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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at / Published Life BPC 1045am Svc, 2011-11-20

Text: 2 Timothy 2:14-18

 

I would like to begin this message by asking you to imagine that you are now a brain surgeon who is about to perform a major operation. Your patient has been diagnosed to have a well-defined tumour in his brain, and he is already prepared for surgery in the operating theatre. As you enter into the theatre dressed in a surgical gown with your hands all scrubbed you see your team of nurses and doctors waiting expectantly for you. All eyes are now on you as you take the scalpel and make your first incision.You have now committed yourself for next few hours to perform the whole operation and cannot back out of it.

So with intense concentration you carry out each procedure, cutting deeper and deeper into the brain to expose the tumour and excise it. Well now, what are some thoughts that you would have while doing all this? “I must be very careful how I cut. If I cut just a little too much, I may damage some important blood vessels or nerves that may leave my patient paralysed or unconscious for the rest of his life. But if I cut just a little too little, and do not completely remove the whole tumour, the remaining tumour cells may grow back again. What I need most is precision.”

When we study the Word of God, we are just like brain surgeons. We need to interpret it accurately with the utmost care. This is what the apostle Paul meant when he told Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:15, to“rightly divide the word of truth.” The word rightly dividing in this verse means “cutting it straight” Cutting too much or too little can produce disastrous results. For the apostle Paul the term ‘cutting it straight’ probably had to do with the craft which he was most familiar with – tentmaking. That was his family trade which his father had taught him to do from young. As a tentmaker Paul had learned that when making a tent, a piece of material had to be cut very carefully with precision. If he does not cut it straight, that entire piece would be of no use and would have to be discarded.

The point is this: What we need most when we want to interpret the Word of God is precision. Let this word always be in your thoughts each time you handle God’s Word, whether it is for your own personal benefit, or for a Bible study group or for a Sunday School class – Precision! In 2 Timothy 2:14-18 we can find five reasons why we must interpret the Bible accurately, with precision.

I. Reasons for Rightly Dividing the Word

A. The first reason is found in v.14 – “words to no profit.” It can be summed up with one word: Disappointment: Instead of interpreting the Scriptures carefully, some were getting caught up in irrelevant discussions and debates over words. Timothy was told to charge them to stop doing this. Why? Because people would not gain anything of value, or of profit or benefit from them. They would be very disappointed. And in the same way, if we do not rightly divide God’s Word then our words would be to no profit. People would come, expecting to hear the inerrant, powerful Word only to depart with an errant message that has no power to comfort or transform their lives. Therefore, if we don’t want our Bible reading to be a disappointment to ourselves and to others, we must be diligent to rightly divide the Word of truth.

B. The second reason why we must do this is even more compelling than the first one. It summed up with the word Damage: Without God’s Word correctly interpreted there would be ruined Christians (look at the end of v. 14 – “subverting of hearers”). Here is something interesting: the original word in the Greek for the word “subverting” in this verse is Catastrophe! A catastrophe of immense proportions can develop if we wrongly divide the Word of Truth! And we have an example given right here in this passage. In verses 17 and 18 we see the names of two Bible teachers at Ephesus who had not rightly divided the Word – Hymenaeus and Philetus. They had erred concerning the truth. They were teaching the church that the resurrection of believers had already taken place. And the faith of some had already been overthrown by this wrong teaching. Isn’t that how many of the present-day cults got started? Somebody failed to interpret the text of Scripture correctly. Somebody deliberately distorted or twisted the meaning of the text and ended up teaching a false doctrine which overthrew the faith of many people.

The apostle Peter mentioned that some had done this to the epistles of Paul. We read this in 2 Peter 3:16 – “As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.” Please note of the last word of this verse. It makes it clear that those who deliberately wrest or distort any portion of God’s Word to suit their own purposes will inevitably face awful consequences. They will be destroyed!

This means that when we come to a passage of Scripture which is difficult to understand, we must be careful in the way we interpret it. Sometimes it is better to admit our inability and say, “I really need to study this passage further before drawing any lessons from it, lest I make it mean something that it really does not mean.”

What we have seen thus far about the disappointment and damage that may result from wrongly dividing the Word may perhaps make us quite frightened to handle the Scriptures any more and to even say, “I’d better not study the Bible on my own. I should leave it to the experts to study it carefully and tell me what it means.” This is not the way we should respond. God requires all of us who believers to read His Word for ourselves and receive light from it. Our last few sermons have made this quite clear to us. But we must be willing to exercise the required care and discipline in understanding its meaning, in order to be blessed by it.

C. And one very attractive blessing of rightly dividing the Word of truth is highlighted in the third reason, which can be summed up in the word Distinction: (This is found at the beginning of v.15 – “Study to shew thyself approved unto God.”) Those who interpret the Word accurately enjoy the distinction of being approved unto God. There is no greater distinction than this one for any creature of God! This is even better than the ISO certification which organisations covet. It is also better than the distinction one can get from participating in the SEA games. You might say that God is our auditor or checker who grades our work to see what quality it is. No shoddy work can be accepted by God when we handle the Scriptures. Therefore we must put our best efforts into it.

D. The fourth reason why we must rightly divide the Word of truth is summed up with the word Duty: This is brought out by the word ‘workman’ in v.15. But this is not just any kind of workman. He is a workman that needeth not to be ashamed. Such a workman has no cause for worry or fear whenever anyone comes around to inspect his work. This is because he takes his work seriously and regards what he does as an important duty which he carries out faithfully. In a world where people tend to have self-centred, mercenary attitudes at work, doing only the minimum requirements, it is exceptional to find workers who would go beyond the call the duty.

Some time ago, a bus driver was assigned to ferry a group of kindergarten kids for an excursion to a factory in Sembawang. When he dropped them off, one of the kids left a plastic bag which contained a few unimportant items on his bus. When the loss was discovered and reported by the child’s parents to the bus company, the bus driver personally returned the bag to their home on the same day even though it was after his working hours. He refused to receive any reward, saying that he was merely doing his duty as a bus driver.

This is the kind of attitude we need to have with the Word of Truth. Those who handle it must have an awesome sense of Duty, particularly if they intend to pass it on to someone else. Those who are careless with this duty will one day stand ashamed before God.

E. The last reason why we must interpret the Bible accurately, with precision is found in the word Demands: This is implied by the description of the Bible in the last part of v.15 as “the Word of truth”. Since the Bible is the authentic Word of Truth, which came from God Himself, it surely demands our very best in reading, in interpreting, in obeying and in teaching.

I would like you to listen to what someone once wrote about the Bible to remind us how we should treat it: “This book contains: the mind of God, the state of man, the way of salvation, the doom of sinners, and the happiness of believers. Its doctrine is holy, its precepts are binding, its histories are true, and its decisions are immutable. Read it to be wise, believe it to be saved, and practice it to be holy. It contains light to direct you, food to support you, and comfort to cheer you. it is the traveller’s map, the pilgrim’s staff, the pilot’s compass, the soldier’s sword, and the Christian’s charter. Here heaven is opened, and the gates of hell are disclosed. Christ is the grand subject, our good its design, and the glory of God its end. It should fill the memory, rule the heart, and guide the feet. Read it slowly, frequently, and prayerfully. It is a mine of wealth, health to the soul, and a river of pleasure. It is given to you here in this life, will be opened at the judgement, and is established forever. It involves the highest responsibility, will reward the greatest labour, and condemn all who trifle with its contents.”

You must be convinced that what you hold in your hands is really the Book of Books. Then you will give it the high regard and careful study that it deserves from you and demands from you. We have just seen five reasons that are derived from 2 Timothy 2:14,15 why we must interpret the Bible accurately with precision. They are summed up in the words disappointment, damage, distinction, duty, and demands. I trust that these reasons have helped us to realise how crucial it is for us not to be careless in dividing God’s Word.

