False Teaching Characterizes Those Who Do Not Belong to the Lord
Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord abstain from wickedness.” (2:19)
The last danger of false teaching mentioned here is that it fits those who are unsaved and ungodly.
Paul again makes his point by contrast. Nevertheless, he continues, the firm foundation of God stands. Unlike those who trust in a satanic scheme of religion, those who are truly saved, who are God’s spiritual children and genuine disciples of Jesus Christ, are part of the firm foundation of God.
In this context, the firm foundation of God seems most likely to refer to the church. In the previous letter to Timothy, Paul speaks of “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15, emphasis added). The foundation of Christ’s church stands on the truth, “and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18).
On that promise, we have God’s seal. A sphragis (seal) was a sign of ownership, and God has placed His divine seal of ownership on the church. In the end times, those “who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads” will be tormented by the locusts (Rev. 9:4). It is also doubtless that God’s seal on their foreheads will protect believers from taking the mark of the beast (see Rev. 13:16).
God’s seal of ownership is on the church in two ways. First, every member of the body of Christ, the church, has God’s divine assurance of election, in that “the Lord knows those who are His.” The source of this quotation is not certain, but is possibly from the book of Numbers. When some Israelites were about to rebel against the Lord and His appointed leaders Moses and Aaron, Moses declared to Korah and the other rebels, “The Lord will show who is His, and who is holy, and will bring him near to Himself; even the one whom He will choose, He will bring near to Himself” (Num. 16:5).
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me,” Jesus assures us; “and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:27–28). Like Satan, false teachers can cause great confusion and apprehension among God’s people, but they cannot corrupt or destroy His people, because “God has chosen [us] from the beginning for salvation” (2 Thess. 2:13a).
The New Testament is replete with such guarantees. “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me,” Jesus promises, “and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I Myself will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:37–40). God chose us for salvation in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4), and those “whom He [God] foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified” (Rom. 8:29–30).
The second way in which God has placed His seal on the church is through personal sanctification, personal holiness. Paul therefore says, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord abstain from wickedness.” This quotation may be adapted from the same passage in the book of Numbers, in which Moses later warned the godly: “Depart now from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing that belongs to them, lest you be swept away in all their sin” (Num. 16:26). Those who did not separate themselves from the wicked rebels were destroyed with them when “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up” (v. 32).
This second aspect of sanctification is both an exhortation and an affirmation. The exhortation is: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19–20). Peter likewise admonishes, “Like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior” (1 Peter 1:15).
But our sanctification is also divinely affirmed. In the verse in 2 Thessalonians cited above, in which Paul assures believers that God has chosen them for salvation, he adds, “through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth” (2:13b). Despite our many failures and our frequent unfaithfulness, God will graciously complete our sanctification. “For I am confident of this very thing,” Paul testified, “that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).
19 Nevertheless (mentoi, GK 3530; only here in Paul), God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription (lit., “bearing this seal,” sphragis, GK 5382; cf. Ro 4:11; 1 Co 9:2): “The Lord knows those who are his” (Nu 16:5 [LXX]). This is true about God (1 Sa 16:7), a comfort for believers (Ps 139), and a message of judgment to unbelievers (Mt 7:23). The second phrase is “everyone who confesses [names] the name of the Lord [cf. Joel 2:32] must turn away from wickedness” (cf. Nu 16:26 [LXX]). In 1 Timothy 6:19, Paul calls generosity “a firm foundation [themelion kalon, GK 2529] for the coming age.” “Solid” (stereos, GK 5104) occurs elsewhere in the NT only in Hebrews 5:12, 14 and 1 Peter 5:9.
The terms “solid foundation,” “stand firm,” and “seal” all highlight the unshakable nature of the truths of Scripture invoked by Paul (on “foundation,” see Quinn and Wacker, 683–86; on “seal,” see ibid., 661–63, 686). Here this refers to God’s knowledge (Augustine [Corrept. 7.16; The City of God 20.8] ties this in to the doctrine of election) and sovereign preservation of his own and the need for believers to base their Christian confession on true repentance and a resulting lifestyle. The “inscription” is perhaps that which would be written on a building, a common thing in ancient life (cf. the house metaphor in vv. 20–21).
What are the two foundational truths highlighted by Paul? First, despite growing defections and the resulting disillusionment, God is not deceived—he has known his own all along (Nu 16:5; cf. Jn 6:70–71; 12:4–6; 13:10; 17:12). The thrust of the present statement is clear: Hymenaeus, Philetus, and their company do not belong to God’s people (see comments at 3:13). Chained and nearing the end of his life, Paul draws comfort from the sovereign omniscience of God. Second, just as wilderness Israel had to distance itself from Korah’s rebellion, the Ephesian believers must separate themselves from the false teachers (Nu 16:26). Truth and falsehood must not be allowed to coexist.
19 This observation poses a dilemma for the reader (Timothy first) that has actually been in the making since Paul’s paradoxical contrasting of his trials with the unbound “word of God” in 2:9. The tension has been maintained by the positive/negative contrasting of Timothy and the false teachers, and their respective messages: “the word of truth” (v. 15 = “the word of God,” v. 9) versus “their word” (v. 17). The strong affirmation of the power of God’s word and the contrast technique employed to this point lead to the statement of the danger of the heresy for believers, and to the dilemma: If this danger exists in the church of God, how can the church continue to exist? In the two images that follow, Paul addresses the theological antinomies magnified by the present stressful situation, not by resolving the tension, but instead by affirming the Lord’s control within the situation along with the believer’s responsibility to respond positively to that control.
