Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15 KJV
I can’t remember when I first became aware of it, but having attended a Bible college for 3 years, you can be sure I heard “Study to show thyself approved unto God!” repeated on a regular basis. It was, after all, one of the first verses I had to memorize. Like some of you, I subjected myself to numerous Bible studies and sermons designed to motivate me to serve the Lord through a mixture of guilt and gratitude; but unlike most, I sat under it on a daily basis. And it didn’t take long for me to feel the immense burden of God’s eyes watching my every move, him knowing my every thought, waiting to see what I would do. Would I be one of the few in my generation who was sold out for the Lord? You see, I wanted to make Him proud. I really did. I wanted Him to approve of me. And for sure I didn’t want to be one of those lukewarm Christians. No, I wanted to be on fire for the Lord! Secretly, I dreaded the possibility that after all was said and done, God might look down upon me in utter disappointment as I hung my head before Him in shame.
Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that I spent my days crippled by guilt and shame, for I was young and energetic, and I filled my days with enough soul-winning, Christian activities to ward off most of it — until the next guilt-ridden message hit me hard enough to raise the alarm, that is. And in Bible college, you could get a lot of that. You see, it didn’t just come from the regular teachers, we also got an extra dose from a visiting preacher or evangelist on a regular basis. And if that wasn’t enough, there were a few fellow students lying in wait to instruct others with their wisdom — with lots of love, of course — and you had to find ways to avoid some of them. Now, even though our understanding of the Christian life included enough guilt to incapacitate most folks, it was, in fact, offset by a confidence built around knowing that we were saved by grace through faith — and I basked in the certainty of that reality. And yes, that really helped me keep on keeping on.
Because I was convinced that my heavenly accommodations depended upon how well I served the Lord, I pushed myself to study the Scriptures as Paul had seemingly instructed Timothy. I was assured it would enable me to rightly divide the word of truth. And that’s a huge endeavor for a guy who didn’t read much. I mean, it was so much easier to sit and learn from someone who didn’t mind doing the study, but I was constantly confronted with my responsibility to let God teach me what the scriptures meant, because then I could speak with authority. After all, how could I know I wasn’t being led away by someone else’s error unless I became “more noble” like the Bereans who “searched the scriptures daily” (Acts 17:11)?
If I hadn’t been so naive in assuming that my own attempts at “rightly dividing the word of truth” would not lead me into error, I might have lost heart in the realization that most of the people I had been warned against by my teachers and peers probably started out just like I did. Maybe they weren’t as sincere or as honest as I was? Maybe their earlier training wasn’t as Scripturally grounded as my own? Yeah, that’s how I learned to rationalize it. However, being naive didn’t mean I was totally oblivious. I mean, I had no intention of straying far from what I had been taught, in truth, I clung to it as a safety net. But as I began to see a few things in a different light, I had to wonder what would keep me from becoming the next guy to be scrutinized for error? As it turns out, I didn’t have to wait much longer before I was the next guy.
Anyhow, this leads me to ask some pointed questions. If we’re studying to show ourselves approved unto God, how do we end up dividing the word of truth so differently? In other words, if the results of my sincere study are different from the results of your sincere study, does that mean one of us is not studying correctly, or perhaps, not rightly dividing? Of course, by that logic, it could also mean that neither one of us is, don’t you think? However, do you really think Paul meant to establish the nit-picky, contentious mess we so often associate with rightly dividing the word of truth? It would seem that our dividing leads us to become divisive, and I think most of us know Paul didn’t go for that. But then, what else might he have meant?
If you’ve read much of what I’ve written, you may realize that I read and quote from more than one translation. I currently use a Bible program (theWord) with more than a dozen different versions available, including a few Greek manuscripts. I regularly consult numerous of them. Of course, I mostly quote from my long-time favorite, the New American Standard (NASB). And by the way, if you don’t see a translation abbreviation attached to the Bible verse or passage, it most likely comes from that one. What I mostly appreciate about reading from different translations is the challenge of seeing the Bible letters from a sometimes sharply different perspective. While I was still in Bible college (I think it was during my last year), I bought my first New American Standard Bible. And, to me, one of the more remarkable distinctions was 2 Timothy 2:15.
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15 NASB
Imagine my surprise when faced with the possibility that the word study might actually mean something else. I knew what to do with the concept of study — for I had been slowly getting into the habit of doing more of it on my own — but this other suggestion: be diligent … it intrigued me, to say the least. I don’t know, maybe intrigued doesn’t quite capture the internal jolts I experienced when I first encountered it. I think I remember a sense of disorientation as I leafed back and forth trying to find the verse where Paul told Timothy to study the scriptures. It was like, THIS can’t be it! Remember, I didn’t have any computer program where I could instantly view any given verse in a heartbeat, I had to open up both of my Bibles (the KJV and the NASB) and my HUGE Strong’s Concordance to check each verse out. I couldn’t understand how two different groups of translators could come up with such a big discrepancy. And this wasn’t the only one, mind you, for I was discovering numerous differences. Some big, some small. But at the same time, there was an strange undercurrent of joy and excitement working within me — an excitement that surpassed any novelty of discovering a new translation, that’s for sure.
