One of the most sobering things to watch in sports is seeing athletes get stripped of their medals due to some form of cheating. Names like Ben Johnson, Marion Jones, Tonya Harding, and Lance Armstrong come to mind. But equally disappointing is watching athletes favored to win the competition who were disqualified due to inadvertently violating the rules of the game.
No matter how well you compete or how far ahead you are of the competition, an athlete can only win if he competes according to the rules of that particular sport. As an athlete, you risk disqualification either by breaking the rules or being ignorant of them. Most competitive athletes would take fair defeat over disqualification anytime. Nothing makes an athlete feel the futility of their efforts quite like disqualification. I’ve seen it at the preliminary youth sports; I’ve watched it at the highest level of competition. Hence, Paul’s reminder to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:5, “if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules.”
However, Paul isn’t exhorting Timothy in the realm of athletics, but in the realm of gospel ministry. If we are seeking to further the gospel of Jesus Christ in this world, we must not only beware of entanglement in civilian affairs (2 Tim 2:4), but we must also beware of the threat of disqualification (2 Tim 2:5). While being persecuted for the sake of the gospel is to be expected and cannot be avoided (2 Tim 3:12), disqualifying oneself from the ministry of the gospel is downright tragic and must be avoided at all costs.
How many times have we seen the most gifted and sincere ministers disqualify themselves from the ministry and leave a permanent stain on both their legacy and on the lives of the people to whom they ministered by falling into disqualifying immorality and conduct? How many times have we seen sincere ministers inadvertently ruin the opportunity to minister to a particular people group because he carelessly and unnecessarily offended them? Did not Paul say that he would discipline himself such that he would not be disqualified from preaching the gospel to others (1 Cor 9:27)?
As much as it hurts to see a minister of the gospel being persecuted, it is a far larger blow to God’s people to see him get disqualified. Thus, just as every athlete can only win by competing according to the rules, every man can only win souls by living according to the Word in an uncompromising manner. For only when a man is sanctified in character can he be useful for service to Christ.
How, then, must a Christian live to avoid disqualification at all costs? Paul instructs Timothy in the later part of that letter,
Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.2 Timothy 2:21-22
It is a sober reminder that the pursuit of godliness must precede our engagement in good works. The Lord will only use vessels of honor to accomplish his honorable work. In other words, if you want to be used for God’s work, you must first live by God’s Word. If you want to be used for the work of Christ, you must pursue the character of Christ. Let us remember, then, the wise words of Robert Murray McCheyne when he said, “It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”