Turn with me to Second Timothy chapter two, verse 15. We will consider just one verse together.
I, like many of you, perhaps all of us, make something of New Year’s resolutions which are more like New Year’s goals. One of my resolutions was, in the year 2019, whenever possible, to preach from the Old Testament. In my very first opportunity, I am violating my New Year’s resolution. But it is with good cause as this verse gripped my heart over the Christmas break, and I have come back to it again, and again, and again. It just seemed like the Lord was leading me to preach this text this morning.
“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”
This verse first came to my attention in the weeks after my conversion in college. A friend introduced me to the ministry of The Navigators and the Bible memory verse construct it offered. The very first verse I memorized in that setting was this verse, Second Timothy chapter two, verse 15. And as the Lord would have it, he would subsequently call me to the ministry of the Word. So, this verse has rightly been near to my heart ever since. It is a verse loaded with relevance for us, and one that knows no sell-by date. It is a verse that applies to each one of us.
For us, we have a confessional expectation as an institution. We have reflected on that this morning together. This verse reminds us that sound doctrine is derived from hermeneutics, developed from sound interpretation; sound exegesis. We check our doctrine against Scripture, not vice-versa. Today we witness the public attestation to our confessional documents by both Dr. Barrett and Dr. Johnson. It is a reminder of these things.
This verse also finds us with an instructional expectation in the classroom. What do we do? We do a lot, but the very core of it is rightly interpreting and applying the text. It is not just what we believe, but what we teach. We, as a theological institution, are people who know better. We know the priority of rightly handling the Word of Truth.
There also is a ministerial expectation which broadens the application to all of us, right? You are here in some degree in a ministerial role or preparing for a ministerial role directly or indirectly. To fulfill a ministry calling is to fulfill a calling of preaching, teaching, sharing, and counseling the text. When done right, much good comes. When done wrong, catastrophe follows.
When you think about it there really are two types of ministers, are there not? The first type is the type who starts with the text, interprets the text, and applies the text to their Christian life. They develop a doctrinal framework from the Scriptures, a philosophy of ministry, and a Christian worldview with the text always leading in that procession. There are others who begin with cultural awarenesses, personal observations and experiences, 21stCentury sensitivities and sensibilities, and they work backward to Scripture to proof text their pre-formed opinions or to explain away the passages which conflict with the same. It goes something like this, “I know Paul wrote that, but he could not have meant that.” “Well, Paul was clearly influenced by 1stCentury Roman prejudices; that is not applicable now.” “Jesus would not say that. He was more likely captain of the Love Boat, ensuring everyone was having a good time.”
But our job as ministers, and especially those in the context of a seminary, is not to explain away the text; it is to explain the text. Our job is not to bend the text to our lifestyle, but to bend our lifestyles to the text. As an institution, at every level, our responsibility is to be about the business of rightly dividing the word of truth and to training and appointing ministers accordingly. With that institutional backdrop, think with me about verse 15 this morning.
Remember the context of the letter. Most of us know it, so I will not rehearse it thoroughly. But before just entering into the dialogue here, remember what is going on. Paul is near death and this is his last letter written, at least his last one that has been preserved for us. He is writing to Timothy, his son in the faith. To read this book, if you are a preacher, is to be gripped again and again and again by it. We see all of this counsel poured into this book. We see apostolic burdens, apostolic desires, ministerial concerns, and theological concerns. All of this is poured into this book in verse, after verse, chapter after chapter, where Paul is speaking to his son in the faith, Timothy. And of course, through him, to us. The letter as a whole is chock-full of forceful charges, gracious encouragements, keen insights, attention-getting admonitions, and sober warnings. This verse at once is full of the same. Within this verse, we see gracious encouragement, keen insight, admonitions, sober warnings, and it has all to do with rightly diving the Word of God.
More broadly, in this book, we see this concern crop its head again and again. In chapter one, verse 13, it says, “Retain the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.” In chapter two, verse two: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach these to others also.” In chapter three, verses 16-17: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Chapter four, verse two says: “Preach the Word. Be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with great patience and instruction.” Chapter two, verse 15 rolls all of that up, it seems.
I want to invite you to use your imagination at this moment and think of this verse not even so much as a sermon, not as a lecture, not as something to be read, but imagine with me the personalization of this counsel to Timothy. You can almost envision Paul looking him the eye, saying it gently, pastorally, brotherly, perhaps paternalistically to Timothy. “Timothy, be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a workman who need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth.”
