II Timothy 2:15, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
This morning, feelings of entitlement abound. Modern day society deems hard work and sustained, long-term effort to be needless. Rather, society thinks that things are “deserved” and not “worked at.” While Scripture undoubtedly refutes the “worked at” notion of getting to heaven – it is a free gift of grace and mercy by Almighty God – Scripture also just as plainly refutes the entitlement concept that is void of labour. For an example of free grace, Paul employs Ephesians 2:8 and II Corinthians 8:9 for that purpose. For an example of working at things in this life, Paul asserts the necessity of work for food itself in II Thessalonians 3:10. Part of the reason for the prevailing mindset of less work and more benefit is that life is full of more creature comforts and “extras” than ever before. Considering what we have versus what we need, the possessions of life today for most far outweigh the actual needs that we have.
Something that must be worked at, consistently and fervently, is the study of God’s word. No one can just claim to be entitled to knowing what it means and deserving of its teachings. Rather, effort of the faculties must be employed coupled with the fervent prayer and desire of Almighty God that He season the study and sweeten it by His Spirit. Paul asserts to the young minister Timothy the absolute necessity of it. Paul’s language in this verse is not some optional suggestion, but rather, Paul speaks matter of factly about the authoritative command to study, the manner of study, and the effect of study. Command: study to shew thyself approved unto God. Manner: rightly dividing the word of truth. Effect: a workman that needeth not to be ashamed.
Recently, my thoughts were pulled back to this basic concept of Scriptural study when I was asked point blank how I studied and what a typical day was for me while submersed in the word of God. While no two people are going to study the word of God exactly the same (our minds work in different manners), I do believe there are some general principles to follow that serve us well in this regard. Sadly, I have not employed them nearly as I should, but when they are put in motion, there is no reason to be ashamed, for it is a sweet time to walk with God and feel His approval as we delve into the sacred pages.
Something I seek to impress upon anyone that sincerely desires to know guidelines for the study of God’s word is the value of consistent, daily, chronological reading. Many times, we as people can become so involved in minute studies of small little details and facets that we miss “the big picture” of things. There is little doubt from clear Scriptural statement that reading blesses and benefits God’s people. (Revelation 1:3) Indeed, there is more to study than this (as we shall discuss), but without a good foundation of consistent cover-to-cover reading, we may end up ignorant of huge portions of Scripture. One of the things my late father used to say when people asked him how he remembered or memorized Scripture was this, “It’s not hard to remember what you just read.” His goal was to read the Bible through over and over and often enough that it was all “fresh” to him making remembrance of it easier.
Once the foundation of solid, consistent reading is set in our minds, we now take up the examination of fine-tuned study. While I do not plan to go into all the avenues of word study, phrase comparison, or original language investigation in this piece, those different study methods do have place and profitable aspects to them. However, we today would like to look more generally at how one arrives at the proper conclusion of “rightly dividing the word of truth.” Paul encouraged the young minister to that end in his efforts. Paul was not telling Timothy to have two great big buckets with “Truth” and “Error” marked on each one, tossing Scriptures and phrases into the appropriate bucket. Should that be the case, one bucket would overflow and the other left empty. (II Timothy 3:16-17) Rather, Paul encouraged Timothy to rightly apply the specific aspect of truth to the right passage.
Whenever a farmer plants a field, he seek to keep the corn with the corn, the potatoes with the potatoes, etc. So it is with Scripture. We should keep eternal principles of God’s grace and salvation unto His elect family with the right verses, and we should keep the daily cross-bearing admonitions and encouragements with the right verses. We should apply things as they should be. Doubtless, our first goal is to be sound in our espoused principle, but ultimately, we should also desire to have our thoughts on a verse, phrase, or passage fixed upon the intended teaching and rightly applied. How do we do that? What do we look for when trying to get to the bottom of the verse’s meaning?
The first principle to consider when studying a verse in such a manner is to understand the meanings of different words. Three little words that I despised hearing from my parents while growing up was “look it up.” While I hated hearing those words (for they meant effort on my part instead of being handed an easy answer), they did provoke me into some good habits for later use in the investigation of God’s word. If we are reading the Bible or looking at a verse and have no idea what a word means, by all means look it up. Without an idea of what words mean, we cannot possibly hope to arrive at the intended teaching.
