Tag Archives: dispensationalism

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.


The Jerusalem Question: What is “Covenant Theology” vs. “Dispensationalism”?

On May 14, 2018 the United States moved its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the first nation to do so, since the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, seventy years ago. Christians are divided as to the significance of what this means. According to a 2017 LifeWay research study on “Evangelical Attitudes Toward Israel,” many older evangelical Christians support Israel, and their right to the land, based on their understanding of the Bible. Therefore, the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is generally considered to be a good thing. But a growing number of mainly younger evangelical Christians do not share any “strong views” about Israel, based on their understanding of the Bible. These Christians are less enthusiastic about the U.S. move.

Why do Christians not agree about Israel, and Israel’s right to the land, with Jerusalem as its capital?

To get at the heart of the debate, you have to know something about the decades old discussion between “covenant theology” and “dispensationalism.” If you no have idea what “covenant theology” and “dispensationalism” are about, the following video would be a good place to start.

Greg Koukl is the director of Stand to Reason, an apologetics ministry that I find has very helpful resources. If you were looking for a short primer to explain the difference between covenant theology and dispensationalism, then this would be a great investment of less than nine minutes of your time. Greg leans more towards the dispensational side of the equation, but he succinctly and fairly represents both sides.

About two years ago, I embarked on a blog series study on “Christian Zionism,” the idea that God has a plan to restore the ancient borders of ethnic, national Israel. The story of “Christian Zionism” requires a basic knowledge of “covenant theology” and “dispensationalism.” Over the coming year, I plan on posting the remaining drafts of that series, interspersed among other posts. If you want to explore more as to how I got interested in this discussion, you can start here.

Are the “Kingdom of Heaven” and the “Kingdom of God” Different?

This image was taken from the Think blog, a fantastic, Bible-geek blog run by some pastors out of the UK. This might be pastor Andrew Wilson’s son.

Sound bites can mislead… and here is one of those cases where inappropriate expectations of what we read in the Gospels can get Christians into serious trouble.

If you read about the “kingdom” in the Gospels, particularly with the parables of Jesus, you will notice that Matthew exclusively uses the term “kingdom of heaven,” whereas a variety of Gospel writers (including Matthew) use “kingdom of God.” Some draw the conclusion that “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God,” are from the lips of Jesus, and therefore must mean different things. Is this a correct way to interpret Scripture?
Continue reading

“The Bible Answer Man” Becomes Eastern Orthodox

Hank Hanegraaff, the “Bible Answer Man” on many Christian radio stations, has many evangelicals stunned and bewildered by his attraction to the “smells and bells” of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Hank Hanegraaff, otherwise known as the radio personality, “The Bible Answer Man,” recently converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. After two years of personal inquiry, Hanegraaff and his wife were chrismated and received into the Greek Orthodox Church, near their home in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Palm Sunday.

In the American evangelical sub culture, Hank Hanegraaff has been one of those influential personalities, known for possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, where radio listeners have asked Bible questions from umpteen different directions, and Hanegraaff has had the ability to field them all live on talk radio. Absolutely amazing.

A number of evangelicals view Hanegraaff’s move to Orthodoxy as a type of betrayal, suggesting that he is no longer a true Christian. Others are confused, not knowing much about what is “Eastern Orthodoxy,” and why people are attracted to this ancient approach to Christian faith. Even the Christian satire site, the Babylon Bee, is poking fun at Hanegraaff, calling him “The Apostolic Tradition Man.”

Hanegraaff responds to criticism by saying, “People are posting this notion that somehow or other I’ve walked away from the faith and am no longer a Christian. Look, my views have been codified in 20 books, and my views have not changed,” according to an article in Christianity Today, the main source for this blog post. Hanegraaff recently posted a letter to ministry supporters reassuring them of his love for Jesus.

What does one make of all this? Continue reading

Daniel’s Seventy Weeks #5

The primary traditional alternative to the more modern, dispensationalist reading of Daniel 9:24-27

A more traditional alternative to the more modern, dispensationalist reading of Daniel 9:24-27.  (Image credit: sdru.org)

If you have been following this series of blog posts (#1, #2, #3, and #4), you will know that the “Seventy Weeks” of Daniel 9:24-27 makes for a very demanding study. So, as we are getting very near to Christmas, I need to wrap this blog series up, even with all of the loose ends still out there.

Thankfully, neither your salvation, nor mine, hangs in the balance with getting Daniel 9:24-27 exactly right. For example, no central doctrine of the faith is at stake, as you ponder the mysterious meaning of Scripture phrases like “the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary” (verse 26). But the study is well worth the effort, as it will spur you on in learning more about Biblical prophecy, just as it has done for me.

At one point in my studies, over the past two years in this passage, I ran into the following statement by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, one of Britain’s most brilliant and popular expositors of the 20th century. Lloyd-Jones lived in an era when many Christians tended to be very dogmatic in their particular interpretation of Daniel 9. His comments on the debate over Daniel 9’s “Seventy Weeks” are worth savoring:

I am simply trying to put before you some of the various ideas and type of interpretation, while indicating, as anyone who is concerned to teach the Scriptures must do, the interpretation that most commends itself to my mind and to my understanding. I shall continue to repeat this because it seems to me to be the most important point I can make in connection with this whole subject. If I can somehow shake the glibness and the dogmatism that has characterised this matter I shall be most pleased, and I thank God that there are signs and indications that people are prepared to consider this matter anew. It may well betoken a period of blessing in the history of the Church.” (Great Doctrines of the Bible: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, The Church and the Last Things, page 119).

Martyn Lloyd-Jones has the right perspective. We are not talking about the deity of Christ, or salvation alone through Jesus, here. OKAY??? I may hold (and you may hold) to a different interpretation of a difficult passage like Daniel 9. Hopefully, believers can discuss this matter with clarity and charity towards one another, by studying the Scriptures anew. Continue reading

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