“For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
“For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.”
We are concluding our study on Hermeneutics, moving from interpretation to application; which should be the goal of your Bible reading.
We’ve spent much time going through the discipline of hermeneutics; the interpretation of Scripture. However, it would all be in vain if it remains an intellectual exercise. Unless we ensure that we believe, obey and practice what the Bible says, we are simply “hearers and not doers”.
Carefully consider the instruction of James: “…putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves… one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:21-25)
Some Key Definitions
Interpretation is discovering the passage’s significance to everyone, everywhere, all the time – because it discovers the original authors meaning (what did the original author intend for his original audience in the original setting?). There is one meaning to the text.
This refers to the different ways different people at different times and in different places can live out the one meaning of the text.
- Application is bridging the gap between the ancient text and the modern world. As we study the text, we stand with one foot in the ancient world of the God-revealed biblical text, and the other foot planted in the modern world that we live in today (see John Stott’s excellent book Between Two Worlds).
- The process of application is an like firing an arrow – may the bowstring between the text of the Bible on one hand, and the problems of modern day life on the other; if the string is insecurely tethered to either end, the bow is useless.
Implications refer to the inferred logical connections between foundational theological truths and changed daily Christian living.
- Not all passages have a direct and obvious “do this on Tuesday” application. However, profound theological passages (like John 1:1) have profound implications that affect all of life.
The Need for Application
Luther: “[The Bible] is not merely to be repeated or known, but to be lived and felt” and “Preach so that if people do not hate their sin, they will hate you!”
Fabarez: “Bringing application over the centuries is the essential discipline that separates an aimless sermon from a truly life-changing sermon” (Preaching that Changes Lives).
Spurgeon: “The bell in the steeple may be well hung, fairly fashioned and of sound metal, but it is dumb until the ringer makes it speak. The preacher has no voice to quicken the dead in sin, or to comfort the living saint unless the divine spirit gives him a gracious pull, and moves him to speak with power.”
A true and powerful application must be built on the solid foundation of the right interpretation of the passage. To do this, ask three questions when considering application:
1. Does the author himself give an application in the context?
For example, in Ephesians 4:22-24, Paul immediately follows the put off/put on principle to lying, anger, stealing, speech, relationship sins, and forgiveness (v25-32).
2. How did the text apply to the original audience?
If you work hard in your interpretation to answer this question, the application for today will usually be quite obvious. Remember the key question to ask in hermeneutics: what did the author want to change in the thinking and actions of his original audience?
“I believe the more vivid and concrete you make the function of a passage sit in its original life setting… the more effective your application will be.” (Liefeld, NT Exposition)
For example, in Ephesians 5:3-4 “But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness or silly talk or course jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks…” Understanding that the terms “filthiness, silly talk, course jesting” were all associated to the travelling comedians and showmen who were the town’s entertainment in that day (making use primarily of lewd sexual comedy) can instantly be related to our day’s entertainment, and be applied to the Christian today.
3. What spiritual concerns do I share with the people to whom this was written?
Human sin doesn’t really change, so many texts apply easily and immediately. For example, 1 Thess 4:3 “this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality.” This applies with equal force and simplicity to the Thessalonian context 2000 years ago, and us today.
Brian Chapell sums this up in his book “Christ-Centered Preaching” as the “Fallen Condition Focus”. He writes “the Fallen Condition Focus is the mutual human condition arising from the Fall, which contemporary believers share with those to whom (or about whom) the text was written, and requires the same grace in the passage so that God’s people may glorify and enjoy Him. It is any aspect or problem of the human condition requiring instruction, admonition or comfort of Scripture.”
In considering the text, discern what the human concern was which caused the Holy Spirit to inspire this aspect of Scripture: what are the struggles, concerns or frailties of the people originally addressed?
- what do I encounter today that is similar to what the passage deals with?
- what was the text intended to change in the original audience’s lives?
- what do I have in common with that original audience related to this issue?
The Timeless Principle
Roy Zuck summarizes this concept: “When Scripture does not speak specifically to us, we should look for a principle that does tell us something. This principle is a general statement drawn out from the specific original situation.”
Kaiser says it this way: “To ‘principlize’ is to state the author’s propositions, arguments, narration and illustrations in timeless abiding truths with a special focus on the application of those truths today.”
There is one meaning to a text, yet there are numerous specific applications that can be drawn out of the one meaning of the text. Because those applications are often bound to a time and culture, as well as specific to a person’s situation, we need a “bridge”. That is the principle of the text – a good principle applies to everyone, everywhere, all the time. So how do you make a timeless, abiding principle?
- There must be a clear correspondence between the original meaning of the text, and your principle. Here are two tests:
- Is there a clear correspondence between the subject and the action of the text, and the subject and the action of your principle? In 1 Tim 5:17-18, the subject is a worker benefiting from his labor, and the action is to compensate a hard-working laborer (an ox or preacher).