In v. 19a Paul contrasts (“nevertheless”) the disruption caused by the heretics with the picture of a strong edifice constructed by God. The architectural term used here, “foundation,” reinforced by the adjective (“firm”) has various meanings elsewhere in the NT. Paul applied the term metaphorically in combination with other images in discussions of the formation of the church: in 1 Cor 3:10–13 Christ crucified is the “foundation”; in Eph 2:20, Christ is the cornerstone and the apostles and prophets the “foundation.” The term in this passage is left unspecified, which has generated several interpretations of “the foundation.” However, the orientation of the other Pauline uses75 and the parallel architectural description of the church in 1 Tim 3:15 (see discussion and notes) suggest that the reference here is to the church or the people of God. Just as the term could refer to a part of the foundation, the whole foundation, or even to the building,77 here in figurative usage the language of the part, denoting stability and strengthened by the adjective (“firm”), comes to represent the whole edifice built upon it.
In the themelios imagery an echo of Isa 28:16 is probable:
2 Tim 2:19a: “Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation (themelios) stands firm”;
Isa 28:16 (LXX): Therefore thus says the Lord, “Behold, I lay for the foundations (themelia) of Zion a costly stone, a choice, a corner-stone, a precious stone, for its foundations (themelia); and he that believes on him shall by no means be ashamed.”
In the early church, this OT text became an important OT christological testimony (Rom 9:33; 1 Pet 2:6). Its application here as an ecclesiological testimony appears at first to be a departure from the christological trend, but it is rather an adaptation of it. Paul responds to the turbulent situation facing Timothy by drawing on the part of the well-known OT statement that emphasizes the certainty of God’s acts, and applies it to the stability of the church. Yet as the context suggests (2:8, 11), it is precisely the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ that anchors this “foundation” and that can stabilize the tottering “faith of some” (v. 18); and the application of the Isaiah text elsewhere allows its fainter christological echo here to be heard. The reference to Isa 26:13 in the next part of the verse (see below) strengthens the likelihood that this echo of the Isaiah themelios text is intentional, however light.
In demonstration of the truth of the statement just made, Paul extends the architectural imagery further, by inviting Timothy to imagine a “seal” authenticating the foundation (v. 19b). Seals were used commonly to identify legal ownership of property and, like signatures in modern practice, to guarantee authenticity, genuineness and integrity or to preserve the secrecy of the contents of a letter or of some product. From the actual custom of placing a seal on something for these purposes (with a signet ring, cylinder seal, or carved stone) there developed the figurative use of the concept. In the NT both the literal (e.g. Matt 27:66; Rev 5:1; et al.) and figurative uses are evident: Paul speaks of the Corinthian believers as his “seal” of authentic apostleship (1 Cor 9:2) and of the Spirit as the “seal” of God’s ownership of the believer (verb; 2 Cor 1:22). In ecclesiological contexts, such as 2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13; 4:30, it is often argued that “sealing” refers to water baptism through which God’s ownership was professed and the Spirit conferred, but this is debatable and the linkage between the belief in the gift of God’s Spirit to believers and the rite of water baptism remains unclear.83 In any case, the emphasis is on that which the metaphor of sealing denotes, namely, ownership and authenticity. Similarly, in the present passage “seal” is used in a figurative sense to denote God’s ownership of “the foundation” (= the church) just mentioned. The metaphor functions flexibly here (for “sealing” did not usually pertain to stones), calling to mind a mark or inscription in the stone of the foundation that identifies the builder. Since the introduction of the imagery into this discourse is meant to assure Timothy of the permanence of God’s church despite the presence in it of false teachers and their followers, it is rather difficult to bring baptism into the thought of “sealing.”85
The content of the “seal” follows in two statements constructed of traditional biblical materials. These statements in effect bring together theology in what is affirmed and ethics in the response Timothy (and others) is called to make in the crisis situation. The first statement is:
2 Tim 2:19c: “the Lord knows those who are his” (egnō kyrios tous ontas autou).
This repeats the LXX wording of one part of Num 16:5, making only one change from “God” (ho theos) to “Lord” (kyrios):
Num 16:5: “And he spoke to Korah and all his assembly, saying, ‘God has visited and known those that are his (egnō ho theos tous ontas autou) and who are holy, and has brought them to himself; and whom he has chosen for himself, he has brought to himself’.”
The reason for that change is debated. But with the “stone Christology” already latent in the discourse, it seems likely that the shift from theos to kyrios reflects another case in which an OT feature linked with YHWH is transferred by Paul to Christ (cf. Titus 2:14). The anarthrous kyrios (frequent in the LXX and typical in Numbers) that occurs here is best explained as conforming to the LXX pattern.
Both the OT context and the present context must be compared to appreciate the full weight of the citation’s claim that “the Lord knows those who are his.” In both cases authority is disputed. Then, there is the issue of loyalty—to God in the OT context and to Christ in the present setting (vv. 9–13) and to their appointed servants. The situation in Numbers 16 is one of dispute and confrontation: Moses and Aaron, leaders chosen by God, had been challenged by Korah and his companions (Levites to whom the privilege of the priesthood had not been given), who demanded the right to serve God as priests in the community. In response, Moses declared that God knows those who truly belong to him, meaning the people God had chosen, and that he would make it known. Korah presented a challenge to Moses’ and Aaron’s authority, and in so doing rebelled against God; God confirmed his choice of Moses and Aaron by the destruction of Korah and all who sided with him.
The reader familiar with the OT background is compelled to view the present situation in a similar light: characters such as Hymenaeus and Philetus with their false teaching present the apostolic ministry with a leadership challenge. So, the points of contact are apparent. But how much of the paradigm is to be brought across to the situation in Ephesus? The result of the OT story was the dramatic destruction of the rebels; it is not hard to see how the story accessed by the citation might function as a warning in the way that the wilderness allusions in 1 Corinthians 10 did for the Corinthian community. The statement of Moses quoted here was a statement of vindication, and pointed forward to judgment. Because God distinguishes, one must ensure one’s proper alignment with him. Positively, for Timothy and other readers the force of the citation comes in the reminder that the Lord knows his people personally and will distinguish between true and false followers and preserve the community of faith formed around him. Finally, the OT story serves as a paradigm that acknowledges the rebellion of some within the community and the Lord’s continued presence within it; but the statement is both a consolation and a warning. Christ is present as protector and redeemer but also as a judge who will vindicate his truth and his people. The parenetic force of this reminder for Timothy (cf. 1:6–8) should not be missed.
