For many Christian, 2 Timothy 2:15 may be the most familiar verse in the entire letter. Paul’s instruction that we “study” (lit. make an effort, try, exert ourselves) is actually a counterpoint to the “efforts” of those who “strive about words to no profit” in verse 14. It also sets the stage for his command in verses 16-18, to “shun” (avoid, keep away from) the behaviors – unholy, empty “chattering” – of those like Hymenaeus and Philetus, whose actions and teachings were wrong (vs. 18) and undermined the faith of other Christians (see also verse 23).
The “approval” (of God) Paul describes in verse 15 comes from the world of money, and reflects the idea that His people are genuine as opposed to being “counterfeits” of real disciples. (This may also imply that Paul considered those in vv. 14 & 16-18 to be “counterfeit Christians.”) The focus of the instruction here is for Timothy and all Christians to concentrate on being “workers” who do their “jobs” correctly. Note that the word of truth – the gospel message – can be “wrongly divided,” mishandled so as to lead both innocent and ignorant people away from God instead of to Him (this is exactly what Satan attempted to do in Matthew 4:1-11). Paul’s commandment here (to “study”) is meant to alert and direct us toward the proper, contextual use and application of the scriptures, rather than yielding to the temptation to “make them say what WE want them to.”
Verses 19-26, taken as a unit, emphasize that one of the HARDEST lessons for many Christians to master is learning to prioritize the things that really matter, against things that merely compete to dominate our attention. Paul presents three basic steps here that should aid in learning this lesson: First, Christians must commit to “leaving” and “cleansing” ourselves of wickedness (vs 19) and dishonorable things (vs. 20). Second, we must not only “run away” from lust, but also actively “chase” the qualities that will make us righteous people (vv. 21-22). Third, Christians are to exercise patience toward those who contradict and argue against the truth, in the hope that we can lead them to repentance (vv. 23-26).
There is no “break” in thought between the end of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3: The “perilous times” in verse 1 had clearly already come for Paul, who was facing execution (chapter 4). “Perilous” (KJV) means stressful, dangerous, or difficult – in a world filled with sinners dedicated to their sins instead of to God, Christians ARE going to experience some “ups and downs!” Our faith and focus on eternity will always put us at odds with the society around us, as Paul illustrates in verses 1-13. In the freedom of western societies, Christians are blessed to practice and share our faith openly, but brethren in many other parts of the world pay a much higher price than we, because of open hostility and persecution from those who love sin and hate God. In this section, Paul is NOT “forecasting” an era of perilous times (“the last days will be dangerous for Christians”), as some of our dispensational friends contend. Rather, his point is that even in the era when the gospel has been fully revealed (Galatians 3:23) – when we might think that “everyone” should eagerly accept the hope that Christ offers – there will still be times of difficulty and opposition, even though that hope is available to everyone (Ephesians 3:5-6)