by Al Maxey

Issue #518 ------- January 24, 2012
Crafty men condemn studies; simple
men admire them; wise men use them.

Sir Francis Bacon {1561-1626}

Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth
Reflecting on Pauline Intent in 2 Timothy 2:15

One of the most familiar verses in the Bible, containing phrases we hear repeatedly in sermons, classes, and in the writings of our fellow disciples of Christ Jesus, is 2 Timothy 2:15, in which Paul makes this charge: "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (KJV). Most of you could probably recite this verse by memory, but I wonder how many truly grasp what Paul sought to convey through those words. Further, is the rendering of the KJV really conducive to a proper understanding among 21st century disciples, or even reflective of Paul's original intent? What comes to your mind, for example, when you read the word "study" at the beginning of this passage? What do you believe Paul meant by "the word of truth," and just how does one "rightly divide" it? These are rather important questions, deserving of a reasoned response, for some strange and woefully misguided teaching has arisen over the years from the mishandling of this text. In this week's Reflections we shall seek to address these questions and concerns as we reflect upon the above charge to Timothy and endeavor to determine authorial intent.

The apostle Paul had come to the end of his earthly journey. He was in a prison cell in the city of Rome; his execution would shortly take place (by beheading, if tradition is correct). Paul informed Timothy that he was "being chained like a criminal" (2 Tim. 2:9, NIV), and that the time of his departure had come (2 Tim. 4:6). He had "fought the good fight," he had "kept the faith," and now he had "finished the course" (vs. 7) that had been previously laid out before him by the Lord Himself. Yet, before his exodus from this life, this devoted apostle sought to strengthen the resolve of his "beloved son" (2 Tim. 1:2), encouraging him to steadfastness in his future service to Christ and His cause. It is a very personal and passionate pastoral epistle, and should be required regular reading of every spiritual leader in the Body of Christ. There is a wealth of practical wisdom contained in this final epistle from Paul for those, like him, who have been called to a life of self-sacrificial service to the Savior.

The first phrase in the verse is: "Study to show thyself approved unto God" (KJV), with the phrase that follows elaborating upon that charge: "a workman that needeth not to be ashamed" (KJV). In other words, as laborers in the Lord's vineyard, let us examine ourselves and our labors honestly so as to assure that we daily present ourselves, through our attitudes and actions, in such a way as to bring glory to our God. By such diligence to our labors (to which the Master has called us) we need never shrink in shame before His gaze. We are His chosen sons, saved by grace through faith, confident in His choosing of us, and diligent in our daily devotion to Him. In this great spiritual reality there is no place for any feeling of failure or sense of shame. Perfect in ourselves? No! Perfected in Him? Yes! Abiding in Him, and in His love and grace, and His Spirit abiding in us, our service, though imperfect by virtue of our human nature, is approved unto God by virtue of His divine nature! Thus, although we are expected to give due diligence in our service as loyal and loving servants, yet even our most feeble efforts are applauded from above, for we are beloved sons and daughters!

As alluded to above, Paul called Timothy (and by extension each of us) to "diligence" when he used the Greek verb spoudazo. The word "study" (employed by the KJV translators) really doesn't convey to us today the concept Paul had in mind (although, in defense of the KJV, the word "study," as it was employed several hundred years ago in England, did convey to them the meaning Paul intended). This Greek term simply means: "to make haste, to exert one's self, endeavor, give diligence" [Dr. Kenneth Wuest, Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 2, "The Pastoral Epistles," p. 134]. "Zeal, earnest desire, effort, and haste, are all implied in it" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 21, II Timothy, p. 21]. "Give diligence" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 4, p. 165]. The term "literally means 'make haste,' and so 'be zealous or eager.' 'Study' (KJV) is obviously too narrow a term, usually referring today to the studying of books. The true meaning is 'make every effort'" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 11, p. 402]. In essence, as servants of our Lord, we are called to give our best unto Him. God doesn't want "weekend warriors" or "part time" laborers. God expects, and God deserves, our ALL. As one embraced by grace and lifted by love, I am determined to give Him no less.

