Q: #167. What does "rightly dividing the word of truth" mean in (2 Tim 2:15)?
A: The Greek word for “dividing” in (2 Tim 2:15) is “orthotomeo.” Interestingly, this word is used nowhere else in the Bible. It literally means “to cut straight.” A parallel could be made to an occupation which demands precise, straight cuts to be made such as carpentry or masonry. If they do not make precise cuts, the project will be ruined. The same can be said for “rightly dividing” God’s word.
Paul is comparing Timothy to a “workman” who needs to precisely and accurately interpret (“cut straight”) the “truth” of God’s word. This is even more important in Timothy’s case as a teacher of the word who is under stricter judgment from God (James 3:1). In other words, I believe that the primary warning of this verse is directed to teachers and ministers (as Timothy was); that they must diligently study God’s word and precisely and accurately interpret it so that they can properly teach the word to their listeners.
However, properly interpreting the Bible is of great importance for all Christians when reading it. Some call Biblical interpretation an “art and science.” Others use impressive sounding words such as hermeneutics and exegesis. It is not as complicated as it sounds though. Let me give you some key guidelines to follow in “rightly dividing” or interpreting verses you read in the Bible.
#1. Prayer: Before beginning any study of the Bible, we should begin with prayer. We should pray for God to reveal the truths and revelation found in His word to us. The Bible says this is done through the Holy Spirit who: teaches us (Jn 14:26), guides us (Jn 16:13), and directs us (Acts 20:22)(Acts 11:12). In fact, (1 Cor 2:14) says that the things of God cannot be understood at all without the Holy Spirit, for they are “spiritually discerned.” There are 3 verses in the Psalms speaking about the “law” that would also make a great prayer for studying God’s word:
(Ps 119:18-20)(NASB) Open my eyes, that I may behold Wonderful things from Your law (or “Word”) (19) I am a stranger in the earth; Do not hide Your commandments (Word) from me. (20) My soul is crushed with longing After Your ordinances (Word) at all times.
#2. Don’t bring in your presuppositions: We have all been taught and learned various things about the Bible throughout our lives. Many of these are likely correct, however, some may be incorrect. If you read the Bible bringing in things you have been previously taught, you will tend to interpret it in that way. The technical term for this is “eisegesis.” For instance (using an extreme example), Jehovah Witnesses do not believe that Jesus is God. Therefore, they have improperly interpreted the Bible (and even made their own Bible), through the eyes of one who is trying to prove Jesus is not God.
#3. Keep the verse in context: It is very easy to take one verse and make it say what the author never intended. Look at the verses (or chapters) surrounding a verse to see what subject or theme the author is addressing. Many people often take one verse out of context and make a doctrine based on it. Be assured that God did not give us an important doctrine based on only one verse. If a verse seems unclear, interpret in light of a more clear verse. A good saying is “scripture interprets scripture.”
#4. Study the Hebrew or Greek for each word in a verse: Many Hebrew and Greek words that the Bible uses do not have proper English equivalents (or sometimes are just mistranslated). If you want to fully understand a verse, taking the time to dig into it in Hebrew or Greek can often unlock more meaning, and at times can even change how you view a verse. Let me give you one example.
In (Jn 21:15-17), it says, “So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (agapao) thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love (phileo) thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. (16) He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (agapao) thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love (phileo) thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. (17) He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (phileo) thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest (phileo) thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love (phileo) thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
If you never looked at the Greek in these 3 verses, you would be missing a deeper meaning. While we have one word for “love” in English, the Greek language has several words for “love.” Two of them are used in these three verses. When the word “agapao” is used, Jesus is speaking about self-sacrificial, committed, servanthood kind of “love.” However, when the word “phileo” is used, Jesus is speaking about an intense, affectionate, intimate kind of “love” (like we would have with our family). Understanding this certainly makes these three verses more clear, doesn’t it?
*** Please keep in mind that you do not need to be a Greek or Hebrew scholar to do this. All you need is a good concordance like Strong’s and possibly a lexicon.
*** Note: I would also add that when you are reading an Old English version like the KJV, it is helpful to keep in mind that language has changed greatly in the 400+ years since it was written. The meanings of many words are different today. Let me share two examples.
One word that is incorrectly defined is “replenish.” This word is used in both (Gen 1:28) and (Gen 9:1) when God told both Adam and Noah respectively, to “replenish” the Earth. It is reasoned by some that God could not tell them to “replenish” the Earth unless there were people on it previously (of course there was in Noah’s case). The problem is, the word “replenish” in Old English did not mean what it does today. In those days it meant “to fill.” In other words, God told Adam and Noah to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and FILL the earth,” not “refill” it. If you look at any version other than the KJV, they use the word “fill” rather than “replenish.”
Another good example is the word “compass.” In (Num 34:5), for instance, it says to “fetch a compass.” This has been taken by some to mean that they had a compass like we have today. However, they did not possess the technology to have that in those times. A “compass” meant in Old English “to take a circular route.” This becomes apparent when you look at other verses that use the same word such as (Num 21:4)(Josh 6:3).
