Rightly Dividing God’s Word Keeps Us Focused on Jesus’ Appearing
As a child, I loved AWANA and grew up with its motto verse hanging on the wall of my bedroom. It read, “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, KJV).
The Greek word for “rightly dividing” literally means to “cut straight” with the implication of interpreting Scripture accurately. The English Standard Version translates the phrase as “rightly handling the word of truth.”
Over the many years, I have observed that much doctrinal error has arisen because of a failure to heed the instruction Paul gives us in 2 Timothy 2:15. Many fail to handle Scripture accurately because they do not make proper distinctions in their interpretation of it. They do this by either ignoring the overall context of a passage, failing to recognize the audience to whom the author is addressing, ignoring the dispensation to which the text refers, or by way of all of the above. As a result, they fall short of accurately handling God’s Word; they do not cut a straight path through it as prescribed by 2 Timothy 2:15.
Here are some examples of how teachers combine biblical teachings that Scripture separates:
The Combining of the Church’s Mission with its Hope
If you attend a Bible-believing church, you will likely hear at least one sermon each year on the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). There’s nothing wrong in emphasizing our task as believers to proclaim the Gospel and then bring the saints to maturity through the teaching of God’s Word. The problem is that so many churches emphasize the Great Commission while remaining silent on biblical texts pertaining to our “blessed hope.”
This silence leads to another dilemma in the church; it happens when teachers and pastors confuse or even combine the mission of the church with its hope. The prime example of this is C. Porter Wagner. During his life he authored eighty books and served as the Professor of Church Growth at the Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Missions until his retirement in 2001. Sadly, he promoted the false teaching of Dominion Theology, which teaches that the church will succeed in bringing the entire world to faith in Christ and by itself bring in the millennium before Jesus returns to earth. I wrote about this doctrinal error in an earlier post, The Five Dangerous Errors of the New Apostolic Reformation.
Wagner impacted a great many churches during his lifetime, even those that reject his end-times theology. In many cases, they have unwittingly combined the mission of the church with its hope. We see this when teachers take verses that refer to the millennium and apply them to the future success of missionary efforts. A prime example of this is Habakkuk 2:14, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, / as the waters cover the sea.” This total covering of the planet with the Lord’s glory happens during Jesus’ reign over the nations, not during the church age. The same is true of Psalm 46:10, which also refers to the millennium rather than missionary efforts in our current day.
Some also err by making Daniel 2:44 a reference to the church age instead of the beginning of the millennium where it belongs. This confusion carries with it the errant implication that the church is God’s future kingdom that strikes down the kingdoms of the world with the spread of the Gospel. They wrongly see the fulfillment of Daniel 2:44 as taking place on the Day of Pentecost.
Please know that I strongly support home and foreign missions and have done so all my life. Missionaries have had a profound and lasting impact on me. Furthermore, in this late hour, it’s imperative that we share the Gospel with as many people as possible. I am not at all suggesting that we ignore the calling of the church to preach the Gospel and teach people the word of God.
However, when the mission of the church becomes its ultimate hope as we see happening today, much doctrinal error ensues, and a Gospel devoid of its “blessed hope” tragically becomes the norm rather than the exception.
The Combining of Government and Individual Saint Responsibilities
Does the Bible assign identical responsibilities to New Testament saints and those in government authority?
Most evangelicals today would answer “yes” to that question. Many politicians, despite their limited knowledge of Scripture and rejection of its overall message, often quote Bible verses in a manner that assumes God has identical expectations of governments as He does of individual Christians.
God’s Word tells us that the primary role of government during the church age is to punish those who break the law and, in so doing, protect its citizens (Rom. 13:1-7). God entrusts human governments with the responsibility of keeping its people safe from those who break the law or would cause them harm. Government leaders do so by enforcing laws so that those guilty of breaking its law receive just punishment while those who obey its statutes enjoy their protection (13:4).
National borders do not represent the evil invention of wayward humanity; both sovereign nations and secure borders originate in God’s sovereign purposed plan for humanity (see Acts 17:26). The Lord instituted human governments as well as national borders, and He holds those in authority over the various nations responsible for keeping their citizens safe within those borders.
As followers of Christ, we have a much different role than that of the government. Jesus summarized our responsibility in John 13:34-35, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus did not give this command to human government; He gave it to His followers. The same is true of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.
