In between two passages telling Timothy how to deal with false teachers (2 Tim 2:14–19, 22–26), Paul uses a variously understood metaphor in verse 20 and applies it in verse 21: “20 Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. 21 Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (ESV).
Let’s begin with some points of contact that are easy to identify, which allows to navigate through details that are not as clear at first glance.
First, “a great house” in 2 Tim 2:20 refers to the church. In 2 Tim 2:19, the immediately preceding verse, Paul spoke of “God’s firm foundation,” which, in context, is people―“those who are His” and “everyone who names the name of the Lord.”
Second, the “vessels” in 2 Tim 2:20 (whatever their material―gold, silver, wood, or clay) refer to people. That these vessels are either “for honorable use” or “for dishonorable” is immediately applied to people in 2 Tim 2:21―“anyone” can be for “honorable use” by being cleansed from what is “dishonorable.”
Third, putting these people into two categories, the honorable vessels (gold and silver) are faithful believers (like Timothy), and the dishonorable vessels are the false teachers in 2 Tim 2:20. The contrast between Timothy and his opponents in the surrounding passages (2 Tim 2:14–19, 22–26) implies as much.
Having these points of contact in hand, we can better understand how Paul applies his metaphor in 2 Tim 2:21. As the metaphor continues, it takes a slight twist in 2 Tim 2:21 in that “anyone,” whatever vessel he may be (even the one for dishonorable use), may be cleansed by cleansing himself, literally translated, “from these,” which refers to the vessels designated, “some for dishonorable” use in 2 Tim 2:20. To clarify, rather than finding the vessel being cleansed by being washed from filth upon the vessel itself, its cleansing comes from being separated from the other vessels. Further support for this understanding is in 2 Tim 2:22 in which Timothy was to pursue good things “along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart,” that is, he was to fellowship with one group within the church and not the other.
If, then, vessels are cleansed by being separated from vessels of dishonorable use, the silver and gold vessels maintain their honorable use by their continued distinction from the dishonorable use of the vessels of wood and the clay. And, insomuch as “anyone” in 2 Tim 2:21 may cleanse himself, wood and clay vessels may also have an honorable use by removing themselves from the other wood and clay vessels that continue in their dishonorable use. Applied to the characters in the text, false teachers could be cleansed by removing themselves from other false teachers who continue in error. In the language of the immediately following passage, 2 Tim 2:25–26 would describe such a situation as “opponents” to whom God granted “repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,” having “come to their senses” to “escape from the snare of the devil.”
One final clarification―from a cursory reading of 2:20–26, it would seem from 2 Tim 2:22 that Timothy was to cleanse himself from youthful passions. While this is indeed part of what Paul has in mind, it is not all of what is meant in the metaphor in 2:20–21. Timothy was to separate himself from false teachers themselves. In doing so, he would likewise “flee youthful passions,” “having nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies,” and “not be quarrelsome” (2 Tim 2:22–24). As Timothy cleansed himself from bad company, so also would they not corrupt his good morals.