#5. Understand the historical and cultural background: The culture in Bible times was vastly different from ours today. Attempting to uncover things about the culture in the time the book or verses were written can greatly aid in helping you understand why different things may have been done or occurred. For example, the 10 plagues that God brought upon the Egyptians had great significance in that culture. For one, “10” was the number of completion in Egypt (as ours as Christians is “7”). In addition, nearly all of the plagues were aimed at the false gods of Egypt. The 1st plague, where the Nile turned to blood, was aimed at Isis who was the goddess of the Nile. The 2nd plague of frogs was aimed at Heqt, the Egyptian goddess of childbirth who had the head of a frog. The 5th plague, pestilence on livestock, was aimed at Hathor, the cow goddess (the cow, ram, bull, and goat were all sacred in Egypt).
Numerous other things in the Bible like slave ownership, incest, polygamy, head coverings (1 Cor 11:2-16), women’s roles in church life, and many more, will also be understood more fully when viewed from a historical and cultural standpoint.
In addition, ask these questions about a book or verse:
Who wrote it?
Where was it written from?
Who was it written to? (i.e. Understanding Matthew was written to the Jews and Mark to the Romans unlocks a few interesting insights, like why there is a genealogy in Matthew and not Mark.)
What was the purpose for it being written?
What is being emphasized?
*** I cover these questions in much more depth in my New Testament Survey.
#6. Keep in mind the literary genre of the writing: The books of the Bible were not written in chronological order, but rather, they were grouped by categories. They are as follows:
Law (5 books) Genesis-Deuteronomy
History (12 books) Joshua-Esther
Poetry (5 books) Job-Song of Solomon
Prophecy (17 books) Isaiah-Malachi
Gospels (4 books) Matthew-John
History (1 book) Acts
Epistles (21 books) Romans-Jude
Prophecy (1 book) Revelation
It is important to understand that there are different principles for understanding a historical book verses a poetic book verses a prophetic book. For instance, we should not take verses in Proverbs as promises from God or we will be disappointed. They are precepts or guidelines, not guarantees.
#7. Always take a literal interpretation first: We should always take the Bible as meaning exactly what it says. All kinds of interpretation problems come when a person tries to uncover some “hidden meaning.” However, we should also understand that certain types of literary styles are not to be taken literally. For example, some verses are “hyperbole” (exaggeration). (Judg 7:12) says, “Now the Midianites and the Amalekites and all the sons of the east were lying in the valley as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as numerous as the sand on the seashore.” Of course, this verse is an exaggeration, and we should take it as such. Some other examples of this are: (Mt 5:29)(Jn 21:25)(Mt 23:24).
Here are a few other examples of literary styles the Bible uses, with definitions and verses:
Simile: A figure of speech that directly compares two different things, usually using the words like/as. (Judg 6:5)(Mt 13:44,52)(Mt 23:27)(Jer 23:29)(Isa 53:6)
Irony: Using language where the meaning is opposite of the literal meaning. (2 Sam 6:20)(1 Kin 18:27)(1 Cor 4:8)(Mt 27:29,37)
Metaphor: A figure of speech in which a term or phrase is used to describe how two things that are not alike are similar in some way. Jesus called Himself: bread (Jn 6:41), living water (Jn 4:10), a door (Jn 10:9), a vine (Jn 15:5), a shepherd (Jn 10:11,14), and said we are to drink His blood and eat His body (Mt 26:26-28).
Parable: A story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. (Mt 13:3-9)(Mt 18:10-14,21-35)(Mt 25:1-13,14-30)(Lk 15:11-32)
The Bible also contains what are called “anthropomorphisms” and “anthropopathisms.” An anthropomorphism is to assign human form or characteristics to non-humans (i.e. God). For example, the Bible says that God has: hands (Jn 10:29), a face (Mt 18:10), a heart (Hos 11:8), eyes (2 Chr 16:9), a mouth (Isa 58:14), ears (Ps 34:15), etc… However, these cannot “literally” apply to God since the Bible says that God is by nature “spirit” (Jn 4:24) and “invisible” (Col 1:15)(1 Tim 6:16)(1 Tim 1:17)(Heb 11:27). In addition, Jesus said that God is not “flesh and blood” (Mt 16:17), nor “flesh and bone” (Lk 24:39). An anthropopathism similarly means to assign human emotions or feelings to non-humans (i.e. God).
#8. Look up relevant parallel passages: In nearly every study Bible, when reading a verse, you will find somewhere on the page a column that will show other verses related to your verse. Look these up, they can be very helpful.
#9. Read different versions: While I recommend using a Bible that is a “word for word” translation (i.e. NASB, KJV, NKJV), sometimes it can be hard to understand what a verse is saying in one of these Bibles (especially the KJV). It can be helpful to use a “thought for thought” translation (i.e. NIV) or a “paraphrase” Bible (i.e. Living or Message) to help you better grasp what a verse is saying in a “word for word” translation. (For more on this topic see Q: #57.) I use as my primary Bible what is called a “parallel Bible.” Mine shows 4 versions (NASB, KJV, NLT, NIV) side by side and has greatly helped me many times. Also, having such things as a good study Bible with notes explaining the verses, a commentary(ies), a Bible dictionary, and a concordance can be very useful.