Tom Roberts


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Associate Editorial

"Rightly Divide the Word of Truth"
(2 Timothy 2:15)


"Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (NKJ).

As a youngster, I heard 2 Timothy 2:15 discussed widely in class and used often in gospel preaching. In most instances, the passage was relied upon to urge Christians to "study" (KJV) their Bibles and to "rightly divide" (make a distinction) between the Old and New Testaments. While there is no doubt that "being diligent to present yourself to God" will include studying the scriptures, and "rightly dividing the word of truth" will include distinguishing between the covenants, it is also true that this passage carries a deeper meaning than then allowed. The instruction to Timothy in verse 15 is embedded in a wider context of preaching the gospel that lends weight to the work of evangelism. We must learn this lest we "need to be ashamed."

Context

Paul's first epistle to Timothy encouraged him to remain at Ephesus that he might charge some to "teach no other doctrine nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith" (1:3-4). Those teachers Paul had in mind doubtless included the elders he had previously met at Miletus when he warned them that "savage wolves" would arise after his departure that would "not spare the flock." It was this eldership Paul warned that "from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves" (Acts 20:28-30). To prevent this departure, Paul impressed upon Timothy the "pattern of sound words" (2 Tim.1:13) which he was to "commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2:2). He warned that men of a different sort were already "overthrowing the faith" of some: Hymenaeus and Philetus (2:17) along with those like Jannes and Jambres who withstood Moses (3:8) came to his mind. Against these "evil men and imposters," Timothy was to "continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2:14-15).

The "Holy Scriptures" of which Paul spoke, he assured Timothy, were "given by inspiration of God, and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (3:16-17). From these, Timothy was to "preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching" (4:2). All of this provides the broader context which lends itself to a proper understanding of what it means to "rightly divide the word of truth."

Possible Applications

The phrase "rightly divide" is an interesting expression. There are a number of possible explanations as to its etymology. Literally, the word used means "cutting straight." "The figure has been very variously derived: from a priest dividing the victim, the steward distributing the bread or stores, a stonemason, a carpenter, a ploughman, a road-cutter" (The Biblical Illustrator. Joseph S. Excell, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Mich., p. 184). Albert Barnes added this thought: "It means, properly, to cut straight, to divide right; and the allusion here may be to a steward who makes a proper distribution to each one under his care of such things as his office and their necessities require; comp. Notes on Mat. xiii.52. Some have supposed that there is allusion here to the Jewish priest, cutting or dividing the sacrifice into proper parts; others, that the allusion is to the scribes dividing the law into sections; others, to a carver distributing food to the guests at a feast" (Barnes Notes, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Mich, 1961, p. 225).

Within the context of Paul's letter to Timothy, there is room for all these allusions, without forcing the text. Consider the application in each instance.

The Priest Dividing The Victim: No priest who revered God would hack and hew an offering without design, as it seemed best to himself, without regard to instruction in the Law. Priests knew that the blood of a sacrifice was to be treated in particular ways (Exodus 29:12, 20, et al), the flesh of a sacrifice treated differently (vv. 17-18), and the fat, liver and kidneys yet another way (vv. 13-14). In "rightly dividing" a sacrifice, a priest would separate and distinguish each sacrifice and its parts, "cutting straight" so as to prepare it for its intended use. Similarly, evangelists must weigh, determine, handle rightly the truth so that it "cuts straight" as God intended. Truth does not belong to the preacher; he cannot redesign it or twist it to his own purposes. The hermeneutic of scripture does not depend upon man's analysis but upon God's revelation. Man does not decide to include or exclude or to determine what is relevant. Man's wisdom is not greater than that of God's and cannot determine that some verses are too harsh, too severe, too remote. If the Bible teaches a truth, it is not undignified to teach it. If the Bible doesn't teach something, we must not include it. Whatever the Bible teaches is exactly what God wanted taught and the language of scripture is the thought of God's mind (1 Corinthians 2:7-16). If God revealed "baptism," it is not cutting straight to substitute sprinkling or pouring. If God revealed "sing," it is not "rightly dividing" to insert mechanical instruments of music. If God revealed the work of the church in specific terms as "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15), it is wrong to redirect the church into social and civic affairs. If God forbids his people to fellowship those in sin (Ephesians 5:11; 2 John 9-11), we must divide where God divides, cutting where God cuts. If God calls one an adulterer (Matthew 15:1-9; Romans 7:1-3), that person must not be called something else simply because the word is offensive. The way God cuts by his word is the way men must apply it.

