with Tony W. Cartledge
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Teachers: Scroll down for teaching materials.
Don’t Be Ashamed
When I was a boy moving into the “Junior” department in Sunday School, the director gave each incoming child an official “Sword Drill” Bible and encouraged us to memorize 2 Tim 2:15 as the theme of our study. We knew of no option other than the King James Version: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
Since both “word” and “truth” had only one syllable, I didn’t understand how we could “divide” either of them — just one obstacle in understanding scripture when taking everything literally and relying on a 400-year-old translation.
What does it mean to “divide” the “word of truth,” and what is the “word of truth” to begin with? Today’s lesson offers a grown-up opportunity to study a familiar, but often misunderstood, text.
The unchained gospel(vv. 8-10)
The letter of 2 Timothy was written to offer encouragement and instruction from an older minister to a younger one. Paul, the seasoned missionary who had been confined to a Roman prison, wrote to his young colleague Timothy with words of encouragement, instructions, and a plea to come visit him in Rome.
The first seven verses of chapter 2 continue the theme begun in chapter 1: Paul urged Timothy to remain firm in his faith, even in the face of suffering or persecution (vv. 1-2). Timothy was to be like a good soldier who ignores distractions and seeks to please his senior officer (vv. 3-4), to be like an athlete who strives for victory while following the rules (v. 5), and to see himself in the model of a hard-working farmer who deserves to have the first share of his crops (v. 6). “Think over what I say,” Paul wrote, “for the Lord will give you understanding in all things” (v. 7).
What Paul wanted Timothy to think over was the heart of the gospel, which he reiterated in vv. 8-10. Timothy was to continually remember that Jesus, a human descendant of David, was also the Christ, the promised messiah. Jesus had died, but was also raised from the dead. “That is my gospel,” Paul said, “for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal” (compare 1:11-12). Nothing could sway Paul from proclaiming that central word of the gospel — not even suffering, not even chains.
In one of the most powerful affirmations of the New Testament, Paul declared that he might be shackled like a common criminal, but “the word of God is not chained.” The Greek term for “chained” could mean “tied up” or “bound.” It was used in John 19:40 to describe Jesus’ body being bound as others wound the long linen grave clothes around him.
This phrase is powerful, but often misinterpreted or distorted. Although modern readers often use “word of God” as a reference to the Bible, that was not Paul’s meaning. The Bible did not yet exist, but the gospel existed — the word of truth, the core belief in the life and work of Jesus Christ, the teachings of Christ embodied in the life of the church. That gospel word could not be bound by something so simple as an iron chain on a single man or even the widespread oppression of believers. The gospel of Christ had been released into the world, and while humans might oppose it, pervert it, or misuse it, they could not contain and manage it for their own purposes.
This verse is a reminder that no one has a corner on God’s self-revelation in Christ. Some may claim that in the Bible they possess an inerrant record of finite truths that cannot be questioned, but as Christ could not be restrained by the binding of grave clothes, his message cannot be locked behind walls of human certainty.
For all of our attempts at developing systematic theologies and definitive dogma, Christ the true Word of God continues to speak to the minds and hearts of those in whom the Spirit dwells.
This belief comforted Paul as he endured suffering for the sake of the gospel and of those who accepted it, whom he called “the elect” (v. 10). We should not interpret this with the Calvinistic approach that God has predestined the “elect” for salvation while damning all others. Paul used the term “elect” as a term for the people of God who have been saved by grace through faith — not by human merit or divine fiat.
A sure saying(vv. 11-13)
Paul’s theme continues into the next several verses. His reference to a “trustworthy saying” implies that what follows was commonly repeated in the church, and the remainder of vv. 11-13 has the feel of a litany or hymn that might have been repeated in worship as a word of encouragement in the face of trial or danger. As such, most Bibles set it as poetry:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him; / If we endure, we will also reign with him. / If we deny him, he will also deny us; / If we are faithless, he will remain faithful — for he cannot deny himself.
