What Can Help Us to Handle the Word of the Truth Aright?
A THEATER critic for a newspaper once went to see a certain play. He did not much like it and afterward wrote: “If triviality is what you happen to be wanting, by all means go and see this play.” Later, the promoters of the play published an advertisement that featured a quote from the critic’s review. The quote was: “By all means go and see this play”! The advertisement accurately quoted the critic’s words, but it lifted them out of context and thus grossly misrepresented his view.
That example illustrates how important the context of a statement can be. Taking words out of context can distort their meaning, just as Satan distorted the meaning of Scripture when he tried to mislead Jesus. (Matthew 4:1-11) On the other hand, taking the context of a statement into account helps us to get a more accurate understanding of its meaning. For this reason, when we study a Bible verse, it is always wise to look at the context and see the verse in its setting in order to understand better what the writer was talking about.
Handle With Care
A dictionary defines context as “the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect.” Context can also be “the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc.” In this latter sense, a synonym for “context” would be “background.” Considering the context of a scripture is particularly important in view of what the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy: “Do your utmost to present yourself approved to God, a workman with nothing to be ashamed of, handling the word of the truth aright.” (2 Timothy 2:15) In order to handle God’s Word aright, we need to understand it properly and then explain it honestly and accurately to others. Respect for Jehovah, the Bible’s Author, will move us to try to do that, and considering the context will be an important help.
The Background of Second Timothy
Let us examine, for example, the Bible book of Second Timothy.a To start our examination, we could ask about the background of the book. Who wrote Second Timothy? When? Under what circumstances? Then we could ask, What was the situation of the “Timothy” who appears in the book’s title? Why did he need the information in the book? The answers to these questions will greatly enrich our appreciation of the book and help us to see how we today can benefit from it.
The opening verses of Second Timothy 1:1, 2 indicate that the book is a letter written by the apostle Paul to Timothy. Other verses show that when Paul wrote it, he was suffering in chains because of the good news. Forsaken by many, Paul felt that his end was near. (2 Timothy 1:15, 16; 2:8-10; 4:6-8) Hence, he must have written the book during his second imprisonment in Rome, likely about 65 C.E. Soon after that, Nero apparently sentenced him to death.
That is the background of Second Timothy. Yet, it is noteworthy that Paul did not write to Timothy in order to complain about his own problems. Rather, he warned of hard times ahead for Timothy and encouraged his friend to avoid distractions, to keep on “acquiring power,” and to pass Paul’s instructions on to others. In turn, these would be adequately equipped to help still others. (2 Timothy 2:1-7) What an excellent example of unselfish concern for others even in difficult times! And what fine counsel for us today!
Paul calls Timothy “a beloved child.” (2 Timothy 1:2) The young man figures often in the Christian Greek Scriptures as a faithful companion of Paul. (Acts 16:1-5; Romans 16:21; 1 Corinthians 4:17) When Paul wrote this letter to him, it seems that Timothy was in his 30’s—still viewed as youthful. (1 Timothy 4:12) Yet, he already had an excellent record of faithfulness, ‘slaving with Paul’ for perhaps 14 years. (Philippians 2:19-22) Despite Timothy’s relative youth, Paul charged him with counseling other elders “not to fight about words” but to concentrate on important matters, such as faith and endurance. (2 Timothy 2:14) Timothy was also authorized to handle the appointing of congregation overseers and ministerial servants. (1 Timothy 5:22) However, he may have been a little diffident about exercising his authority.—2 Timothy 1:6, 7.
The young elder faced some serious challenges. For one thing, two individuals, Hymenaeus and Philetus, were “subverting the faith of some,” teaching that ‘the resurrection had already occurred.’ (2 Timothy 2:17, 18) Evidently, they held that the only resurrection was a spiritual one and that it had already occurred for Christians. Perhaps they were quoting out of context Paul’s statement that Christians had been dead in their sins but were made alive through God’s spirit. (Ephesians 2:1-6) Paul warned that such apostate influence would increase. He wrote: “There will be a period of time when they will not put up with the healthful teaching, . . . and they will turn their ears away from the truth, whereas they will be turned aside to false stories.”(2 Timothy 4:3, 4) Paul’s advance warning showed that it was urgent for Timothy to heed the apostle’s counsel.