The second segment of OT materials (2:19d) serves a function similar to 1 Cor 10:14, which follows the OT story there with the admonition to “flee from idolatry.” Here the next OT citation completes the content of the “seal”:
2 Tim 2:19d: and “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness” (kai apostētō apo adikias pas ho onomazōn to onoma kyriou).
Echoes of several OT texts are possible in this statement, and they must be traced as we decide its thrust.
First, “to confess [name] the name of the Lord” is an idiom occurring in the LXX on several occasions.91 Although presumably the basic sense was to make entreaty to the Lord (more typically expressed with “call upon [the name of] the Lord”; cf. Rom 10:13), it denotes acknowledging the name of YHWH (Isa 26:13) or mentioning the name as if to summon him (Amos 6:10), and in one case is used to describe blasphemy of the Lord (Lev 24:16).
This variety of usage leads to two suggested sources of the phrase cited here. Most regard the reference as an echo of Isa 26:13, where a positive acknowledgment of God is implied:
Isa 26:13: “O Lord our God, take possession of us: O Lord, we know no other beside you: we name your name” (to onomo sou onomazomen).
In this case, the statement, extending the thought of the previous line, calls on the faithful to keep themselves separate from evil and so show their allegiance to God. If, however, “naming the name” intends an echo of Lev 24:16 (11), where the phrase is descriptive of blasphemy, the reference would be to the false teachers in the community, who are then to heed the warning of v. 19d and repent before judgment is executed:
Lev 24:16: “And he that names the name of the Lord, let him die the death” (onomazōn de to onoma kyriou thanatō thanatousthō).
While the presence of false teachers in the community makes contact with the Leviticus text tempting, an echo of Isa 26:13, where a positive acknowledgment of God is implied, is more likely. That acknowledgement signifies covenant membership. Only here, as in 1 Cor 1:2 and Rom 10:9–13, Christ the Lord has replaced YHWH as the object of confession and the determiner of covenant membership. The renewed contact made with the story in Numbers 16 at its point of climax (see below) strengthens this positive connection. It occurs where the people are instructed to choose sides. The command added to the “naming” text in 2 Tim 2:19d is:
“turn away from wickedness” (apostētō apo adikias).
This command in itself recalls several similar LXX texts, but due to the choice of adikias (“wickedness”) over anomian (“lawlessness”) might seem at first glance closest in form to the citation of Ps 6:9 preserved in Luke 13:27. Three differences from our text are to be noted: (1) Ps 6:9 (Luke 13:27) addresses the command to evildoers; (2) the speaker (David; in Luke it is Jesus describing eschatological judgment) is concerned to be separated from them; and (3) both Luke and 2 Timothy employ adikias instead of anomian:
Ps 6:9: “Depart from me all you who do lawlessness” (apostēte apʾ emou pantes hoi ergazomenoi tēn anomian);
Luke 13:27: “Depart from me all you workers of injustice” (apostēte apʾ emou pantes ergatai adikias);
2 Tim 2:19d: “turn away from wickedness” (apostētō apo adikias).
However that lexical choice is to be explained, the main difference is one of perspective. The personal perspective adopted in Ps 6:9 (“turn away from ME”; “YOU who do lawlessness”; also Luke 13:27) equates “separation” with judgment. The perspective adopted in 2 Timothy, however, compares more closely with that of Sir 17:26; Ps 33:15 and Prov 3:7, which equate “separation” with purity and a return to the Lord, so that “separation” from “wickedness” preserves the Lord’s people from judgment:
Sir 17:26: “Return to the Most High and turn away from wickedness” (apostrephe apo adikias).
The sharp focus on God’s people, and indeed on their identity as God’s people, as well as on their preservation, is produced by the allusion to Isa 26:13 and the image of “naming the Name.” The command of separation, although paralleled in various OT texts, is without a precise textual match. But bearing in mind the essential matter of perspective, the climactic command at the end of the story in Numbers (which would have been well known), that orders the people to separate from the rebels, does provide both the thematic (perspective) and verbal contact point (in the verb “turn away”). Num 16:26–27 reports the visit of Moses and the elders of Israel, at the Lord’s command, to Dathan and Abiram, companions of Korah, to urge the people to get away from the rebels before judgment:
“He said to the congregation, ‘Separate yourselves (aposchisthēte) from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, or you will be swept away for all their sins.’ So they got away (apestēsan) from the dwellings of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram; and Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the entrance of their tents, together with their wives, their children, and their little ones.”
This concern—for the people of God to demonstrate their purity—exactly parallels Paul’s concern in the seal-response portion of 2:19c–d. The initial allusion to Num 16:5 draws Timothy into that dramatic OT story of identity where the specter of impending judgment has been raised. The two situations are sufficiently close, and the Korah-story was well enough known in Judaism and the early church. The parallels are obvious: challengers to God’s/the Lord’s representatives (Moses/Paul) have been named, and the people must choose sides, thereby establishing their identity. Consequently, the verbal contact in “turn away”/“depart from” should be taken seriously as an echo of the Korah-story’s climax: the OT story provides a narrative illustration of the concept of “wickedness” (adikia) and the narrative source that gives meaning to the command in v. 19d.
Thus following on from the warning that supplies the first part of the “seal,” the second citation calls Timothy and the faithful of the congregation (“all who name the name of the Lord”) to dissociate themselves completely from the opponents and their teachings (adikia). What the rest of the passage confirms, however, is that the fate of the false teachers is not yet fixed, for they too may turn from evil (see below). The general call to separate from evil that occurs throughout the OT is given specific shape in this instance by the intertextual play between the apostasy faced by Timothy (and Timothy’s own temptation) and the story of Korah’s rebellion in the wilderness. As in the use of wilderness motifs in 1 Corinthians 10, the present passage issues a dire warning by way of Israel’s experience of God’s wrath. But throughout Paul’s churches the christological transfer has been completed and Christ is the Lord of the church’s confession (1 Cor 1:2; Rom 10:13). The Christ event and his installation as Lord make it possible for Paul to interact with this OT textual background christologically, and in the process to define covenant identity and purity of faith in relation to Christ. The equal need for the Lord’s grace and kindness is not passed over but is left to a later point (v. 25).
2:19 / As always in Paul, Satan does not get the last word; God does. Just as in line 4 of the hymn/poem in verse 13, so here, the final word is not the faithlessness of some (v. 18), but the abiding faithfulness of God. With a strong adversative nevertheless, Paul affirms that, despite some defections and falling away, God’s solid foundation stands firm.
It is not altogether certain what, if anything, Paul intended by this metaphor. In other places (see disc. on 1 Tim. 3:15) Paul uses the building metaphor for the church and makes Christ (1 Cor. 3:10–12) or the apostles and prophets (Eph. 3:20) the foundation. In light of the further metaphor in verses 20–21, that may be what he has in mind. But it is altogether likely that he does not “intend” some specific point of reference. The emphasis, as the rest of the verse shows, is on God’s proprietary ownership, on the certainty of eschatological triumph for those who are his. Since the metaphor stands in sharp contrast to the fact that the faith of some is being overturned, Paul clearly intends it to affirm the opposite: What God is doing in Ephesus, saving a people of his own (cf. Titus 2:14) for eternal glory, cannot be thwarted by the activity of the false teachers. In that sense, of course, the implied “building” refers to the church in Ephesus, his chosen people (v. 10).
Those who are Christ’s and cannot be overthrown are recognizable by a double inscription. The Greek literally says, “having this seal” (on this word, see NIDNTT, vol. 3, pp. 497–501). What is intended is the “seal” of ownership that the architect or owner would have inscribed on the foundation stone (similar in some ways to our modern cornerstones).
The double inscription reads: “The Lord knows those who are his” (cf. Num. 16:5, lxx, from Korah’s rebellion). God’s building rests not on the shaky foundation that we know God but that he knows us (cf. 1 Cor. 8:1–3). This is the primary ground of all Christian confidence. God’s action is the prior one: He knows those who are his.
But God’s prior action demands response. Therefore the inscription also reads: “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness” (the language, lit., “to name the name of the Lord,” comes from the lxx—Lev. 24:16; Isa. 26:13; the sentiment of the second part is found in Ps. 34:14; Prov. 3:7). Those who are known by God are in turn expected to turn away from wickedness, that is, depart from Hymenaeus and Philetus and their teaching, who are recognizably not God’s people because they persist in wrongdoing. In their case, false teaching has led to moral corruption (cf. 1 Tim. 6:3–10).
Thus, despite the devastating inroads made by the false teachers, Timothy and the church are to be heartened by this sure word (cf. also how the next two paragraphs conclude: 2:26 and 3:9).
The Firm Foundation
2 Timothy 2:19
But the firm foundation of God stands fast with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his’, and ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from unrighteousness.’
In English, we use foundation in a double sense. We use it to mean the basis on which a building is erected, and also in the sense of an association, a college, a city which has been founded by someone. For instance, we talk about the foundation of a house; and we also say that King’s College, Cambridge, is a foundation of Henry VI. Greek used the word themelios in the same two ways, and the foundation of God here means the Church, the association which he has founded.
Paul goes on to say that the Church has a certain inscription on it. The word he uses is sphragis, whose usual meaning is seal. The sphragis is the seal which proves genuineness or ownership. The seal on a sack of goods proved that the contents were genuine and had not been interfered with, and it also indicated the ownership and the source of the goods. But sphragis had other uses. It was used to denote the brandmark, what we would call the trademark. Galen, the Greek doctor, speaks of the sphragis on a certain phial of eye ointment, meaning the mark which showed what brand of eye ointment the phial contained. Still further, the sphragis was the architect’s mark. Architects always put their mark on a monument, or a statue, or a building, to show that they were responsible for its design. The sphragis can also be the inscription which indicates the purpose for which a building has been built.
The Church has a sphragis which shows at once what it is designed to be. Paul gives the sign on the Church in two quotations. But the way in which these two quotations are made is very illuminating in regard to the manner in which Paul and the early Church used Scripture. The two quotations are: ‘The Lord knows those who are his’ and ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from unrighteousness.’ The interesting thing is that neither is a literal quotation from any part of Scripture.
The first is a reminiscence of a saying of Moses to the rebellious friends and associates of Korah in the wilderness days. When they gathered themselves together against him, Moses said: ‘The Lord will make known who is his’ (Numbers 16:5). But that Old Testament text was read in the light of the saying of Jesus in Matthew 7:22: ‘On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” ’ The Old Testament text is, as it were, retranslated into the words of Jesus.
The second is another reminiscence of the Korah story. It was Moses’ command to the people: ‘Turn away from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs’ (Numbers 16:26). But that, too, is read in the light of the words of Jesus in Luke 13:27, where he says to those who falsely claim to be his followers: ‘Go away from me, all you evildoers.’
Two things emerge. The early Christians always read the Old Testament in the light of the words of Jesus, and they were not interested in verbal niceties; but to any problem they brought the general sense of the whole range of Scripture. These are still excellent principles by which to read and use Scripture.
