Orthotomeo (II Timothy 2:15)
Passage: 2 Timothy 2:15–2:15
Not by Bread Alone
I. The Son of God and the Father of Lies
Even though our study this morning takes us back to the letter we call II Timothy, I want to begin this morning in another passage. Turn with me to Matthew 4. Look with me at the first four verses:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Now what exactly does Jesus mean here? Well, as a rebuke to the Devil’s temptation, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 8. His point here is that our lives, your life, my life, is upheld first and foremost, not by food, but by the will of God. Jesus’ time in the wilderness, Jesus whole life, was not about pleasing himself, but obedience to path God had for Him.
Therefore, the most important thing about life is not physical provision, but spiritual perspective. Does genuine life really come from food? No. Genuine life comes from listening to the word of God as it expresses His will for us. When we do that, we trust that God will provide physical provision at the proper time, just as Jesus believed.
Now last week we saw how Paul made this same point to Timothy, his younger co-laborer in the work of the gospel. He told Timothy: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
Paul was calling Timothy to live by and minister by “every word that [has] come from the mouth of God”. Just as Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 8 to the Devil, and went on to quote other verses from the Old Testament, so also Timothy needed to hold onto the powerful reality that the Scriptures were God’s own voice, breathed out in order to give His people everything they needed. Like Timothy, we possess these words which are, in fact, God’s own voice to us.
But look with me as the passage continues, in Matthew 4:5-7:
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
We see in verses 5 though 7 that Jesus is once again going back to the Old Testament, back to God’s word in order to counter Satan. But we also see something that is extremely disturbing. We see Satan doing the same thing as Jesus. The Devil is going back to the Old Testament. He is using God’s own word to tempt Jesus to sin against God.
Now how is that possible? Well, in John 8, Jesus calls the Devil the “Father of lies”. Therefore he is a master at twisting and rearranging and omitting and misapplying the truth. Yes, Satan is using the Scriptures against Jesus, but he has twisted their meaning in order to serve His purposes.
So why are we looking at Matthew’s Gospel when our main passage comes from II Timothy? Because the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness not only reminds us that living by every word that comes from the mouth of God is not simply about knowing Scripture and believing it is God’s word, God’s voice to us. Living by the word is also about handling the word of truth rightly or correctly.
II. The Passage: "Rightly Handling the Word of Truth " (2:15)
Turn with me to II Timothy 2, verse 15. Remember Timothy’ situation. Paul expresses it clearly in I Timothy 1:3, 4… As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, 4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.
So in light of Timothy’s mission in Ephesus, listen to how Paul instructs him in II Timothy 2:15:
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.
The first thing I want you to see here is that Paul gives Timothy three encouragements in this passage:
First, we see that Paul is issuing here a Call to Seek God’ s Approval. Timothy is feeling the pressure from those who would assert themselves, he is feeling the pressure from those in the church who are impressed by these false teachers, he is feeling the pressure speak and teach in a way that is first and foremost about what pleases these other people.
Listen to what the French pastor John Calvin said about this verse:
“Since all disputes about doctrine arise from this source, that men are desirous to make a boast of ingenuity before the world, Paul here applies the best and most excellent remedy, when he commands Timothy to keep his eyes fixed on God; as if he had said; "Some aim at the applause of a crowded assembly, but do thou study to approve thyself and thy ministry to God." And indeed there is nothing that tends more to check a foolish eagerness for display, than to reflect that we have to deal with God.” (Calvin)
Paul himself put it this way in II Corinthians 10: For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends. (II Corinthians 10:18)
The second thing Paul gives here is A Call to Minister without Shame.
Right at the outset of the letter, Paul, encourages Timothy to “not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.” (1:8)
Four verses later, as he talks about his own suffering as a servant of Christ, Paul declares, “But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.” (1:12)
So from the outset, Paul has being talking to Timothy about this issue of being ashamed. But what does he mean here. Well, the image of the worker is helpful. It points us forward to 3:17 where we learn that all Scripture is profitable to make us competent, so that we are “equipped for every good work”. A carpenter or potter or painter or stonemason who is competent and ready for his work has no reason to be ashamed, especially if he is working for the king.
The same is true for us who are equipped to be workers of good works, as God defines them.
The third and final exhortation that Paul issues here is A Call to Handle Well the Word.
The final phrase in verse 15 provides the means by which Timothy can be an approved and unashamed worker: by rightly handing God’s word, the word of truth.
The Greek word translated here as “rightly handling” is the word orthotomeo. This is a very rare word and appears only here in the New Testament. Translating the two halves of this compound word literally we get something like, “to cut straight”.
The Greek Old Testament actually uses the word in two places in Proverbs. I'm sure you've heard the first passage in Proverbs 3: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and his will make your paths straight”. He will “cut straight” your way.
