Approved by God
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Approved by God

From Series: Lessons For Life, Volume 1

2 Timothy 2:15 (ID: 2860)

What is our legacy? What do we leave behind? Alistair Begg directs a college student audience to Paul’s final instruction to Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved.” Each day our actions affect those around us in ways that are either helpful or harmful, encouraging or unreliable. Such conscious choices paint a canvas of the picture we ultimately leave behind. In this message, men and women are encouraged to choose their friends wisely and not to underestimate a life lived to the glory of God.


Sermon Transcript:

Second Timothy 2:15. Second Timothy 2:15. There was only one place I thought of ending these talks, and it was here. What I conceived of doing and what I’m now about to do is somewhat different, but nevertheless, the emphasis remains the same.

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”

This, of course, is a verse that has been known to me; it was given to me when I was fifteen years of age and moved from Scotland down to live in England, and the Bible class that I was attending at that time gave to me a Bible, and in it they inscribed the verse 2 Timothy 2:15, in the King James Version: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” By the time I was reading Jim Elliot’s diaries and journals, I realized that he said, while a student here at Wheaton, that he was studying, ultimately, for his AUG—namely, that he was studying to be “approved unto God.”[1]

And so, when I thought about how I would end this morning, I decided that I would end with this matter of approval. And we recognize how important approval is: the approval of our parents and our peers, tonight the soccer team hoping for the approval of its supporters, and certainly the approval of our professors as we seek to fulfill the requirements that we are given. But ultimately, as we live our lives, the approval for which we look, which is actually eternal in its dimensions, is the approval of God himself.

And the words that are given by Paul to Timothy, who is his young lieutenant, as it were, in the faith, are the words of an older man now who, as you will note in 4:6, describes his life as being at the end. “[I’m] already being poured out,” he said, “like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure.” The word there is analusis. It’s the word that you would use of weighing anchor to head for home. It is the word that you would use for striking camp to head for your permanent home. It is the word that would have been used at that time to describe what you do when you unyoke the oxen from the burden of the day and you send them back out into the pasture where they may rest for the remainder of the time. This is the word that Paul uses in relationship to his death.

“And so,” he says, “I want you now, in light of my departure, to take seriously, Timothy, your responsibilities.” Now, his were unique within the framework of his day. Those were involved in pastoral ministry in a way that ours may not be. But nevertheless, the exhortation to do his utmost to be approved by God is one with which we can all relate. And there is a sense in which I want to draw each of these talks now full circle by reminding you that time is short—by coming back, as it were, to where we started on Wednesday morning.

We All Leave a Legacy

Do you recognize that your life will last on average for some 36,792,000 minutes? You will sleep for approximately 12,300,000. Eating will consume another 3,000,000, plus a fairly substantial amount of food as well. You will work in your life for approximately 13,000,000. That leaves those of you who are very quick with mental arithmetic knowing that you have some 8,000,000 remaining. And when you deduct time for washing and doing your hair and whatever else it is you like to do, you’re down to 6,500,000. However, if you are already eighteen years of age, you have already used a quarter of your allocation. Therefore, you have some 5,000,000 minutes remaining, in terms of unaccounted-for time.

Why is it that time seems to pass more quickly, the older we get? I don’t really understand that. It’s perhaps something to do with mathematics, that when you’re five and a year passes, 20 percent of your life just went by. When you’re fifty and a year elapses, only 2 percent of your life went by. And there might just be something in our heads that processes that and says, “You know, I seem to be eating this up a lot faster than I was when I was in kindergarten.”

Our lives are like an artist’s canvas. Every day we’re painting something, and eventually we will leave behind a picture which others will reflect upon and review.

So let’s then think, in the remaining moments that we have, about what it’s going to mean for us to be approved by God. And I want to think particularly about it in these terms. Our lives we might describe as being like an artist’s canvas, and on that canvas we paint. Every day we live our lives, we’re painting something, we’re adding something to the picture; and eventually we will leave behind, as it were, a picture which others will reflect upon and review, and the highlights of our lives and the things that have made us who we are and the contributions that we have made will remain for others to consider. And today we’re painting.

Oh, it may seem for some of us—perhaps freshmen—that all of the notion of the end is something we really don’t want to think about, because it all seems so far away. And I certainly don’t want to be melancholy. This is not some kind of morbid interest in bones. Rather, it’s simply a call to take seriously the privilege and opportunity of time itself and the reality that each of us is leaving a legacy. None of us knows when there will be the last time for every journey. There will be a last day when we kiss our mums goodbye. There will be a last day when we reverse our cars out of the driveway. There will be a last time that we walk out of that lab, or whatever else it is, and none of us knows what day that will be. Certainly, when Elliot was writing his journals where you are and talking about all that he might be for God, he never in an instant conceived of the fact that so soon would his blood mingle with the Curaray River and all of his aspirations should be brought to such—from a human perspective—untimely conclusion. So it is a matter of gravity, and yet it is a matter of great opportunity. What will we leave behind? What if they wrote our obituary today, what would they say? All of us are leaving legacies; some of them will be helpful, others of them will be harmful.

Now, for your homework, what I’d like you to do is this: go through 2 Timothy and think in terms of the legacies that people have left, and mark the names of those who have left a harmful legacy and the names of those who have left a helpful legacy. Now, let me give you a little bit of a start; for example, under “harmful” you can immediately enter Phygelus and Hermogenes. That is in 1:15: “You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes.” So, pretty tough, huh? Two lines or one line in the Bible, and it’s a bad line. What a legacy! What do you think about when you think of Phygelus and Hermogenes? You think about the fact that they deserted. When you go to 2:17, you come to Hymenaeus and Philetus, and once again, they didn’t get a very good report: “Their teaching will spread like gangrene”—a disgusting thought—and among these crazy people “are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have wandered away from the truth.” Or what about Demas in 4:10? “Demas … has deserted me.” Or what about Alexander, in verse 14? “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm,” so when people look up, as it were, at the wall, and they see the picture of Alexander the metalworker, immediately they say, “Alexander the metalworker did the apostle Paul a great deal of harm.” That’s his legacy.

And all of us are leaving a legacy, in the immediacy. Every time you walk out of a room, you leave a legacy. Oh, it’s not a legacy in the strictest term: you didn’t leave money behind, or you didn’t leave paintings behind, or something like that. I mean in terms of leaving behind a deposit that is either for good or ill. You either walk out of the room and you leave a fragrance behind, or you walk out of a room and people are glad you took the stink with you, quite honestly. And I’m not talking in physical terms.

That’s why, when you read gravestones, it’s very helpful. You say, “Well, I’ve never really read gravestones.” Well, you should. It’s a good time! And indeed, Ecclesiastes tells us that it’s better to go to the house of mourning than to a house of fools,[2] because in a house of mourning, when the bell tolls, it registers. And there are wonderful gravestones. Let me just give you one, to whet your appetite for your new career of gravestone reading. In Scotland, “Interred”—buried. I didn’t need to do that here; this is Wheaton. Sorry. But anyway: “Interred beneath this kirkyard stane”—stone—“lies stingy Jimmy Wyatt, who died one morning just at ten and saved a dinner by it.” Okay? So he was stingy in his life, and he is stingy in his death, and everyone who walks through the graveyard said, “There’s old stingy Jimmy again!”

We’re all doing that. To this point: harmful like this group, or helpful like this group? For example, 1:5, Lois and Eunice. What a wonderful legacy they left: “I long to see you…. [I’ve] been reminded of your sincere faith, [a faith] which [lived first] in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice.” In other words, here are people who had invested their lives in their children and in their grandchildren, and some of us, this morning, are a product of that kind of legacy, and we bless God for it. What most of us, in our youthfulness, fail to understand is that we are actually in the process, already, of leaving a legacy for others who will come behind us. And each of us today has those for whom we are immensely thankful.

If you look at verse 16, you have Onesiphorus—at least, I imagine that that is what his name is. Although I had the dreadful thought—not a particularly biblical thought—that perhaps this man, his name, spoke to his one of his characteristics, and that was, when somebody said to him, “Would you like a drink of Coke?” he used to say, “Just one sip.” And his name was actually Horace, and he became known as “One-sip Horace.” You see that? So that’s his legacy right there. That is totally ridiculous, and I’m sorry for mentioning it. But anyway, I think most of you will have a difficulty now forgetting this particular gentleman, Onesiphorus. But look at Onesiphorus: “He often refreshed me … [he wasn’t] ashamed of my chains…. He searched hard for me until he found me.”[3] In other words, he was an all-around good guy. When he said he’d look for you, he really looked for you. When he said he’d be there, he was really there. When he said he’d call, he would really call. If he said he’d write, he’d really write. You could rely upon him. That’s his legacy.

Or what about Timothy himself, to whom he writes, as his young man? “There’s no one else like him,” he says to the Philippians, “who will take a genuine interest in your welfare.”[4] He exhorts Timothy: “I want you to correct, and I want you to rebuke, and I want you to encourage.”[5]

Human eloquence and mental cleverness will very quickly be forgotten. Kindness is long remembered.

