Are We Charged to “Rightly Divide” or “Rightly Handle” The Word of Truth?

One of the prettiest drives in America is along the Midland Trail (Route 60) through the mountains of West Virginia. The problem is, that if you are trying to get from Virginia to some destination in the American Midwest, it takes FOREVER to drive the Midland Trail across West Virginia.

Growing up in Virginia in the 1970s, if I was with my parents, driving to parts of the Midwest to see family, we would surely get stuck behind an 18-wheeler, up and down those hilly, curvy parts of the road. It was absolutely boring. What a difference it made in 1988, when the costly last section of Interstate 64, built through rugged terrain, was finally completed through West Virginia, cutting the travel time down at least by half.

I have been driving across West Virginia to Indiana for the past 17 years to visit family on vacation and holidays, and I am so thankful that they built and finished Interstate 64!!

The idea of cutting a straight path through the mountains helps us to properly understand an often misinterpreted passage of the Bible, 2 Timothy 2:15. Here is how the King James Version (KJV) translates it:

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

The New River Gorge Bridge, at one time the world’s longest single span bridge, is a short drive off of the Midland Trail, in West Virginia. A beautiful area, but difficult to get there. (Photo by Donnie Nunley, at Wikipedia)

Now, compare that to a more modern translation, such as the English Standard Version (ESV):

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.

Notice how that phrase “rightly dividing” gets changed to “rightly handling,” with respect to “the word of truth.” You see this same type of change in many new translations:  “correctly handles” (NIV) and “correctly teaching” (CSB). So, why do the newer, modern translations change what the old KJV had?

Well, the KJV rendering of “rightly dividing” can be misleading. The issue is that while the KJV gives a strictly literal, almost word-for-word translation of the Greek word for “rightly dividing,” it does not adequately convey the fact that this is meant to be a kind of idiomatic expression, that changes how we are to view the text.

If you use a Bible concordance, you will discover that this Greek word orthotomeō, only shows up once in the New Testament. However, it does show up earlier in the Bible, but in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, used by the early church, and still used today by the Greek-reading Eastern Orthodox. We see this same word used in the Book of Proverbs, so notice how it is translated into English, in bold below:

In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make straight your paths. (Proverbs 3:6 ESV)
The righteousness of the blameless keeps his way straight,
    but the wicked falls by his own wickedness. (Proverbs 11:5 ESV)

So, what’s the deal here? As the late John R. W. Stott put it, in his Between Two Worlds, this curious word, orthotomeōhas a “more precise meaning, namely to ‘cut straight,’ and the image is conveyed is  either that of a plowmen or a road-maker.” The meaning of that word, then, corresponds to an idiomatic expression that means to “cut a path in a straight direction” or “cut a road across country… so that the traveller may go directly to his destination.”

I think of it as Interstate 64 going straight through West Virginia, as opposed to the curving and winding Midland Trail.

We might be tempted to blame the KJV translators, for a poor translation, when they did their work some 400 years ago. But we must not be too hasty in making that judgment. A lot has changed in 400 years. Words can change meaning, over time. It is quite possible that the scholars, under King James’ supervision, might have originally understood “rightly dividing,” to be in this sense of “cutting a straight path.”

Unfortunately, a popular teaching among some Christians today still insists that we should “rightly divide the word of truth,” by chopping up the Bible, into different bits and pieces, applying certain passages to certain groups of people, and other passages to other groups of people, regardless of the context.  If you “rightly divide” in this sense, it brings to mind the image of cutting up slices of French bread, or a roasted ham, which is quite different from the actual meaning, of cutting a straight path, towards a destination.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this comes from the approach of the somewhat early years of dispensationalism, found in the 20th century Scofield Reference Bible, that essentially taught that the famous Sermon on the Mount was not written for the church, Jews and Gentiles together, who seek to be followers of Jesus. The Scofield way taught that you have to divide up the Bible, with different parts applicable to different groups, and it did so with a vengeance.

The Scofield interpretation insisted that the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), was written specifically to the Jews, and that it only has applicability in a very limited sense, either for the Jews of Jesus’ first century day, or in the future messianic age. In other words, all of that stuff about the Beatitudes, or not murdering your brother with your words, or not committing adultery by lusting secretly after someone else, in your heart, is not applicable to the bulk of people reading the Bible, and has no real relevance for today! At least, not a direct relevance. Sadly, you can still find churches on the fringe that teach this.

Thankfully, more progressive dispensationalist Bible teachers today do not go to that extreme anymore. Christians of good conscience do indeed differ, as to how certain teachings of the Bible are meant specifically for the Jews, as opposed to people more generally. But when it comes to the Sermon on the Mount, the way to “correctly handle the word of truth” should be straight forward enough.

The Sermon on the Mount should be understood more along the lines as it has been faithfully interpreted over the years, particularly from the Reformation thinking associated with Martin Luther. The Sermon on the Mount was given to all by Jesus, showing us just how difficult it is for us to meet the exacting standards of righteousness, demanded by a holy God. What was true for Jesus’ original hearers, is applicable to us today. It is quite a sobering thought to hear Jesus, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 ESV). We can not attain the moral standard that God sets before us, based on our own efforts. We all need the grace of God to intervene in our lives, to transform us, that we might depend wholly upon our Lord and Creator, and be in a right relationship with Him. Thankfully, where we fall short, God remains faithful.

And that is good news!

Learning how to properly interpret the Bible, and appreciate the idiomatic expressions that we do find in the text, is an essential part of how we can “rightly handle the word of truth.” Failure to do so can really put us off track, and interpret the Bible in ways that God never meant for it to be understood.


About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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