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How to Rightly Divide

By Justin Johnson

I remember once talking to a man zealous for God who told me that he obeyed “everything in the Bible!” His heart to obey anything the Lord instructed was admirable.

Yet, it is impossible to obey every instruction from the Lord in the Bible! There are instructions from the Lord that conflict with earlier instructions, instructions that are no longer feasible, or instructions that were simply not written to us.   We would never think of following God’s instructions to Noah to build an ark, or to Peter to walk on water. We must understand the context of the instructions and obey those which are intended for our obedience.

Our job then is to discern which instructions we should obey and which we should not, the reasons why, and the context in which they should be obeyed. This is popularly called dispensational Bible study or right division.

Question the context

Everyone divides the Bible in some way, and no one thinks they wrongly divide. To determine the context of a passage merely ask the interrogative questions: who, what, when, where, why? Here are some simple questions to ask to determine the context of a passage:

1.) Who is speaking and to whom?
2.) What are they speaking about?
3.) When are they speaking about it?
4.) Why are they speaking about it?

The answers to these questions will establish a context of the passage. Sometimes you will not be able to answer all the questions. If not, answer what you can, not all the answers are necessary for understanding.

Are you in the context?

Next, you must determine if you fit in the context of the passage. If you do then obey; if not, then you must let it be as instructions not written to you.

For example, if the Devil is speaking you can determine that the lying words that come out of his mouth are not for you to obey.  If God is telling Noah to build an ark, you can determine that you are not in that audience since the Flood is already past.

If God is speaking about making a covenant with Israel, you can also determine that you are not in the context since you are not Israel (if you are a Jew reading this then there are other questions you must ask).

Rightly dividing God’s dispensations

If we ask these questions throughout the scriptures we find that many passages have the same context. We call these specific doctrinal contexts describing God’s relation to man ‘dispensations’.

We are living in the dispensation of God’s grace where Jesus gave instructions to the apostle Paul that are more excellent for us than the instructions in other dispensations (Phil 1:10, Eph 3:2) .

Jesus’ instructions to Paul revealed a mystery not known before in other ages (Col 1:26, Eph 3:5).  This constituted a new context or dispensation that changed the relationship between God and man. This dispensation of God’s instructions was the last given and must be rightly divided from the others (1 Cor 15:8).

A failure to rightly divide the mystery information given to Paul (Rom 16:25) from the prophecy information (Acts 3:21) given to God’s prophets since the world began produces significant doctrinal confusion (2 Tim 2:7).

But don’t take my word for it. “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).

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Published: November 7, 2009
Last Modified: May 31, 2016
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