Or, for example, in 4:11, what about Luke, the doctor? “Only Luke is with me.” That’s the sentence. “Only Luke is with me.” There’s no indication that Luke was a great evangelist, not a sterling Bible teacher. But rather, the thing that Luke has left behind is fidelity, it’s loyalty, it’s integrity, it’s humility. Do you know that eloquence—human eloquence—and mental cleverness will very quickly be forgotten? Kindness is long remembered. Kindness is long remembered. I can guarantee you that very few of you will remember where you actually fitted in the academic pecking order—most of you will actually want to forget—but very few of you will remember those things about your friends. Oh, it may strike you immediately in the first test that comes back or whatever else it is, and there will always be one or two who excel, and we will remember them for that, but by and large, out of a large student body like this, let me tell you the things that will be remembered: it will be things like kindness, gentleness, honesty, integrity, love, joviality, peace in the midst of trauma, genuine expressions of concern.

And then you can go on and do the rest for yourself.

Helpful or harmful—what about our legacy? Let me give you a couple of pointers as I draw this to a close.

Living to Be Approved by God

How, then, are we going to live in order that we might be approved by God, and as a result of knowing his approval, be eminently helpful to those around us?

Number one, determine to live so as to be missed for the best things. Determine to live so as to be missed for the best things. Paul says—2 Timothy 4:7—“[I’ve] fought the good fight, I … finished the race, [I’ve] kept the faith.” What a wonderful legacy!

I met a gentleman for breakfast this morning; we’re probably the same age—pushing fifty now—and we looked at one another as we parted, and we said, “And what should we pray for one another?” And as we stood on the corner of the street in Wheaton, we said, “Let’s pray for one another that we’ll finish strong. Let’s just pray for one another that we’ll finish! That we won’t throw ourselves down in the grass.” For it’s a relay race. Indeed, it’s a cross-country race that lasts for all of our lives and has implications into eternity. And we don’t want it to be bursts of enthusiasm followed by periods of chronic inertia. We don’t want it to be such that we’re known for little spurts every now and then, but most of the time we can be found languishing around somewhere behind the stands, unwilling to take up our tracksuit and get back in the race.

When you and I understand that there are others who are waiting in that box—however large it is, in the 440 or the 400 meters—who are waiting in that box and have just actually now begun to make their run so that they may time it exactly, so that you may place into their hands that which another previously has placed into yours, then you realize you don’t live to yourself, and you don’t die to yourself.[6] It’s not up to you whether you’re going to be a solid Christian or not.

You want God’s approval? Then make it your determined aim to be missed—if we’re to be missed—for the best things; that the gap that is left behind by our absence because we take a semester out, or because of something that takes us away from here, or in the end of our days as death takes us, that we will be missed for kind words and for good deeds and for short notes and for good laughs. I can guarantee that if my death were now, my children would not be reciting my sermons. Because the things that have marked them in the silent ongoing issues of life will not actually have been these formal things. So determine to live so as to be missed for the best things.

The Christian life is a cross-country race that lasts for all of our lives and has implications into eternity. We don’t want it to be bursts of enthusiasm, followed by periods of chronic inertia.

Secondly, do not underestimate the impact of a solitary life lived to God’s glory. Do not underestimate the impact of a solitary life lived to God’s glory. The devil has, essentially, two bullets in his gun: One, to give you a fat head, and when you have a fat head and you’re an egotist you will be useless to God and a genuine nuisance to everyone around you. Or the other bullet he fires is to give you a pinhead and to so discourage you and disillusion you that you believe that you can bring nothing to the table, that you can offer nothing at all. And in both cases, he has completely neutralized us. That’s why the Bible says, “Let no one among you think of himself more highly than he ought, but let everyone think of himself with sober judgment, according to the measure of faith that God has given you.”[7] So you can say with the Anglican minister of years ago—perhaps even a bishop—“I am only one, but I am one. What I can do, I ought to do. And what I ought to do, by God’s grace I will do.”[8] Do not sell yourself short. Don’t underestimate the impact of a solitary life lived to God’s glory.

Thirdly, if you’re going to be remembered as one of the crowd, make sure it’s the right crowd. If you’re gonna be remembered as one of the crowd, make sure that it is the right crowd. And the distinction there is between verse 16 and verse 19 of chapter 4, where he says, “At my first defense, no one came to my support … everyone deserted me.” That’s not the crowd you want to be in. No, the crowd you want to be in is in verse 19: Priscilla, Aquila, Erastus, Onesiphorus, Trophimus, Eubulus, Pudens—who obviously loved desserts—Linus, Claudia, and the brothers, and so on. And so, if you’re gonna be remembered as one of the crowd, make sure it’s the right crowd. That’s obvious. If you go with the crows, you’re sure to be shot.

And fourthly and finally, determine that with God’s help you will seize the day, because we never know when we’ve just made our final deposit in the legacy we’re leaving.

Three Exemplary Statements

Let me finish with these couple of thoughts—in fact, perhaps these three statements from people who have impacted my life and continue to. I’ve already mentioned Elliot, and you know his quote, so let’s just reiterate it again; it seems only appropriate: “He is no fool who gives [up] what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”[9] Never did he realize when he wrote that somewhere around here that he would pay the ultimate price. But because he had determined that what he was studying for was God’s approval, he was ready when the time came.

In the same vein, C. T. Studd, who was the son of a very wealthy family, who played cricket for Cambridge and for England. God lay a hold upon his life. He sets out to take the name of Christ around the world. And if you go to the Worldwide Evangelization Crusade Headquarters in Buckinghamshire, in Bulstrode, you will find there a number of artifacts that are in various glass cases; it’s not particularly impressive, but I found it profoundly moving. And there you will find one of his great statements: “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice that I could ever make for Him could ever be too great.”[10] There is an inherent logic in that statement.

And then, finally, to the Scotsman who dies in China, as a schoolteacher—to Eric Liddell, invited by the Edinburgh Evening Standard to explain why it was that he had been so successful in the 400 meters, when, in approaching the 1924 Olympics in Paris, he had planned to run in the 100 meters and hadn’t trained for the 400 meters. It’s a dramatic thing when you think about it, even after all this time. I think it is an impossible feat today. I don’t think there is any sprinter who runs the 100 meters who could make the transition to the 400 meters within a week and actually run to Olympic gold, but he did. And they asked him, when he came back to Edinburgh, “Can you explain your strategy for running the 200 meters?” And he said, “I ran the first 200 as fast as I could, and then, with God’s help, I ran the second 200 even faster.”

Do you know what one of the great temptations is in Christian living? It’s to reach your cruising altitude.

Do you know what one of the great temptations is in Christian living? It’s to reach your cruising altitude. You know, when he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re now cruising,” and everybody sort of goes, “Hey, peanuts time! Pass me the magazine!” And that initial… is over, and it’s like… I meet a lot of people, and that’s exactly where they are. Just… So you ran the first 200; you ready to run the second 200 even faster?

Prepare to get away at the end of these couple of days, just by yourself somewhere. Say, “Lord Jesus, I want to thank you for bringing me here. I want to thank you for all the opportunities that I’ve enjoyed so far and are before me, and as I try and assimilate all the things that we’ve been thinking about in these days, it’s really clear: I want to do my best to know your approval on my life. And I want to remind myself that there’s ‘only one life, and it will soon be past, and only what’s done for Jesus will last.’”[11]

Father, for the privilege of these days with these dear students here and the faculty members, I thank you—for every kindness I’ve been shown, for the immense privilege of having this pulpit. And I pray now your attendant blessing on this student body—that you will save those who teach from error and from pride, and that you will grant to them a genuine sense of dependence upon you as they underpin every discipline by the overarching truth of your Word. For every student, that they may give themselves wholeheartedly to the task of being a student, to the privilege of friendship, to the opportunities of sport and relaxation; that you will raise up from among this company today fantastic young ladies and strong and useful young men. And grant that since we recognize that, to one degree or another, we are leaving a legacy behind, that we may be those individuals who are helpful rather than a hindrance.

So we commit our day to you, and all of our days to you, thanking you for the extent of your love in the Lord Jesus Christ, into whose care and keeping we commit one another now. In his precious name. Amen.


[1] See Jim Elliot, The Journals of Jim Elliot (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1978).

[2] See Ecclesiastes 7:2–4.

[3] 2 Timothy 1:16–17 (NIV 1984).

[4] Philippians 2:20 (paraphrased).

[5] 2 Timothy 4:2 (paraphrased).

[6] Romans 14:7 (paraphrased).

[7] Romans 12:3 (paraphrased).

[8] Attributed to Edward Everett Hale.

[9] Jim Elliot, quoted in Elisabeth Elliot, “Prologue,” The Shadow of the Almighty (1958; repr., New York: HarperCollins, 1979), 15.

[10] Norman P. Grubb, C. T. Studd: Athlete & Pioneer (Wheaton: Sword of the Lord, 1937), 129. Paraphrased.

[11] C. T. Studd, “Only One Life.” Paraphrased.