As part of that determination, especially as one called to be an ambassador of His grace, I am resolved to show diligence in "rightly dividing the word of truth" (KJV). But, what exactly does that mean? What is the "word of truth," and how does one "rightly divide" it? It is this final phrase in the passage that has caused the most confusion among disciples of Christ. There are a great many theories as to what Paul meant, some of which border on the bizarre. Before we get into a study of the words within the phrase, notice how a number of versions and translations render it (I think you'll find the diversity interesting):

  1. King James Version -- rightly dividing the word of truth.
  2. New King James Version -- rightly dividing the word of truth.
  3. American Standard Version -- handling aright the word of truth.
  4. New American Standard Bible -- handling accurately the word of truth.
  5. New International Version -- who correctly handles the word of truth.
  6. English Standard Version -- rightly handling the word of truth.
  7. Holman Christian Standard Bible -- correctly teaching the word of truth.
  8. The Message -- laying out the truth plain and simple.
  9. Lamsa's Translation from the Aramaic of the Peshitta -- one who preaches straightforwardly the word of truth.
  10. New American Bible, St. Joseph Edition -- following a straight course in preaching the truth.
  11. New English Bible -- be straightforward in your proclamation of the truth.
  12. The New Jerusalem Bible -- who keeps the message of truth on a straight path.
  13. Hugo McCord's NT Translation of the Everlasting Gospel -- interpreting correctly the message of truth.
  14. Charles B. Williams' NT in the Language of the People -- who properly presents the message of truth.
  15. J. B. Phillips' NT in Modern English -- who knows how to use the word of truth to the best advantage.
  16. Contemporary English Version -- who teaches only the true message.
  17. New World Translation -- handling the word of the truth aright.
  18. Revised Standard Version -- rightly handling the word of truth.
  19. New Living Translation -- who correctly explains the word of truth.
  20. Darby Translation -- cutting in a straight line the word of truth.
  21. Lexham English Bible -- guiding the word of truth along a straight path.

The phrase "the word of truth" is believed by many to refer to the Bible. Although this is a popular view, it seems rather unlikely this is what Paul had in mind. After all, the Bible (as we have it today) did not even exist. The early disciples certainly were familiar with the sacred writings of the Jews, and some were aware of various letters by Paul that were being circulated (Peter made reference to some of them in 2 Peter 3:16, indicating there were things in them difficult to understand), but there were significant portions of our present NT canon that had not even been written. All the writings of John, for example, had yet to be written (and wouldn't be for another three decades). The canon as we know it today (66 books; 39 in the OT, 27 in the NT) would not take its present form until hundreds of years after Paul wrote the above words to Timothy. Therefore, it would be rather difficult for Timothy to "rightly divide" that which would not even exist until long after his death. So, to declare that "the word of truth" is a reference to the Bible is misguided at best. Clearly, the notion of a bound completed collection of OT and NT works would not even have entered the mind of Timothy as he read Paul's charge (as no such collection existed). Paul's words had to mean something to Timothy, and the interpretation that "the word of truth" refers to the Bible does not meet that condition.

Other scholars, recognizing the above problem, restrict the meaning of the phrase, as used by Paul, to the Old Covenant Scriptures, which Paul did indeed commend Timothy for knowing intimately. "From childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:15-17). Paul then charges Timothy to "preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction" (2 Tim. 4:2). Timothy knew the sacred writings, and he was charged to proclaim "the word" (logos -- which is also the term used in 2:15). Few would assert that Paul was telling Timothy to preach the OT writings, but rather to employ his knowledge of these sacred writings to proclaim the message of truth contained within them -- which is: the good news of the Messiah who has come to bring fallen men back into relationship with their God. Jesus Himself even emphasized this purpose for the Jewish sacred writings (something the legalists of His day failed to perceive ... and which the legalists fail to perceive even today) -- "You search the Scriptures thinking that in them you have eternal life, yet it is these that bear witness of Me, and you are unwilling to come to Me that you may have life" (John 5:39-40). Yes, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He is the Word (logos) become flesh, "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Thus, He is in a very real sense "the word of truth" revealed not only in the flesh, but also in "the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 3:15). Timothy knew these writings intimately, and he knew intimately the One whom these writings revealed, as well as the message this One brought from the Father. Paul, therefore, charged him to diligence in his ministry of imparting this good news to those around him, and to "handle accurately" that Word of Truth that saves! I believe that to be the message of divine Truth, not only found within the sacred writings, but also personified in God's Son!! Yes, we today have additional inspired writings (a bound collection) that Timothy did not have, but the divine Messenger and His Message are the same! We, like he, must be diligent to handle these with the reverence and respect and care they deserve (and that would include the inspired writings in which both Message and Messenger are revealed to us, and which Peter said some were "distorting to their own destruction" -- 2 Peter 3:16).

