Word of the Week
June 17, 2023
Skeuos: Choosing Your Cup
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.
2 Timothy 2:20 ESV
When it’s time for a coffee break, you grab a Styrofoam cup.
You choose a floral china cup to share tea with a friend.
In a medieval cathedral, the archbishop would sip the sacred wine from a gold goblet encrusted with gems.
And I understand that there’s a place where you can purchase a chalice carved from an 8000-year old meteorite, inlaid with gold and silver – for only $35,000! I doubt that anyone is going to drink out of that cup.
We choose the cup that matches the occasion, and that is the point that the apostle made when he compared each believer to a container in God’s household.
There are many kinds of containers, and Paul uses a Greek word in 2 Timothy 2 :20 that has many meanings. Let’s take a closer look at it to help us understand Paul’s point more clearly.
When Paul mentions the “vessels” in a household, he uses the Greek word skeuos, which means more than just a cup or a clay pot.
- It can be a container for liquid, like the sour wine offered to Jesus on the cross (John 19:29).
- It might refer to containers for various commodities. Jesus stopped the people who were using the temple courtyard as a shortcut for deliveries (Mark 11:16).
- It could be a general term for household articles. Jesus once said that you can’t enter a strong man’s house and plunder his skeuos without first restraining him (Matthew 12:19). He clearly meant anything worth stealing. I’m tempted to translate it as “his stuff”!
- Peter had a dream in which he saw a large sheet (skeuos) descending from heaven, full of animals (Acts 10:11, 16).
- The sailors battling the storm that almost sank Paul’s ship threw the skeuos overboard (Acts 27:17) – perhaps the sail or other gear.
The characteristic meaning of a skeuos, however, is an earthenware bowl or pot made by a potter. Christ said, “You don’t put a pot over a lighted lamp, do you? No, you let the light shine” (Luke 8:15).
Not every skeuos is made of clay, of course. The New Testament mentions examples made of expensive materials like gold, silver, ivory, or rare woods (Revelation 18:12). But most people could only afford ceramic pots.
Scripture often uses the word skeuos figuratively – for people, not just pots.
- The Lord called Paul a “chosen vessel” to bring the name of Jesus to the Gentile world (Acts 9:25).
- Similarly, God describes believers as “earthenware vessels,” used to carry the treasure of salvation to a needy world (2 Corinthians 4:7).
We learn from 2 Timothy 2:20 not only that vessels are made from varied materials, but also that they are put to different uses: some for honorable use and some for dishonorable. One skeuos might contain fine wine; another might be used for dish water.
How can you fulfill the purposes that the divine Potter had in mind when He made you? Paul goes on in the next verse to say, “If anyone cleanses himself from these things [the “wickedness” mentioned in verse 19], he will be a vessel of honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21). You wouldn’t drink water from a glass with a bug in the bottom, and God intends to cleanse the people He uses. That holds true whether you are drinking from a chalice or a Styrofoam cup.
The New Testament teaches clearly that you and I are vessels in God’s house, intended for His use. A wise follower of Jesus will respond to this truth by asking, “Lord, what kind of vessel have You made me? Is there any sin or false belief that keeps You from using me? And what would You like me to do right now?
We know that words have multiple meanings and skeuos makes it obvious that one word can cover a multitude of ideas, from jug to sheet, from ship’s tackle to tabernacle tools. The golden rule of Bible study is Context, and that holds true here. English uses words like “implements” to cover anything used to do a job, from tiny screwdrivers to sledgehammers. You have to examine the context to determine what kind of item is intended.
Some New Testament passages definitely use skeuos to refer to the work of a potter (Romans 9:21; 2 Corinthians 4:7). Other verses leave the question open, especially when describing a person. In this case, you will find it helpful to consult a commentary or look at several Bible translations to get the opinions of Bible scholars.
Q: 1 Thessalonians 4:4 instructs a believer to “possess his vessel” in sanctification and honor. I’ve heard that this could be talking about a person’s body or his wife? What’s going on here?
A: Literally, Paul is using the word skeuos that we just studied. The main idea of the passage is clear: he is urging them to live sexually pure lives, even though they are going against the grain of their pagan culture. There are two main views about the phrase in question. (1) Some say that “vessel” refers to your body. This would fit the context, which involves self-control in the use of your body. Romans 6:11-13 uses a different Greek word, but teaches the same necessity to present your body to God, not to sin. (2) Others believe that the phrase should be translated “acquire a wife.” 1 Peter 3:7 does use skeuos to describe wives, and the usual meaning of the verb here is “to acquire.” On this view, Paul is telling the Thessalonians to follow God’s moral standards by taking a wife, rather than indulging in immorality. Personally, I lean toward the first view, but not dogmatically.
The Lord’s Prayer asks, “Lead us not into temptation.” But James 1:13 says that God never tempts anyone. So why ask Him not to do something that He isn’t supposed to do? Next week we will look at the Greek word used in this petition.
©Ezra Project 2023