But here in II Timothy 2, the verb orthotomeo does not seem to qualify anything that is literally cut-able, like a road. Is Paul calling Timothy to “cut straight the word of truth”? Or as a traditional translation puts it, to “rightly divide the word of truth”?
If he is saying this, it isn't clear, at least to us, what “cut” or “divide” means when it comes to God's word. I think it's best to go with the idea that by this time, this Greek term had come to refer more to the skill with which a worker worked, not necessarily the specific act of cutting.
That's why most modern translations render orthotomeo as “correctly handle” or “handle accurately” or as we see in the ESV, “rightly handling”. But what then does it mean to rightly handle the word of God? To be sure, it has to mean the exact opposite of what the Devil, the father of lies, did with God's word.
Oftentimes, this verse is the verse referenced when someone wants to commend good Bible study skills. What people usually have in mind are issues related to hermeneutics and exegesis. Hermeneutics is the study of the principles of interpretation. What is the right way and wrong way to interpret what a Biblical writer is saying?
These hermeneutical principles inform our exegesis, which is the interpretive process we use with a particular verse or passage to discover its meaning.
Good hermeneutics and good exegesis always involves questions like “What is the context of the verse or passage? Who is writing here, and to whom, and when? Is the writer writing because of a particular situation and is that situation clear? What terms are important or are repeated? What did the writer know about God and when did he know it? What is the author's intention?”
But are these the primary issues that Paul had in mind here when he urged Timothy to “rightly handle” the word of truth? Was Timothy guilty of or being tempted toward confusing hermeneutics and sloppy exegesis? Was that why Paul was writing?
I think some of those issues are woven in here, but there is more going on here than just an appeal for scholarly refinement.
Is it your desire to seek God's approval when it comes to your ministry, your service? Is it your desire to serve without shame as you live before that audience of one? There is no greater desire. If that is your desire, then you need practice, I need to practice orthotomeo. We must see that rightly handling God's word is critical to our rightly knowing and loving and serving the God of the word.
So again, what does it mean to “rightly handle” the word of God?
How does the context help us here? If we follow good hermeneutical principles and do good exegesis in regard to II Timothy 2:15, what do we discover about orthotomeo, about this phrase “rightly handling”?
III. Orthotomeo: Clues from the Context
I think there are at least three clues from the context here, from chapter 2 itself.
A. Orthotomeo is about the Whole, Not Simply Words (2:14-18)
The first clue is found in verses 14 through 18. Listen:
Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. 15 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. 16 But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.
What I want you to notice here is what immediately surrounds our main verse. There appears to be a relationships to those who “quarrel about words” and the specific error of Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened.
I think this clue is pointing us to the fact that orthotomeo is about the whole, not simply words. What do I mean by that?
I believe one of the errors of Hymenaeus and Philetus was connecting the word “resurrection” solely with the idea of us “being raised up” with Christ in newness in life.
Thus, the only resurrection Christians need to experience is not some future bodily resurrection for life in a new heavens and new earth, but the spiritual resurrection that comes when someone is born again through faith in Jesus. That's why these men were saying “the resurrection has already taken place”.
So it could have been that the term “resurrection” was just one word that these false teachers liked to throw around and redefine.
The problem, of course, was that these teachers were not living “by EVERY word that comes from the mouth of God”. If they were embracing the whole of Scripture, they would know that God's word is crystal clear about a physical resurrection of Jesus and a physical resurrection for all humanity, some to eternal condemnation and some to eternal life.
This is the very thing Satan was doing with Scripture when he used Psalm 91 to tempt Jesus. He was using these words for his own purpose without regard to the purpose of God expressed in the whole of Scripture.
Of course, this kind of thing still happens, even today. Not only is there a danger in Christians relying too much on “word studies”, believing that somehow plumbing the depths of every part of a sentence will make the whole of the sentence clear, but there are many teachers and preachers out there, many Christians who take certain biblical words, and build whole ministries on them without the corrective influence of “all Scripture”.
For some it's the words “prosper” and “wealth”. For others it's the words “freedom” and “grace”. For others it's the words “commandment” and “holiness”.
But “rightly handling” God's word means that we need to develop our doctrines in light of everything Scripture tells us, not just the parts we like best. A.W. Tozer put it this way:
The Word of God well understood and religiously obeyed is the shortest route to spiritual perfection. And we must not select a few favorite passages to the exclusion of others. Nothing less than a whole Bible can make a whole Christian. (A.W. Tozer)
Brothers and sisters, when we are not striving to know all that God has for us in all of God's word, then we too will be tempted to establish our lives simply on certain words, and not the whole of what God has declared.
B. Orthotomeo is about Conduct, Not Simply Concepts (2:19-22)
But I think we see something else here, another clue about the meaning of orthotomeo in verse 15. Look with me at verses 19 through 22:
But God's firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” 20 Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. 21 Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. 22 So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.
