must have been quite a thrill for Timothy to be reminded that there is something that stands firm and securely. Remember that this statement was made at a time when someone that Timothy really cared deeply about was going through the fire of difficulty. Bad things were happening to someone he loved. This very letter is written because Paul is in prison knowing that the time of his departure is at hand. When you meet that type of heartbreak and ache for somebody who is dear to you, you need some encouragement.
Then there is the fact that there are people around Timothy who are going about things in such a way that they are not only swerving from the truth themselves, but they are actually through their influence overthrowing the faith of some of the very people that Timothy is trying to help. Notice that verse 18 mentions that two men named Hymenaeus and Philetus are apparently teaching the idea that the resurrection is passed, and that either in what Jesus has accomplished in his own resurrection or in what was experienced when these people were baptized into Christ and raised spiritually to walk in newness of life, there is all the resurrection there is ever going to be. That hopelessness was overthrowing the faith of some of these people around Timothy. It is always discouraging and disappointing to feel like people are letting you down, and that your efforts in the service of the Lord or in behalf of compassion and care of other people are being thwarted by some bad influence from somewhere else.
Also, there is the fact that Timothy must have felt a weight of responsibility at being left in the largest city of Asia Minor, to work with a congregation from which the word of the Lord had been sounded out to that whole region, and being told that it is going to happen that some are going to depart from the faith. But for him to be placed in a situation where he may have felt like everything depended upon his work, he needed some statement like Paul provides for him here in this passage.
The word that Paul uses for God’s “firm” foundation means something that is strong, something that is sure, something that is solid. It is a term that is used for the strengthening of faith in Acts 16:5, or for standing firm, solidly in the faith in 1 Peter 5:9. It must have been an encouragement to Timothy.
God’s Firm Foundation
But what is that stands solidly like that? Paul says God’s firm foundation stands. This illustration of a solid foundation occurs in a number of instances in the New Testament, as you may remember. Jesus used this very picture, for example, of his own teaching, in the sense that someone who heard what he taught and did what he taught was like a wise fellow who would dig deeply down to the solid rock and build his house there so that it would stand. (Lk. 6:46-49). That is an impressive picture, but I kind of doubt that it is the idea Paul is getting at in this passage.
Sometimes Paul in his own writings used either Jesus, or Jesus and the apostles, as the ones who would be the point of illustration – the foundation. In 1 Corinthians 3:11 he says, “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” Or in Ephesians 2:20-21, the foundation is the apostles and the prophets – Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone, and all the members of the Lord’s body are built together on that foundation into a holy temple of the Lord. There the foundation would be the work of the apostles and prophets, along with what Christ has done for us. That is a wonderful picture also.
But in this particular instance (2 Tim. 2:19) it seems to me that Paul is using the foundation to describe what is truly built on that solid foundation. God’s firm foundation stands, meaning that whatever is established upon that foundation will be steady and strong and secure enough to be able to withstand bad things happening to somebody, or disappointing influences, or heavy responsibilities. In this particular context, it would have to be referring to the Lord’s church.
Remember that in 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul makes the point that the church is the pillar and the ground, or the pillar and the buttress, of the truth. In the next verse here in 2 Timothy 2, he refers to a great house. In a great house there are vessels to honor or dishonor. That great house, that pillar in the ground of the truth in Paul’s letters to Timothy, make reference to the church, people who have been forgiven through the blood of Christ, people who have been redeemed through the will of God, people who have been saved by means of forgiveness of their sins through the grace of the Lord of heaven himself.
Even at times when there seem to be things happening that mean that either people are being upset in their faith or any of the other things that we have mentioned that might have been weighing on Timothy’s mind, he is being told to not be so concerned about a few of the stones that he forgets that the firm foundation of God stands.
Bearing This Seal
Notice in the third place that he says here that this foundation is so strong because it bears a seal, it bears this seal. The picture of a seal providing strength may not be quite as familiar to us as it would have been to the original reader of this letter, but it is deeply meaningful. The thought of a seal is believed by some people to have been like an inscription that might have been placed upon a foundation of a building as it was constructed. It would either indicate who designed this building, or who built it, or what its purpose would be, and that inscription then would have in a sense guarded that building.
When this term of a seal is used elsewhere in scripture, it seems to have one of three ideas. Either first off, it provides protection for that building (a seal often did that). You remember that the seal expressed the authority under which this was kept. Remember the tomb of Jesus was sealed, for example, thinking that would keep anyone from stealing that body for who would dare to break a Roman seal at that time.
Sometimes the seal expressed ownership. This is mine – like you and I write our names on something that belongs to us personally. I like the beautiful picture from the Song of Solomon, 8:6, where one of the lovers says, “Set me as a seal upon your heart.” In other words, make me your own, keep me.
Not only was a seal protection or ownership, but sometimes the seal was used in the sense of a guarantee. If this seal is on there, then you can know for sure that this is the genuine article, that this is real, authentic. When Paul wrote the letter to the church at Ephesus, this picture is one that he uses. He says, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” (Eph. 1:13-14). Notice that the seal is the guarantee.
This firm foundation of God, then, comes under the protection of the Father, and it is owned by Jesus Christ who purchased it, and it is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit of promise, all three pictures suggesting the encouraging idea to Timothy that it will stand, no one will overthrow it, that it will be able to be secure enough to meet its purpose and to survive whatever storms or troubles it meets in the course of history. We remember that Jesus taught as he made his Messiah-ship known, that he would build his church and the gates of Hades would not prevail against it. (Matt. 16:18). Maybe that same idea is being brought before us here.