- The stretch test – the farther the stretch of logic between the original meaning and the application, the less legitimate (and powerful) the application. We’ll consider some examples soon.
- The principle must be limited by time, geography or culture.
- The principle must not violate any other teaching of Scripture.
Romans 12:2 “Do not be conformed to this world…”
Principle: “Do not think or act like unbelievers.”
[the Principle is a quick and catchy summary of the meaning of the text]
Ephesians 4:28 “He who steals must steal no longer”
Meaning: “Do not take something that does not belong to you.”
Principle: “Do not take what is not yours – or yours to use in that way.”
- don’t shop-lift a chocolate from the store
- don’t lie on your time card
- don’t cheat on your taxes
- don’t take paper from the office for your origami business at home
There is an obvious, undeniable correspondence between the original meaning, the timeless principle, and the applications we’ve created – and the principle applies the original meaning from its culture and time, to ours (and applied to a specific Western culture today).
Romans 3:20 “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight.”
Meaning: “No external religious Mosaic ceremony or moral efforts will make your right with God.”
Principle: “No external religious ritual or moral effort will make your right with God.”
Notice that to make this a timeless principle, we simply removed “Mosaic” from the previous statement, thus removing the limiting time and cultural reference.
Application: “Water baptism or regular church attendance or Bible reading will not make you right with God.”
Now let’s apply the subject/action and stretch tests:
- Subject: in both the original text and our application, the subject is justification “being right with God”
- Action: in both the original text and our application, the action we see is abandoning religious ritual and moral effort as the means of becoming right with God.
- Stretch test: While there is a difference between OT circumcision and NT water baptism, we all understand the parallel between OT rituals and NT rituals. The gap is small and easy to step over.
Proverbs 5:8 “Keep your way far from her [the adulteress] and do not go near the door of her house.”
Meaning: “Stay away from the adulteress’s house!”
Principle: “Do not place yourself in situations where sexual sin is virtually inevitable – you can avoid a lot of sin by just avoiding temptation.”
Can you legitimately use Prov 5:8 to avoid the temptation of internet pornography?
- Make a commitment not to surf the internet
- Don’t browse the web without your spouse/parent present
- Avoid the computer when you’re bored; use it only as a tool to accomplish your work
- Take a different route home to avoid the lurid street with the semi-pornographic billboard
Subject/Action & Stretch Tests:
- Subject: Clear correspondence with the subject (sexual sin)
- Action: Clear correspondence of action (avoid the place/situation where you have the opportunity to commit sexual sin)
- Stretch test: Although there was no internet in Solomon’s day, we can all see the parallel of avoiding the geography of the adulteress, and avoiding the situation of looking at internet porn.
Some Things to Consider
Is there anything in the context which limits the application to a particular target? What do I not have in common with the original audience?
For example when in the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus), many of the commands seem to have timeless principles regarding the Christian life – but always note that some of the intended applications are directed specifically to pastors and their ministerial leadership in the church. This is an important and limiting observation.
For example, 2 Tim 2:15 “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”
Of course, this was directed to Timothy, a preacher and elder, it does apply by extension because you are a Bible interpreter every time you open the text and read it. While we are stretching the author’s original intention, the principle (the word must be diligently and carefully handled) extends to every believer.
Does any other part of Scripture limit the target audience?
The application of Leviticus is even further removed than the Pastorals, because the rest of Scripture shows us that the sacrificial and ceremonial system of Leviticus has been fulfilled in Christ. So while there is plenty of application from Israel’s festivals and Sabbath regulations, our application will look quite different from the original.
Is there a cultural condition that limits the target of application?
For example, when Paul tells Timothy to “use a little wine” in 1 Tim 5:23, modern medicinal treatment are most likely superior to this personal advice.
Was there a particular historical or unique situation which limits the target of application? Or said another way, ‘was this descriptive passage given to serve as a template for us today?’
For example, when Jesus told the rich young ruler to “sell all you own and distribute it to the poor” was that a command to be applied to all Christians? Or were the miracles performed by Jesus and the Apostles particular to the establishment of the church?
Consider various people and situations in which a principle may be applied: men, women, children, believers, unbelievers, work, school, family, church, leisure time, current events.
- Does the author himself give application in the context?
- How did this originally apply to the original audience?
- What spiritual concerns do we share in common with the original audience (we are both sinners, serving the same God)?
- Is there a timeless principle implicit in the text that summarizes its legitimate applications?
- subject/action test (a clear, demonstrable correlation must exist between the subjects and actions of the text)
- stretch test (is my application stretch far beyond the original author’s intention that this application has either no authority or is false?
Remember, application is where we need to push our interpretation. Without obeying and practicing the truth of the text by faith, we are simply “hearers, and not doers, who delude themselves.”