The Steward. The steward of Biblical times was a responsible person who was put in total charge of his master's goods: Abraham and Eliezer (Genesis 15) come to mind. In the process of his duties, a faithful steward would rightly distribute, divide, apportion to each person under his oversight that which was his due. In the spiritual sense, Timothy is being told to take the truth and distribute, divide, apportion to each hearer that which he needed to receive, rightly divide it. We are told in other places that some should be given "milk" while others are ready for "meat" (Hebrews 5:11-14; 2 Pt. 2:1-2). Thus, one would apply truth to every person, but in a different measure to babes in Christ as distinct from those who could digest weightier matters of the gospel.

But to be faithful to his master, the steward must apportion truth to every place where it is needed. Sometimes reproof must be allotted, at times rebuke, at other times exhortation (2 Timothy 4:2). Those who would refuse to reprove and rebuke when it is necessary are not faithful stewards. Those who fail to deliver strong doses of truth in the face of error are not rightly dividing what is needed. Those who fail to exhort to greater service are not feeding members properly. While it is true that scripture can be, and should be, allotted to produce faith, love, peace, joy and fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), there are situations which call for "snatching them out of the fire" (Jude 23). Clearly, this allusion teaches us that Norman Vincent Peale's approach to teaching is flawed. The "positive only" mentality will never "rightly divide the word of truth" because it omits parts that should be allotted. To be sure, there are portions of scripture that meet every need. Evangelists must take heed to distribute every portion to every need so that the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27) is applied.

The stonemason, a carpenter, a ploughman, a road-cutter. Each of the analogies here has something in common: each must be able to cut a straight line, hold a straight course, go forward without veering either to the right or the left. A stonemason or carpenter must "hew" the line, "plumb" correctly, align evenly. A road-cutter must be able to go straight through obstacles and keep the course. Again, the Biblical Illustrator is helpful. "A ploughman stands here with his plough, and he ploughs right along from this end of the field to the other, making a straight furrow. And so Paul would have Timothy make a straight furrow right through the word of truth. I believe there is no preaching that God will ever accept but that which goes decidedly through the whole line of truth from end to end, and is always thorough, earnest, and downright. As truth is a straight line, so must our handling of the truth be straightforward and honest, without shifts or tricks" (p. 186). Roman roads did not veer all over the countryside, zig-zagging with every boundary and accommodating each farmer's fields. Rome had one thought in mind when it built its roads: carry troops to and from distant territories directly back to Rome. With these mental pictures before us, it is clear that Paul was telling Timothy to deal the truth straightly, not being turned aside by opinions and theories. Denominations want their own creeds to be honored, but each is a departure, a veering, from truth. The "fables" of those with "itching ears" (2 Timothy 4) would detour the truth. Evangelists are to hew the line, hold a straight course, plumb correctly, align evenly as they preach. As a road-line meets obstacles of forests, rivers and chasms, a preacher will meet error, opposition and opinions. These must not deter nor detour the faithful preaching in the direction God would have us go. Is it any wonder that James warned: "My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment" (3:1).

Conclusion

The work of evangelism can be a lonely task. Just as prophets of old had to stand alone and aloof from every obstacle to his work, so evangelists must be ready to "be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (2 Timothy 4:5). Yes, one must "study (give diligence) to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth."