Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

THE KING JAMES Version of II Timothy 2:15 reads, “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth.” According to Prof. Strong, the Greek word here translated study means ‘to make effort, be prompt or earnest’. The thought of study is implied in the text in that our earnest effort to show ourselves approved unto God is indicated to be through “rightly dividing the Word of truth.” Paul recognized the need for diligence in Bible study.

In this text Paul indicates the proper motive for Bible study—which is that we might know the will of God, show ourselves approved unto him, and be fervent in our spirit of serving him. Bible study is not an end in itself, but a means to an end, and that end is to know and to do God’s will. And, as Paul points out, we show ourselves approved unto God in proportion to our rightly dividing the Word of truth, and working in harmony with the instructions thus revealed to us.

What is meant by “rightly dividing the Word of truth”? Paul’s initial use of this expression is found in a very interesting and revealing context. The preceding verse reads, “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.” The three verses following the admonition to rightly divide the Word of truth read, “Shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as doth a canker: of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus; who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some.”

From these verses we learn that striving about words, and vain babblings do not constitute profitable Bible study. Nor were those who at that time were teaching that the resurrection of the dead had already taken place, “rightly dividing the Word of truth.” It might well have been the teaching of this error in the Early Church that prompted Paul to use the particular expression, “rightly dividing the Word of truth.” The Bible does teach the resurrection of the dead, but the error at that time was in claiming that it was a feature of the divine plan which was in the past, rather than in the future.

The lesson here emphasized is the importance of a proper recognition of the time element in God’s plan. Failure to recognize this has led many to conclude that the Bible is contradictory and unreliable. There are, for example, three main time divisions in the plan of God. In a very general way we might speak of these as ‘the world of yesterday’, ‘the world of today’, and ‘the world of tomorrow’. The Bible uses the expressions, “The world that then was,” “this present evil world,” and “the world to come.”—II Pet. 3:6; Gal. 1:4; Heb. 2:5

The first two of these worlds are predominantly evil. The third is described by Peter as a “new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” (II Pet. 3:13) Concerning the “present evil world” we read, “Now we call the proud happy; yea, they that work wickedness are set up yea, they that tempt God are even delivered.” (Mal. 3:15) Failure to recognize that God is now permitting evil to flourish, and that his time for the establishment of righteousness in the earth is in the world to come, has led to various erroneous concepts of the divine plan, and of God’s will for his people at the present time.

Four Ages

Within these larger divisions of time there are shorter periods, which we usually refer to as ages. There was the Patriarchal Age, which began at the Flood, and ended with the death of Jacob. During that age God was dealing with the patriarchs Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. His promises were to them, particularly beginning with Abraham. He did not try to convert the world at that time.

Then, beginning with the death of Jacob, came the Jewish Age, so titled because during that period God’s dealings were exclusively with the Jewish nation. Through the Prophet Amos God said to Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” (Amos 3:2) He gave this nation his Law, and sent his prophets to them. He promised to send the Messiah to this nation, the great Deliverer who would be of the tribe of Judah, and of the royal house of David. By means of the Law and other measures he held the nation together until the Messiah did come. Because they rejected the Messiah, they lost the great privilege of any longer being God’s exclusive people, and a new age began; an age during which the divine purpose in the earth has been carried out through the preaching of the Gospel, hence we call it the Gospel Age.

The Gospel Age has not been a time for the conversion of the world, but for reaching a particular group of people, and calling them out from the world to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, that in the age to come they might live and reign with him in his kingdom. To understand this has a tremendously important bearing on our understanding of what constitutes the will of God for his people during this present age.

The first thousand years in the world to come we refer to as the Millennial Age. This is the age of Christ’s kingdom. This is the age during which the world will be converted, and all the then willing and obedient will be restored to perfection of human life, and have an opportunity of living forever on a perfected earth. Many are the promises of God relating to this glorious climax of the plan of God; but if we are to know the will of God for us at the present time, it is essential to recognize when these promises apply and to whom.

Different Rewards

While Paul’s initial use of the expression, “rightly dividing the Word of truth,” related more particularly to time, the principle thus set forth can properly be applied to other important facts in connection with the divine plan. For example, there are both earthly and heavenly promises in the Bible. There are promises of earthly blessings in the Old Testament which speak of building houses and planting vineyards. (Isa. 65:21,22) Some, not understanding the plan of God, and therefore not able to “rightly divide the Word of truth,” have endeavored to spiritualize promises like this, and imagine some sort of houses being built in heaven, and of spiritual vines and fig trees growing there.