I can understand why the KJV translators decided to use the word study, because the context does include the imagery of a workman who could rightly divide the word of truth. Added to that, in the same letter Paul included:
You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that 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; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:14-17
While the NT writers may have used graphe to indicate the writings found in the Old Testament scriptures (in part or in whole), the word simply means a drawing, painting; a writing; that which is written. You should be able to see our own modern word graphic in that Greek word. There is also another Greek word that’s very similar: grammah. And here again, you should be able to see the English word grammar. Paul used both Greek words in 2 Timothy 3:14-17 to seemingly indicate the same thing. For the reference to sacred writings comes from the Greek word grammah, and the reference to Scriptures is graphe. Grammah has the following definitions: learning, letter(s), Scriptures, written; that which is drawn or written; any writing, a document or record; a note of hand, bill, bond, account, written acknowledgement of a debt. Now, as found in the New Testament writings, graphe almost always refer to the Old Testament writings. I say almost because there is a reference made by Peter where he may have indicated that he viewed Paul’s letters in the same way:
as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. 2 Peter 3:16
I realize that those who have translated the apostles’ letters into English have wanted to make sure readers will know that Paul referred to the authoritative writings of God, but then they have also created the assumption that those Greek words actually meant Holy Scriptures or Holy Bible or sacred writings, which they do not. They were common words that referred to any number of different kinds of documents. I’m not suggesting that Paul and the other apostles didn’t use those words to specifically refer to the writings of Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets (for at least graphe seems to have been used that way), rather I’m suggesting that it may have been something more akin to fear that induced the translators to capitalize the S of scripture and add the word sacred to create the phrase sacred writings. After all, we can’t have the same common word representing the writings of the Old and New Testaments that was used to validate something as mundane as the sale of a barrel of fish or even an I.O.U., can we?
But why not? Or do we really think using special “God” words or phrases will ever bring true understanding to the natural mind of man? All the gold plating and red letters and capitalized words and theological expressions we imagine as embellishing the reality of God in this world comes from the same mind of man that cannot understand the things of God in the first place. Instead, all it really does is to convince us that the wall between us and God is still intact and is hiding his reality from us rather in it being hid in us.
Oh yes, the world holds to its concepts of magic books and divine incantations that can unlock the secrets of the universe (aka, God), and this is the very same thing we want to force back into the perceptions of those who have been set free from the world. The problem is not found in the words of the prophets and apostles, it is found in the inability of the fleshly mind that is still trying to reach God by climbing ladders and achieving higher levels of knowledge. Those who belong to Christ can see the testimony of God’s working through recorded history even though the world can only find bondage. I bring all this up here because many Christians have difficulty thinking outside the confines of our modern concepts of the canonization of the Scriptures — aka. the Old and New Testament writings that have been conveniently collected together in a single volume. It’s not that I discount their value, but I’m afraid many Christians have grown so hide-bound that their very thoughts of God and of salvation in Christ are word-oriented rather than life-oriented. Could that be why we think in terms of intellectual-based learning when it comes to the Bible?
So, what of the suggestion in modern translations that 2 Timothy 2:15 is be diligent. Well, the actual Greek word in that verse is spoudazo, which in view of the definition diligence seems to lend itself in that direction. Now, I find it interesting that the primary meaning of that Greek word is actually to make haste. Hmmm … study … diligence … make haste … which is it? In truth, the fleshly mind can make any of these definitions turn us into intellectual slaves of a book. I already know the sense of judgment that comes from trying to prove myself to God by attempting to correctly interpret the Bible by intensive study, but then, being diligent can suggest the same thing. After all, look at the given definitions to diligence: careful and persistent work or effort, along with some of the synonyms: conscientiousness, assiduousness, assiduity, hard work, application, concentration, effort, care, industriousness, rigor, meticulousness, thoroughness. I’m guessing that’s why the NET (New English Translation) starts that verse out like so: “Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker”. Wow … make every effort! Yeah, that could easily include lots of Bible instruction, by reading, studying, cross-referencing, using every tool available in one’s quest. And that’s the same thing I understood.