This morning, we will see that this verse has three parts. It is straightforward, simply straight from the text. It does not take much imagination to see what Paul is encouraging us to do this morning. First, “Be diligent to present yourself approved unto God.” It is a personal word of instruction. It is not a minister’s manual, not a pastor’s conference, not even a class lecture. Paul says to Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved, unto God.” Let every word hang there. Again, Paul is not speaking in his writing, but it is so easy to imagine Paul having said that to Timothy 1,000 times one-on-one. Here, he reminds him to be diligent.
Diligence is to persist, to continually do again and again and again. Think duration. Think longevity. That, after all, is the challenge of ministry, is it not? It is easy to start well. It is easy even to have an early season of health. But to do it again and again and again and again and again, coming to the text repeatedly to teach, to preach, to share, to counsel, that is the charge. It is easy to do for your first sermon, your first church, that first opportunity to open the Book for God’s people on Sunday morning. You are committed, you have studied all week. You didn’t go out on Saturday night, you kept everyone in, you reviewed the sermon on Saturday evening, and you got the kids to bed early so they can get up early on Sunday morning. You woke up early on Sunday morning, you reviewed the sermon again and again and again, and by the time you are in the pulpit, it is all but memorized. You have so immersed yourself in the text and in the sermon. You are ready. But slowly and steadily, digression takes place. The point is not that you have to stick to that same ritual of being locked in your study on Saturday night and locked in your study on Sunday morning, ect., etc. But slowly, patterns of digression can set in where from one extreme you are hyperactively committed, and on the other extreme, it is just opening the book like any other book.
Paul is saying to us, through Timothy, to be mindful of the fact that this is a special book, it is a unique book, and it is a singular book. The task to teach it is a unique task. It is a singular task. It should never be routine to us. You are to be diligent to do something. I do not want to play games with the text where we can say, “Paul does not say, ‘Be diligent to pray, or be diligent to witness, or be diligent to meet.’” That is not the point here. However, I do want to draw attention to the fact that in this verse, his attention is dialed in on this diligence to present oneself approved unto God and he is going to tell us, ministerially speaking, how that approval comes.
“Approved” means to pass a test; to undergo scrutiny and pass through on the other side. That is a phenomenon which many of us are familiar with in Seminary and Christian college education, right? You study, cram (hopefully not too much, we believe in incrementally studying), and you prepare for the test, and you want to pass it. You want to be approved. Actually, you want to do better than just pass it, you want to excel. You know the rush of the final exam week. Who is going to judge you in that setting? Your professor, or perhaps yourself if you have high standards for yourself. Ultimately the Lord also, because in all we do, we are to do it unto the glory of Christ, right? But here this passage draws a direct line from how well we study the text to how we stand before God. Note this diligence is not unto a professor, a pastoral mentor, a group of deacons or body of elders or to the congregation as a whole. It is not that there is no accountability to those groups, but rather, this accountability is a transcendent accountability proved unto God.
Think of your ministerial accountability as an ascendant accountability, culminating in whether or not God approves of how we are handling his Word. It is work. It is a high calling. This is why James says things like James 3:1, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, because you will be held to a higher standard.” First Timothy 5:17 reminds us the standard is indeed so high that all of those who exercise these faithfully are worthy of double honor, double recompense.
So the first part of this verse is simply to be diligent to present ourselves approved unto God. “How long does it take you to prepare a sermon?” so one man asks you. The answer should always be this, “As long as it takes to know the passage; nothing less.” Yes, it should take more to fine-tune the sermon, to think of ways to amplify the text, to make sure you communicate it clearly, but if someone wants to know how long it is going to take you to preach on passage “X,” it has a direct correlation to how well you know passage “X.” Be diligent to present yourself approved unto God.
Second, notice what we see taking place here in this verse, “…as a workman who does not need to be ashamed.” Let every word sink in here. We want to be careful how we handle this because what I want to submit to you this morning is simply this: your position before Christ as a minister is fixed based upon the work of Christ, amen? But our ability to stand before God and God’s people without shame is correlated to how faithfully we handle the text. Sure, we cannot stumble and sloppily handle a text in such a way that we are denigrated before the Lord in the ultimate sense because of Christ’s work for us, but if we are sloppy with the text, evidently there is ministerial shame to bare.