On the other hand, Jesus said to his disciples, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” (John 14:2,3) This is a most precious promise for all true followers of the Master, but many have supposed that it applies to all who will be saved in every age. Failing to rightly divide the Word of truth along this line takes away the vital meaning of such admonitions as, “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth,” hence the true incentive for this effort is more or less nullified.—Col. 3:13

Symbolic Language

To be able to distinguish the difference between the symbolic and the literal language of the Bible is also important in rightly dividing the Word of truth. Failure in this has led many students into supposing that God intends to destroy the earth with literal fire, and to torment forever all those who do not accept Christ before they die. This robs them of a true vision of the wisdom, justice, love, and power of God, and their chief motive for serving him is fear rather than love. It is true that many try to love God in spite of their gross misconceptions concerning him.

But how beautiful is the symbolic language of the Bible as it is used in his promises to his people, and also in connection with the outworking of his plan of the ages! “I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler,” wrote the psalmist.—Ps. 91:24

To Whom Addressed

In rightly dividing the Word of truth it is also important to note to whom any particular text of Scripture is addressed. We have an outstanding example of this in the epistles of the New Testament. Well-meaning people of the world often quote from these epistles when referring to matters of the world, such as politics, etc. However, these epistles are addressed exclusively to the earnest footstep followers of Jesus, and are designed to guide, strengthen, and comfort these. For example, the Epistle to the Romans is addressed to “all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints.”—Rom. 1:7

What is true of the New Testament epistles is also true of many other parts of the Bible. Indeed, the Bible was not written to guide the political activities of the nations, but as a light for the guidance of those who have dedicated themselves wholly to the doing of God’s will. To recognize this makes the entire Word of God more precious, giving the feeling that in it is a personal message to us from our loving Heavenly Father.

However, this particular principle in Bible study is of even greater value to us when properly and fully applied. For example, the Prophet Isaiah spoke of the bread and water of the Lord’s people being sure. (Isa. 33:15,16) Many followers of the Master have taken this to mean that the Lord will never permit them to go hungry, when as a matter of fact, many have experienced hunger. The Apostle Paul himself, writing to the brethren at Philippi, said, “I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.”—Phil. 4:12

There can be no question concerning Paul’s faithfulness to the Lord. He was not permitted to go “hungry” as a punishment for unfaithfulness. It was simply that the Lord saw that it would be good for Paul as a New Creature in Christ Jesus for his flesh to suffer the pangs of hunger. What, then, did the Prophet Isaiah mean by the promise that bread and water would be sure to the righteous?

This particular promise pertained to God’s faithful people of a different age, a people who were being dealt with by God under the terms of the Law Covenant. Under that covenant, God had promised to bless his faithful people in basket and in store. (Deut. 28:5) It was not a covenant of sacrifice, but a covenant which promised earthly blessings of health and life for those who were faithful. Had the people of Israel been able to live completely up to the terms of the Law Covenant, they would not have died at all.

But how different is the situation with the Lord’s people of the Gospel Age! We have covenanted to lay down our lives. (Ps. 50:5) Jesus, our Head and Exemplar, laid down his life. There was no other way for him to be faithful to his Heavenly Father but to sacrifice his all, as a man, which he did. We have been invited to suffer and to die with him, and the providences of God in our lives, as we lay them down in his service, must be interpreted from this standpoint, else there is a possibility that we might become discouraged in our failure to receive the blessings which we supposed the Lord had promised.

Jesus said to, and concerning, his true followers, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father[’s knowledge]. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matt. 10:29,30) Surely this denotes a very careful and loving watchcare by the Heavenly Father over the affairs of his children. But note that Jesus did not say sparrows never fall, and that nothing ever happens to the hairs of our head. It is simply that even these unimportant things in our experiences are known to the Heavenly Father, and are taken into consideration in his dealings with us.

“My God shall supply all your need,” wrote Paul, “according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:19) We can depend upon this promise, but we must be willing to allow the Lord to decide what our needs may be. These are the needs of the New Creature, not necessarily the needs of the flesh, although the flesh is closely related to the New Creature. Indeed, while still this side of the veil, the flesh is the body of the New Creature, the only body the New Creature possesses.