The two texts give us two broad principles about the Church.
The first tells us that the Church consists of those who belong to God, who have given themselves to him in such a way that they no longer possess themselves and the world no longer possesses them, but God possesses them.
The second tells us that the Church consists of those who have turned away from wickedness. That is not to say that it consists of perfect people. If that were so, there would be no Church. It has been said that the great interest of God is not so much in where someone has reached as in the direction in which that person is facing. And the Church consists of those whose faces are turned away from wickedness and towards righteousness. They may often fall, and the goal may sometimes seem distressingly far away, but their faces are always set in the right direction.
The Church consists of those who belong to God and have dedicated themselves to the struggle for righteousness.
2:19. But God’s firm foundation stands, having this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord turn away from wrongdoing.’
In contrast to the disruption and disturbance caused by the false teachers, Paul assures God’s people that there is a ‘firm foundation’—God’s unchanging purposes for his people revealed in his eternal Word. It is possible that the ‘foundation’ here refers to God’s election (Calvin) or to the church (Stott, Knight). But the emphasis is on the constancy of God and the certainty that he will gather for himself a people, in spite of the defections of some. God’s people, therefore, should not be shaken when they encounter false teaching and apostasy. God is steadfast. He will complete the work he has begun.
The foundation, furthermore, is marked with a ‘seal’ of ownership or attestation. God’s character and purposes are inextricably bound up with his Word. The Scriptures, then, are the seal that infallibly attests to God’s purposes. Paul here quotes two passages in particular. The first assures God’s people that the eternal destiny of the elect is secure: ‘The Lord knows those who are his.’ As Jesus said, ‘I know my own and my own know me’ (John 10:14). Though some depart, Christ will preserve his righteous ones. These are great words of assurance. The second passage asserts the human responsibility in the light of divine sovereignty—those who belong to God must ‘turn away from wrongdoing’. This is the requirement of God—repentance. But it is also the evidence of election. The true people of God will turn away from false teaching and the immorality associated with it. Thus they will show themselves to be tried and true, and useful in God’s service—as the following metaphor makes clear.
Ver. 19.—Howbeit for nevertheless, A.V.; firm foundation of God standeth for foundation of God standeth sure, A.V.; this for the (1611 copy), A.V.; the Lord for Christ, A.V. and T.R.; unrighteousness for iniquity, A.V. The firm foundation of God standeth; i.e., though the faith of some is thrown down like a wall built with untempered mortar, the foundation which God has laid fast and firm stands unmoved and unmovable. This is equally true of individual souls (the αἱ στερεαὶ ψυχαί of Chrysostom), and of the Church, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail. Compare our Lord’s saying, when the Pharisees were offended at him, “Every plant which my heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted up” (Matt. 15:13); and those in John 10:28, 29; and 1 John 2:19. Θεμέλιος in classical Greek is always an adjective agreeing with λίος expressed or understood. In the New Testament it is used only as a substantive (Luke 6:48; 1 Cor. 3:10; 1 Tim. 6:19, etc.). Here the word seems to be employed, not so much to denote a foundation on which a house was to be built, as to denote strength and solidity. The elect of God are like foundation-stones, which may not be moved. Having this seal. In Rev. 12:14 the twelve foundation-stones of the new Jerusalem were each inscribed with the name of an apostle. In like manner there are inscriptions, of the nature of seals, on God’s strong foundations, showing their immutable condition. One is, “The lord knoweth them that are his,” taken verbatim from the LXX of Numb. 16:5; the other is, “Let every one that nameth the Name of the Lord depart from unrighteousness.” This is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. The first part of the verse is indeed equivalent to Κύριε … τὸ ὀνομά σου ὀνομάζομεν in Isa. 26:13, but there is nothing to answer to the second part. The passages quoted by commentators from Numb. 16:26 and Isa. 52:11 are far too general to indicate any particular reference. Possibly the motto is one of those “faithful savings” before referred to. The two inscriptions, taken together, show the two sides of the Christian standing—God’s election, and man’s holiness (comp. 1 John 1:6; 3:7, 8).
19. Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth firm. We know too well, by experience, how much scandal is produced by the apostasy of those who at one time professed the same faith with ourselves. This is especially the case with those who were extensively known, and who had a more brilliant reputation than others; for, if any of the common people apostatize, we are not so deeply affected by it. But they who in the ordinary opinion of men held a distinguished rank, having been formerly regarded as pillars, cannot fall in this manner, without involving others in the same ruin with themselves; at least, if their faith has no other support. This is the subject which Paul has now in hand; for he declares that there is no reason why believers should lose heart, although they see those persons fall, whom they were wont to reckon the strongest.
He makes use of this consolation, that the levity or treachery of men cannot hinder God from preserving his Church to the last. And first he reminds us of the election of God, which he metaphorically calls a foundation, expressing by this word the firm and enduring constancy of it. Yet all this tends to prove the certainty of our salvation, if we are of the elect of God. As if he had said, “The elect do not depend on changing events, but rest on a solid and immovable foundation; because their salvation is in the hand of God.” For as “every plant which the heavenly Father hath not planted must be rooted up,” (Matt. 15:13,) so a root, which has been fixed by his hand, is not liable to be injured by any winds or storms.
First of all, therefore, let us hold this principle, that, amidst so great weakness of our flesh, the elect are nevertheless beyond the reach of danger, because they do not stand by their own strength, but are founded on God. And if foundations laid by the hand of men have so much firmness, how much more solid will be that which has been laid by God himself? I am aware that some refer this to doctrine, “Let no man judge of the truth of it from the unsteadfastness of men;” but it may easily be inferred from the context, that Paul speaks of the Church of God, or of the elect.
