By Jack Kelley
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15 KJV)
The purpose of this study is to show that the above verse from the King James translation of 2 Tim. 2:15 has been given a meaning Paul didn’t originally intend. If you’ve heard the phrase “rightly dividing” being tossed around lately, you probably know what I mean. If not, reading this will help you to be better prepared when you do.
Shew Thyself Approved
First, an overview of 2 Tim 2:15. The Greek word translated approved in this verse is dokimos. It came from the world of finance and is the key to understanding the verse. All money was coinage in those days and was originally valued by weight. Dishonest money changers would shave some of the metal from the coins they handled, making them worth a little less than their face value. The little bit shaved from each coin was a hidden profit that over time could be used to make additional coins that cost them nothing.
But some money changers were men of integrity, who would neither accept nor distribute lightweight coins; they were men of honor who put only genuine, full-weight money into circulation. These men were called dokimos. They were approved because they correctly handled the money entrusted to them. (Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans: God’s Glory, p. 18.)
Timothy was a young man and one of the Church’s very first pastors. Paul advised him to warn his people not to get caught up in debates over different interpretations of words (2 Tim. 2:14). He told Timothy to study so he could deliver the full weight of God’s Word in its proper context. That way he could present himself to God as a teacher of integrity, as one approved, a dokimos who correctly handled the word of truth, and therefore he would not be ashamed of what he had taught. That is what the verse is supposed to mean.
Rightly Dividing the Word Of Truth
The Greek word translated “rightly dividing” in the King James translation of 2 Tim. 2:15 is “orthotomeo” which literally means to make a straight and accurate cut. Carpenters used this word to describe the correct way to saw lumber, while civil engineers used it to be sure the roads they were building went from one place to another by the shortest possible route. When used metaphorically the word means “to proceed on straight paths, hold a straight course, equivalent to doing right”. By using this word Paul was instructing Timothy to preach God’s word accurately, correctly, and with precision. Had he been instructing Timothy to divide God’s word into various parts he would have used the Greek word diaireo which means to divide into parts.
Probably the most famous use of 2 Tim. 2:15 was by C.I. Scofield in titling his monumental book on dispensationalism, written in 1896. He called it “Rightly Dividing The Word Of Truth”. Many of you know that I follow this system of theology and believe that it correctly handles the Scriptures.
I’m convinced that back then people understood what “rightly dividing” meant but over time the way words are understood changes, especially in metaphorical usage, and other translations have interpreted orthotomeo to reflect this. Look at the same verse from the NASB and you’ll see what I mean.
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 Tim. 2:15 NASB).
Notice “accurately handling” has replaced “rightly dividing” in the NASB. The NIV uses the phrase “who correctly handles”. Both of these are more in line with the metaphorical use of the Greek word “orthotomeo” as we understand things today. When you put dokimos (approved) and orthotomeo (accurately handling) together you get someone who preaches the word the way God intended, or as some would say “he tells it like it is”.
But lately some people have begun applying this phrase to actually divide the New Testament up into the parts they say are meant for the Church and the parts that are not, using 2 Tim. 2:15 to justify doing so. They take the phrase “rightly dividing” to mean we should cut the Bible up into the parts meant for Israel and the parts meant for the Church, and only focus on the parts meant for us.
First, they claim that because the gospels were written about the time just before the cross, they don’t really apply to the Church. They say the cross “rightly divides” the Old Testament from the New and therefore the Gospels belong with the Old Testament and are meant for Israel. They also exclude the first part of the Book of Acts, claiming that the use of spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues and healing described there were meant as signs to Israel and are no longer available to the Church. Some also claim the letters from Peter, James, and John and the letter to the Hebrews were written for Jewish believers and not to the Gentile Church. And because the Book of Revelation deals with the time after the Church is gone they say we really don’t need to pay much attention to it either.
Is That What That Means?
In short, they are taking the literal meaning of the English phrase “rightly dividing” instead of considering that Paul was using the Greek word orthotomeo metaphorically. I think this is a doubly incorrect interpretation that basically leaves the Church with only the last half of the Book of Acts and Paul’s epistles.
I’ve received numerous letters and comments from these folks criticizing me for using the words of Jesus in some of my answers to questions about living the Christian Life. They accuse me of not “rightly dividing ” the Scriptures.
Even though I can see differences between what Jesus taught in the Gospels and what Paul taught in his letters, I believe this division of God’s word improperly exceeds Paul’s intent in his instructions to Timothy. To me this is another step in undermining the authority of the Bible, similar to what some Christians have done by ignoring the Old Testament.
I think if the Lord had wanted His word to be divided up like this He would have offered a method for doing so. But He didn’t. He didn’t tell the Church to ignore the Old Testament back then, and He’s not telling us to throw out parts of the New Testament now. You won’t find any directions on how to “rightly divide” His word because we don’t need special instructions to read something the way it’s written.
Obviously, the Bible says some things specifically to Israel, some things specifically to the Church, and some things about the unbelieving world. An important part of correct interpretation is to determine the context of a passage to see who the Lord was addressing.
Paul said he didn’t hesitate to proclaim the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). He said that everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4), and that Israel’s history contains examples that were written down as warnings to us upon whom the end of the age has come (1 Cor. 10:11). To me that means the entire Bible has value for all of us and with careful attention to the context we can glean important truths from every one of its 66 books.
“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105).