However, something that stood out to me in the phrase be diligent to present yourself to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed suggested that the diligence was found not in the study or the process and details of the study but in the presentation of myself to God as being approved! You see, at the same time, I was also beginning to notice a pattern in the reality of presenting ourselves to God that vastly differed from what I had been taught. In other words, rather than me trying to do something to somehow make myself acceptable to God (with or without his help), I was hearing a message of true freedom. After all, the message of Jesus Christ had to do with him making us acceptable to God. Our problem is that we are so easily made to feel unworthy, and therefore, ashamed to stand before him. The demand of God is that we stand firm in Christ. No, no, not to somehow work ourselves up so that we can stand, but rather that we simply stand as having been made worthy through Christ. For Jesus Christ has become our worthiness! Check out Romans 12:1 in this light:
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. Romans 12:1
I mean, we’ve somehow made it through eleven chapters of one of the most amazing declarations of the the good news as Paul preached it, and we become convinced that every confidence brought into view up to this point is supposed to become subservient to whether or not we have been keeping ourselves holy and free from sin? Really? No, no, no! This is Paul’s insistence to the Roman believers that they not fall back into the mind of the flesh in how they see themselves, and therefore how they approach God. God has made our mortal bodies — that is, bodies that were dead to God and to his righteousness — as alive to himself. He has taken those who had been living in the deadness of sin, and he removed them from out of that bondage into the light and righteousness of God. Do you realize that your own reaction right now to the suggestion that you, living in your body, have been made alive and holy to God only validates why Paul made such a big deal of begging those believers to present themselves as being so to God?
And this is at the heart of what Paul was reminding Timothy of. Why? Because Timothy found himself easily intimidated so that backing off in teaching this to others seemed to be more true in the face of those who opposed him. If you read both letters Paul wrote to Timothy, you shouldn’t have difficulty understanding why, as well as what Paul was trying to get across to him: Timothy, don’t be afraid! Timothy, don’t be ashamed! Timothy, don’t listen to those who appear to be Biblical scholars for they don’t know what they are talking about! Check this out:
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher. For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day. Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you. 2 Timothy 1:8-14
The treasure which has been entrusted to you. It was not some kind of possibility that Timothy might be able to achieve by much study or diligence, rather it was a truth, a reality Paul had encouraged him to boldly stand in. Isn’t this the same kind of thing he wrote to others? For example, to the Galatians, he wrote: It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1. He wasn’t suggesting that they needed to somehow strain and strive to become free, but rather that they stop straining and striving so that they might simply stand in the reality of freedom by which they had already been set free.
Let’s consider how the meaning to make haste might enhance our understanding of what Paul was getting across to Timothy. After all, when I look at the definition, I read this: to make haste, hence to give diligence. “Hence…”. In other words, the meaning of to give diligence is supposed to be an alternative or seemingly a better way to express what that word means. It seems to me, however, that making haste doesn’t lead me to think of careful and persistent work or effort. How about you? I took a look at the other occurrences of the Greek word behind it all and was easily able to insert a form of haste or hurry in their stead, and it worked surprisingly well. What I hear in Paul’s phrasing to Timothy suggests more of a sense of urgency in presenting himself as approved to God as a workman. In other words, Paul wants to make sure Timothy understands that this is not something to deliberate or hesitate over. Consider the context here:
Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. 2 Timothy 2:14-17
In the face of those who wrangle about words, there is a sense of urgency in not giving into the useless and vain arguments of those who want to pull you into their games. Look at the inclusion of worldly and empty chatter. Timothy, don’t listen to that garbage! Something tells me that a simple word that expressed the reality of giving absolutely no time or consideration to worthless arguments has come to mean Let’s take time and consider all options and viewpoints. And we justify it all under the premise that we’re actually studying the Bible.
But this matter won’t be complete until we take a closer look into what it means to “rightly divide” or “accurately handle” the word of truth. So, right up front let me challenge the ridiculous notion that Paul wanted Timothy to develop a system of Biblical truth by which all scripture must fit within. The Greek word simply means “to cut straight,” and according to some notes from the NET translators:
Accurately is a figure of speech that literally means something like “cutting a straight road.” In regard to the message of truth, it means “correctly handling” or “imparting it without deviation.”
The meaning “correctly handling” seems more in line with that worthless intellectual sense theologians have stood on for centuries of “rightly dividing” by which they have devised many different Scriptural systems of understanding the truth of the Bible, but the sense of imparting it without deviation probably captures the heart of the matter. After all, Paul has told Timothy not to listen to the arguments of those whose stance on the truth of God is found within their mastery of words. These are those who make their cases in the same way lawyers do in playing off the premises of their logic and rules.
Paul’s instruction to Timothy was simple, not complex. It did not involve detailed arguments or theological systems of understanding the Bible. It was a straight-forward encouragement to not allow the arguments of the pseudo-spiritual (that is, those who seem to be so knowledgeable of God’s truth) to pull the one who declares the truth of Christ from its simplicity. Timothy, don’t let those who fight with words cause you to hesitate for even a moment as you present yourself as one who is approved to God. For you have absolutely no reason to be ashamed, because you have been called as a fellow-worker with me in suffering for the gospel. Do not deviate in proclaiming the truth of Christ in order to satisfy their disputes.