Having this seal. The word signaculum (which denotes either “a seal” or “the print of a seal”) having led into a mistake some people who thought that it was intended to denote a mark or impress, I have translated it sigillum, (a seal,) which is less ambiguous. And, indeed, Paul means, that under the secret guardianship of God, as a signet, is contained the salvation of the elect, as Scripture testifies that they are “written in the book of life.” (Ps. 69:28; Philip. 4:3.)
The Lord knoweth who are his. This clause, together with the word seal, reminds us, that we must not judge, by our own opinion, whether the number of the elect is great or small; for what God hath sealed he wishes to be, in some respect, shut up from us. Besides, if it is the prerogative of God to know who are his, we need not wonder if a great number of them are often unknown to us, or even if we fall into mistakes in making the selection.
Yet we ought always to observe why and for what purpose he makes mention of a seal; that is, when we see such occurrences, let us instantly call to remembrance what we are taught by the Apostle John, that “they who went out from us were not of us.” (1 John 2:19.) Hence arises a twofold advantage. First, our faith will not be shaken, as if it depended on men; nor shall we be even dismayed, as often happens, when unexpected events take place. Secondly, being convinced that the Church shall nevertheless be safe, we shall more patiently endure that the reprobate go away into their own lot, to which they were appointed; because there will remain the full number, with which God is satisfied. Therefore, whenever any sudden change happens among men, contrary to our opinion and expectation, let us immediately call to remembrance, “The Lord knoweth who are his.”
Let every one that calleth on the name of Christ depart from iniquity. As he formerly met the scandal by saying, “Let not the revolt of any man produce excessive alarm in believers;” so now, by holding out this example of hypocrites, he shews that we must not sport with God by a feigned profession of Christianity. As if he had said, “Since God thus punishes hypocrites by exposing their wickedness, let us learn to fear him with a sincere conscience, lost anything of that kind should happen to us. Whoever, therefore, calleth upon God, that is, professeth to be, and wisheth to be reckoned, one of the people of God, let him keep at a distance from all iniquity.” For to “call on the name of Christ” means here to glory in Christ’s honourable title, and to boast of belonging to his flock; in the same manner as to have “the name of a man called on a woman” (Isa. 4:1) means that the woman is accounted to be his lawful wife; and to have “the name of Jacob called on” all his posterity (Gen. 48:16) means that the name of the family shall be kept up in uninterrupted succession, because the race is descended from Jacob.
Ultimate certainties (2:19)
19. In contrast to the insecurity of the false teaching, the stability of Christian doctrine is brought into focus. The opening word Nevertheless represents the Greek particle mentoi and brings out the certainty of this part of the antithesis. In the statement, God’s solid foundation stands firm, the emphasis falls on the immovable character of God’s foundation. It is never in doubt. It forms a vivid contrast to the defection which the false teachers represent.
The metaphor of a building to represent the Christian church appealed strongly to the apostle (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10–15; Eph. 2:19–22; 1 Tim. 3:15), and in the present case was admirably suited to inspire Timothy with renewed confidence in the ultimate triumph of the church. The foundation may here be the church as a whole, or the Ephesian community in particular, or the truth of God, or the deposit of faith. The word seems to be used to represent the whole structure, in order to show that the major question was the security of the building as a whole and not a few isolated ‘stones’.
It is generally supposed that the ancient practice of engraving inscriptions on buildings to indicate their purpose is alluded to in the phrase sealed with this inscription (sphragis is a word used twice elsewhere by Paul in the sense of authentication; see Rom. 4:11; 1 Cor. 9:2). God has put his own seal on his church by a double inscription. There may be a confusion of metaphors here and the thought may have passed from the building to the sealing of individual members. If so, this would bring it closer to the normal meaning of sphragis, but since verses 20 and 21 continue the metaphor of a building or household, the former view seems more probable.
The first inscription (The Lord knows those who are his) comes from Numbers 16:5, from the account of the revolt of Korah and his associates, in which the people are reminded that the Lord is well able to differentiate between the true and the false. This knowledge of God’s infallible discernment is intended to provide strong encouragement to Timothy and all the others perplexed by unworthy elements in the church. It brings also its own restraint on all who take the responsibility of judgment upon themselves. Although it is not the primary purpose of this quotation to draw attention to the predestination of God, this thought cannot be entirely absent since the knowledge of God is so inseparable from his purposes. The writer’s main intention, however, is to show that God unerringly knows his true children.
The second inscription (Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness) is not a precise citation although it is possibly intended to express the sentiment of Numbers 16:26, from the same context as the first. But Isaiah 52:11 is nearer the sentiment and the lxx uses the same verb for turn away (aphistēmi) as here. The verb is in the imperative mood (apostētō), which as Bengel remarked implies the power to depart from wickedness, although this is somewhat obscured by the niv translation must turn away from wickedness. The reading of the received text on which the av ‘the name of Christ’ is based is not original since all the uncials and versions have the reading Lord. To name the name of the Lord implied for Israel identification with his covenant, and all true Israelites would wish to avoid what he abhors. The thought seems to be that since men like Hymenaeus and Philetus had not turned away from iniquity, as was clear from their injurious doctrine, they cannot be God’s true children.
2:19 God’s truth stands firm like a foundation stone. Lit., “the firm foundation of God stands.” The NLT converts the metaphor to a simile and makes explicit what is being compared. The Greek is open, however. It could be the truth (NLT), the church (1 Tim 3:15), God, Christ, the apostles, or some combination of these (Eph 2:19–22).
inscription. This translates sphragis [4973, 5382], meaning “seal, the impress of a signet, certification” (Rom 4:11; 1 Cor 9:2).
The Lord knows. The aorist (egnō [1097, 1182]) in this context is timeless (Porter 1989:237).