In other places, Paul spoke of baptism as dying and being buried with Christ (Rom. 6:4, Col. 2:12), but here the possibility of martyrdom is also clearly evident. In both cases, those who “die with Christ” are assured that they will also live with him. Those who stand firm and endure will share in Christ’s eschatological victory at the end of the age, so it could be said that they could “rule with him.”
The relation between v. 12b and v. 13 is a conundrum. “If we deny him, he will also deny us” offers little hope for those who fail to stand strong for Christ in a time of persecution or temptation (compare Jesus’ warning in Matt. 10:33 or Luke 12:9). Yet, v. 13 insists that, even if we are faithless in such a time, Christ will remain faithful “for he cannot deny himself.”
This verse is subject to varying interpretations, but probably means that, though we might be faithless toward God, God would never prove faithless to us because it is God’s nature to be faithful. It is possible that Paul’s intent is that God’s faithfulness will override our individual faithlessness. A more likely option is that, though some may deny God and be denied in return, God’s faithful promise of a blessed future remains sure for God’s people as a whole.
The word of truth(vv. 14-15)
Paul urged Timothy to solemnly remind the church that the gospel word was of central importance and the possibility of apostasy an ever-present danger, even as he was to warn them that “quarreling about words” was of no value, “and only ruins those who listen” (v. 14).
Paul’s reference to “quarreling about words” was aimed at those he considered to be false teachers. They majored on minors and complicated the gospel. Paul had similarly spoken against arguments and “disputes about words” in 1 Tim. 2:8 and 6:4-5. Titus 3:9 also contains a warning to “avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” In vv. 16-17, Paul warned Timothy to eschew the false teachers’ “profane chatter,” which had the potential to “lead people into more and more impiety, and their talk will spread like gangrene.”
The measure of truth for Paul was that the gospel should result in transformed lives, empowered by the Spirit. The quarreling Paul saw in the false teachers, however, led to spiritual ruin (see “The Hardest Question” online for more on this).
Paul urged Timothy — as he would all believers — to avoid false teaching while doing his best to live a life that is approved by God, one that gives no cause for shame and that “correctly handles the word of truth” (v. 15).
Following the KJV’s “Study to shew thyself approved,” countless teachers and preachers have used v. 15 as a call for believers to study the scriptures. Bible study is indeed a worthy exercise, but not what Paul was talking about. The word translated as “study” really means “do your best” (NRSV, NIV), “make every effort” (NET), or “be diligent” (HCSB). Believers should strive to live before God as faithful followers who are tried and true, with no cause for shame.
The KJV’s “rightly dividing the word of truth” has also suffered from misunderstanding. The term translated as “rightly dividing” literally means “to cut straight,” as in building a straight path or plowing a straight furrow. It is a metaphor that means to do something accurately or appropriately. Thus we have options such as “rightly explaining” (NRSV) or “correctly teaching” (HCSB) the word of God, “teaching the message of truth accurately” (NET) or “who keeps the message of truth on a straight path” (NJB).
“The word of God,” as noted above, is not a reference to the Bible, which was still in the process of being written, but to the gospel truth that Paul had emphasized earlier. The proclaimer is not to change the gospel, twist it or take it in the wrong direction, but keep it straight: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to the earth in human form and died for our sins; he was raised from the dead and lives on through the Spirit in the lives of those who follow him, the hope of eternal life. The challenge is to stay on the path. NFJ
Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for October 9, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: 2 Timothy 2:8-15
Our kids have great memories, and they always seem to recall those things that you don’t ever remember at the most inopportune times. On one hand you are grateful that they have been listening to what you have said, and on the other hand, you wish they would not have been listening that closely. But what a blessing this really is, that you children want to listen, and care what you have to say. Be aware of what you say, and choose your words wisely. Don’t manipulate your words, or twist your words. Keep the truth in front of your children, and the truth shall guide them. After all, they will not only repeat what you say, but they will do as you say.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Lying to Dr. Abdic” from The Girl on the Train via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: 2 Timothy 2:8-15
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