The Greek word orthotomeo is found only in 2 Timothy 2:15 (it is used nowhere else in the NT writings). It literally means "to cut straight," and was often used in secular Greek writings to describe the accurate cutting of stones by stone masons (the straighter the cut, the better the stones fit together in whatever was being built). It was also used of those who plowed straight furrows in a field, as opposed to one who allowed the ox to wander about to the right or the left leaving crooked furrows. It was also used in connection with road builders, who would cut a straight path through the forest so that travelers could reach their destination quickly. It is used in this sense in the only two places this word is found in the Greek OT (Septuagint) -- Proverbs 3:6; 11:5. In time, the term came to be used metaphorically to suggest a "correct handling" of something. W. E. Vine, in his classic Expository Dictionary of NT Words states, "The meaning passed from the idea of cutting or dividing, to the more general sense of rightly dealing with a thing. What is intended here is not dividing Scripture from Scripture, but teaching Scripture accurately" [p. 327]. The noted Greek scholar, Dr. Marvin Vincent, wrote, "The thought is that the minister of the gospel is to present the truth rightly, not abridging it, not handling it as a charlatan, not making it a matter of wordy strife, but treating it honestly and fully, in a straightforward manner" [Vincent's Word Studies, e-Sword]. Albert Barnes (1798-1870) suggests Paul is instructing Timothy to "rightfully and skillfully teach the word of truth" [Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. Dr. Henry Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the NT states that in 2 Tim. 2:15 this word means "to teach the truth correctly and directly" [p. 453]. "The context suggests that Paul is warning against taking the devious paths of deceiving interpretations" when teaching others God's Truth [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 11, p. 402]. Don't wander away from Truth; stay on course with Truth; don't take the detours of human speculation. Sophocles, a Greek writer, used this term to mean: "expound soundly" [Dr. Kenneth Wuest, Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 2, The Pastoral Epistles, p. 135].

Although the above is, in my view, the correct understanding and application of this passage, and of the Greek word orthotomeo in particular, nevertheless "various homiletic fancies have been founded on the word" [Vincent's Word Studies]. One of those "fancies" needs to be mentioned before leaving this study, as there are those "troubling the church" today by their bizarre interpretation of this passage. This is the view that "rightly dividing the word" refers to correctly identifying the division between OT books of the Bible and NT books of the Bible. It is claimed by these people that we have NOT "rightly divided" the Bible when we make the gospel records of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (and also the first chapter of Acts) part of the NT writings. These should be part of the OT writings, they declare, and "rightly dividing the word" would mean placing these writings at the end of the OT grouping, and making the NT grouping begin with Acts 2. This is not something new, by the way, as this view can be traced back many hundreds of years. Even Martin Luther believed Paul's statement "rightly dividing the word" had reference to "dividing between law and gospel" [R. C. H. Lenski, Interpretation of Second Timothy, p. 799]. Although very few promote such a doctrine, those who do can be quite forceful (and thus disruptive).

For example, a reader in Oklahoma (who worked for years as a prison minister) wrote me the following email a couple of weeks ago: "Dear Brother Al, Thank you so much for your dedication to teaching via these Reflections. I have followed them for several years, but have not found one which addresses an issue our local preacher keeps bringing up periodically. He puts forth the idea that a grave error was committed when the Bible was published in its present form. The four Gospels and Acts 1 should have been included in the OT, and the NT should start with Acts 2. Needless to say, this is causing some serious confusion, and our elders have not done anything to settle the issue. Since very few scholars even hint that this is an 'issue' (and certainly not a salvation issue), I asked why he even brings it up. His response is that we are charged to 'rightly divide' the Scriptures. What are your thoughts on this?" Well, as noted in my study above, I think this preacher has completely failed to grasp the intent of Paul in his statement to Timothy. I also have to wonder why one is so adamant about casting off the four gospel records, insisting that nothing within them has any relevance for the Lord's church. That one would do this is troubling, to say the least.