We shall now proceed to consider three basic principles that we should use to rightly divide the Word of truth.

II. Principles for Rightly Dividing the Word:

These principles can only be rightly applied if we are willing to submit ourselves fully to the authority of the scriptures and let God’s Word and God’s Spirit dictate to us exactly what we should understand from it. The first is

A. Look for the literal, natural sense of the text.

Interpret the Bible the way that you would interpret any other kind of literature – by taking it at face value. Do not look for hidden meanings behind the obvious meaning of the text. One example isMatthew 28:2 – “…for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door,…” This describes what happened at the empty tomb on the morning when Jesus rose from the dead. Some would claim that the stone represents doubt and sin in our lives, which must be rolled away for us to believe in the resurrected Christ. 

Another example is found in the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the Samaritan gave the host of the inn two pence or two coins for looking after the injured man (Luke 10:35). This parable is sometimes spiritualised as follows: Jesus is the good Samaritan, entrusting the church with the care of those whose lives have been injured by sin, and the two coins must then be the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper! It sounds very nice, but is this really the intended meaning of the parable?

Listen to what Daniel Webster said on this, “I believe that the Bible is to be understood and received in the plain obvious meaning of its passages, since I cannot persuade myself that a book intended for the instruction and conversion of the world should cover its meaning in any such mystery and doubt that none but critics and philosophers can discover it.” So let us keep using this principle of looking for the literal, natural sense of the text whenever we study the Scriptures for ourselves or for others.

Now, when you use this principle you must take figures of speech into account. Just imagine what would happen if Matthew 5:29,30 is applied literally. This is the passage where Jesus said, “And if thyright eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right handoffend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”

What do you think will happen if this is taken literally? There would be a lot of blind and maimed people in church. Actually, this extreme action of plucking out one’s eye or cutting off one’s hand is a well-known figure of speech called hyperbole – intended exaggeration for impact.

It is not my purpose in this message to elaborate on all the kinds of figures of speech used in the Bible like simile, metaphor, personification and euphemism. There are actually more than 250 different kinds of figures of speech used in the Bible. But what you must understand is that these figures of speech are the only things where the literal sense is not the right one. For everything else, always remember this basic rule: When the plain sense makes good sense, don’t seek for any other sense. The plain literal sense is what we should always look for. Let us go on to look at the next principle to rightly divide the Word of truth:

B. Observe what the text meant in its own context and to its original audience.

Sometimes you have to read from a few verses before the text to determine the occasion or purpose for it.  One example of this is found in 2 Peter 2:10 – “For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning.” Some have used this to teach that a Christian can lose his salvation. Actually the context shows that this verse applies only to non-believers, because Peter’s focus here was on the false prophets, who were never saved in the first place, even though they seemed to have accepted the Gospel.

To avoid falling into this error it is always safe to read and interpret a passage in its context. Sometimes the context is mainly narrative, that is, a historical event is being described plainly (e.g. Genesis to Esther, the four Gospels and Acts). At other instances the context is mainly poetic, which is more expressive and filled with emotion (e.g. Job to Song of Solomon).

At yet other instances the context may be mainly prophetic, looking to the future (E.g. Isaiah to Malachi, Revelation). Each kind of writing genre requires a slightly different approach to interpretation. E.g. when you interpret prophetic passages, you need to see if the fulfilment is given in another part of Scripture. If it is already fulfilled, then it cannot be fulfilled again. For example, the prophecy of Joel (Joel 2:28,29) is mentioned by the apostle Peter to have been fulfilled at Pentecost (Acts 2:16-18). So we cannot point to any present day event and say it fulfills what Joel predicted.

