Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

Rev G G Hutton

Paul exhorts Timothy — who was his son in the faith as well as a preacher of the gospel — with the words: “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). The expression rightly dividing is, in the original, a compound word meaning to cut straight, to bring out the correct meaning. In other words, Paul is telling Timothy to apply himself to the diligent and thorough study of God’s Word, so that he may know how to expound it correctly, to explain its true meaning — to state precisely what God is saying in any particular passage of His Word.

Paul is impressing on Timothy that, in order to this, the ruling principle of his life and ministry must be the pursuit of divine approval. Timothy needed to understand that there were ways of handling the Scriptures which God would not approve and he must therefore avoid them at all cost. It was essential for him to be aware that he was under divine scrutiny every time he expounded the word of truth. Paul later charges Timothy: “Preach the Word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim 4:2). Inevitably such preaching would produce different reactions among his hearers, but Timothy was not to concern himself with preaching so that there would be a favourable reaction to him, but rather to deliver his soul before God. Whatever the consequences, he must always endeavour to divide the Word of truth in such a way as to receive approval from the Word’s author: God Himself.

Every time a man stands up to declare God’s Word, his work, like Timothy’s, comes immediately under the eye of God. Every time he leaves his pulpit, he does so under the approval, or else the disapproval, of the One in whose name he has spoken. Few, if any, places can be more dreadful or sobering than the pulpit. There is no room here for flippancy or vulgarity. The pulpit belongs to God, and from here He addresses His creatures on their way to eternity, through the tongues of mortal men.

Paul asks the Romans: “How shall they preach, except they be sent?” (Rom 10:15). The inference from this question should be clear: no man can truly preach unless the divine Head of the Church has commissioned him to do so. The first preacher we meet in the New Testament is John the Baptist, of whom it is written: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (Jn 1:6). Although it is little recognised today, every pulpit is Christ’s rightful property, and thus any man who occupies a pulpit unsent is a usurper. However, when a preacher enters the pulpit with a commission from Christ Jesus, he possesses an authority which neither man nor devil can deprive him of.

While Nehemiah was engaged in rebuilding Jerusalem, a work which God in providence had committed to him, he received an invitation to meet men who intended to do him harm. Whether the Lord’s servant was fully aware of their intentions or not, his reply is worth noting: “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down” (Neh 6:3). It is thus quite obvious that he had very definite priorities from which he would not be diverted. His heart was in his work. Nothing was of greater importance to him. He felt the work was so great and it was such an honour to do it that it required his undivided attention. This spirit is essential in all those called by God to be workmen handling His Word. If they understand what this work of rightly dividing the Word of truth is, they will forego many interests and refuse to be involved in many activities in order to concentrate on the onerous work which they must have a heart for. By its very nature, it demands their concentrated attention.

The Psalmist testified, “My heart standeth in awe of Thy Word” (Ps 119:161). This is what God calls men to divide rightly, for the spiritual benefit of others. Until a man experiences what it is to stand in awe of that Word, he will never be in a position to handle it correctly. It ought to be a challenge to every potential teacher of God’s Word: Do I stand in awe of it? If a man lacks such a disposition towards the Word of God, under no circumstances should the ministry be committed to him. If he is not awed by God’s Word of truth, he is unfit for the ministry of that Word, whatever other gifts or qualities he may possess. Such a man neither understands the nature of the Word, nor the implications of preaching it.

The description, the Word of truth, means God’s true Word; thus there is no error in it. It is entirely reliable and it is to be received by faith. If anyone tampers with it, it is no longer the Word of truth. But, awed by its immutable majesty, those who rightly divide the Word of truth will tremble at the very thought of contaminating it with their own thoughts. Whether in the preparatory work prior to preaching or in the actual delivery of their message, there ought to be some sense of what Moses must have felt standing before the burning bush in the desert, when God said, “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Ex 3:5). What place on earth can be more awesome for the preacher of the Word than standing before the sacred, majestic, eternally-settled Word? He finds himself standing before the voice of the eternal God. He must wonder at times if he dare handle this Word. He must cry out, like the Psalmist, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it” (Ps 139:6).

This work of rightly dividing the Word of truth requires studious application of the mind if one is to understand it properly. Paul is encouraging Timothy to be a workman. Timothy needed to appreciate the fact that rightly dividing the Word of truth is hard work. It is not for the slothful or the careless. Earlier in this chapter, Paul advises Timothy to “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus”, and also to “endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Tim 2:1,3). Everything the Apostle said to Timothy suggests that the gospel preacher must be prepared to persevere in the face of difficulties in order rightly to divide the Word of truth with a view to preaching.

Neither Timothy or any other preacher of the Word has, in himself, what will enable him to expound aright God’s infallible Word. He must be honest in his approach to the Word, recognising that what God says is contrary to the inclinations of the human heart. He needs to acknowledge the potential in his own heart to impose carnal notions upon the Word of God. Likewise he must understand that those who listen to him are naturally inclined to reject what God says, so that he must look for supernatural power to make his hearers willing to receive the message.

In summary, if the faithful preacher is to divide the Word of truth aright, he must be so taught by the Spirit of God that he approaches it with a sense of awe. He must study his text diligently, to the very best of his God-given ability, saturating his mind with it, seeking a spiritual understanding of it. He must penetrate his text and the text must penetrate him. This will only be possible as he fervently petitions the author of the Word, as the Psalmist does five times throughout Psalm 119, “Give me understanding”. Having laboured in secret, he can proceed to the pulpit with his God-given message, with the confidence that God will not desert his ambassador. The promise is still sure: “No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgement thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of Me, saith the Lord” (Is 54:17). While the preacher has solemn duties, the results of his labours remain with God alone.

How necessary it is that the glorious Head of the Church would give strength and courage to His preaching servants in this dark and cloudy day, when there are so many temptations to weariness and discouragement in the work of the ministry! May it please Him also to grant His people the grace of prayer and supplication, so that they may hold up the hands of the Lord’s ministers in these trying times!

Reproduced with permission.
Hutton, George G. “Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth” The Free Presbyterian Magazine, April 2013: 117–120.