“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
The Apostle Paul was always exhorting those he ministered to – that they would cultivate a rich, healthy, and productive Christian witness. By that is meant that the life we live in the flesh should be a testimony to the Life of Christ in us (Galatians 2:20). This Life must be nourished and tended to, so that we will grow in the Grace and experiential Knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). And for this, Paul gives his famous instruction in our text.
I have often heard someone quote this verse of Scripture with a tone of smugness in their voice, as though they have indeed mastered the imperative: “Study to shew thyself approved …” They say it as though they have so studied and are now able to show themselves “approved.” But they omit the part about being approved “unto God.” And so their self-approved boasting proceeds from the desire to be approved by men.
The focus of this message isn’t necessarily about growth, so much as it is about the study that lends itself to our growth. That is, the ability to rightly divide the Truth. With churches springing up on every street corner, and so many movements characterized as non-denominational, inter-denominational, or trans-denominational; it is important that the Truth be proclaimed. For that, the man of God must study to show that he is approved by God to speak the Truth (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Let’s look at just a few examples of the failure to rightly divide the Word of Truth. Have you ever heard a preacher, teacher, or author use a verse of Scripture, usually from one of the Old Testament prophets, in order to support some sensational current event or prophetic scenario? Quite often it is one of the minor prophets that is being quoted and explained in the backdrop of 21st Century events.
For instance, certain verses in the writing of the prophets have been credited with predicting automobiles (Nahum 2:4); airplanes (Isaiah 31:5); the tragic events of 9/11; and many other things – so that when you get to the Book of Revelation, we are conditioned to expect attack helicopters (Revelation 9:7-10)! The prophetic Scriptures are also commonly misapplied to a modern Jewish nation and a rebuilt temple.
When passages are pressed like this to fit every new theory, the approach taken to the Biblical text itself becomes superficial. The context of the Scripture and the related verses are largely ignored, as the isolated passages are dogmatically asserted to find their fulfillment in our time. What was written to have a relevance to the original readers, become divorced from its audience, and subjected to every fanciful interpretation.
Basic rules of interpretation help us to rightly divide the Word of Truth.
When we hear a preacher make reference to the temple in Ezekiel 40 – 48, the basic rules of interpretation are largely ignored. Most teach the temple referred to by Ezekiel is as yet to be built, holding its fulfillment to be either during a final seven-year Tribulation Period, or in a so-called Millennial Reign. This holding uses theory to interpret the Word, rather than using the Word to formulate the doctrine.
Looking at the temple Ezekiel describes, we see that it requires priests to follow the laws, rituals, and sacrificial rites of the old covenant (40:38-39; 42:13-14; 43:18, 25, 27; 44:17-19). The priests would be allowed to marry, but could only marry a widow if she were the widow of another priest (44:22, 25). Only those who were circumcised in heart and flesh would be able to enter the sanctuary of this rebuilt temple (44:9); and animal sacrifices would be a regular occurrence in worship.
Now, what if this is a literal temple, yet to be built in some, as yet future Millennium? Would we look to the requirements of Ezekiel’s prophetic writings literally? Does this mean there will be priests marrying during the Millennium, or their wives dying? Would God’s People return to the shadows of offering animal sacrifices, and circumcision of the flesh (Galatians 5:3-4)?
But what if Ezekiel is simply utilizing the language of the old covenant to figuratively describe a future Temple in terms his original audience could appreciate? What if we were alive at the time and had witnessed the desolation of Solomon’s temple and heard this message? Wouldn’t it fill us with hope, which we would pass along to our children? Wouldn’t we rejoice in the expectancy that God would restore pure worship among His People, but one not bound by old covenant regulations that clearly point us to Christ?
And then what would it be like if we were alive at the time of the Temple’s rebuilding (Ezra 6), less than a hundred years after Ezekiel’s prophecy? Imagine how we would view that newly rebuilt Temple in the context of the hopelessness we felt not long before. Understanding the colorful and poetic way that prophets often expressed things, would we look for every minute detail to be fulfilled? Would we see the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy, or would we deny that the new Temple had anything at all to do with it?
Now flash-forward to our present day. Do we really need any further fulfilment of Ezekiel’s prophecy, when our Lord Jesus Christ has declared, “the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father” (John 4:21)? Don’t we boldly profess to be the true Temple of God (Ephesians 2:19-22)? Why then do we think we have need for a physical temple?
It is obvious that we tend to overlook the historicity of the Bible. When we study to show ourselves approved unto God, we take into consideration God’s relevance in the lives of His People. Think about the implications of the miracles and imperial decrees in Israel’s favor recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah. Many nations were in awe of the Israelites because God’s hand was strong upon them.
When we divorce prophetic writing from the events being experienced at the time of their writing, we tend to interpret the prophets in ways we shouldn’t. A fuller knowledge of the historical fulfillment of Scripture should make us more cautious in making interpretations of future fulfillments regarding prophetic writings.
In closing, let me state a few basic principles that should be used as guidelines when rightly dividing the prophetic writings:
1) Try not to read the prophetic writings more literally that the Hebrews did; the literature of the people is poetic and symbolic.
2) Note the context of the verses or chapters; including the writers and their reasons for writing.
3) Don’t be so quick to jump to “the end of the world” when you read prophetic writings; consider the historicity of the people.
4) Don’t be so quick to apply things to our time or situations; the Bible is relevant and applicable to us, but much is qualified by the contextual setting.
5) Appreciate the prophet’s task of relating visions through visual language; Ezekiel saw the Glory of God. Try describing the indescribable!
Whatever your study habits may be, it is important that you enter therein prayerfully and soberly. It’s easy to get sidetracked with fanciful interpretations of obscure verses of Scripture.
It takes the Spirit of Truth to guide us into all Truth (John 16:13). Ask God to bless your study, so that you will “shew thyself approved unto God.”