Let me give an actual example of how extreme some of these people can get. On May 4th, 1958, an elder by the name of R. M. Mickle presented a discourse to the Church of Christ at South 15th & Park Streets in Waco, Texas. A written copy of that discourse was recently sent to me by one of my readers (who didn't even know that I was preparing this current Reflections). Notice the following quotes from this elder in the Church of Christ. "Brethren and Sisters, it is being taught by hundreds of our good brethren that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the first four books of the New Testament. Now brethren and sisters, I love you that are teaching this false doctrine. But I hate your doctrine. In fact, I hate it so profoundly that I have decided to crucify it and bury it face downward, so that the more it tries to dig out, the deeper it will go." Mickle went on to declare that he absolutely refused to "teach these four books to the church." He continued: "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had to be taken out of the way and nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14) before the New Testament law could be ushered in." Yes, as Dr. Vincent said, there are indeed some "homiletic fancies" that have arisen from this passage, as well as fanatics to promote them. On the other hand, for an inspiring and uplifting sermon on this passage, I would refer you to the text of the sermon delivered by C. H. Spurgeon on December 26, 1875 at his Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, England. Click Here to read that sermon.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Brother Al, Your last Reflections article ("A Hymn Born of Discord") reminds me of a couple of things I heard my Dad say -- "We sing a much better Gospel than we preach." When someone once asked my Dad to put the Gospel in a nut shell, he said, "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling." Thank you, Al, for your continuing hard work in speaking the Truth.

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, I am soooo excited about your new book -- Immersed By One Spirit, and am soooo thankful to be "on the same page" with you concerning baptism!!! It is my prayer that many, many more will see the light of His Word regarding what water does and does not do!! Love you, brother!

From a Reader in Canada:

Brother Al, In your last article you prayed, "...may we come to appreciate what truly matters from the perspective of the Throne. And help us to learn, dear Lord, that from the depths of our own ugliness, You can create a thing of enduring beauty!" Amen, Al. I especially acknowledge the need for God's grace to bring us up to Himself from the depths of our own ugliness. How true the following words of Augustus Toplady, which words say it all and put me on my knee before Him:

From a Minister in Texas:

Brother Al, What a great article! I had no idea of the stage on which "Rock of Ages" was written, or the field on which its battles were fought. Being more Arminian than Calvinistic in theology, I sympathize more with Wesleyan tradition, and for the most part it seems that Wesley likewise had a better grasp on grace, not just as a doctrine, but also as a model for godly behavior! Unfortunately, all too often I have been a combatant in theology more akin to Augustus Toplady's "take no prisoners; hang the bastards" approach, even when "duking it out" over grace (and how bizarre and blatantly inconsistent that is!!). I think I've finally learned my lesson, though, and I do like my more gracious, gentle and non-confrontational spirit these days far better (although there are times when a stronger tone is essential to exposing error and affirming Truth). I believe that you, my brother and friend, have got that well in balance in your writings, for I have seen conciliatory approaches, as well as powerful and undiluted counter-attacks, from you as needed. Therefore, thanks for the inspiring and informative look at the story of this great hymn ("Rock of Ages"), and for a chance to do some personal reflection on how to fight fairly and graciously -- and thank you for modeling so well how to do that! You have my love and appreciation!

From a Minister in Maine:

Dear Bro. Al, "A Hymn Born of Discord" was a great article!! Truly there is something profitable to be learned from the lives of these two men (Augustus Toplady and John Wesley). Music truly can be the universal language, depending upon what is being sung about. God's blessings to you and your family.