“A workman.” I love the activity or industry in this short phrase. It is work. Have you ever had someone suggest the ministry is a place for lazy people? “You do not want to work hard,” or “if you do not want to work in a factory; become a minister.” Let me tell you, if you are pursuing the ministry because you think it is a life of ease, you are delusional. The work of handling the text is difficult work. The work of dealing with God’s people can be difficult work. There are 1,000 points of difficulty. Yet, there are 1,001 exhilarations and joys that make it a greater calling still. We are reminded in this verse that we are a workman, one who is engaged actively with the Word of God.
Notice what else we are taught here, that there is the possibility of shame associated with our ministries. We all know this in the moral sense, right? The guy who runs off with his secretary, or the lady who runs off with a man. We all know of this in the big, monstrous, and scandalous sense. We know the shame associated with these falls, and we know how they sully the reputation of Christ. We have a good working knowledge of how shame is associated with moral scandal, but there is another shame that we are introduced to this morning. It ought to wake us up. “A workman who does not need to be ashamed.”
Here is the grand irony in the broad world of Christianity, and I am using that phrase in this sense very broadly and very generously. In the broad world of Christianity, Christian television and all that goes with it, those who should be most ashamed are those who evidently feel the least. Those who are most concerned about handling the Word of God rightly, being faithful, and who take verses like 15 seriously, typically lead a life and ministry where there should be very little shame. This is because they are being faithful, they are studying and doing their best by the grace of God. But remember this, every time you open the book, there is the potential for buried shame. Did you cut corners? Were you sloppy? Were you distracted? Have you binged on college football and social media and whatever else would take of your time? Did you come to the text seriously and with thoroughness? If not, there is the potential for buried shame.
Notice the third aspect of this verse, and we will spend a little more time here. “Be diligent to present yourself approved unto God, a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” Again, to be clear, your confidence before Christ is secure, but your confidence as a minister of the Word should be growing. With each passing year of studying the Word, of being trained and mentored, there ought to be a deepening and growing sense of confidence. A growing confidence that you can stand before God’s people and lead Bible study, that you can talk to your friend about Scripture, and that you can do it in such a way that the text is treated seriously. Can you say this? Have you taken the responsibility to handle God’s Word seriously? Have you been faithful to the best of your ability to study it?
No one bats 1,000. Please hear me say that. None of us, including me, bats 1,000. But I am batting a lot higher average now than I was 20 years ago. I can promise you that.
What does it mean to, “accurately handling the word of truth?” It literally means to cut it straight. It is a craftsman who can cut a straight line. One challenge we have as ministers is that we can feel shame over the wrong things. Mishandling the text? Yes, shame is associated with that. Being lazy in the study? Yes. Moral failings? Yes. Small church? Not one ounce of shame should be found in that. Little ministerial fruit, if you are being faithful? Feel no shame. An ineloquence? Feel no shame. Low I.Q.? Feel no shame. Limited gifting? Feel no shame. Shame is associated with none of that because those types of people are the ones God especially delights in using.
Here we see that to avoid a ministry of shame before God, we are to be about the business of rightly handling the word of truth.
I shared a couple of years ago at the For the Church Conference my first foray of preaching. It was a catastrophic event. I am still trying to expunge it from my ministry. I share it with you briefly this morning as a way of personal confession and group therapy, and a way to perhaps encourage you along the way.
I was a college athlete and became a believer in my freshman year of college. I was on fire for the Lord, sharing my testimony, and I did not know at the time that my call to ministry was in seed form. One of the many ministries my church had was on Sunday afternoons they would go out to two different places, both were called “A Home of Grace.” One was a place of about 40-50 women that were recovering from some sort of abuse, perhaps it was drug abuse or maybe just their life had become busted. Maybe they had been in an abusive marriage or something pretty catastrophic had happened, and they needed to be there for 16 weeks just to reset. There was a similar place for men which was a few miles away. I began to go with a couple of men who were going to minister to the ladies. I was just riding around with them with very little responsibility. I was there and participated pretty minimalistically. One week it was announced to me that I was going to be doing the preaching the next week. I was both exhilarated and frightened, having never preached before. I did not know what to do. I literally had no idea what to do. I remember that week in my college dorm I got out a legal pad and a binder. I was literally writing out all of my favorite Bible verses and all of the preacher’s jargon I have ever heard. I was writing down a few stories and thought, “How do I put this thing together.” I had no idea how to put together a sermon. I got up that week to preach, and I thought it was a 30-minute sermon, but went through my notes in eight minutes. What do you do? You start your notes over and do it again. That is what I did. At the end of the service, I gave an invitation and around seven women came forward to the altar. I was overwhelmed. This was the greatest moment of my life. These seven women came to the altar. It was a very sweet moment. Well, we were driving back to the church and a guy says to me, “It made you feel good when those seven women came forward didn’t it?” And I said, “Yes, Sir.” He said, “You know, those same seven women come forward every week.”