Do you see the connection here between teaching the truth and living the truth? If we were to scan I Timothy and II Timothy, and look for what these false teachers were all about, here's the terms would see over and over again:
Myths, genealogies, speculations, vain discussions, assertions, words, babble, talk, controversies, quarrels about words, and what is falsely called “knowledge”.
Do you see a consistent theme there? These men lived in the world of concepts! There were certainly moral implications to what they were saying, but it sure seems like their so-called ministries were more about debates and knowledge, and less about character and obedience.
If Timothy was going to “rightly handle” God's word, then teaching all Scripture must include instructing and encouraging and exhorting and admonishing and correcting and rebuking according to all God's will as expressed in all Scripture.
The Bible is not ultimately a book that informs our arguments. It is a book that informs our hearts. It is not simply a book that sharpens our debates, but shapes our decisions. We defend God's word and discuss doctrine because these truths are the only hope we have for new life.
I've met too many followers of Christ who have a lot to say about doctrine and theology, but not a lot about hope and humility and holiness. If we have pristine hermeneutical methods, but don't have a heart to live out the the truths we rightly interpret, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Orthotomeo is about conduct, not simply concepts.
C. Orthotomeo is about the Master, Not Simply Morality (2:8-14a)
The third clue I found in the context of II Timothy 2:15, the third clue that I believe helps us understand what it means to “rightly handle” the word of truth comes from what precedes verse 15. Listen to verses 8 through the first part of verse 14:
8 Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, 9 for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. 11 The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; 13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself. 14 Remind them of these things...
Even if we are careful to study and teach all of God's word, and we do so with an eye to obedience, to living a transformed life, we still need to cling to what I believe Paul is emphasizing here. I think that Paul's emphasis here is showing us that orthotomeo is about the Master, not simply morality.
Beyond the narrow focus and false ideas of certain men at Ephesus, Paul knows that he cannot simply leave Timothy with a list of do's and don'ts. Why?
Because the Bible is first and foremost a book, not about laws or commandments, but about Jesus Christ. Listen to how pastor and theologian Michael Horton expressed this:
To preach the Bible as 'the handbook for life,' or as the answer to every question, rather than as the revelation of Christ, is to turn the Bible into an entirely different book. This is how the Pharisees approached Scripture, as we can see clearly from the questions they asked Jesus. For the Pharisees, the Scriptures were a source of trivia for life's dilemmas. (Michael Horton)
If Timothy does not remember Jesus Christ as he handles God's word, as preaches and teaches the truth, if he does not remember the gospel, then he will miss the whole purpose and means of obedience; he will miss the real-life implications of a real historic life; he will miss the rationale for righteous suffering; he will miss the certainty of hope beyond this life; he will miss the hub around which all Scripture revolves.
This is why Paul urges Timothy to “remind them of these things”. It’s why he would go on to remind Timothy in chapter 3, as we saw last week, that from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (3:15)
From the church growth advocates who love to emphasize technique to the self-help crowd who love to emphasize therapy to the fundamentalists who love to emphasize holiness to the students who love to emphasize interpretation to the cerebrals who love to emphasize theology and doctrine, what is most needed in the church today is orthotomeo that loves to emphasize Jesus Christ and him crucified.
To rightly handle the word is to rightly proclaim Jesus from its every page.
IV. Are You an Approved Worker?
Are you one of God’s approved workers? Are you doing your best to present yourself to God as one approved? An unashamed worker?
If you are doing your best, if you are striving toward that, eager to grow, then rightly handling God’s word is a foundational. It is the fuel. It is the food for this striving.
We need to be a church, we need to continue to be a church that cares about hermeneutics and exegesis…right? We are passionate about correctly interpreting God’s word because we are passionate about the God of the word. We want to hear His voice as clearly as we can in order to serve him, to love him as faithfully was can, all because of His grace.
But what we’ve talked about this morning is not an add-on to hermeneutics and exegesis. These principles are both part and parcel of, as well as the product of, good interpretation. We look to the whole of Scripture, not just words, because that’s what God’s word directs us to do. We emphasize godly conduct, not just concepts, because that’s what God’s word directs us to do. We proclaim Jesus from every page, not just morality, because that’s what the Bible directs us to do.
Brothers and sisters, orthotomeo. Strive to “rightly handle” the word. Don’t be lazy, don’t get sloppy, don’t be indifferent, don’t say, “well that’s the pastor’s job”, don’t say, “if I only had the time”, don’t get frustrated and give up, don’t be content with you do know, don’t minimize it or opt for an anti-intellectual excuse like, “it’s not about what you know, but about your relationship and heart for God” (as if the Bible separated those things).
Brothers and sisters, 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.
If we’ve come to know God through the gospel of Jesus, because of His death and resurrection, through His grace, if your heart and mind are dwelling on these things, then nothing will thrill you more than a “rightly handling” the word of the God who first loved us. Amen? Let’s pray.