Now this seal includes a two-part inscription. There are two statements that make up one seal. That means to us that one part of this can’t be true without the other part of it also being true. A little background may help us to appreciate these two statements that this verse has. Most writers that I can find believe that behind both statements there is one Old Testament story, and that while the two statements are not word-for-word quotes, they both are found in the story recorded in Numbers 16. It is an episode of murmuring and rebellion. This seems to have happened so often to Israel. Moses was leading them through the wilderness. It was taking too long. Many hard and discouraging things happened, usually because of the unbelief of the people, and that unbelief is partly illustrated here.
The three main characters besides Moses and Aaron are men named Korah, Dathan and Abiram. Through their lack of gratitude for the position which they had been given in God’s purpose and plan, and through their envy that caused them to disrespect the role which had been given to Moses and Aaron, they griped and complained, “You two fellows take too much on yourselves. Who made you the ruler over us? We ought to have just as much authority as you.” That, of course, not only was heartbreaking to Moses just because of the personal attack, but also because of the rebellion against God which he recognized. And notice that in Numbers 16:5, Moses, having heard what they had said and having fallen upon his face in anguish over it, said to Korah and all those who were with him, “In the morning the Lord will show who is his (I am told that the Greek version of the Old Testament said that the Lord “knows” those who are his) and who is holy and who he will bring near to him.”
Then Moses required that the next morning Korah and Dathan and Abiram bring their sensors (the little dishes used to offer incense and fire on the altar) out before the tabernacle. Some of them even refused to do that, verse 12 says. But, in the morning, the glory of the Lord appears and God has Moses to say to all the people present, “Depart please from the tents of these wicked men and touch nothing of theirs lest you be swept away in their sins” (v. 26). You will notice here that verse 5, “the Lord knows those who are his,” is one of those inscriptions; verse 26, “depart from the tents of these wicked men” is the other part of the inscription.
And Moses says in verse 28, “Hereby you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works, and that it has not been of my own accord. If these men die as all men die or if they are visited by the fate of all mankind, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord."
If you think about it now, not only the question of the inscription, but also the foundation is here. Whoever stands on solid ground will be shown to be the ones the Lord knows. Whoever the ground swallows up will be shown to be the ones who have despised the Lord. You remember the story that the fire of the Lord came down and consumed Korah and Dathan and Abiram and those who had taken part in the rebellion in that way, and then the earth is said to have opened up underneath those who didn’t depart from their tents and had swallowed them up.
That story is the background, then, of these two statements. Paul is saying to Timothy, “You can know for sure that these two points are going to stand as markers of the Lord’s people in this world.” First, the Lord knows those are his. Have you ever been discouraged thinking nobody knows what you are going through; nobody is acquainted with how you feel? We all have the capacity to feel that way. The scriptures repeatedly emphasized God’s intimate knowledge of his people. In Psalm 1:6, the Old Testament announced that God knows the way of the righteous. The prophet Nahum in Nahum 1:7 makes the point that God knows those who take refuge in him. The apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 8:3 says that those who love the Lord, he knows. That doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen in their lives, that there won’t be responsibilities to meet, etc., that sometimes people won’t let us down, but it does mean that God stays with us, and that he can be counted on to strengthen us and to help us and to finally bring us home. The Lord knows those who are his. He is with them. He understands. It doesn’t escape his attention.
Now there has to be the other side to this. The Lord can’t know what you are going through, and can’t care for you and care about you, without also being just as aware and just as righteous when wickedness is the pattern of your life. So notice the other statement is, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” Instead of falling away from the truth, fall away from iniquity, he is saying here. If you are going to apostatize, apostatize from wickedness. Get away from it! And again, this is a theme that is taught in scripture so often. One of the beautiful illustrations of it is in Isaiah 52:11. This is a picture of a prophecy that had to do with coming out of a land of captivity and coming home. That land where there has been these pagan practices and these degrading idols who have been worshiped, now the statement that would come says, “Depart, depart, go out from there. Touch no unclean thing. Go out from the midst of earth. Purify yourselves.” The idea of departing from iniquity is illustrated by coming out of a foreign country.
Someone made the point, “A religion that never suffices to govern a man will never suffice to save him. That which does not distinguish him from a sinful world will never distinguish him from a perishing world.” So, depart, he says, from wickedness and let that not be the pattern of your life.
I read in a “Power For Today” sometime ago this little piece: “Admiral William Stockdale, who spent eight years in a Vietnamese prison camp, was once asked if optimism helped him survive. “No.” he said. “In fact, the optimists who kept thinking they would be rescued by Christmas or surely by Easter were more likely to die of a broken heart because their hopes of survival were repeatedly dashed.” His secret of survival: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end, which you can never afford to lose, with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Paul is saying to Timothy, “Look, God’s firm foundation stands. It will stand. So, you meet your responsibility to pass the truth on to faithful men who will pass it on to others. You let the Lord deal with those who are overthrowing the faith of some, and you as a child of the Father, remember that he will bring even a person like me (Paul) home when I have finished my course.” In other words, it is so close to Jesus’ statement, “Let not your heart be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
There is the picture. The foundation of God stands. It stands strong. It has a seal on it. That seal involves our security and our purity. Our keeping and our responsibility both need to be honored in our thinking. If you are a person who is here today and you remember that Jesus said, “One who hears these words of mine and does them, that is the one who is building his house on the rock.” If you need today to come, confess your faith in Christ as Lord and master, be baptized into his name for the forgiveness of sin, and to begin to build on that firm foundation, then won’t you take that action right now while we stand and sing together?