What does it mean to be rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15)?

Second Timothy is a letter from the apostle Paul to his "beloved child" Timothy, a young man who had joined Paul and Silas on one of their missionary journeys (2 Timothy 1:1–2; Acts 16). Timothy was with Paul when he wrote several other New Testament epistles, served as Paul's representative to several churches (1 Corinthians 4:17; Philippians 2:19), and became the pastor of the church at Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3). The men were close. Second Timothy was written shortly before Paul's death. Knowing death was likely soon, it seems Paul specifically wanted to encourage Timothy, and all believers, to stand firm in the faith. It is with that backdrop that he wrote, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15).

The phrase, "rightly dividing the word of truth," from the KJV translation is perhaps the most often quoted version of this verse. Other versions say "accurately handling" (NASB) or "correctly handles" (NIV) or "correctly explains" (NLT). The Greek word, orthotomeo, refers to making a straight cut. The concept is simple enough: Timothy is being encouraged to understand and use the Word of God in the appropriate manner. As with all verses, exploring the larger context can lead to greater understanding.

Paul had already spoken of Timothy's "sincere faith" (2 Timothy 1:5) and reminded him to "fan into flame the gift of God" (2 Timothy 1:6). Paul exhorted him not to be ashamed of the truth about Jesus nor of Paul's imprisonment. Paul was "not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me" (2 Timothy 1:12). Paul encouraged Timothy to "Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me … By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you" (2 Timothy 1:14). We see Paul affirming Timothy's faith and exhorting him to continue to walk out God's calling upon his life, steadfast in the truth of God.

Paul writes, "You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 2:1–2). Timothy is not only to remain steadfast, but to pass the faith on to others, who will also teach others. Timothy is to "Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness" (2 Timothy 2:14–16). Rather than get caught up in pointless debates or participate in ungodly babble, Timothy is to be steadfast in the truth and teach others to be the same. He should handle the word of God correctly, diligently studying it, adhering to it, and encouraging others to do the same.

The "word of truth" would refer to Paul's teachings about Jesus as well as the Old Testament Scriptures in which Timothy had been trained (2 Timothy 3:14–15) and the developing New Testament canon (2 Timothy 3:16–17; 2 Peter 1:21; 3:15–16). To "rightly handle" or "rightly divide," Timothy must know the truth and refuse to compromise it. Paul goes on to give examples of those who have "swerved from the truth" and "are upsetting the faith of some" (2 Timothy 2:17–18). He later warns Timothy away from "foolish, ignorant controversies" (2 Timothy 2:23). Instead, "the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness" (2 Timothy 2:24–25). Paul warns of the hardships ahead and the godlessness of culture, again including those who "oppose the truth" (2 Timothy 3:8). Timothy is to continue in the truth he has learned, knowing that "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16–17). He must handle God's Word correctly so that he can remain steadfast and teach others to do the same.

It should be noted that rightly handling the Word of God is not merely about intellectual knowledge or being right. Timothy is encouraged to "preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching" (2 Timothy 4:2). The Scriptures help equip us for "every good work" (2 Timothy 3:17). Elsewhere we are called to be "doers of the word, and not hearers only" (James 1:22). "Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ" (Ephesians 4:15). Rightly handling the Word of God should change us (Ephesians 4:17–32). It should result in us knowing God more, loving Him more, and loving others more (John 15:1–17).

Hebrews 4:12–13 says, "For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account." God's Word examines our hearts. It shows us our own sinfulness in light of God's holiness (Isaiah 6:1–7). It also tells us of God's immense love, mercy, and grace (Exodus 34:6–7; Hebrews 13:5–6; 1 John 4:7–10). By His Word we learn about Jesus, the atoning sacrifice for our sins who has conquered sin and death and by whom all who trust in Him are made righteous (2 Corinthians 5:17–21; Ephesians 2:1–10). When we rightly handle the Word of God, we rightly understand His holiness and His immense blessings for all who are His (Ephesians 1:3–14). We rightly understand ourselves and we rightly become living sacrifices, eager to know Him and serve Him through love (Romans 12:1–2; 1 John 4:7–12, 21).

Rightly dividing the word of truth involves accurate understanding of truth as well as appropriate response to that truth by the work of the Holy Spirit in us (Philippians 2:12–13; 2 Timothy 1:14; 2:7).

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