The instruction for New Testament saints “to show hospitality to strangers” (Heb. 13:1) does not suggest that governments should welcome those who come into their nation illegally. The leaders of nations have a much, much different responsibility than believers, one that involves protecting its citizens and punishing those who break its laws.
The Combining of the Church and Israel
Replacement theology falsely claims that God rejected the people of Israel when they spurned their Messiah, and He replaced the nation with the church. Thus, the promises and covenants the Lord made with Israel now find their fulfillment in the church, albeit in a spiritual rather than physical sense.
This highly popular yet erroneous teaching fails to distinguish between Israel and the church, as does Paul in Romans 11. In the first two verses, the apostle negates the idea that God has rejected Israel. In the rest of the chapter, he explains why the Lord set aside Israel for the time being, although many Jews have come to faith and joined the church.
In Romans 11:25-36, Paul prophesies of a time when Israel will return to the Lord, which is also what Zechariah wrote about in 12:10 to 13:1. The key verse is 11:29, “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” In Ezekiel 36:22-38, the Lord tells us that Israel’s future restoration vindicates His holiness.
This is so much more than just a matter of meaningless semantics. Those who miss the distinction between the church and Israel miss all the signs that we live in the last days of human history; they do not understand a key purpose of the tribulation, which is to bring Israel to repentance and salvation. Instead, they interpret the book of Revelation as allegory, which leads to many other errors as well as false hopes for the day in which we live.
The Combining of the Rapture with the Second Coming
During the past two or three decades especially, pastors and teachers have failed to “rightly” divide Scripture by claiming that the Rapture and the Second Coming are the same event. They are not.
The biblical descriptions of the Rapture and Second Coming contain many significant differences that make it impossible to reconcile them into one event. They cannot happen at the same time.
The resurrection of those who have died in Christ confirms that they cannot be the same event. The resurrection of the saints happens first in the event Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:50-54. With the Second Coming, however, the resurrection of tribulation saints does not occur until after a lengthy sequence of events (Rev. 19:11-20:4), perhaps not until several days later.
This is just one of many distinguishing and significant differences that exist in passages describing the Rapture versus those of the Second Coming.
Do These Things Really Matter?
“What’s the big deal?” you might be asking at this point, “Are these distinctions really that critical?” I would argue that they are extremely important. Here’s why:
The combining of the church’s mission with its hope has led to the current prominence of the New Apostolic Reformation doctrinal error that falsely teaches that the church will bring the entire world to Jesus and bring in the millennium without Him. The Bible does not teach dominion theology; it’s a serious false teaching based on new revelation that contradicts the words of Scripture.
The combining of the government’s responsibility with that of individual believers often arises from the previous error. Once believers regard the mission of the church as its ultimate goal, they soon adopt the posture that those in authority must behave in a manner befitting New Testament saints in order to facilitate the spread of the Gospel. Those with this posture all too often elevate the perceived behavior of a politician above that of his or her agenda, even if it goes against the moral teachings of God’s Word. In their world, good manners trump the sanctity of life.
The combining of the church with Israel has caused many today to discard biblical prophecies regarding Jesus’ thousand-year reign on the earth, which in turn furthers the placing of the church’s mission over its ultimate hope. Through the use of allegory, amillennialists retrofit interpretations of prophetic passages that are foreign to the intent of the authors. This sadly causes believers to miss the many signs of the last days that abound in our world. They fail to see that the seven-year tribulation is approaching this world at warp speed.
The combining of the Rapture with the Second Coming takes the eyes of believers off the “blessed hope” of the Gospel at a time when the saints sorely need this focus. This error facilitates hope in earthly outcomes rather than in eternal matters. Beyond that, such confusion does not provide relief from the anxieties created by the perilous times in which we find ourselves.
So yes, these distinctions absolutely matter. The failure to “rightly” divide Scripture in these areas results in an earthbound perspective that tragically divorces our ultimate hope in Jesus’ appearing from the proclamation of the Gospel. These shortcomings lead to a misguided focus on the temporal things of this life versus eternal realities (see 2 Cor. 4:16-18). If the past few months have taught us anything, it’s that placing our hope in people or expected outcomes brings much disappointment and even despair.
You see, rightly dividing God’s Word in these key areas not only keeps us from doctrinal error, but it keeps us focused on our hope in Jesus’ soon appearing, which is absolutely essential in an increasingly hostile world running headlong toward the seven-year tribulation.
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