If we understand what the words of a verse mean, we should then examine the verse’s tense. Is this event past tense, presently happening right now, or yet to come in the future? The Bible can show from the tense that God’s work in salvation is done (Romans 8:29-30), proper worship of God is yet ongoing right now (John 4:23-24), and heaven awaits for all of the purchased possession at the resurrection in the future. (Job 19:25-27) What would happen if we referred to heaven and the resurrection as past? We would be guilty of preaching the same vain and profane babbling that two did a couple of verses later. (II Timothy 2:16-18) What would happen if we spoke about salvation of God’s family as something yet to come or ongoing right now? We would be guilty of Scripture contradiction that declares His work fulfilled and done. (Hebrews 10:14) And, what would happen if we referred to our work and labour as past and not needful for the future? We would be guilty of teaching that over half of the New Testament’s present tense admonitions are meaningless and “outdated.”
So, after we understand the verse’s word meanings and tense, we then need to examine its context. What do the verses just before ours say? What about the verses just after? What is the setting of the account or epistle? Who is being spoken to, by whom, and when? The answers to all of these questions can be easily resolved by taking a few moments to consider the verse’s surrounding verses and the opening and close of the book we are in. The books of the Bible often open with the answers to some of those questions, they close with answers to other of those questions, and the surrounding verses answer the rest of those questions. Both the immediate context and “book context” can prove vitally useful in discovering what a verse’s correct application is.
Yet, how long does it take us to look up words, discover the tense, and peruse the immediate and/or book context? Those three exercises can often be performed in 5-10 minutes. Looking up words like propitiation, justification, imputation, and purloining are done in seconds to minutes with a good dictionary. Discovering the past, present, or future aspect of a verse’s language takes just seconds. Looking at the immediate and book context can take just a handful of minutes. Is this all there is?
The fourth thing to consider when studying a verse’s meaning is to discover how it fits within the overall framework and harmony of God’s word. Many times, I get asked questions about verses I do not understand – from say Revelation or Ezekiel – and I have to say, “I don’t know.” When they hear me admit that I do not know what the answer is, they oftentimes promote their answer (which is what they really wanted to tell me anyway). After listening to them lay out their thoughts on the verse’s meaning, I many times say, “That is not what it is saying.” This answer coupled with my clear admission of ignorance as to the right application is met with awe. “How can you say it is not when you admit you don’t know what it is.” The simple answer is that a clear, undeniable verse in another place contradicts the teaching that they ascribe to the verse in question.
So, while I may not know what a verse is saying, I need to be familiar enough with the overall harmony of Scripture to be able to identify things it is not saying by being able to detect unsound principles. While the verses and passages do describe different areas of truth, they fit together like nothing else that has ever been written fits together. Every word is just as it needs to be, with every mark just as God intended for it to be. (Psalm 12:6-8) Our job while studying its content is to ascribe the proper area of thought within the framework to the associated verses that teach those points. This brings us back to the first principle of study: reading. How can we possibly fulfill the injunction to overall Scriptural harmonization without going through all of the pages on a consistent basis?
On one occasion many years ago, I received quite a shock as a young minister when I heard an older minister – who had been preaching longer than I had been living – admit that he had never read different portions of Scripture. Most of the things he had never read were the prophets at the end of the Old Testament like Haggai, Nahum, Obadiah, etc. However, what if I believed something about the Bible when one of those “little” books from some “minor” prophet gave a clear rebuttal of my thoughts? Having never read that portion of Scripture, my thoughts would violate the overall harmony of Scripture, based on my neglect to read it all in study as I should.
Friends, our daily routines may vary. How we approach it might deviate from person to person. However, words have meaning, tense has place, context is important, and Scripture never violates itself. Keeping these things in mind while daily reading and searching will get us closer to the right applications while ultimately seeking the favour and approval of Almighty God. One thing that pleases Him is when we do this for Him out of love for Him. We sing a song sometimes called “I Want to Love Him More.” If we read and study because we love Him and we want to love Him more, the final and best advice about study that I give all who ask is to study “more.” Do more today than yesterday. Do more tomorrow than today. Read the Bible more this year than last and next year than this year. By doing so, we show more manifest love for God, find less shame as a workman, and more favour as His faithful followers.