The Lord has certain purposes to accomplish in and through his people. For this reason he might preserve the health of our ‘earthen vessel’ for a while, and see to it that we have necessary food and raiment, not to interfere with the carrying out of our covenant of sacrifice, but to keep us ‘fit’ while we are laying down our lives in his service. These are matters which are in the Lord’s hands. The point we are to remember is that his promises to us are spiritual, not earthly. The blessings which we can be sure of receiving unstintingly from him are those which pertain to our spiritual, and not to our human existence.

If we rightly divide the Word of truth we will recognize this difference, and will be prepared to accept with gratitude and praise whatever experiences the Lord, in his wisdom and love, sees best for us as New Creatures in Christ Jesus. He may permit us to have bread and water in abundance, yet our stomachs may not be in a sufficiently healthy state to digest food, and our bodies would starve for the need of nourishment. On the other hand, he might permit us to have healthy stomachs, but not give us all the food we may think we need. The end result would be much the same in both cases. The Lord knows best. We are laying down our lives, and if the Lord wishes to accept our final offering on an altar of hunger, we should rejoice. But this will not, we can be sure, occur until the Lord sees that it is the due time, both from the standpoint of his plan and our own readiness for the kingdom.

We have stressed the point of food as an illustration. This principle applies to all of the Lord’s dealings with us. As fleshly beings we would like to think that the Lord is so overruling in our affairs that nothing can happen to us of an unpleasant nature; that every detail of life will work out smoothly and happily. But this is not the will of the Lord for us. He may permit us to be sorely tried along some lines: through illness, or hardships of other kinds. If so, it is because he sees that such experiences are best to prepare us for the place he has for us in the kingdom. Let us recognize this, thankfully accept the Lord’s providences, and thus show ourselves approved by him through rightly dividing the Word of truth with regard to this aspect of our Christian lives.

The Houses of Israel

Noting to whom the promises and the prophecies of the Bible apply is also a great help in our understanding of the plan, of God as a whole. During the Gospel Age the followers of Jesus are looked upon as a ‘house of sons’, over whom he is the Head. The promises of God to these are wonderful and precious. But this ‘house’, while still in the flesh, is made up of both ‘Israelites indeed’ and nominal believers, and both these groups are addressed in the Scriptures.

A good example of this is to be found in the messages to the seven churches as recorded in chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation. While complimenting the church at Pergamos, the Lord added, “But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate. Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”—Rev. 2:14-16

The promises of a crown of life, of sitting on the throne with Jesus, of being given a white stone, and being made a pillar in the temple of God, as contained in these messages to the churches, were not made to those who followed the example of Balaam. No, these were warned of punishments of the Lord, and yet they are all classed as being in ‘the church’. It reveals that the Lord has permitted the ‘indeed’ Christians, and the ‘nominal’ Christians to exist together throughout the age. The world has seen little or no difference. Only the Lord who knows the heart has discerned this difference, and he rewards and punishes in keeping with his justice and love. It is important to us also to recognize that there are these two classes, and on this point to rightly divide the Word of truth.

The same thing is true with respect to natural Israel. We read of Moses that he “was faithful in all his house.” (Heb. 3:2) Just as in the house of sons during its course of development some have been faithful and some have not, even so was it with the house of servants over which Moses was the head. Here, also, the promises of God to the faithful are quite different from those to the unfaithful, which in many instances are more in the nature of warnings than of promises.

Moses wrote, “The Lord said unto me, They have well spoken that which they have spoken. I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him.” (Deut. 18:17-19) The Apostle Peter quoted this promise, and indicated, in other words, that it would be fulfilled following the second coming of Christ in the kingdom.—Acts 3:19-23

This warning was made, not to the faithful of Israel, but to the faithless and unbelieving. The Israelites had entered into the Law Covenant, but many were already displaying a lack of faith concerning it, and were rebellious against the providences of the Lord. So throughout that entire age there was this group within Israel. God loved them. He was merciful to them, and in eventually showing his mercy to them through sending them ‘that Prophet’ who will richly bless them with restitution to human perfection—that is, as many of them as then hear and obey the great Prophet raised up to them. Those who do not ‘hear’ and obey will be destroyed from among the people.—Acts 3:23

But during that same period of time—indeed, going all the way back to righteous Abel—there was another class, a faithful class. Perhaps at times it could hardly be called a class, but just individuals who displayed their faith in God and in his promises, in spite of the trials and difficulties this fidelity entailed. Paul speaks of these in the 11th chapter of Hebrews. He explained that they endured their afflictions in order to obtain “a better resurrection.” (vs. 35) They evidently understood that if faithful to the Lord, faithful even unto death, the Lord would have something better for them in the resurrection.