The Book’s Value Today
From the foregoing, we see that Paul wrote Second Timothy for at least the following reasons: (1) He knew that his end was imminent, and he sought to prepare Timothy for the time when he was no longer there to support Timothy. (2) He desired to equip Timothy to protect the congregations under his supervision from apostasy and other harmful influences. (3) He wanted to encourage Timothy to stay busy in Jehovah’s service and rely on an accurate knowledge of inspired Scripture in his stand against false teachings.
Understanding this background makes Second Timothy more meaningful to us. Today, too, there are apostates like Hymenaeus and Philetus who promote their own ideas and would like to subvert our faith. Moreover, the “critical times hard to deal with” that Paul prophesied about are here. Many have experienced the truth of Paul’s warning: “All those desiring to live with godly devotion in association with Christ Jesus will also be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:1, 12) How can we stand firm? Like Timothy, we need to heed the counsel of those who have served Jehovah for many years. And by personal study, prayer, and Christian association, we can “keep on acquiring power” through Jehovah’s undeserved kindness. Moreover, with confidence in the power of accurate knowledge, we can take note of Paul’s exhortation: “Keep holding the pattern of healthful words.”—2 Timothy 1:13.
“The Pattern of Healthful Words”
What are the “healthful words” of which Paul spoke? He uses that expression to refer to true Christian doctrine. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul explained that “healthful words” are basically “those of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Timothy 6:3) Imitating the pattern of healthful words results in one’s having a sound mind, a loving disposition, and consideration for others. Since Jesus’ ministry and teachings are in harmony with all other teachings found in the entire Bible, the expression “healthful words” can refer by extension to all Bible teachings.
For Timothy, as for all Christian elders, the pattern of healthful words was a “fine trust” that had to be guarded. (2 Timothy 1:13, 14) Timothy was to “preach the word, be at it urgently in favorable season, in troublesome season, reprove, reprimand, exhort, with all long-suffering and art of teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:2) When we realize that apostate teachings were spreading in Timothy’s day, we appreciate why Paul emphasized the urgency of teaching healthful words. We see, too, that Timothy would have to protect the flock by ‘reproving, reprimanding, exhorting’ with long-suffering, exercising fine teaching ability.
To whom was Timothy to preach the word? The context suggests that Timothy, as an elder, would preach the word within the Christian congregation. In view of the pressures exerted by opposers, Timothy was to keep his spiritual balance and to declare with boldness the word of God, not human philosophies, personal ideas, or useless speculations. True, this might bring opposition from some who may have been wrongly inclined. (2 Timothy 1:6-8; 2:1-3, 23-26; 3:14, 15) However, by following Paul’s counsel, Timothy would continue to be a barrier to apostasy, even as Paul himself had been.—Acts 20:25-32.
Do Paul’s words about preaching the word also apply to preaching outside the congregation? Yes, they do, as the context shows. Paul goes on to say: “You, though, keep your senses in all things, suffer evil, do the work of an evangelizer, fully accomplish your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:5) Evangelizing—preaching the good news of salvation to unbelievers—is central to the Christian ministry. (Matthew 24:14; 28:19, 20) And just as God’s word is preached in the congregation even in “troublesome season,” so we persist in preaching the word to those outside the congregation even under difficult circumstances.—1 Thessalonians 1:6.
The basis of all our preaching and teaching is God’s inspired Word. We have the fullest confidence in the Bible. Paul told Timothy: “All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16) Those words are often correctly quoted to show that the Bible is God’s inspired Word. But what was Paul’s purpose in writing them?
Paul was speaking to an elder, one with the responsibility to ‘reprove, set things straight, discipline in righteousness,’ within the congregation. Hence, he was reminding Timothy to trust the wisdom of the inspired Word, in which Timothy had been instructed since infancy. Elders, like Timothy, must at times reprove wrongdoers. When doing so, they should always have confidence in the Bible. Moreover, since the Scriptures are inspired of God, all reproof based on them is really reproof from God. Any who reject Bible-based reproofs are rejecting, not some human ideas, but inspired counsel that comes from Jehovah himself.
How rich the book of Second Timothy is in godly wisdom! And how much more meaningful it is when we consider its counsel in context! In this article, we have only skimmed the surface of the wonderful, inspired information that this book contains, but it is enough to demonstrate how helpful it is to consider the context of what we read in the Bible. That will help to ensure that we are indeed “handling the word of the truth aright.”
a For additional information, see Insight on the Scriptures, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Volume 2, pages 1105-8.
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Paul desired to equip Timothy to protect the congregations
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Paul reminded Timothy to trust the wisdom of the inspired Word