2:19 “firm foundation of God” God’s people as a building built on Christ as the foundation is one of Paul’s favorite metaphors (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10ff; Eph. 2:20ff; 1 Tim. 3:15). In this context it refers to God’s truth remaining sure and solid in contrast to the false teachers. The believer’s hope is in the character of God and His trustworthiness to His promises.
© “stands” This is a PERFECT ACTIVE INDICATIVE. The United Bible Societies A Handbook on Paul’s Letters to Timothy and Titus, p. 210, lists four options as to the identification of this “foundation.”
- Christ Himself, the cornerstone (cf. Isa. 28:16; Rom. 9:33; 1 Cor. 3:10–12)
- the message about Christ (cf. Eph. 2:20)
- the Church, the body of Christ
- the Truth (sound teaching)
© “having this seal” This is possibly an allusion to the ancient custom of inscribing the purpose of the building on the cornerstone. Others see it as a reference to an official wax seal of ownership (cf. John 3:33; 6:27; Rom. 4:11; 15:28; 1 Cor. 9:2; 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30; Rev. 7:3–8).
© “The Lord knows those who are His” This may be an allusion to Num. 16:5 in the Septuagint, a historical setting of factions and division, as well as John 10:14, 27.
© “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord” This may be a purposeful ambiguity. Does the term “Lord” refer to YHWH or Jesus? In the OT, calling on YHWH’s name was a metaphor of worship. The NT author adopts this use of “the name” as a way of (1) asserting Jesus’ deity; (2) acknowledging Him as Savior and Master and (3) implying that to call on Him is to emulate His actions and character in daily life (as well as worship events).
This is a PRESENT ACTIVE IMPERATIVE which refers to those who continue to claim a relationship with Jesus. The name in Hebrew was a way of affirming the character of a person. If believers call on Jesus’ name to be saved and reflect His name as followers, then they must believe and live as He did!
© “abstain from wickedness” This is an AORIST ACTIVE IMPERATIVE. This may be an allusion to Num. 16:26–27 in the Septuagint. In context this obviously refers to associations with the godless false teachers and their followers.
19. Does this mean then that God’s true church can be destroyed? Says Paul, Nevertheless, the solid foundation of God stands firm, having this seal:
The Lord knows those who are his,
Let everyone who names the name of the Lord stand aloof from unrighteousness.
False prophets shall lead many astray (Matt. 24:11). In fact, if it were possible, they would lead astray even the elect (Matt. 24:24). But the Good Shepherd knows his sheep, and gives everlasting life to them, and they shall certainly never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of his hands (John 10:14, 28). Since God is in the midst of her, God’s city shall not be moved (Ps. 46:5). His kingdom cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:28). Though Paul has just pointed out that certain individuals have wandered away from the truth and have upset the faith of some (verse 18), it must ever be borne in mind that they are not all Israel that are of Israel (Rom. 9:6), and that, in spite of defections, “all Israel” shall be saved (Rom. 11:26; cf. 1 John 2:19).
In similar vein he now writes, “Nevertheless, the solid (or compact; cf. 1 Peter 5:9; Heb. 5:12, 14) foundation of God stands firm” (ἕστηκεν third per. sing., perfect indicative). But what is meant by this “solid foundation”? Among the many answers that have been given—such as, the Old and New Testaments, the bodily resurrection, the Christian religion, etc.—the following are, perhaps, the most important: (1) Election from eternity; (2) Christ himself; (3) the church.
With respect to (1): This idea cannot be altogether discarded. Paul has just made mention of election (verse 10). No doubt the idea of the divine predestinating love does enter in—notice especially the words, “The Lord knows (from everlasting) those who are his”—; nevertheless, nowhere else does the apostle call election a foundation. Besides, the second inscription on the seal (verse 19b) is hardly in keeping with this interpretation, and the context does not demand it.
With respect to (2): It is true that Christ is called the foundation in 1 Cor. 3:10–12. Nevertheless, this does not settle the matter. One cannot always ascribe exactly the same meaning to Paul’s metaphors. Thus, in Eph. 2:20 Christ is not called the foundation but “the chief cornerstone.” Here in 2 Tim. 2:19 there is nothing to suggest that Christ is regarded as the foundation.
With respect to (3): I consider this view to be correct. The church, established upon the bedrock of God’s predestinating love, is his foundation, his building well-founded. Reasons for adopting this view:
- This harmonizes most beautifully with the context: God’s true church consists of those who are his, those who stand aloof from unrighteousness (note the seal!). By calling the church “God’s solid foundation,” Paul stresses its permanency and immobility. Some, indeed, have wandered away, etc., but the true church is immovable!
- This is consistent with 1 Tim. 3:15. There, too, the church is called “the foundation” or “the support” (there ἑδραίωμα, here in 2 Tim. 2:19 θεμέλιος).
God’s foundation has a seal (not merely an inscription!). Now a seal may indicate authority and thus may protect or at least warn against all tampering. Thus, the tomb of Jesus was sealed (Matt. 27:66). Again, it may be a mark of ownership. “Set me as a seal upon thy heart” (Song of Solomon 8:6). Or it may authenticate a legal decree or other document, certifying and guaranteeing its genuine character. Thus, the decree of Xerxes was sealed (Esther 3:12; cf. 1 Cor. 9:2).
When we now read that God’s solid foundation, the church, has a seal, it is probably unwarranted to apply only one of these three ideas to this seal. The seal by which believers are sealed protects, indicates ownership, and certifies, all three in one! Cf. Rev. 7:2–4. God the Father protects them, so that none are lost. He has known them as his own from all eternity (the context calls for this idea). God the Son owns them. They were given to him. Moreover, he bought or redeemed them with his precious blood. This idea of ownership is clearly expressed here (“the Lord knows those who are his”). And God the Holy Spirit certifies that they are, indeed, the sons of God (Rom. 8:16). This divine protection, ownership, and certification seals them!
