‘Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth', 2 Tim. 2. 15.
Have you built your ark yet? It’s a direct command of scripture, you know! Genesis chapter 6 verse 14 couldn’t be clearer. In case you’re not sure how, the subsequent verses give specific boatbuilding instructions. Why delay? Collect your gopher wood right now!
We know instinctively that God does not require us to build an ark. That commandment was for Noah, not for us. It should be obvious that God only requires us to obey the commands He has given to us, not those He has given to others. Yet, strangely, many Christians ignore this basic principle when they read other passages of scripture. As a result, many sincere believers are trying to observe Israel’s sabbath laws, they are trying to carry out the disciples’ snake handling commission, or are terrified they will lose their salvation if they don’t endure to the end.
Paul told Timothy to ‘rightly divide’ the scriptures. In essence, this means studying a word or verse or chapter or book of the Bible in context and recognizing distinctions, before attempting to apply it. If all Christians rightly divided God’s word, we would be far less divided among ourselves.
When we study any section of scripture, before we ask the important question ‘WHAT does it mean?’, we should first consider five other questions to identify the context.
Context involves looking at what has been said before, and what will be said after, and comparing scripture with scripture.
If we pluck a verse out of context, we can make it say anything we like. This is where so much misunderstanding springs from, even among believers who truly love God’s word.
Note a distinction between Luke and John. John is all about believing, John 20. 31. Peter comes to faith in John chapter 1 verse 42. Luke deals with discipleship, i.e. how a believer should follow, Luke 1. 3. Having already believed, Peter follows in Luke chapter 5 verse 11. Problems arise if we apply Luke’s discipleship verses to salvation, e.g. Luke 14. 26-33. Works should follow from salvation but are not a condition for salvation.
This is a question of genre. Is it prose? Is it poetry? Parable? Prophecy? Letter? Law?
Different kinds of literature convey different ideas. There are commands to obey, examples to follow, and meditations to inspire us.
Compare how Peter uses ‘kiss’ in 1 Peter chapter 5 verse 14 with how Solomon uses it in Song of Solomon chapter 1 verse 2. One is instruction for wholesome church relationships; the other is romantic poetry. With a word like ‘kiss’, don’t confuse your genres!
Perhaps the biggest doctrinal errors stem from failing to differentiate between what God says to Israel and what He says to the church.
God made earthly promises to Israel, including financial prosperity in reward for obedience, Deut. 28. 1-14. By contrast, if we live godly lives, we should expect persecution, 2 Tim. 3. 12.
God spoke in different ways and at different times.
We should note what is relevant today, against what is applicable only in the past or in the future. Anachronistic application results in unnecessary confusion.
Especial care should be taken when interpreting prophecy. In the Old Testament, prophets often described the first and second comings of Christ together, unaware of the time gap between them. In the New Testament, we may need to distinguish between Christ returning for His own, and Christ appearing in judgement.
What is his main point? Sometimes we get side-tracked because we focus on the wrong thing. Other times, we ignore an important point because we haven’t understood the reason for it.
Why did Paul give commands about head coverings in 1 Corinthians chapter 11? Was it because of a local issue? Or does he say it is based on a fundamental principle which God established at creation?
Paul told Timothy to ‘be diligent’ in his Bible study. It’s not always easy. But it is always worth it!