By Charles H. Welch
Instead of postponing the consideration of the great principle of ‘right division’ to the section which deals with words commencing with ‘R’ we bring the subject forward, by reason of its importance, and give a partial consideration to it here. It is the key that unlocks the dispensations and should govern our entire approach to the Scriptures. The Scripture that enjoins the practice of this principle is 2 Timothy 2:15, ‘study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth’.
This verse divides naturally into three parts:
In chapter 1 of 2 Timothy there is an anticipation of the great principle of right division, for the apostle emphasizes ‘the testimony of the Lord and of me His prisoner’. He refers to that calling that goes back ‘before age times’ but is manifest ‘now’ that he is a prisoner. He draws attention to his own special ministry to the Gentiles and the ‘good deposit’ entrusted to him and afterwards committed to Timothy, when he urged upon him the importance of having a pattern of sound words which he had heard of him, and in chapter 2 he exhorts Timothy to commit to faithful men ‘the things he had heard of him’. What is all this but the application of right division? Here a distinction between the apostle’s earlier ministry and his ‘prison ministry’ is intimated. Here is a recognition of the distinctive calling of Ephesians 1, ‘before the foundation of the world’. Here is the claim that the apostle, preacher and teacher of the Gentiles, is Paul, and here the distinction is made between ‘that good deposit’ and other parts of God’s purposes.
If Timothy is to be unashamed of his work he must know and appreciate these distinctions, otherwise (by occupying himself with service that belongs to other callings and dispensations, and so not being engaged in ‘God’s building’), his work, being revealed by fire, will be found worthless. While Timothy might be expected to perceive the necessity of right division, Paul is anxious that he should not be left to his own inferences. How then shall the apostle best put the principle that is vaguely seen at work right through chapter 1? Shall he once more go back in mind to the child Timothy at his mother’s knee? Shall he visualize the teaching of those holy Scriptures that had made Timothy wise unto salvation? Does he remember that a Jewish mother would most certainly teach her boy some of the Proverbs? and that Timothy’s father, being a Greek, and living in Galatia, would most certainly have read the Greek version of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint? We cannot tell, but this we do know, that Timothy needed no explanation of the term ‘right division’. We can dismiss all attempts by commentators to discredit this fact and feel perfectly safe in doing so, because we shall be ‘comparing spiritual things with spiritual’. In the Bible used by Timothy occurs the following verse:
We find the same word in Proverbs 11:5, where it is again used of a ‘way’. These are the only occurrences in the LXX. We are not now concerned with the differences here observable between the A.V. and the LXX but are desirous that all shall see that the words used by Paul in 2 Timothy 2:15 and known by Timothy are identical.
With this evidence before him, the reader will need no refutation of the many suggestions put forward as translations, such as ‘handling aright the Word of Truth’. Again, there is no possibility of mistaking what was to be rightly divided. It was not the believer’s conduct or service or anything to do with himself, but the ‘Word of Truth’. Just as Timothy was subsequently exhorted to ‘preach’ the Word, so is he here commanded to ‘divide’ the Word aright. What this principle involves when put into operation cannot be detailed here. Besides a number of volumes and smaller booklets, thirty-seven volumes of The Berean Expositor have been published, and they all have been subject to this one great principle. Right division distinguishes dispensations. It does not confound Kingdom with Church, Gentile with Jew, Mystery with Gospel, Earth with Heaven. It is beyond us, however, to attempt even a summary of its bearings, for there is no item of Scriptural teaching to which the principle does not apply.
Moreover, let us repeat that what is here to be ‘rightly divided’ is, and remains, the Word of Truth. No ‘higher critical’ cutting up of the Scriptures is countenanced by this Word, and indeed we have only to read on to find in 2 Timothy 3:16 one of the most emphatic statements concerning the inspiration of the Scriptures that the New Testament contains. We can, however, easily rob the Word of its ‘truth’ if we fail to ‘rightly divide’ it. We can confound law and grace, to our undoing; we can preach Moses where we ought to preach Christ. We can be concerned with ‘earthly things’, to our loss, if our calling is associated with ‘things above where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God’. If we attempt to spiritualize the promises made to the fathers, we rob the word of promise of its truth. If we misinterpret Israel as of the Church; if we confound the Bride with the Body; if we preach the gospel of the circumcision to the Gentile to-day; if we do any of these things, we rob the Word of its Truth.
