Applying a Bible Passage
About this Lesson
In Lesson 6 we study how to apply messages written to people in a different cultural and historical setting to people living in our contemporary world without distorting their intended meaning and purpose.
When you complete this lesson, you should be able to do the following:
- Name three kinds of passages we interpret and apply.
- State the differences between the three kinds of passages.
- Describe how we cross the bridge from exegesis to hermeneutics.
- Explain how we do application.
Bible Study Basics ends with application. James 1:22 commands,
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (NIV).
Bible study begins when we select a Bible passage we want to study. Next, we define the passage’s context with macro-observation of the book where our passage is found. Then, with micro-observation, we identify the text’s details.
After thorough observation we apply our exegetical principles to the text and clearly interpret what the writer wanted his original reader to understand by what he wrote. And now, in Lesson 6, we are ready to apply the hermeneutical step to our passage and ask what it means to us and what we should do in response.
Three Kinds of Passages We Interpret and Apply
When we move from exegesis, where we interpret the Bible passage in its original context, to hermeneutics, where we apply it to our own context, we identify at least three kinds of passages. Some easily transfer from their original setting to our own. Others need some additional work to make them applicable to our culture. A third group has raised questions among scholars who may agree on their exegetical meaning but disagree on how we handle them hermeneutically.
Before we examine these three types of passages it’s important to realize:
Even though NO Bible passage was written TO us, ALL Bible passages were written FOR us. ‘
The important two-step process of exegesis and hermeneutics helps us clearly separate two vital functions. When we do exegesis we state what the author meant when he wrote TO his original audience. Hermeneutics, while preserving that interpretation of the text, asks how we apply that teaching to our own setting. We ask that question because God’s timeless truth was written FOR us as well.
The first kinds of texts we interpret and apply are those with universal application. In Leviticus, God told ancient Israel and us to be holy as He is holy. Moses commanded Israel and us to have no other gods. God told Israel and us to love Him with all our hearts. Jesus commissioned His apostles and us to make disciples and to be His witnesses. Paul taught the Ephesians and us about unity in the church. Many Bible passages easily translate from exegesis to hermeneutics.
These kinds of passages present truths that were originally addressed to one person or group but they are repeated again and again in other passages. They are stated as timeless commands to all of God’s people. As an example, let’s look at Jesus’ answer to the lawyer about the greatest commandment recorded in Matthew 22.
We would state Jesus’ answer exegetically as
“Jesus told the lawyer that the greatest commandment was that he should love . . . ”
And we would state Jesus’ answer hermeneutically as
“Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is that we should love . . . ”
The only difference between the exegetical and the hermeneutical statements is that we replace the words “lawyer” and “he” with the words “us” and “we.”
Culturally Specific Passages
Not all Bible passages so easily transfer from their original contexts to ours.
Two illustrations of these culturally specific passages are Joshua 1, where God told Joshua to invade Canaan, and 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul answered his readers’ question about eating food sacrificed to idols. Although none of us will ever invade Canaan and very few of us will ever wonder if we should eat meat offered to idols, there are truths in these passages that are intended for us. They were obviously not written TO us. But they were written FOR us.
When we study our two illustrations in their contexts we discover their broader teachings.
Joshua 1:2 is in a paragraph that includes verses 1–9. God commanded Joshua to invade Canaan and promised to be with him in verses 1–5. Then in the same paragraph (verses 6–9) God told Joshua to follow God’s teaching if he wanted God’s help.
Our exegetical interpretation of Joshua 1:1-9 is
God commanded Joshua to lead Israel into Canaan and promised him success if he followed His teaching.
We ask how to apply this passage today and our hermeneutical application could be
God will bless our efforts to serve Him only if we faithfully follow His Word.
We will never be commanded to invade Canaan like Joshua was, but we are given many roles and tasks to fulfill as God’s servants. The specifics are different, but the principle is the same.
In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul was helping the Corinthians decide if they should eat certain foods. People in Corinth could buy meat that had been offered to idols at the pagan temples. Some believers did so with no problem. Others could not eat that meat without violating their more sensitive consciences because they associated it with idol worship. The context of 1 Corinthians 8 continues through chapter 10 and is Paul’s explanation of how we must be sensitive to each other’s conscience. The exegetical interpretation of 1 Corinthians 8:1–13 is
Paul told the Corinthian Christians that even though eating meat offered to idols is not a sinful act, if they eat that meat in a fellow believer’s presence knowing it will offend his conscience, then eating that meat becomes a sinful act.
When we state that exegetical interpretation as a hermeneutical principle for today we say,
Any act I do knowing that it would offend another person and encourage them to commit a sin is a sinful act I must avoid.
How Do We Cross the Bridge from Exegesis to Hermeneutics?
This process takes some practice but it is an essential one. There are five steps involved.
- State the application(s) the original writer intended his original reader(s) to follow. (This is the important FIRST interpretive step called exegesis.)
- Identify how specific the application(s) were to those readers. Some passages, like Paul’s request for Timothy to visit him in Rome (2 Timothy 4), are not transferable to today’s reader and are difficult or impossible to form into a principle. Others can be formed into principles we must live by.
- Determine if the applications are transferable from the original reader to today’s reader. The universal truths are transferable to any culture: i.e., “Be holy as I am holy,” etc. Others we have to form into principles, and some are not transferable.
- If they are not universal truths that are immediately transferable, attempt to identify broader principles from the passage that make sense in our time and culture. With some thought, we can form principles from most Bible passages as we did with Joshua 1 and 1 Corinthians 8.
- Relate those principles to specific situations in your life and live by them. Not only must we examine each text for principles to apply, but also we must examine our own lives to identify how we can most profitably apply the passage’s principle to our situations.
There is a third group of passages that make sense in their historical/cultural context but are confusing when we apply them in our modern context. Scholars often agree on the exegesis of these passages but differ on how to apply the hermeneutical step to them. For example, Bible-believing groups differ on how they apply passages on spiritual gifts, the role of women, church government, and other teachings. Denominations have formed that allow people to exercise their hermeneutical differences over these passages. If you have questions about the hermeneutics of these controversial passages, talk with your pastor about how the church you attend applies them. If you disagree with your church’s understanding, either seek counsel from your pastor or find a church where you are comfortable. The Bible’s frequent calls for unity should be a balance for the issues raised by these controversial passages.
How Do We DO Application?
In Lesson 1 we introduced 2 Timothy 3:16–17 as a template for how we apply Scripture. Some passages are helpful for teaching us what to believe and how to live. Others rebuke us. We discover we are doing things God prohibits and/or we are not doing things God commands. That’s why God includes Scriptures that teach us how to correct the errors we are rebuked for.
And Scripture trains us in righteous living. When we live by Scripture we grow in the healthy, Spirit-filled life God wills for us to have. God wants us to apply His Word to our lives “so that” He can equip us for every good work.
The application step of Bible study asks, “How should I apply this passage to my life?”
- Is this passage teaching me how God wants me to live?
- Does this passage rebuke me because I am disobeying God’s way of life?
- Does this passage teach me how to turn bad beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors into godly attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors?
- Does this passage provide instruction for a specific role or command?
In Psalm 119:34, the psalmist prayed, “Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart” (NIV).
We OBSERVE a text so we can “understand” exactly what is in God’s Word.
We INTERPRET the text so we can “keep” what it actually teaches.
And we APPLY the passage’s teaching because that’s the only way we can “obey” it.