Grace Presbyterian Church
October 9, 2022, Pentecost 18C
Rightly Dividing the Word?
Study to shew thyself approved unto God,
a workman that needeth not to be ashamed,
rightly dividing the word of truth.
Where last week I ran into a verse I had learned from a gospel hymn refrain from my childhood, this week’s reading contains that verse, rendered in the King James Version with which I grew up, that was imprinted on my brain from another source: Bible drill. (This is where I mention again that in the Georgia Baptist Convention’s competition in 1980, I finished second in the entire state…by one stinkin’ point. No, I’m not traumatized by it at all.) I don’t remember if this was a verse I was called upon to memorize or just one that came up a lot in the searching part of the drill, but it is still highly imprinted on my brain, idiosyncracies and all. That third word of the verse, that we pronounce “show,” is in fact spelled s-h-e-w. That always freaked me out to no end; it was everything I could do not to read it out as “study to shoe thyself approved unto God…“.
The other part that weirded me out was the ending. I absolutely could not make sense of that verse concluding with the description of the “workman that needeth not to be ashamed” as “rightly dividing the word of truth.” It was so strange to me that I couldn’t even joke about it. I am so, so grateful for the NRSV’s more comprehensible “rightly explaining“. That I can understand.
This is, of course, part of the instruction here: proclaim the “word of truth” so that it can be understood. But there are other things that need to be addressed here, such as “what does it mean, this ‘word of truth’?” And what about all that stuff that comes before that verse?
The passage begins with another reminder of the author’s imprisonment, which has appeared in every passage we’re read from this letter so far. Again comes the reminder of enduring for the sake of those to whom God’s call is extended, and that our ultimate salvation is in Christ Jesus.
What follows is possibly an excerpt from a liturgical formula, or possibly a hymn, that was already in use in the churches of this period, again the late first or possibly early second century. It’s a challenging read, one that would probably catch us short if it appeared in our liturgy.
“If we have died with him, we will also live with him”; a not-uncommon expression, especially when one remembers that baptism was in this era described with the metaphor of “dying with Christ.”
“If we endure, we will also reign with him”; again, not a new idea in the church. The New Testament letters instruct readers that their job is to endure or stand firm, such as 1 Corinthians 16:13 or Galatians 5:1 or Ephesians 6:11-14. The instruction to go looking for a fight, so much an emphasis in certain contemporary theology, isn’t there; the call is to stand, to endure.
“If we deny him, he will also deny us” – wait, what? On one level this might seem logical; how can Christ claim as his own one who does not claim Christ as their own?
And yet, we have right in scripture at least one clear example in which one who flat-out denied Jesus was still claimed as Jesus’s own, no less a figure than Peter. It might be worth remembering that to deny with one’s words, as bad as that was for Peter to do, is a different thing altogether than to deny with one’s life. It might be that this is what is implied here; a life lived in rebellion against Christ will not be claimed by Christ. Or, it might be that the next statement clarifies this:
“If we are faithless, he remains faithful” – it sounds possibly confusing again, but the added clarification makes a difference; “for he cannot deny himself.” Christ cannot be unfaithful to Christ’s own Christ-ness; our infidelity cannot sway Christ from being the Son of God. We do not change Christ, no matter how much we might test him. And part of that faithfulness to Christ is enduring with Christ.
Curiously, the lectionary reading straddles the boundary between two different strains of thought here, although the introductory instruction to “remind them of this” does at least offer a connecting thread. Here, though, the emphasis shifts from the author’s own suffering and endurance to more direct and practical instruction to his readers. Verse 14, frankly, is just good advice, and not just in ministering to the church. Really, who loves “wrangling over words” at all, aside from some thoroughly unpleasant people? I’m not sure anyone would consider it an exaggeration to say that it “ruins those who are listening.”
And that brings us again to that initial verse.
No matter how I tried in my youth, I could not make “rightly dividing the word of truth” make a bit of sense to me. Dividing the word? To be honest, I didn’t really know anyone who could make that particular phrase make sense. So yes, I am glad for a good straightforward word like “explaining“.
OK, all fine and good, but that doesn’t quite answer everything. What exactly is it that we’re “rightly explaining“?
As much as it might sound all Bible-like and churchy, this phrase “word of truth” is not actually all that common across scripture. In fact, most of its use is right here in these three letters, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. So in this case it’s probably best to look within this trifecta to understand just what is meant by this phrase. And when we do so, it doesn’t end up quite meaning what I was taught in my childhood.
Even as a child I knew enough to understand that the Bible didn’t drop fully-formed out of heaven; a lot of different “books” – sixty-six in all – were compiled and gathered up across a lot of different decades and centuries. This book of 2 Timothy was part of that process, naturally, which made it hard for me to figure out how this verse could be talking about all of the Bible (which is what I got taught in Sunday school) when the Bible hadn’t actually been “finished” yet.
What we’re talking about here would be better summarized as “the gospel” or the good news of Jesus Christ – this is what is consistently proclaimed across all of the New Testament letters, including this set of three. Paul’s letters are clearly focused here, as he describes in 1 Corinthians 2:2 where says that he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” The other letters of the New Testament, while they differ from the Pauline body of writings in more than a few ways, are consistent on this message as well; what we proclaim is the saving work of Christ.
This leaves us with a hard question: do we “rightly explain the word of truth“? Do we tell the good news? Do we, to use a modern word borrowed from an old Greek word, evangelize?
Ooh, this gets uncomfortable. Talking about religion is so taboo, such a good way to get in trouble. Talk about “rightly dividing” – trying to talk about religion is a most effective way to divide, and not in the way this verse means.
And yet, maybe that’s the point. In an age where an awful lot of self-professed Christians or even self-professed leaders or teachers in the church have become quite proficient at “wrangling about words” and turning cherry-picked bits of scripture into bad news with which to bludgeon those they don’t like, are we telling good news? Do we rightly explain the word of truth?
And if we don’t, how do we start?
For a hard question to answer, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #681, This Is the Day the Lord Hath Made; #481, I Believe in God the Father; #394, Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation