Wednesday, 20 October 2021

The Hard Work of Bible Study

If we accept the Bible as the inspired word of God, we are compelled to approach its message with utmost respect and care. “Scripture begins a conversation that is interpersonal and potentially life-changing, because it is God who initiates the dialogue.”1 Bible study is rewarding only when it is done right, requiring a serious mind and a strong commitment. “We are dealing with God’s thoughts: we are obligated to take the greatest pains to understand them truly and to explain them clearly.”2 

At the end of a remarkable life in the Lord’s service, including an enormously impactful teaching and writing ministry,3 the apostle Paul produced his final apostolic manuscript that preserves his last documented words. What the aged apostle regarded as of highest importance was knowing and serving the Lord (2 Tim. 1:1, 3, 8, 11, 12; 2:3, 10, 21; 4:5, 11), while rightly discerning, obeying, defending, and propagating the Lord’s revealed will as recorded in scripture (1:13; 2:2, 9, 14-19, 24-25; 3:14-17; 4:2-4, 17).

In 2 Timothy 2:15 we read in English translation:

·      “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (NKJV).

·      Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (NASB).

·      Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (ESV).

·      Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately” (NET).4

What is this passage saying, and how does it apply to us today? Among other things, Bible study (exegesis) involves establishing the literary context, considering the broader context, translation, comparative analysis, identifying key concepts, and word study. By engaging in biblical exegesis, we learn something here about biblical exegesis. 

The current text follows a previous letter to Timothy that provides background and supplementary information, along with the larger context of Paul’s life and ministry, his other writings, and the rest of the Bible. Leading up to the above admonition the apostle has been urging Timothy to be brave, faithful, and strong, to endure and work hard. And Paul’s instructions have much broader applicability (cf. 2:2; 3:16-17; 4:2; also 1 Tim. 1:3; 4:6-16).

The verbal spoudázō (lit. “hasten”) conveys the sense of “labor,” “exert,” “give full diligence.”The verbal orthotoméō (lit. “cut straight”) means to “handle correctly” or “rightly expound.” The expression, “the word of truth,” consists of “the word  [tòn lógon], descriptive of deliberate and specific communication, while “the truth” [tēs alētheías] implies an objective standard of doctrine.6

What do we learn from this text about how the word of truth is to be interpreted and applied? What would be the opposite of this that ought to be avoided? What is required, according to this passage, to receive God’s approval and avoid shame? 

“The problem of interpreting a passage from the Bible is one to which we would all like to find the key, some simple and easy formula that will enable us to approach any text of Scripture and quickly establish its meaning. Alas, there is no such simple answer …”7 Without the investment of considerable time, devotion, mental exertion, and prayer, we run the risk of missing and/or misunderstanding God’s revealed will.

When I read a local newspaper or newsfeed, I interpret its contents with little conscious effort because I am familiar with the literary conventions and share the same cultural context as those who wrote and published the articles. However, the interpretive process becomes more complicated when I try to understand a literary work from another country or different culture, and the task becomes even more daunting when attempting to interpret ancient literary texts, like the Bible, even further removed. 

“There are significant gaps in our knowledge of the literary conventions, language, and social settings that surround and inhabit biblical texts. We live in a different time and place than the times and places in which and to which the Bible originally spoke. Deliberate attention to these issues and painstaking work at many junctures are required.”8 In other words, exert full diligence to present yourself acceptable to God, an unashamed worker correctly handling the word of truth.

--Kevin L. Moore


     1 J. K. Brown, Scripture as Communication (2nd ed.) 3.

     2 D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (2nd ed.) 15. 

     3 Note, e.g., 2 Tim. 1:12-13; 4:6-8; 2 Pet. 3:14-16.

     4 Other interpretive renderings include: “Study … a workman … rightly dividing the word of truth” (KJV); Be diligent … a worker … correctly teaching the word of truth” (CSB); Do your best … a worker … rightly explaining the word of truth” (NRSV). Ernst Wendland renders the text, “to present yourself to God as a person who has proven to be worthy and with no cause for shame” (“2 Timothy—translationNotes” 34). 

     5 See Gal. 2:10; Eph. 4:3; 1 Thess. 2:17; 1 Tim. 2:15; 4:9  21; Tit. 3:1; Heb. 4:11; 2 Pet. 1:10, 15; 3:14.

     6 When Paul penned these directives, “the word of truth” was not limited to just the OT and the spoken word. The Greek term graphē (“scripture”) applies to something written, and Paul goes on to say that all “scripture” is divinely inspired (3:16). At the time, the writings of Luke were already regarded as “scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18), and within a comparable timeframe so were Paul’s (2 Pet. 3:15-16). See What the Scriptures say about the Scriptures.

     7 I. Howard Marshall, “Introduction,” in NT Interpretation 11.

     8 J. K. Brown, Scripture as Communication (2nd ed.) 11.


Related Posts: The Holy Spirit's Role in Biblical InterpretationThe Heart of Bible Study 

Addendum: Seeing that God desires all to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4), he has clearly made this knowledge accessible and attainable. However, it is not the case he has made it so easy (note 2 Pet. 3:16!) that knowledge just happens by accident with no effort from the recipient. “The LORD looks down from heaven upon the children of men, To see if there are any who understand, who seek God” (Psa. 14:2, NKJV). God seeks those who seek him. “But from there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 4:29); “so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). For those sincerely desiring to know the Lord and his will, demonstrated by the effort expended, he provides the way. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matt. 7:7-8).


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