“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:15)
Paul instructs his disciple Timothy to ”be diligent” to present himself “approved to God”. Other translations say, ”study to show yourself approved to God”. What would decide whether Timothy would be approved unto God? Whether he rightly divided the word of truth. Only then would he not have to be ashamed on the day he would have to give an account of his life before God.
Paul’s admonishment to Timothy to “study”, or “be diligent”, to learn more about how to rightly divide the word of truth, is just as necessary today – especially for preachers, but also for every believer.
The word for “divide” in the original Greek, orthotomeo, literally means “to cut straight”. Bible scholars believe that this expression, which isn’t used anywhere else in the New Testament, could be a metaphor of when the priests in the Old Testament were cutting, or separating, the sacrifices, so that all could have their due shares.
Before I move on, I want to emphasize something important. Paul makes clear the following:
16 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
Since the New Testament was not yet written and compiled, the “Scripture” Paul referred to must have been the Old Testament. Just to make sure there is no misunderstanding; I believe that the whole Bible – both the Old and the New Testament – is inspired by God.
However, it is fully possible to be an expert on the Bible, without knowing the person of the Bible, Jesus Christ who is the Word personified. Jesus said the following to the Pharisees and scribes, who were experts of the Old Testament and often could recite it by heart:
39 You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. 40 But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life. (Joh. 5:39-40)
It is thus fully possible to know the holy Scriptures, without knowing the Word – Jesus Christ. For this same reason, it is extremely important for us to never stop learning more about how to rightly divide the word of truth.
14 But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. 15 But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. (2 Kor. 3:14-15)
Many people still read the Bible today with a veil on their hearts, without truly understanding. The veil is removed “in Christ”. This means that only when we understand the “in Christ reality”, we can start understanding the Bible correctly, with an unveiled heart.
Jesus said that He is the way, the truth and the life (Jn. 14:6). To rightly divide the word of truth is therefore to separate the word of Jesus, as revealed through His finished work and the New Covenant, from Old Covenant realities. To do this, we must answer the following three questions as we read the Bible:
- Who is speaking?
A few times the devil is quoted in the Bible, but that does not mean we should take the words of the devil, written in the Bible, as God’s instruction for us today. The same comes to the friends of Job, whose words are recorded in many chapters of the Bible. The context shows us that they were wrong when they rebuked Job, and therefore we must read those portions of scripture carefully.
- To whom is something spoken?
Many words in the Bible are for specific peoples or persons, under specific circumstances. God can surely use those words to speak to us today, but we must still understand these portions of scripture in light of the context. We must know to whom the words were spoken and in what context. Jesus at one specific point told Peter, “Get behind me, Satan”, but this is not necessarily God’s direct word for us today!
- When was is spoken – before or after the cross? What time is it referring to?
An important piece of the puzzle falls in place when we understand that Jesus’ earthly ministry, before the cross, occurred under the Old Covenant (see Gal. 4:4). Many things Jesus said before the cross, were only meant for the people living there and then. For example, He called a non-Jewish lady a “dog” (Mt. 15:26) and commanded the disciples to only preach the Gospel to the Jewish people (Mt. 10:6). However, after the cross everything changed. The separation wall between Jews and Gentiles has been broken (Eph. 2:13-14) and the Gospel is now to be preached as a testimony to all peoples (Mt. 28:19).
Whenever we read something in the Bible, we need to ask ourselves: When was it said – before or after the cross? Since the Old Testament contains many prophesies about the New Covenant, we also must ask: What time is the text referring to – the time before or after the cross?
Consider the shape of the cross. It is shaped as a sword. When God sent out man from the garden of Eden, the way to the tree of life was guarded by the flaming sword (shaped as a cross). Because of the cross, the way to God is now open again for anyone who believes in Jesus. To rightly divide the word of truth, we must use the “sword of the cross” to distinguish what is applicable today, and what was only meant for the Jews under the Old Covenant.
The Bible – a book about Jesus
Have you ever read a book, or watched a movie, with a surprise ending that forced you to go back and re-interpret everything in a new light? The Bible is such a book. The New Covenant brought a totally surprising ending to the story. Suddenly the door was open for all peoples – not only for the Jews – to have fellowship with God. Salvation was not given through the righteousness that comes by the law of Moses, but through the righteousness which is a free gift, by grace through faith in Jesus.
As we read the Bible based on the “solution” revealed to us because of the finished work of Jesus, we start to discover hidden treasures and messages in the Old Testament that points us to Jesus and New Covenant realities. Suddenly we start reading the Bible the way God always intended, with an unveiled heart. We realize that the Bible is a book about Jesus. We start discovering Jesus and His finished work on every page of the Bible (see Lk. 24:27).
Are you one among ten thousand?
A well-known preacher, who has a deep revelation of the New Covenant, once said: “I rather see one single person who preaches the finished work of Jesus, than ten thousand preachers who preach the Christian religion” [by mixing the Old and the New Covenants].
Let us build God’s kingdom with gold, silver and precious stones – building materials that will remain through the storms and pass the test of time. To do so, we must rightly divide the word of truth. To rightly divide the word of truth, we need to read the Bible through the lens of the New Covenant, and filter everything through the finished work of Jesus.