“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (ESV) – 2 Timothy 2:15
Imagine, reader, if you will… that you wrote a letter to a friend today discussing your job, your relationship status, your friends, family, your church, a problem that you’re having, and a problem that your friend is having. Now, imagine that your letter was sent in an email to Saudi Arabia, someone decided to bury it in a time capsule; and then a young woman dug up your letter 2,000 years later. This girl is in a totally different culture, government, religion, region, language, and time-period than you. What all would she have to do in order to rightly divide your letter? Could she simply read it and say, “I believe… [Reader's Name] meant… ” and, it be correct? Could she look at her own (different than yours) culture, government, religion, region, and time-period and rightly divide your letter? The answer of course is NO! If she wants to understand your letter, then she must understand your reasoning for writing the letter. Her interpretation of your letter must not come from her own mind, but it must come from your mind if she wants to correctly interpret your letter.
This reality is the same for rightly dividing the letters of Paul. He 1) was not in our culture, 2) was not in our region, 3) was not surrounded by the same religions that we are, 4) had no TV, 5) had no radio, 6) had no cars, 7) had no telephones, 8) was under a different government, 9) did not speak English, 10) was not American, 11) was not white, 12) was not a middle-class man, 13) was poor, 14) was ruled by a foreign government, etc. So, in order to properly understand Paul’s letters, we must understand 1) where he was coming from, 2) who he was, 3) what was happening around him, 4) what was happening around those that he was writing to, 5) what the differences are between the meaning of our words and the meaning of his words, 6) what the differences are between his poetry and our poetry, 7) what the differences are in his writing style and our writing styles, etc. We have to basically get inside Paul’s mind for God “carried” Paul along (2 Peter 1:20, 21) as he wrote Scripture. The goal is not to force our cultures, surroundings, and circumstances onto Scripture, but to allow Scripture to speak to us as if we are the original audience members receiving Paul’s letter. Our main question cannot be… “How does Paul’s letter apply to my life,” but it instead must be… “What did Paul mean to communicate through this letter to his original audience, and how does this truth apply to my life?”