I recently read and reviewed Richard Mayhue’s book How To Interpret The Bible For Yourself. There was one part of the book in particular that has been on my mind since the moment I read it and it has to do with 2 Timothy 2:15. In that passage Paul is exhorting Timothy to preach the gospel with accuracy, saying “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” The word the New King James translates as “rightly dividing” is (excuse the Greek but after studying it many years ago it is exciting to realize I still know some of it!) a derivative of the word orthotomeo which translates to “cut straight.” Paul tells Timothy to cut straight the word of truth.
The word is used just this one time in the Bible but fortunately was used in extra-Biblical writing and that provides a clear idea of the full meaning of the word. It is used to describe what happens when a farmer plows his field – he methodically and carefully plows long, straight furrows in the ground. It is also used to describe the work of a stone mason as he strikes rocks with his tools – he deliberately and sharply strikes the rocks to shape them so they would fit perfectly into a wall. Another use is in describing the cuts made by a tailors or tentmaker. When he cut into their fabric, he needed to make strong, straight cuts in order to ensure he did not ruin or waste fabric. In any example the point is clear: we are to handle the word of God with precision.
Paul’s choice of words is interesting for he could, just as easily, have used the word kopto which also speaks of cutting stone, but in a more tentative manner. It implies making hacking blows rather than precise blows. A man who beats on his chest in grief does so with hacking blows rather than precise blows. Paul, though, chose to tell Timothy to treat the word of God with deliberate precision.
Picture, if you will, a stone mason who is cutting a large stone so that it can fit into the foundation of a building. He begins with a shapeless rock but with deliberate effort and strong blows of hammer to chisel, he begins to shape the rock. As his arms swing that hammer, the rock is shaped into a stone worthy of being fitted into a foundation. Were he not deliberate, he could break the rock or carve a misshapen stone that would not fit, would be brittle or would not support the building. That is the picture Paul wished to bring to Timothy’s mind. He wanted to show Timothy that learning from God’s word requires deliberate effort. It requires precision and confidence, not hesitance and vagueness.
A master stonemason did not become so overnight. It took years of effort and training. It took practice and humility to learn under the tutelage of teachers. And so it is with learning to rightly divide God’s word. We are indwelled by the Master and He has promised He will help us to learn and apply His word and we need to seek His guidance. We have the example of many great teachers who have learned to make straight cuts and we should turn to their examples to learn what God has taught them. We need to apply ourselves to His word, seeking the wisdom, skill and humility we need to make straight cuts.