From a Minister in Kansas:

Brother Al, Thank you for your Reflections. I have been doing some reading on this time period in history (the era in which Toplady and Wesley lived), particularly the decades after the American Revolution. So many back then had venomous pens, pulpits, and speeches against the "religious elite." It seemed everyone was "restoring" the church, yet Christendom splintered into many groups, all claiming to be the true church. What is it about Americans that gave rise to such a proliferation of sects?! Your snapshot of the mentality of some of the more educated leaders during this time has reminded me that the venomous attacks did not just come from the uneducated clergy. Thank you again for your Reflections.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Brother Al, Funny how God can take our fights and turn them into a song! Perhaps we should imitate that, huh?! I have to chuckle to myself when I think of all the "denomination bashing" that goes on in some churches, and yet they sing each other's hymns! Oh, by the way, I had a man tell me the other day that you were "wrong ... dead wrong," although he couldn't articulate why (LOL). Traditions can become so ingrained that we don't even know why we believe what we believe!! Keep up the good work, my friend.

From a Reader in Arizona:

Dear Brother Al, I have just finished your article about Augustus Toplady. I really appreciate your research, and your bringing together of the pertinent facts behind this hymn of his. Growing up in the Churches of Christ, the impression I received from the preachers I heard was that Calvinism "was evil," and that simply labeling any statement as "Calvinistic" was adequate to dismiss it. Through some patient teaching of the Scriptures by Edward, I finally came to see what they actually believe. Also, let me just say that your willingness to suffer being spoken against is refreshing!

From a Reader in Alaska:

Brother Al, Excellent article on the proper perspective on baptism ("Peter's Problem Preposition: Reflecting on EIS in Acts 2:38" -- Reflections #515). I have finally "arrived," and am in agreement with your perspective. What still bothers me, though, is the approach to baptism that most Non-Church of Christ groups have: waiting for months, at times, to have a "baptismal service" for those that have accepted Christ. I don't see that attitude in the Scriptures, but rather a much more "immediate" response (which is probably why so many in the Churches of Christ are convinced of the salvation connection with the act). I would like to have your thoughts on that. By the way, I am so encouraged that you can actually continue to be a minister and an elder at a Church of Christ while teaching your perspective on baptism -- it just seems almost impossible to me! It's also amazing that you can keep up your schedule!! God bless you, brother!!

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Brother Al, Thank You for the concise and insightful thought in your last Reflections that "maybe we don't need to restore unity; maybe we have had it all along." A few years ago, after hearing lessons from Rubel Shelly, Leroy Garrett, and others, and after having discussions with people from several "denominations" who had a deep and active faith, and after studying the Scriptures, I came to the understanding that regardless of the group we affiliate with, we are all simply saved by God's grace through faith. I have often pondered over the fact that so many of my brothers and sisters in Churches of Christ seemed to be critical of everything any other religious group taught, and yet, at the same time, sang the hymns of these other Christians that were so wonderfully full of teachings about salvation by grace. We sing the same theology in our hymns, but refuse fellowship to those who wrote them. In a conversation with a wonderful Christian man, well-known for his good works and generosity, I said that I believed that anyone who had an active faith in God and in Jesus as His Son, and in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus for our atonement, would be saved by God's grace regardless of his/her religious affiliation. My friend protested, saying this could not be true, for then people in the "denominations" who also believe this would be saved!! I said, "And would that be a bad thing?!!" Brother Al, I eagerly look forward to each of your weekly essays. Keep up the good work!

From a Reader in California:

Brother Al, I was just browsing through your past Reflections when I came across this statement of yours to a reader (from one of your articles in 2003) -- "Permission is gladly granted, brother. I am more than willing for anyone to use excerpts from my writings at any time in any responsible effort to edify the saints and encourage the lost to embrace the Lord." Al, I have always hated finding an especially uplifting quote from some book or pamphlet, only to find that nobody, under any circumstances, may "reproduce, copy, blah, blah, blah" any portion of it for any purpose. THANK YOU for being magnanimous with your thoughts and writings!!

From a Reader in Florida:

Brother Al, When I read your article "A Hymn Born of Discord" it hit me that while we battle, at the expense of unbelievers around us (in terms of showing them the love and unity of believers, which the Lord calls us to do), yet when we sing (even with instruments) we all seem united!! I think of football or basketball games where everyone from whatever belief system is there together united!! How is it that the Lord has blessed us with the ability to sing and make music, and we can be united in one accord during our singing, yet we make that the very issue which often separates us?! Answer -- Satan knows this too! I love you, brother! May God bless you! Also, I am ordering a personally signed copy of your new book Immersed By One Spirit. Summer 2012 reading material.

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