What Did the Apostle Paul Mean by "Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth"?
The phrase “rightly dividing the word of truth” in Timothy 2:15 is unique to the King James translation. It has caused some to believe that we are to take the Word of God and somehow divide or separate passages and or books and determine who or what audience they are intended for. As a result, this verse has become a springboard for a completely different way of reading and applying scripture.
My purpose with this article is to show that this interpretation is actually a classic example of the old adage "A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text". It is a dangerous thing to take a single text from scripture and make a doctrine from it, especially if that passage has been read out of context.
Background of 2 Timothy 2
In this chapter Paul is giving instruction to Timothy on how to continue in the work of the ministry in his absence. He tells Timothy to convey the things that he has learned from him and pass them down to those whom Timothy is ministering to. He tells him to endure, to be a good soldier of Christ, not become entangled with the affairs of this life, to only concern himself with pleasing God and that he will enjoy that which he labors for.
Paul then goes on to say that even though he might be imprisoned like a criminal, that the gospel itself cannot be confined. Paul sates that he is willing to endure all things for the sake of the elect of Christ, that they might obtain salvation.
Paul then sets a wonderful tone by exclaiming the promise that we all have; that if we die to this world and are willing to endure hardships, that we would have eternal life with Christ. Even though we are unfaithful, Christ is faithful and that He cannot deny us if we live in Him.
Paul knew that this was the very essence of faith and of the gospel message, that it is a message that all believers would need to hear and comprehend. The hardships that the church was enduring and was yet to endure would test the faith and resolve of those who believed in Christ.
In verse 14 Paul pleads with Timothy to charge them with these very important aspects of the Christian faith, then Paul gets into an area that he knew would be an issue among believers; the striving and arguing with one another that does not profit or benefit the body of Christ. Paul knew very that this would lead to ruin and dissolution the the hearers of the gospel.
Just think for a moment about the impression that those who are not Christians get of us when they witness us being divisive over trivial words and things. How much pleasure Satan must get when we argue among ourselves over doctrines and words when it is the simple gospel message that the world needs to hear and by which they are saved. If we can not speak to each other with kindness and love, then our faith and testimony will appear to be hypocritical to others. We are commanded to love one another, we are not licensed to berate or be hateful to anyone.
Paul then reminds Timothy of how Hymenaeus and Philetus had strayed from the truth and were teaching falsely that the resurrection had already taken place. Paul encourages Timothy to seek only things that are pure and holy, to be patient and gentle.
Paul’s counsel to Timothy should serve as sound advise to us today as well. As the old saying goes, “it is much easier to attract flies with honey, than vinegar”. Non-believers should be attracted to Christ through our behavior and love, rarely has a person been converted to the faith by the witness of one who does not abide in the spirit of love.
2 Timothy 2:15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
Now we get to the crux of this topic. In verse 15 the KJV has Paul telling Timothy to study that he might be approved of by God, a workman (G2040 ergatés) which is a reference back to verses 5 and 6, this word ergatés is elsewhere used as “field workers”, “laborers”, etc., who should not be ashamed, and rightly dividing (G3718 orthotomeō) the word of truth. The Greek word orthotomeō only appears once in the New Testament. The Strong’s Concordance defines it like this:
- to cut straight, to cut straight ways A to proceed on straight paths, hold a straight course, equiv. to doing right
- to make straight and smooth, to handle aright, to teach the truth directly and correctly
One can only guess why the KJV translators chose the phrase “rightly dividing” instead of “rightly teach” or “cutting straight”, I would suggest that in 1611 “rightly dividing” might have had a different meaning than how we use it today. Given the context of this verse and the surrounding text, I think that it is appropriate that we closely examine the true meaning of this phrase.
Although the word orthotomeō was not used, a similar message was given by John the Baptist when he quoted Isaiah by stating “Make straight the way of the Lord” in John 1:23. John used the word G3588 euthunó, which means:
- to make straight, level, plain
- to lead or guide straight, to keep straight or direct: A of the steersman or helmsman of a ship B of a charioteer
So, we have two people who are both giving instruction make a clear and straight path. The meanings are identical with the same intention in mind. They are in effect stating that no obstacle should be allowed to get in the way of what is truth.
I would like to attempt to point a few things concerning what is out of context:
- The idea of separating or parsing scripture is not in context.
There is no mention of discerning what is prophetic vs what is a mystery, or discerning what is for the church vs what is for the Jews, etc.
When Paul wrote this, the only scripture that could have been parsed would have been what we call the Old Testament, the gospels and epistles did not exist as collective body of work at that time.
If the word orthotomeō truly meant to parse or separate, we should expect to find it, or a word of the same common root when the words divide, divided or dividing are used elsewhere in scripture.
On the fourth point I would like to expound a bit. Let’s look at where derivations of the word divide appear elsewhere in the King James and see what Greek word was used for its transliteration:
1 Corinthians 12:11 - G1244 diaireó - def: I divide into parts, cut asunder, distribute. The context of this passage definitely deals with something being separated or parsed, the gifts of the Holy Spirit among the body of Christ.
