Truth in the Pastoral Epistles (9): Its Examination

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (2Tim 2:15, KJV).

When, in my early teens, I first began to apply myself to the serious study of the Word of God, I hung this verse above my desk. Although at that stage I had not grasped all the nuances of the verse, I had, in my simplicity, recognized it for what it is – a clear mandate for the sustained and careful study of the Word of God.

It is, of course, the case that the verse does not speak of studying in the sense that we have come to understand it. Up to the nineteenth century, “study” could be used to mean “to strive towards, set one’s mind on, devote oneself to” (OED), a sense that it has now lost, but which accurately captures the meaning of the Greek word, which can also be rendered “make every effort“ (NET), “be diligent” (HCSB), or, less satisfactorily, “do your best” (NIV, ESV). It is important that we do not miss the force of the imperative. The study of Scripture is not a task for dilettantes. It requires diligence; careful, consistent, unremitting application. In a world of distractions it requires focus. In the age of the superficial it requires depth.

The diligence to which Paul exhorts Timothy is not motivated merely by the prospect of developing knowledge or impressing the brethren. Its goal is that he might show himself “approved unto God,” not needing to be ashamed. This was to be the goal of all Timothy’s service, and should be the driving motivation of all our endeavours. Like the apostle, we should live with the daily appreciation that our service is to God and for God. Our study of Scripture should have God’s approval as its goal.

This approval is something more than just approbation. The word used was originally applied to metal and coins. It has the idea of approval as a result of testing. Handling the Word of truth is a solemn thing: we will answer to God for the way in which we have interpreted His Word. To underscore this, Paul provides us with solemn examples of those whose teaching is deformed because they have not “rightly divided” the Word of truth, men like “Hymenaeus and Philetus; who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some” (2Tim 2:18, KJV). These men had not passed the test. They were disapproved in their understanding of the truth; consequently, their teaching was not only defective, but damaging to those who heard them. Notice the order – false interpretation leads to false teaching, which leads to harm for the hearers. Timothy is exhorted to precisely the inverse of this – correct interpretation (the central idea in “rightly dividing”) leads to “sound doctrine” – accurate teaching which is beneficial to the hearer.

The same idea is present in the image of a workman who needs not to be ashamed. This is no bungling journeyman or ham-fisted odd job man, presenting a barely adequate lash-up. Rather, this is a master craftsman who, through long labor, has become adept with his tools and materials, whose work can withstand the most searching scrutiny. The image is a vivid one. There is something distinctively pleasurable about watching a skilled workman in operation, a sort of elegance in the economy and assurance of his movements and the neat precision of his results. That is what we should aim for in our study of Scripture, and we achieve it in precisely the same way – by consistent and sustained practice. Ezra had achieved this – he was a “ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given” (Ezra 7:6, KJV), and the word “ready” conveys just this sort of fluency and ease.

The Divinely-approved workman must “rightly divide” (“rightly handling” ESV) the “Word of truth.“ “Rightly dividing“ (which occurs only here in the NT) literally means “to cut straight.” The expression can be found in the LXX in Proverbs 3:6 and 11:5 where it has the idea of making a straight path. The dominant thought is straightness or correctness, and there is an obvious contrast with the way in which Hymenaeus and Philetus have “erred” or swerved from the truth (v17). Since C. I. Scofield, at least, dispensationalists have seen in the term a reference to the correct dispensational handling of the Word of God. To limit the meaning to this is unduly reductive. Getting the dispensations right is undoubtedly a crucial part of rightly dividing the Word of truth, but it embraces much more than that. It refers to the correct interpretation of all Scripture.

The “Word of truth” is the medium in which this master craftsman works. There is little reason to question that the “Word [logos] of truth” is essentially a reference to the Scriptures. Certainly, the term logos is frequently used in the New Testament to refer either to a specific Scripture (e.g. John 10:35 and Rom 9:6), or to the Old Testament or Scripture as a whole (e.g. Mark 7:9-13 and Heb 4:12). It is true that logos carried the connotation of an utterance and that it does refer, on occasion, to the gospel message (e.g. 1Cor 1:18; Eph 1:13; Col 1:5-6). Neither of these facts needs to prevent us from seeing a reference to Scripture in this verse. Not only do we have passages where logos clearly refers to the written Word, we have already seen how Paul, in chapter three of this epistle, stresses the continuity between what the apostles taught and the God-breathed Scriptures. Moreover, it is a mistake to understand Paul’s references to the gospel as speaking of the sort of simple message of man’s ruin, God’s remedy, and man’s responsibility with which we might fill 30 minutes on a Lord’s Day evening. Paul uses the term in a far broader way. The gospel, for him, is conterminous with “the faith,” “the truth,” and all of the other terms that we have seen used in the pastoral epistles. All of these terms are conterminous with the Scriptures, for in no other way do we have access to the gospel in all its fulness. The very expression “the Word of truth,” with its echo of “the scriptures of truth” (Dan 10:21), should alert us to this. It is the Word that is truth and that communicates truth.

In this verse, then, Timothy is being exhorted to apply himself diligently to the careful and correct interpretation of the Word of God. This application will equip him for the task that lies before him: “Of these things put them in remembrance, charging them before the Lord that they strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers” (v14). “And the servant of the Lord must … [be] apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves” (vv24-25, KJV).

But the exhortation is not just for Timothy. It is relevant to every one of us – sisters as well as brothers. And it is a solemn charge. We are called to diligence in our study of Scripture. Far too often, we would have to confess, our Bible study is a thing of shreds and patches – sporadic and superficial, rather than serious and sustained. Such half-hearted attempts do not make for an unashamed workman. Sadly, there are far too many believers who carry out the everyday tasks of their employment with practised ease, but who are inexperienced and inept in handling the Scriptures. Don’t be one of them.

We should also be sobered by the thought of Divine testing leading either to approval and confidence or disapproval and shame on the part of the workman. It is important to study Scripture and it is important do it right. Our society has been so permeated by postmodernism that we have come to see the interpretation of any text as something almost entirely subjective, as a matter of opinion, rather than of fact. To bring this attitude to the study of Scripture is a fatal mistake. We are to interpret it correctly, to “cut a straight line” rather than to err. Exegesis is not a matter of opinion, but the quest to prayerfully, dependently, and faithfully understand what the text actually means.

So 2 Timothy 2:15 speaks to us still. It still stands as a mandate for careful Bible study, and it belongs in the heart and mind, as well as on the wall, of every student of the Word of truth.