Cutting Straight: Working Hard in the Word

2 Tim. 2:14-19


Midway through chapter 2 of 2 Timothy, Paul encourages Timothy to stand fast in the Gospel, and to endure whatever suffering and persecution may come to Him for the sake of Christ. He punctuates this by reciting an early church creed or hymn: "For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself" (2 Tim. 11-13).

Paul then pivots, urging Timothy to faithfully maintain this Gospel message to the church of Ephesus: "Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers" (2:14). Timothy's charge to the church and its leaders, according to Paul's instruction, is to "keep the main thing the main thing." They are to remember the Gospel message they have received, and avoid getting distracted by secondary issues, petty theological fights, and misinterpretations that come from wrangling about words instead of seeing the big picture of God's work in the world.

Paul's concern was both for the clarity of the Gospel and for the health of the body. He knew that when church leaders dispute over inconsequential things and neglect the Gospel message the rest of the body suffers. The word "ruin" here is the Greek katastrophē, showing the serious consequences of missing the point-fighting over words by the leaders of the church can lead to a total collapse of the faith for those who follow them.

Of course, there is a kind of theological wrangling that is healthy and necessary. Satan makes sure that the truth of the Gospel is always under attack, and he has filled the world with competing stories. Our sinful hearts are quick to latch onto these, and we only reluctantly relinquish them for the true message of salvation. God, in His grace, gives us the Law to convict us, has sent His Son to save us, and has given His Spirit to guide us. When Satan attempts to co-opt churches through false teaching, those who hold fast to God's Word will be led by His Spirit to take a firm stand.

If in verse 14 Paul is focused on avoiding trivial and distracting squabbles, his exhortation to Timothy in verse 15 is instruction in how to hold on to, teach, and defend Scripture. "Be diligent to present yourself approved unto God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth" (2:15). Those who lead the church must be diligent workman, studying hard and praying harder to be able to rightly teach His Word. The Greek behind "accurately handling" is orthotomounta, literally "cutting straight." The idea is that of laborers clearing the way for a road or of a farmer plowing a straight furrow-the tools are sharp, and must be carefully handled to accomplish their purposes, but the result of skilled workmanship is a straight path ready for travel or a straight row ready to receive seed and produce a harvest. In the same way, mature believers who have worked hard at learning God's Word, who serve as pastors or elders in a church body, should handle its truth carefully to cut a path to salvation, understanding, and obedience that the rest of the church can follow.

This is not the first time Paul has exhorted Timothy to this work. Recall that Timothy was commissioned to stay in Ephesus so that he could "teach certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim. 1:3-5). As Paul wrote again, it seems the Ephesians were still being distracted by speculations, and Timothy's work remained the same-faithfully teach God's Word from a heart of love in order to build their faith. Two millennia later, the ministry of the Word is still God's means of correcting error and drawing people back to Him.

Paul continues his admonition, drawing distinction between the approved and unashamed workman and the careless and dangerous deeds of false teachers. He further encourages Timothy to focus on the truth and put aside the things that contend for its rightful place in men's hearts and heads: "But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene" (2:16-17a). Paul's warning is not merely against false teachings that present themselves clearly in theological terms, but also against the subtle ways that worldly ideas filter into the church through conversation, gossip, and cultural influences. He doesn't mince words about the danger of this "gangrene" that rot a church as surely as any overt attack on doctrine.

As in 1 Timothy 1:20, Paul "names names" here to point out to Timothy some of the key offenders whose shoddy teaching and sinful influence needs to be addressed. "Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, men who have gone astray from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some" (2:17b-18). Interestingly, Hymenaeus is mentioned in both letters, suggesting an ongoing evil influence in the church that Timothy has for whatever reason failed to root out. Paul highlights some of their specific falsehoods, and shows the effect this is having. These men taught that the end of the ages had already come, squelching the hope of those who had trusted Christ and longed for His appearing.

Paul quickly refutes this notion with a message of assurance for Timothy to deliver as a corrective: "Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, The Lord knows those who are His,' and Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness'" (2:19). Regardless of the false message of Hymenaeus and Philetus, Paul and Timothy knew that the Lord had not yet returned. Jesus will not leave any of those who trust Him behind, and those who know Him will know His voice when he comes (John 10:14). Moreover, Paul equates these men with those who, just as Christ prophesied about in Matthew 25 and Luke 13, purported to follow Him and do works in His name, but will be rejected by Him. God knows the hearts of men-those who know Him will obey Him; those who purposefully "cut a crooked path" to faith and misinterpret and mishandle Scripture will be shown in the end to be wicked.

The epistles of the New Testament resound with passage after passage very similar to this one. Getting the Gospel right is serious business. Staying focused on its message is vital. Steering clear of and correcting false teaching (from any and all sources) is difficult, but it essential and ongoing part of church life. Nothing less than eternal life is at stake.

Justin Lonas is editor of Disciple Magazine for AMG International in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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