“Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth.”
What are the lessons we can learn from this well-loved and often quoted verse in Holy Scripture? Truly it has not been without its controversy down through the years.
A vital issue in determining the correct meaning of any verse is that it must be taken in its rightful context.
Note first the overall context of the book. The big picture in 2 Timothy is departure from the faith. We have the rise of false teachers and Paul’s being abandoned by many that once stood with him. Generally it is a gloomy scene reminiscent of the book of Judges in the Old Testament—days of declension, ruin, and difficulty.
In the midst of all this failure, not unlike our own day, there is the need for men of God to arise. This is where chapter 2 comes in. Paul reveals to us what a man of God is, and reveals seven features which mark him out. He exhorts Timothy to be that kind of man.
A remarkable feature of the Word of God is its numerical structure. Seven is a prominent number, and often the seven is divided into four and three. This happens frequently in the Book of Revelation, as well as the Kingdom Parables in Matthew 13 and the Feasts of Jehovah in Leviticus 23. So in 2 Timothy 2 we have seven figures of a man of God and they also are divided into two groups of four and three:
1. A disciple maker (v. 2), spiritually reproducing
2. A soldier (v. 3), enduring hardness and not getting sidetracked from the battle
3. An athlete (v. 4), playing by the rules to win the crown
4. A farmer (v. 6f), partaking of the fruits of his labor
We then have an interlude with verses 8-14. Following this, there are three more word pictures:
5. A workman (v. 15), unashamed of his work
6. A vessel unto honor (vv. 20f), suitable for the Master to use
7. A servant (v. 24), not striving, but being gentle to all.
In between the two groupings, in verses 8-14, we have the supreme motive for wanting to be a man of God in a day of ruin: “Remember Jesus Christ.” Don’t forget Him; let Him be your motive.
As we think of Him, we are brought to remember His life and God’s plan for Him. It was simple: suffering first and glory to follow. Paul’s experience also followed this same pattern, and for the man of God now, it will not be any different. This is the divine pattern: it was seen in Joseph’s life, David’s life, and Daniel’s life, which are beautiful pictures of the Lord Jesus.
Being a man of God will entail suffering, perhaps even rejection and ridicule from those we love and care for, but call to mind the Lord Jesus Christ. As we look specifically at one of these figures of a man of God, let us be motivated by the Son of God to be men and women of God in our day. “Remember Jesus Christ”!
Now notice the immediate context. In verse 14, Paul warns Timothy of the danger into which some may lapse, that of squabbling about words, making distinctions where there is none (although we will later see that we do need to acknowledge biblical distinctions that are really there), and forgetting the plain and practical sense of the Word. This practice subverts or ruins the hearers. It is simply not helpful. Paul uses this opportunity to exhort Timothy to be a careful student himself.
The controversy surrounding the book relates to the matter of Dispensationalism, and one of its most popular authors, the late C. I. Scofield. His helpful little booklet, which takes its title from our text, Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, has been used to deliver many from the errors of Reformed and Covenant Theology, systematic theologies which fail to distinguish things that clearly differ.
In response to Scofield’s work, there has been an attempt to discredit it by stressing that the word “study” in our text has actually nothing to do with Bible study. Bible study is something which dispensational teaching has done much to promote among the Lord’s people. So is Scofield’s text really out of context?
Yes, the word “study” in the KJV could be a misleading translation, as it literally means to “strive diligently,” as rendered by J. N. Darby in his New Translation. We are exhorted to strive diligently or make every effort to show or present ourselves approved unto God as workmen. But let me ask the question: how are we to be an approved workman? Just how is this to be achieved? Does it have no relationship to the Word of God at all?
On the contrary, it is by correctly handling the Word of truth and living by the precepts we find in it, that we will be approved workman. The only way we can correctly handle the Word of Truth is if we really know it.
We are exhorted, therefore, to “strive diligently.” This implies much more than a casual relationship with the Word of God. It implies hard work, and that is exactly what is involved. A careful student will spend hours diligently working and vigorously thinking to gain a good understanding of the Word.
The purpose of this diligent study is to show or present yourself approved to God. Notice Paul says it positively here and then negatively, “a workman that needeth not to be ashamed.” To be an approved workman then, you must diligently study and seek to apply the truth to your own life. The study of the Word of God is not just to gain intellectual knowledge of the Bible. Knowledge, we are told, puffs up! But we are to study in order to equip ourselves to be approved workmen. The better you know your Bible the more effective you will be in any area of ministry.
A better evangelist. You will be able to remember relevant passages to share with an anxious inquirer, to put to flight the errors of the cultists (counterfeits are always easier to spot when you are familiar with the original), and to deal with the supposed objections to Biblical Christianity.
A better shepherd or encourager of the Lord’s people, you will be able to use the scripture to comfort, encourage, warn, and even rebuke the sheep.
Every area of Christian work is enhanced by a deep knowledge of the scriptures. This was brought home to me recently when dear friends suffered the tragic loss of a family member. On hearing this news, I called them as I was out of the country preaching at the time. Before calling I had prayed for appropriate Scriptures to be able to share with them. Their response was quite remarkable. They said, “We knew that you would share Scripture with us, and to be honest with you, it is the only thing that brings us any comfort right now.”
“Rightly dividing the word of Truth.” The primary idea is to handle the truth properly, to cut it correctly. Paul, as a tentmaker, would not want to waste the valuable cloth. He would cut it correctly or else the expensive cloth would be ruined. If we don’t handle the truth correctly, then we will ruin the lives of those we speak to, perhaps by misapplying promises that give them a false hope, which in turn will only leave them disappointed in God. In this regard it is vital to recognize the clear distinctions in the word of God. Many a truth intended for Israel has been misapplied or misclaimed as a promise for the Church today.
The underlying motive behind all of this is to meet His approval, to receive that “well done, thou good and faithful servant”. If we might borrow from another phrase in 2 Timothy 2, “That he may please Him who has chosen him to be a soldier.” Is not that your desire? To please Him who loved us and gave Himself for us? Then “study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth.”