How many of us would choose a dentist with a reputation for making people’s teeth crooked? Dentists are supposed to align our teeth. We pay them seemingly sacrificial amounts of money to make our chompers look better.
2 Timothy 2:15 has Paul using an analogy about skillful craftsmen. So, did Paul leave Timothy in Ephesus to be a great dentist! Yes and no. Timothy did remain in Ephesus in order that the Gospel could be discerned clearly. Ephesian believers were influenced by many teachings from their culture that behaved like violent waves, tossing the believers “here and there” (Eph 4:14, NASB). They were also being “carried about” by “every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, and by craftiness in deceitful scheming.” Timothy’s role there was to “anchor the ship”, and steer it in the right direction. Paul knew that savage wolves would come there, “not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29ff). They would speak perverse things and draw believers away from their faith in Christ. Crooked speech in the Ephesian church required a skillful dentist….sort of.
Paul sent “a dentist like himself”, Timothy, to instruct others that they should not teach strange doctrines (1 Tim 1:3-4). Timothy’s role then was to realign the devotion of many, back to the heart of God, the Gospel and genuine story of Christ.
The idea of dentistry comes from the word orthotomeo in 2 Timothy 2:15 where Paul says this to Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who doesn’t need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” The KJV makes the thrust of this statement difficult for many of us to grasp. “Study to show thyself approved…..rightly diving the word of truth” is how it reads.
In ancient Greek orthotomeo literally meant to “cut a path in a straight direction, or to cut a road across a countryside in a straight direction.” (BDAG, p.722) You see the similarities. Paths or roads must be cut in a straight direction if people are to travel to and fro. To make a road or a path through a forest navigable, engineers were required to achieve the obvious even when the terrain might be filled with obstacles like rocks and trees. They needed to excel in their craft or they wouldn’t be engineers for very long; people needed simply to get from point A to point B. We can see where we get the word orthodontics also. If we want to straighten our teeth we visit the orthodontist. Ortho means straight. Odont means tooth. Orthtomeo is the word Paul uses which the KJV translates rightly divide. Ortho, meaning straight, and tomeo meaning cut, is more precise but vague. When English speaking people hear the words rightly divide their first impression is likely to be that of separating something into equal parts, such as portions of food. Paul doesn’t have this sort of separating in mind unless its truth from falsehood that’s in need of being separated. (There is another word that means to “cut into sections” or divide/separate, katatomeo.) Paul didn’t use this one. Paul is exhorting Timothy to be a skilled craftsman or engineer with the story of Christ. If Timothy is shoddy with his teaching and neglects to hone his craft he becomes like a dentist without the ability to straighten teeth.
Paul is very concerned about crookedness in Ephesus. Many among the Ephesian believers strongly influenced some without anchors or maps. These were savage wolves, false teachers, teaching false things about Christ. Paul wants believers to stop being tossed back and forth by violent waves and winds. Timothy must realign (make straight) minds that have gone off course in their understanding of the nature and mission of Christ. Sounds easy enough, right? Not exactly.
Paul’s one baptism indicates the creation of one human family created through the work of Christ (cf. Ephesians 2). It isn’t difficult to imagine groups clinging to different teachings about baptism. The implications of each version became the toxic charms or philters. Timothy is charged with diffusing various perfumes in Ephesus without disposing of the fragile vials that dispensed the seductive odors. Timothy’s efforts required employing a challenging balance of strength as well as a delicate touch. Straightening teeth requires time and the appropriate amount of pressure, not a hammer and an anvil.
Moving on, the KJV is correct when translating “word of truth” but even that can lead us down the wrong path. Notice Ephesians 1:13 (KJV) “In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation…” There’s always a need for a good dentist. There’s always a need for preaching and teaching the word of truth skillfully. Why?
“I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.”
2 Timothy 4:1-4