"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
There are many Christians who are really keen to be acceptable (approved) to God, and use this verse to encourage them to do their best (study) to use the Word of God correctly for guiding their daily lives. I am one who does this.
But what do we mean by "rightly dividing" in this verse? The word for "rightly dividing" in the original language has meanings of cutting correctly, or dissecting. Does that mean we should cut out parts of the Bible?
The Word of God says much about itself:
Many other passages tell us that the Scriptures are for our guidance. Some of the most recently written instructions from God about His Word were written by Paul, towards the end of his ministry, to Timothy:
"All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect (fully equipped), throughly furnished (fitted out like a new house, or a brand new car ready for use) unto all good works."
and this verse we are considering:
"Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." (2 Tim.3:16,17, and 2 Tim.2:15).
"Rightly dividing"? We believe that the Holy Spirit is saying, though Paul, that although all Scripture is for us, it is not all about us. That is, not all of it is about Christians living in the world today. In other words, we must correctly apportion scripture so that we apply to us only what should apply to us. Most Christian churches go along with this, to a certain extent.
For example, we don't have animal sacrifices today because (1) Christ was the perfect sacrifice, and (2) the instructions were given to Israel. We don't go to the synagogue on the Sabbath (seventh day) as Jesus did. We don't do this sort of thing today because we accept that it is not written about us, although we can learn from the typology.
Also, most of us don't follow Christ's instructions by only having one coat (Luke 9:3), and by not going to Gentiles (Matt.10:5). Nor do we wash each others' feet, as The Lord commanded at the "last supper"! (John 13:14,15). We manage to rationalize these things as not being for us today.
So we all, to a certain extent, try to "rightly divide" the Word of God. But we need to fully decide which parts of the Bible should apply to our lives today. And that is what we, as Christians trying to "study - doing our best - to be approved", believe we have done. Let's look at how we all can work out what part of the Scriptures we should apply to our lives today.
[N.B. Please look up the references given, to see for yourself what they say. Check the context.]
In looking at our lives as they are now, do we in the Gentile world live like the Jews did? The O.T. clearly shows how God chose & dealt with the Jews, Israel, separately as a nation, apart from all other (Gentile) nations. Exod.6:4-8, 19 :4-6, Numb.23:9, 2 Sam.7:23, Is.43:1,3,9,10. (Actually, if you can accept the Bible as a book written mainly by Jews, mainly about Jews, then you are well on the path to understanding what we are saying.)
Throughout the first part of The Bible we see that God says He will bless all non-Jews, the Gentiles, through His chosen nation (Gen.12:1-3, 22:8-18. Is.49:6,60:3), and that Gentiles can only be blessed through Israel. But as we progress through Scripture we see in Ephesians & Colossians that there is no more dividing wall, that God will bless Jew & Gentile equally together (Eph.3:6,2:11-22. Col.3:11), and that Gentiles can be blessed separately from Israel (Eph.3:1,8. Col.1:27). God says that this dividing wall, which was an actual physical barrier in the Temple, is now gone!
Please note that this change, this lack of difference between Jew & Gentile, is not just because Christ died for the sins of the world, because in Acts, afte Christ died, we still see Paul going very much to the Jew first. In fact, Paul still kept the Jewish customs, still kept the Law, for years after the death and resurrection of The Lord (Acts 21:24, 28:17). So what changed in the relationship between Jew and Gentile, and when did it change?
To understand this change we must look at accepting the fact that God has dealt differently with man in different ages. For example, God had a different relationship with Adam and Eve after they fell, different from the relationship before. God expected one sort of behaviour from Israel before the Law, and another afterwards. Before Christ died the Law was pre-eminent; after Christ died, grace. Again, God dealt differently with man at this different time.
How, then, can we know for sure how God wants to deal with us now? Can we know how He wants us to behave today? Is God wanting to bless us Gentiles (and I wasn't born a Jew, were you?) through Israel now, or not? If there really is a change in th e God-ordained relationship between Jew & Gentile, again the question, when did it change?
Many Christians accept that we live in the current "church age", as most call it, but are not completely sure when it began. Did it begin when Christ died? Or when He arose? When He ascended? When The Holy Spirit poured out power from on high in Jerusalem (Acts 2)? This seems to be a common belief. Or did our age of grace begin when Peter, a Jew, went with great difficulty to the Gentiles (Acts 10)? Or when Paul said, "we turn to the Gentiles" (Acts 13:46)? When did this age really begin?
As a Bible student, I believe the Word of God teaches that the age in which we now live began about A.D. 60-70, the time recorded at the end of the book of Acts.
Acts 28:26-28 records Paul, after discussion with the leading Jews in Rome, speaking very sharply, and saying, in effect, "The Jewish nation will not see or hear God's message, so they are set aside, and now the Gentiles are God's primary concern". Shortly after this the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, Israel was dispersed, and the Jews have been off the centre stage of the world until recent years. Note that this setting aside of God's chosen people is only for a time, because Israel will fully return to its rightful place in the earth's affairs, very much fulfilling God's overall plan of the ages.
So we believe that this change in the God-ordained relationship between the Jews & the Gentiles took place about this time recorded at the end of the book of Acts. And the change that took place? We Gentiles can now have a different relationship with our God, we can have fellowship in our own right, rather than having to be blessed through Israel.
One reason for believing this is because Paul's later writings - those epistles written after the end of the Acts time-span - contain a particular new revelation, which Paul said had been hidden by/in God throughout the ages (Eph.3:9). This "mystery" [" secret" is a better translation] in Ephesians 3:3-9, says that what God was now revealing, through Paul, was that the Gentiles should be "joint heirs" (verse 6), and no longer needed Israel as a channel for blessing by God. Colossians 1:26-27 should also be checked.
This fact of the Gentiles' new position had never before been revealed, not in the O.T., not in the Gospels, not in the Acts, and not in the epistles written during the Acts. So this revelation must be something significant.
In addition to this new revelation, other changes appear in Paul's epistles written later - the "prison epistles". Paul wrote 14 letters (including Hebrews), seven of which were penned during Acts, and seven after. [Note God's numerics in the two se ts of sevens. 2 = difference, 7 = spiritual perfection!]. These later ones are Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon.
The significant changes in emphasis and content include the items listed the next two pages.
If you read through the book of Acts, you cannot help but notice the major emphasis on Jewish aspects, and this is reflected in the earlier epistles of Paul. It is also seen in the seven epistles (note the number 7 again!) written by the other (Israelite) apostles. This prominence virtually disappears in the later words of Paul, indicating that he had indeed taken God's salvation to the Gentiles (Acts 28:28), as the apostle of the Gentiles (Roms.11:13). And wouldn't you agree that for many centuries God's salvation has been heard by the Gentile nations, far, far more than by Israel?
So from this evidence, and other facts in the Bible, which we haven't time or space to present here, it would appear that we Gentiles do indeed live in a different age, or "dispensation" (Eph.1:10, 3:2; Col.1:25-KJV), or "administration"*, from those Christians of the Acts period.
* The NIV uses "times", "administration", and "commission", in these references, and for the same Greek word in Luke 16, uses "management" and "job", where the KJV uses "stewardship". All these have the implication of a period of time during which certain conditions apply.
The Americans tend to talk of their presidency in terms of the "Kennedy Administration", for example. We know that this simply means a period of time during which certain things happen. When a new president is elected, the new administration starts doing things the way it wants. It changes some rules for living to suit itself, while basic laws stay the same. In the same manner, as we said before, God changes some of the rules of His dealings with man in different ways in different ages - or administrations.
Back then to our earlier question. How do we decide which parts of the Bible apply primarily to our lives today, and how can we know for sure how God wants us to behave today?
I believe we can find these rules and instructions for this age in the parts of the Bible written during this age - the later epistles of Paul that we have been discussing.
Just as all Christians would agree that the O.T. laws on sacrifice and eating habits, etc., are not about us and our behaviour before God, so we believe that these epistles, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, are special areas of Scripture that better explain what our actions should be before God today.
However, as Christian Bible students, wanting to "rightly divide", we can also study the whole Bible as being for us and for our learning (2 Tim.3:16 - ALL Scripture), but we should prefer only these most recent writings as being about us, in primarily telling us how to live as Gentiles, in this present world.
But why accept my word? Read through the ACT(S)ivities of the early believers. Note how often "Israel", "Jew first", etc. appear. Then read through these later letters from Paul, asking The Holy Spirit to reveal to you any differences He wants you to see for yourself. Make up your own mind, decide for yourself, praying "that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, may give unto you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him; the eyes of your understanding being enlightened, that you may know the hope of His calling (for you), and what the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints". Ephesians 1:17-18.
I pray this for you, too.
RICHARD SNOWDEN. February 1993.