I took a portion of a longer article I just finished writing in order to send it out as a Shoveletter. Yeah, you haven’t seen one of those for a while, have you?
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 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.
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!
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.