“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.” (2 Timothy 2:15 ESV).
The apostle Paul wrote these words to his protege, friend and associate in the preaching of the word of God. Timothy was a young man, a preacher of the gospel, and needed instruction and encouragement in doing his work in the best way possible – the way that would please God and do his hearers the most good.
The phrase, “Do your best,” more familiarly reads “study” in the King James Version. Most later versions have it as it is here in the ESV, with some having, “give diligence” (ASV, RV). There is no difference in the meaning in these various renderings. The word “study” as used in the KJV has a more limited meaning today than in 1611 when that version was first published. In the Greek, the word originally meant “make haste” or seriously apply yourself to this end of being approved in the sight of God.
To us today, study means to apply ourselves to learning the meaning of some text. Since Paul goes ahead and tells Timothy how, as God’s worker, to avoid being ashamed in the discharge of his responsibility as a preacher by “rightly handling the word of truth,” there is the need to apply oneself to knowing that word. But the meaning of this text is broader than just reading and meditating on the Bible. It encompasses the whole of one’s life before God. As a preacher, Timothy had the responsibility of representing what he taught with a life that conformed to the message. In other words, he had to practice what he preached.
A person who attempts to teach must first know the subject he is undertaking to teach. One cannot teach what he does not know. That requires that we “study” in the ordinary sense of the word. We must apply ourselves to knowing what God has revealed for us to teach.
It is a mark of character to be willing to examine our beliefs in light of what the scriptures teach. When Paul preached in the city of Berea, it was said of the people there…
“Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11).
There are some common mistakes people make when approaching various texts from the Bible. One of the most common mistakes is to isolate a passage from its context. The Bible was not written in disjointed, piecemeal fashion. It is not like a buffet from which we can pick and choose what we like or what seems to fit a particular preconception we may hold. Everything in it was written in a particular setting or context and to isolate a portion from its context will inevitably result in erroneous conclusions.
Another common mistake made in Bible study is to look at it through the distorted lens of our previous conclusions and prejudices. When be begin with a biased view with respect to our favorite “position” the “result” of our study will be a biased conclusion. Very often the conclusion will not only be skewed in the direction of our preconception, but sometimes it will be downright ridiculous.
This is, without doubt, a most difficult problem to deal with. How does one begin every study with our mind wiped clean of previous conclusions? That is utterly impossible. The best we can do is to frequently reevaluate our thinking, always open to the possibility that we are wrong in some of our conclusions and be open to change to bring ourselves more into line with what we find the Bible to teach. Honesty with God and with ourselves demands such an approach. To never be willing to change is not a sign of good scholarship. It is a sign of arrogant, boastful pride.
Our rule should be always that the Bible is our ultimate source to settle every question. But sometimes we need help. We should be willing to ask others for help in our study. Remember the Ethiopian, who when asked by the preacher, Philip, if he understood what he was reading replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31). As a result of asking for help he learned about Jesus and became a Christian. Often it helps to clarify our own thinking if we ask for and receive input from someone else. Help from competent scholars in the form of books and commentaries – used carefully and critically – can be a source of valuable assistance. Having several Bible versions can also be helpful. Often comparing the different wording in these can give us better insight into the meaning of a passage.
Another thing that we need to be very careful about is too much reliance on what others believe or teach. I know we all have people we look up to and trust. And perhaps those people are honest and sincere in the things they believe and teach. But honesty and sincerity are no guarantee that one is right. No matter who they are, they are merely human like everyone else. There are no inspired people to whom God reveals truth today. There is no one who can teach infallibly. It is absolutely necessary that we examine everything we hear and be willingly to reject that if we find it to not be so.
The same thing goes for the “official” doctrine of a church or denomination. Each has their own source-book or creed or some definitive statement of faith and practice – or it may be an “unwritten” creed. These sources define what is generally believed by the people who are members of that group. But every one of these official documents is the product of human minds. Not one of them is from God and none of them should be used to determine what the Bible teaches.
Let the Bible be the only source of your faith. Study it to find what it says. Accept nothing that does not comport with what you can read in the Bible. You can never go wrong if this is your approach to the truth that is from God.