Question: "What does 2 Timothy 2:15 mean by "show thyself approved"?"
Answer: To counter the false teachers who were misapplying and undermining the truth of God’s Word, the apostle Paul urged Timothy to work hard and study diligently to be sure that he had God’s approval when handling the Scriptures: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV).
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God” is antiquated language that challenges the understanding of current-day Bible readers. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved” (NIV) and “work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval” (NLT) are more modern renderings that bring transparency to the original text for today’s readers of the Bible.
False teachers were a problem in the early church, just as they are now. Pastors and church leaders are charged with the responsibility of keeping God’s people safe from gangrenous teachings that spread and choke out the truth of Scripture and lead to ungodly living (2 Timothy 2:16–17). Paul tells Timothy to warn God’s people “before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen” (2 Timothy 2:14). Timothy was to command the people in the presence of God to stop fighting over words and stop listening to those who were stirring up trouble with their pointless, hair-splitting debates. The result of getting caught up in such ideas—building theological mountains out of mere foolish talk—would be spiritual ruin.
Show thyself approved means to present yourself to God in such a way that you receive His approval. Followers of Jesus Christ and especially pastors and teachers are to work persistently to understand and explain the truth of God’s Word correctly. In the original language, the word rendered “approved” in 2 Timothy 2:15 carries the idea of being “tried and true,” or tested and proven genuine. Receiving God’s approval seems to suggest having passed a vetting process (see 1 Thessalonians 2:4).
God’s approved workers handle the word of truth correctly. Rightly dividing literally means “cutting straight” in the original Greek. Pastors and teachers are to be skilled workmen of God’s Word who carefully and thoroughly search the revelation of God in Scripture, not deviating from or distorting its message in any way (Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Proverbs 30:5–6; Revelation 22:18–19). They cut straight lines and help build a stable foundation that will stand the test of time (2 Timothy 2:19). The approved worker is like the Bereans who “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). He studies God’s Word and then seeks to apply it to his own life.
The unapproved worker swerves from the truth, cutting crooked lines with meaningless talk, godless chatter, false knowledge, and departures from the faith (1 Timothy 1:6; 6:20; 2 Timothy 2:16–18). He involves himself “in foolish discussions about spiritual pedigrees or in quarrels and fights about obedience to Jewish laws. These things are useless and a waste of time” (Titus 3:9, NLT). Paul describes the unapproved worker as “arrogant” and someone who “lacks understanding. Such a person has an unhealthy desire to quibble over the meaning of words. This stirs up arguments ending in jealousy, division, slander, and evil suspicions” (1 Timothy 6:4, NLT).
Christian teachers who have proven themselves and received God’s approval have no reason to be ashamed. Paul’s target as a minister of Jesus Christ was to “never be ashamed, but . . . continue to be bold for Christ” and “bring honor to Christ” for the rest of his life (Philippians 1:20, NLT).
Paul’s directive to Timothy to “show thyself approved” echoes in his unapologetic commendation of himself before God as his witness: “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:1–2).