Hebrew 4:12 - G3311 merismos - def: (a) a distributing, a distribution, (b) a parting, dividing, severance, separation. The topic of this passage also deals with separating, the two-edged sword that separates the spirit and soul, joints and marrow.
1 Corinthians 1:13 - G3307 merizó - def: I divide into parts, divide, part, share, distribute; mid: I share, take part in a partitioning; I distract. This passage involves whether or not the body of Christ is divided.
My point is this: Paul and other New Testament writers had repeatedly used words that most definitely meant to parse or separate, most commonly schizó, diamerizó and merizó or derivations of, yet Paul chose not to use any of the words that had previously been used in the Greek to demonstrate his point. Instead, Paul chose a word that is only used once in all of the New Testament, thus we must closely examine what this word means and how we should apply it to this passage.
Paul’s instruction to Timothy was that he be a man who would be able to witness by example and that he would be wise in properly administering the gospel by being able to prove that Jesus Christ was indeed the Son of God, the promised Messiah. Paul wanted Timothy to be able to carry on in the work of the great commission in a responsible and effective way without getting entangled in things that would only inhibit his progress. Orthotomeō certainly seems to be a sort of engineering term used to convey a visual image to Timothy of a clear and unobstructed path, that is why he encouraged him to stay clear of useless debates over senseless things and avoiding false teachings.
The Word Of Truth Is Not Divided
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness - 2 Timothy 3:16
I find it hard to believe that if Paul had meant that scripture is to be divided, that he would have made this statement, especially within the same letter to Timothy.
If you were to search the internet for “rightly dividing the word of truth” or “2 Timothy 2:15”, you will find a plethora of websites and videos dedicated to explaining that we are to divide scripture and to know that some parts of scripture are for the Jews and others for the church. They will explain to you that since Paul’s dispensation was to the Gentiles that we are to follow only Paul’s writings and that other books such as the gospels, Hebrews, James, Peter, Jude, etc are for the Jews. Really??? The gospels don’t pertain to us gentile believers? We are not to follow Christ and His teachings? Are we not to go out into all the world and makes disciples of Christ?
1 Corinthians 11:1 Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.
We are not baptized in the name of Paul, but in the name of Jesus Christ. We bear the name “Christians”, not "Paulites" or "Paulinians". Paul is stating that the Corinthians should follow his example by being followers of Christ. We are to take up the cross of Jesus and follow Him.
The idea that scripture is divided has led some to believe and teach that certain books of the New Testament were not meant for the church for doctrine. I have written another article on this topic, specifically on the book of James called, Is the Book of James for the Church?
The Results Of This Teaching
Unfortunately, there is a very popular teaching that denies that we gentile believers are children of Abraham, and thus are not considered to be Israel in the eyes of God. But Paul had something to say that is contrary to this belief.
Romans 9:6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; 7 nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” 8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.
In Paul’s mind, being called a child of Abraham had nothing to do with ethnicity, but everything to do with faith. Likewise, being called Israel was also not an issue of ethnicity, either. The children of promise that Paul spoke of was refering to those who are in Christ, and if we are in Christ, then we are Abraham’s descendants.
Paul tells us in Romans 11 that gentile believers have been grafted into the remnant of Israel that still remained in the root, which is Christ. Gentiles have been adopted into the commonwealth of the true Israel and share in the promises as heirs.
Peter expounded on this concept when writing to those who are in Christ:
1 Peter 2:9 But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light; 10 Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.
Paul concluded Romans 11 with this thought:
Romans 11:31 Even so have these also now not believed, that through your mercy they also may obtain mercy. 32 For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.
Am I promoting what some call “replacement theology”? No, not at all! I am promoting that all Jew and Gentile believers are of the same tree whose root is Christ. A child that is adopted, does not replace the natural children of the parents. There is only one body of Christ and it consists of both Jewish and Gentile believers
Paul alludes to the idea that there are two “Israels” if you will, those who were physical descendants of Jacob, and those who are Israel by faith. For example, Ruth was a Moabite and Rahab a Canaanite, yet both we counted as Israel and were in the lineage of David and Christ.
I am not attempting to say that the King James is not accurate in regards to 2 Timothy 2:15, rather that the meaning of “dividing” has transformed in its meaning over time and that some people today have made a doctrine that is not fundamentally sound based on a word which meaning has changed over the last 400 years. Just like the closing theme song of The Flintstones used to say “We’ll have a "gay" old time” had nothing to do with homosexuality, but in the 1960’s, which was just a few decades ago, meant a lighthearted and carefree time.
Additionally, I will cling to every red letter in my Bible more tightly that every other black word in the Bible combined. No one will take that away from me, nor should they you!
Thank you for reading this article and I look forward to your comments.
Poll on this topic.
Do you believe that Paul instructed Timothy to divide or separate the word of truth?
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© 2018 Tony Muse