But how do believers experience the comfort of the seal? The answer is: by taking to heart what is written on the seal! The seal bears two closely related inscriptions. God’s decree and man’s responsibility receive equal recognition:
The first inscription deals the deathblow to Pelagianism; the second, to fatalism.
The first is dated in eternity; the second, in time.
The first is a declaration which we must believe; the second, an exhortation which we must obey.
The first exalts God’s predestinating mercy; the second emphasizes man’s inevitable duty.
The first refers to the security; the second to the purity of the church (Wuest, in agreement with Vincent).
Between the two there is a very close connection. That connection is interpreted beautifully in 1 Cor. 6:19b, 20: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price (cf. the first inscription); glorify God therefore in your body” (cf. the second inscription).
The close relationship between the two inscriptions is evident also from the fact that the words of both were probably derived from the same Old Testament incident; namely, the rebellion by Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16). Hymenaeus and Philetus, in their rebellion against true doctrine and holy living, resembled these wicked men of the old dispensation. In both of these instances of rebellion against constituted authority there was disbelief of what God had clearly revealed. In both cases the leaders involved others in their crime. The implication is that just as the rebellion under Korah, etc., ended in dire punishment for those who rebelled and for their followers, so also will the present rebellion of Hymenaeus and Philetus terminate in disaster for them and their disciples, unless they repent.
The similarity between the Old Testament references and Paul’s words will be seen by placing them in parallel columns:
|Numbers 16:5, 26 (LXX):
|2 Tim. 2:19:
|“God … knows those who are his.”
|“The Lord knows those who are his.”
|“Separate yourselves from the tents of these wicked men … lest you be destroyed along with them in all their sin.”
|“Let everyone who names the name of the Lord stand aloof from unrighteousness.”
It is probable, however, that in addition to the story of rebellion so vividly portrayed in Numbers 16, Paul was thinking of other Old Testament references. Thus, the following (and other similar passages) may also have served as a basis for the first inscription: the Lord knows Abraham (Gen. 18:19), Moses (Ex. 33:12, 17), those who take refuge in him (Nah. 1:7). The aorist tense here in 2 Tim. 2:19, “The Lord knows or knew (ἔγνω),” may be called timeless. By virtue of his sovereign grace he from eternity acknowledged them as his own, and consequently made them the recipients of his special love and fellowship (in the Spirit). Cf. John 10:14, 27; Rom. 8:28. Hence, they are perfectly safe. They can never be lost (John 10:28).
But this security does not become their possession in any arbitrary or mechanical fashion. The first inscription has no meaning at all apart from the second, nor the second apart from the first. The Lord will tell the wicked that he has never known them (Matt. 7:23; Luke 13:27). The two inscriptions always go together if anyone is ever to become a truly sealed person. Security and purity dovetail. Read in this connection, 2 Thess. 2:13: “God chose you from the beginning to salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief of the truth.” Cf. 1 Peter 1:1, 2: “Elect … according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience,” etc.
Hence, the second inscription follows hard upon the first. On the seal the two stand next to each other; or one on one side, the other on the other side. Compare an American coin, with its two sides, an inscription upon each, one pointing to God as the source of our liberty, the other reminding us of the fact that though there are many States, yet there is only one nation, and implying that all should co-operate. Obverse: IN GOD WE TRUST; Reverse: E PLURIBUS UNUM.
Basic to the words of the second inscription (“Let everyone who names the name of the Lord stand aloof from unrighteousness”) are, in addition to Num. 16:26, such Old Testament passages as Is. 26:13 (LXX: “We name thy name”); Ps. 6:8; and Is. 52:11; cf. 2 Cor. 6:17 (exhortations to depart from evil and from evil-workers). Whether the apostle derived the thoughts embodied in the two inscriptions directly from the Old Testament, or whether they had first become embodied in a Christian hymn, as some think, is a question that cannot now be answered, and is of little importance.
The meaning of the second inscription is this: expressed reliance on God must reveal itself in a life that is consecrated to God’s glory. A person’s confession must exemplify itself in a holy walk and conduct. The person who in prayer and praise “names the name of the Lord” thereby declares that he embraces God’s revelation of himself in the realm of nature (Ps. 8) and of redemption (John 16:24). Such a person must be consistent! That very consistency is what Hymenaeus and Philetus lacked. They named the name of the Lord, and promoted unrighteousness! Literally Paul says “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord apostatize.” But in this connection it must be borne in mind that the Greek uses this verb (to apostatize, stand aloof, withdraw oneself from) both in a favorable and in an unfavorable sense. Let him apostatize … not from the faith (1 Tim. 4:1), but from unrighteousness of every variety.
2:19. It would seem gloomy indeed if Paul had stopped with the description of the growing influence of these false teachers. But he sounded a loud note of hope and courage as he wrote, Nevertheless. God’s solid foundation stands firm.
Despite what people may say or do, God’s work of salvation through Christ and his work of the church as established by the apostles and ministers of the gospel continues to stand firm. If the gates of hell will not overcome the church (Matt. 16:18), neither will the apostasy of some, the destructive teaching of others, or the militant arm of Rome. God has established the church, built on Jesus Christ “as the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). Proof of the church’s endurance rests upon the guarantee made by God himself, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his.”
Paul took this quote from Numbers 16:5. It came out of the story of Korah’s rebellion and God’s affirmation of Moses’ leadership. Paul drew from across the centuries, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, confirming God’s changeless character and sovereign rule.
Only God knows the inward working of the heart, but everyone who confesses the name of the Lord will evidence increasing godliness—they must turn away from wickedness. Both inward and outward change are necessary components of a true believer in Jesus Christ. Timothy and others might have difficulty discerning the faithful from the faithless, but God cannot be fooled. He knows those who belong to him.
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