I look back on that and other early preaching forays and they were a disaster. I had not been equipped. I had no idea. But I cannot say that anymore. There is a heightened sense of accountability, as there is for each one of us in the room. Why is “the word of truth” the “therefore?” Why is it what brings shame or honor? Why is it what is being drilled in on to rightly handle? I think it is because the word of truth brings enormous potential or enormous harm if handled wrongly. It has enormous potential because if handled rightly it is the word of life. People are saved through the preaching and teaching of it, lives are sanctified through the ministry of it, believer’s hearts are lifted up by the right application of it. But handled wrongly it leads people down deadened streets spiritually. Unfortunately, it is used at times as a weapon to burden the consciences of people. There is enormous potential there.
My wife and I were in the Phoenix area for a few days last week for the seminary, and not far from Phoenix is a city you have heard of, Los Vegas. It is a city I have studiously avoided going to all of my 40 plus years. But we were there, and I have always wanted to see the Hoover Dam. My wife has always wanted to see Celine Dion. This is how teamwork works, okay? But, we were in the proximity, so we thought we could dart over there and back. We wondered if we should do it; we felt kind of yucky in Las Vegas. I called a couple of friends in the city who do ministry there, and who said there are good things happening in the city. I got coached up on where not to go and about a family-friendly hotel to stay in. So we went in and out briefly and enjoyed an aggressively G-rated experience. We took in the Hoover Dam, my wife enjoyed and I weathered a Celine Dion performance, and, being children of the ’80s, we took in David Copperfield, the magician. It was a memorable two days.
Back to Hoover Dam. It lived up to the expectations in every way. It was amazing. I could have been there all day. It was a massive structure, and to me what is so mind-blowing is that it was built nearly 100 years ago. Think of the feat of architecture and engineering. It is conservatively estimated to last at least 2,000 years. It is conservatively estimated to withstand an 8.6 magnitude earthquake. It is incredible. It backs up the high side of the dam, the Lake Mead, which is 580 feet deep and goes for miles and miles and miles. And if I read the sign right, there is enough water in Lake Mead to flood the entire state of New York by one foot. It is amazing. What happens through it all? There are massive pipes in the middle of the lake that draw water in. They go down over 600 feet. These pipes go from wide to narrow and by the time that water falls 600 feet with all of that force in a narrowing pipe, it blows through generators with enormous power. So much so that each one of the 17 generators can power 100,000 homes and the family that lives within them each and every day. It is an enormous source of energy, unlike most any other things I’ve ever seen. The generators which we toured crackled with electricity. They roared with energy.
There is something like that in the power of Scripture. This is our weapon in ministry against all of the forces of evil that exist like Satan, his minions, and the New England Patriots. But seriously, this is our tool, our weapon, our source. But what does this all mean? Let me give four words of reflection to pull this together.
Number one, studying, interpreting, preaching, and teaching the text has to be labeled priority number one for professors, pastors, students, and all of us. We are people of the Book.
Number two, the Bible has proven itself powerful to withstand centuries of sloppy exegesis. That is true. But let that not be a license for our own sloppy exegesis. People survive plane crashes and brain tumors, but that is not an argument for them. The Bible has survived a lot of terrible sermons, but that does not mean we should indulge in them.
Third, we must, in our own little corners of the kingdom, politely fight against eisegesis. Eisegesis, for the listener, makes the text an impenetrable jungle only to be entered into by a select few with special knowledge. This is akin to what the Gnostics did. But we understand that the Bible is not so much a jungle, but a window we can see clearly in and out. There is an overabundance of entry points. We believe in the perspicuity of Scripture, the clarity of Scripture, the nobility of Scripture.
Fourth, let us be careful and always on the lookout for any Bible study that goes something like, “What does the text mean to you?” That is a horrible question to ask. The text means what it means. The question to ask is, “What does the text mean and how does it apply to me or to you?” Perhaps it is in vain that thousands of Evangelical Bible studies throughout the years are grouped together where a Bible verse is bantered back and forth under the guise of, “What does it mean to you?” Let us be careful to study to be able to speak with clarity and with biblical authority that this is what the text means and the conversation and discussion becomes, “How do we best apply it?”
And so this is us. We go forward with a new semester and a new year cheerfully and purposely living out God’s calling on our lives. A calling as determined men and women who rightly divide the word of truth.