Following His temptation in the wilderness, Jesus returned to the city of Nazareth, where He had been brought up. He went into the synagogue on the sabbath day and stood up to read. He was handed the book of Isaiah and He read from what we know as Isaiah chapter 61, verse 1 and the first part of verse 2, which states,
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me,because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, …”
Jesus closed the book, sat down, and declared, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” In doing this, Jesus illustrated a principle which is the key to understanding the Bible; Jesus “rightly divided the word of truth.”
The latter part of Isaiah 61:2 states, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus was very careful to note that “the acceptable year of the Lord” and “the day of vengeance of our God” referred to different events which were to occur at different times. Jesus said, “Today is this Scripture fulfilled in your hearing.” It was not “the day of vengeance of our God,” but it was “the acceptable year of the Lord.”
In II Timothy 2:15, the apostle Paul was led of the Spirit to declare the importance of this principle of Bible study.
“Be diligent to present yourself approved unto God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
The expression “rightly dividing” is from a Greek word which means, “to cut straight.” It is sometimes used to refer to cutting a straight path. This is the only occurrence of the word in the New Testament, however, the word is found in the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Old Testament in Proverbs 3:6, where it says, “and He shall direct your paths.” To rightly divide the Word of God is to cut or divide it correctly; to cut straight paths through God’s Word. If we are to understand the truth of God’s Word, we must rightly divide it. If we are to stand before God as approved and unashamed, we must rightly divide His Word.
In order to understand a little better what it means to “rightly divide the Word of truth,” let’s look at what it is not. First, it does not mean to omit Scripture. We cannot discard any part of the Bible. We cannot take only the parts of the Bible which we want (or which support our preconceived ideas). Second, it does not mean that some portions of the Bible are more inspired than others. Some people have the mistaken idea that the earthly words of Jesus (which are printed in red in many Bibles) are more important than other portions of Scripture. The Old Testament prophets often wrote, “Hear the Word of the Lord,” because that is exactly what is recorded by them. The apostle Paul stated that the words that he wrote he received by “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12), thus he referred to them in I Timothy 6:3 as “the words of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We read in II Timothy 3:16-17 that,
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
All of the Bible is God-breathed. It is His Word (John 17:14) and it consists of His words (John 17:8). Furthermore, all of the Bible is profitable for us; for our teaching, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteous living. We have no right to discard any portion of God’s Word.
To “rightly divide the Word of truth” also has nothing to do with human divisions of the Bible. For instance, the division of the Bible into chapters and verses was done by men, not by God. While these divisions are very helpful to us in locating passages of Scripture, they should not be used as the basis for any doctrinal or theological conclusions about what a passage of Scripture means. In addition, many people have the mistaken idea that the headings which we often find over chapters or sections of Scripture are part of God’s inspired Word. They are not! These were added by human editors or publishers, and they reflect the views of these men and women; not necessarily the views of God. Even the division between what we call the Old and New Testaments is a misleading division (as we shall see later in this study).
There is an old song which states, “Every promise in the Book is mine.” The lyrics of this song are simply not true. We cannot take all of the Bible as being written directly to us today. This includes its promises as well as its instructions. If it were all written directly to us, then we should be building an ark and we should be offering animal sacrifices. The fact of the matter is, it is impossible to try to do all that the Bible says, because God has spoken to different people, using different programs, over different periods, for different purposes.
We can see the need to rightly divide the Word by looking at a couple of examples from Scripture. For instance, in Luke 9:1-5, Jesus instructs His twelve disciples to go out and preach the kingdom of God. In verse 3, He specifically instructed them to “take nothing for your journey, neither staffs nor bag nor bread nor money; and do not have two tunics apiece.” Then, when we turn to Luke 22:35-38, we find Him giving them different instructions. “When I sent you without money bag, knapsack, and sandals, did you lack anything? So they said, Nothing. Then He said to them, But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one. For I say to you that this which is written must still be accomplished in Me: And He was numbered with the transgressors. For the things concerning Me have an end.”
The key expression in this passage is, “but now.” At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus sent His disciples out to preach, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 10:7), but now (in Luke 22), the King has been rejected, and in anticipation of His crucifixion (being “numbered with the transgressors”), He gives His disciples different instructions to prepare them for the opposition they will face in their future ministry. Hence, we see different instructions for different times and circumstances.
For another example, let’s compare three passages of Scripture. In Matthew 10:5-7, Jesus sent His disciples out to preach, but He was careful to tell them, “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, … but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In Romans 1:16, written during the Acts period, we read that the gospel of Christ is, “… the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek (Gentile).” Finally, in Colossians 3:11 we find that today, “there is neither Greek (Gentile) or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.” These verses indicate significant differences in God’s attitude toward Jew and Gentile. How can we understand these differences and why they exist? We must “rightly divide the word of truth.”
These three passages of Scripture describe three distinct plans and purposes of God, which obviously could not all be in effect at the same time. To “rightly divide” the Word of truth means to take notice of the differences in God’s plans and purposes as He has revealed them in His Word.
As we approach any passage of Scripture, we must take care to identify: (1) to whom or about whom God is speaking, (2) what God is speaking, being careful to study the passage in context (studying what goes before and what comes after), (3) when God is speaking, and (4) for what purpose God is speaking. It is only as we diligently study the Scriptures in this way that we are able to know and understand the truth of God’s Word.