How about narrative passages? When you study a narrative passage in the Bible, you must be careful what lessons you draw from it, because sometimes no comment is made on whether something that was done was right or wrong. E.g. in 1 Samuel, there are several instances in David’s life when he deliberately lied when running away from King Saul, who was out to kill him (1 Samuel 21:8). David lied to the priests at Nob that he was there on the king’s business, and so they helped him, thinking he was sent by King Saul. The result was that Saul later slaughtered almost all of them for helping David.

What David had done was wrong. Though his life was in danger, he should not have lied. By doing so he had caused the death of many innocent people. We must never assume that since God was on David’s side, everything David did must be good and right. If we assume this, we might end up thinking that when we are in trouble, it is alright for us to tell a lie like David in order to get out of it. When dealing with passages like this, it is always helpful to look at the end result to understand what it really teaches. It is also helpful to…

C. Check that the meaning agrees with other passages of Scripture.

This is our third principle for rightly dividing the Word of truth, and it is based on the assumption that the Bible can never contradict itself, since it was all the work of One author – God Himself. It is most unwise to build an important doctrine on the basis of one single verse alone. Check up other passages that are related to it first. Where can you find references to such passages? – some Bibles provide cross-references or chain references. What should you do with all the verses that you look up from all these references? Harmonise them. Use each of them to explain or limit the possibilities of meaning of a word or idea in the text you are studying.

 You can save a lot of time and effort in applying this principle if you have acquired a good overall knowledge of the Bible. And the only way you can do this is by reading through the whole Bible at least once. Amos Wells has written a nice little poem on this subject. Please listen carefully to this:

I supposed I knew the Bible, reading piecemeal, hit or miss,

Now a bit of John or Matthew, Now a snatch of Genesis;

Certain chapters of Isaiah certain Psalms (the twenty-third),

Twelfth of Romans, First of Proverbs, yet I thought I knew the Word.

But I found a thorough reading was a different thing to do,

And the way was unfamiliar when I read the Bible through.

 

You who like to play at Bible, Dip and dabble here and there

Just before you kneel a-weary, and yawn out a hurried prayer;

You who treat the crown of writing as you treat no other book -

Just a paragraph disjointed, Just a crude, impatient look -

Try a worthier procedure, try a broad and steady view,

You will kneel in very rapture when you read the Bible through.

I hope you can see the wisdom of reading through the Bible. It will give you a good working knowledge of the Scriptures that will help you in your Bible study for the rest of your life! When you read the Bible through, you will also begin to see that the New Testament can be the best commentary to use for Old Testament passages. This is very useful when studying some difficult passages in the Old Testament. No one can give a better interpretation of Scripture than the writers of Scripture because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. One well-known maxim that is helpful for Bible study is “The New is in the Old contained, the Old is in the New explained.”

One Old Testament passage that has puzzled Jews for centuries is Isaiah chapter 53. In this passage Isaiah wrote about a suffering servant, but does not mention who this servant is. Because of that some Jews believe that Isaiah was writing about himself, while others believe that the suffering servant is the nation of Israel. This problem puzzled an Ethiopian official who was studying the passage. We see this is Acts 8:34 – “And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man?”  And Philip the evangelist immediately solved the issue for him by telling Him about how Jesus Christ suffered and died to take away our sins (v.35). There are many Old Testament passages like Isaiah 53 that cannot be fully understood without the light of the New Testament. And whatever interpretation the New Testament gives to them, settles the matter.

  
With that we conclude this message on rightly dividing the Word of truth. To summarise it all, we have seen the reasons why we ought to do it – that we really need to exercise precision and accuracy when we handle God’s Word. We have also seen three basic principles for Bible interpretation – Firstly, take the literal sense of the text as its intended meaning, Secondly, observe what the text means in its context and to its original audience, and lastly, check that its meaning agrees with other passages of Scripture. Please do your best to prayerfully apply these basic principles in your Bible study from now on, so that you can be approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth.

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

October 15 & 22 - The Cost of Discipleship

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:25