One glorious result of ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’ is that every statement of God may be taken without alteration. For instance, in the case of the promise, ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’, a rightly divided word has no need to substitute ‘heaven’ for ‘earth’.
Happy is the workman who, though suffering under the disapproval of tradition, is approved unto God; that workman who will have no need to be ashamed of his work, because he has obeyed the great all-covering principle of interpretation - ‘Rightly dividing the Word of Truth’.
Passing from the meaning of ‘Right Division’ let us take an illustration of the application of this principle from the ministry of the Lord Himself. In Luke 4:16-21 we read that the Saviour upon returning from Galilee to Nazareth, entered the synagogue and stood up for to read. He was given the book of the prophet Isaiah and He found the place where it was written:
According to Moses Maimonedes, a public reading of the Scriptures should consist of some twenty to twenty-five verses, and had the Saviour read the whole of Isaiah 61, even though it contained but eleven verses, no one would have been surprised. What He did, however, was something extraordinary. He read one verse, and one sentence of the second verse, stopped, shut the book, and sat down. The second verse of Isaiah 61 reads:
but had He continued His reading so as to include the reference to the day of vengeance, He could not have said, as He did, THIS DAY IS THIS SCRIPTURE fulfilled in your ears, for the day of vengeance, even after nineteen hundred years, has not yet come. There is but a comma, in our English version, between the two periods, yet that comma represents a gap of nearly two thousand years. In the original Hebrew or the Greek from which the Saviour read, there would have been no punctuation mark at all. The Lord by no means set aside the dreadful fact of future judgment, He simply kept both references in their true dispensational place. This same gospel, at chapter 21 speaks of that future day, saying: ‘For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled’ (Luke 21:22). The relations between these two passages may be set out thus:
The books of the Bible were all originally addressed to some particular hearer or company, and before we take all that is written in the Scriptures as truth for ourselves, we should observe several things which in reality will be but the application of ‘Right Division’. If we hold the faith that is common to evangelical protestants we shall strenuously maintain the great doctrine of Justification by faith apart from works of the law, and by so doing we of necessity ‘divide’ the Word of truth, for the law of Moses is equally as inspired Scripture as is the epistle to the Romans. And so the principle of right division enables us to say:
Hence, we can say that the Scriptures refer to three companies or classes, ‘Jew, Gentile and Church of God’, or we can say that the Scriptures relate to three spheres of blessing, ‘The Earth, The Heavenly Jerusalem and Far above all’. Yet again, the Scriptures are concerned with The Kingdom of Israel, The Bride of the Lamb and the Church which is His Body. Some of the epistles are specifically addressed to the Dispersion.
To which should be added the epistle to the Hebrews, for Peter, writing to the Dispersion said, ‘our beloved brother
Paul ... hath written UNTO YOU’ (2 Pet. 3:15). The question of the authorship of the epistle to the Hebrews, together
with its distinctive teaching, is discussed in the article entitled HEBREWS. This principle of interpretation ‘right
division’ observes the ‘sundry times’ and ‘divers manners’ in which God has spoken, and these different ‘times’ are
called for convenience ‘dispensations’. We will not enlarge upon this here, as the subject is treated with some
degree of fulness in the article entitled DISPENSATION. The Ages too have their differences, and the article
AGE, deals with this aspect of truth. Dr. Bullinger devotes seventy-five pages of the book How to Enjoy the
Bible to the unfolding of what he has called ‘the one great requirement’, the reading of which is illuminative. We
give the subdivision of the theme as set out in the Contents, but can give no quotations owing to limitation of space.
THE GREAT REQUIREMENT
(iv) As to the DISPENSATIONAL TRUTH and TEACHING.
For the chronological order of the epistles, and the chronology of the Acts the reader is referred to the article bearing the title CHRONOLOGY of the ACTS AND EPISTLES.
The expansion of this principle of right division is only limited by the limits of Scripture itself, and this Analysis, under whatever subdivisions it may fall, is from first to last but an exhibition and exposition of this great principle. Having given the term an examination and the application of the principle an illustration we must leave its full unfolding to the separate articles as they appear in the alphabetical order of their occurrence. Under the heading RIGHT DIVISION, a few further notes will be found. The subject is so vital, that no apology will be necessary for this double emphasis.