This is indicated in Paul’s speech to the Roman governor, Felix, in which he said, “This I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the prophets: and have hope toward God, which they themselves also allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust.” (Acts 24:14,15) The whole Ancient Worthy class evidently knew about the resurrection of the just. It was this that they looked upon as the ‘better resurrection’, and their desire was to be faithful to the Lord in order to be found worthy of being brought forth in that ‘better resurrection’.

Doubtless all of that class following the giving of the Law were greatly inspired by the promise in Exodus 19:5,6, in which God assured the faithful that they would be “a kingdom of priests” and “an holy nation.” While the nation as such did not qualify under the terms of this promise, it served as an incentive to those who sought earnestly to know and to do God’s will, but was largely ignored by the nominal Israelites.

The fact that these two classes existed prior to the first advent of Jesus means that some portions of the Scriptures refer to one class and some to the other. To discern the correct lessons which the Lord is teaching us through these scriptures, we need to take note of which class it is that is being discussed, or to which class the promises or warnings are being given. Thus we will have no difficulty in discerning the position of the Ancient Worthies, and of Israel as a whole in the plan of God.

The word kingdom is one of the prominent words in the Bible. There was, of course, the kingdom of Israel, and there are the kingdoms of this world. But we have in mind particularly, at the moment, the kingdom of the Lord. In many of the prophecies of the Old Testament the Lord’s kingdom is referred to, but the word itself is not used. In Isaiah 25:69 the kingdom is symbolized by a ‘mountain’ in which the Lord makes unto all people a feast of fat things, and in which he swallows up death in victory. In Isaiah 9:6,7 the kingdom is described as a “government.”

While in a general way all these, and the many other references in the Bible, apply to the same kingdom, they do not always refer to the same aspect of the kingdom. For example, when Jesus admonished his disciples to seek first the kingdom of heaven, his reference was to a position of rulership in the Lord’s kingdom. When, in Luke 12:32, we read Jesus’ words, “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” the same thing is true.

In contrast to this, most of the kingdom promises of the Old Testament describe blessings which will be received by the subjects of the Lord’s kingdom. It is important, in rightly dividing the Word of truth concerning the kingdom, to note this distinction if we are to get the full force of what is meant. It is also important to note that some of the passages of the Bible in which the word kingdom is used, refer to the future rulers in that kingdom while they are being prepared for that high position. Only by noting these distinctions will we be able to see and to appreciate the full harmony of the Word of God with respect to its teachings on the subject of the kingdom of the Lord.

Ourselves Approved

Let us ever remember, however, that the main purpose of Bible study is that we might know the will of God for ourselves, and receive inspiration to faithfulness in the doing of his will. One important aspect of the divine will for his people during the present age is that we may be co-workers with the Lord, bearing testimony to the Gospel of Christ, the great and precious truths of the divine plan. Our text refers to these as being workmen who need not to be ashamed because they have rightly divided the Word of truth.

To bear witness to the truths of the divine plan we should know those truths, and how they are set forth in the Word of God. Thus every truth in the Bible is related to our knowing and doing God’s will. How important it is, then, that we rightly divide the Word of truth from the standpoint of time, noting its earthly and heavenly promises, and its use of literal and symbolic language.

Let us note also to whom the various promises of God are directed, and what those promises mean which apply directly to his saints of the Gospel Age. Let us remember that we are seeking a place as kings and priests with Jesus in his kingdom, and rejoice that it is the Father’s good pleasure for us to attain such a position. And let us also rejoice in the blessings which are coming to mankind in general as subjects of the kingdom. May we be faithful in proclaiming these glorious truths far and wide, to all who will hear!

Dawn Bible Students Association
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