Paul said that the entire Bible is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). But he also said that we need to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). We divide the word whenever we emphasize one scripture over another. So how do we divide the word rightly?
In essence there are two questions we should ask when reading any scripture in the Bible: (i) What does this passage mean in light of the finished work of the cross? And (ii) who is the writer writing to or about?
The filter of the cross
To hear some people preach today you might conclude that the cross was of no significance. In truth, Jesus’ death on the cross is the single most important event in human history.
Before the cross the old law covenant reigned. But after the cross a new covenant based on grace made the old covenant obsolete (Heb 8:13). Under the old covenant you were blessed if you were good, but under the new covenant we are blessed because He is good. Consider these contrasts from scripture:
Before the cross we were blessed when we obeyed and cursed when we disobeyed (Deut 11:26-28). But after the cross we are blessed because we are forgiven (Rms 4:8) and we are redeemed from the curse of the law (Gal 3:13).
Before the cross we forgave in order to earn God’s forgiveness (Mt 6:14). But at the cross we were unconditionally forgiven and we now forgive because Christ has forgiven us (Eph 4:32; Col 3:13).
Before the cross loving your neighbor meant not coveting his wife or property (Deut 5:21). But after the cross we love and accept others because Christ loves and accepts us (1 Jn 4:19; Rms 15:7).
Before the cross God was distant and unapproachable (Ex 19:12). But because of the cross we have been brought near to God to receive mercy and find grace (Eph 2:13; Heb 4:16).
Before the cross God held us responsible for our sins and not even sacrifices could clear a guilty conscience (Lev 5:17; Heb 9:9). But because of the cross Jesus’ blood cleanses us from a guilty conscience (Heb 10:22) and He remembers our sins no more (Heb 8:12).
Before the cross God said “Thou shalt not” (Ex 20). But after the cross God says “I will” (Heb 8:8-12). Before the cross it’s “do, do, do”. After the cross it’s “done, done done”.
Before the cross righteousness was demanded of sinful man (Deut 6:25). But at the cross righteousness was freely given (Rms 5:17).
Before the cross Adam’s sin meant condemnation for all men (Rms 5:18). But there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Rms 8:1).
When we read the Bible we should ask, is this scripture describing the old law covenant which condemns sinners or the new grace covenant which makes sinners righteous? If you are a Christian, you need not fear the condemnation of the law. Instead, rejoice that you are the righteousness of God in Christ (2 Cor 5:21).
Consider the audience
When reading the Bible it’s also important to note who the words were written for, otherwise you might end up taking someone else’s medicine. There are only two kinds of people – those who put their faith in Jesus and those who don’t. Consequently the Holy Spirit brings two different convictions (Jn 16:8-10):
(i) Jesus said the Holy Spirit would convict the world of guilt for the sin of unbelief (Jn 16:9). Many things in the New Testament are written for unbelievers. Paul, Peter, John, Jude and James all had things to say to those who did not see their need for a Savior (e.g., 1 Jn 1:5-10). The apostles also wrote to warn the church about sinners masquerading as prophets and preachers (e.g., 2 Pet 2). Strong words of judgment and condemnation given to sinners do not apply to those whom Christ has qualified.
(ii) Jesus also said the Holy Spirit would convict Christians of righteousness (Jn 16:10). We do not need to be reminded of our shortcomings, but we often need to be reminded of our right standing before God (2 Cor 5:21). Much of the New Testament was written to assure Christians that we belong to God and that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (Rms 8:38-39). Not even our sin can separate us because God’s grace is greater than our sin (Rms 5:15). When we fail the Holy Spirit does not condemn us – there is no condemnation to those in Christ. Rather He reminds us that we are righteous, that we are kept by Jesus (Ju 24), that we are the Father’s sons (Gal 4:6), and that our hope is firm and secure (Heb 6:19). When we make mistakes Jesus doesn’t condemn us, He defends us (1 Jn 2:1) and then He teaches us how to say no to ungodliness (Tit 2:12).
Rightly dividing the word means reading the Bible in the context of the finished work of the cross. It means we interpret scripture in light of what Jesus has done. The entire Bible reveals Jesus (Lk 24:27). Read the Bible to find Jesus.