When I started this series, a reader asked me the following question:
How do we decipher which of God’s promises are applicable to / directed at ALL people for all time vs. just specific people in a certain time and place?
That’s a great question. Have you ever read a Bible passage and wondered if it applies to you? I have. Here are some that have made me pause and wonder:
- Are we not allowed to wear clothes woven with two materials (Deut 22:11)?
- Should we follow Paul’s charge to the Corinthians to greet one another with a holy kiss (2 Cor 13:12)?
- Does Jesus’ promise to the disciples regarding protection from poisonous snakes and drinks apply to us today (Mark 16:18)?
These are important questions to grapple with because we need to be equipped students of the Word of God, knowing not just what the Bible says but also discerning what directly applies to us today and what doesn’t. We can’t glibly read a passage and say, “Well, that’s what God says, so that’s how I need to live.”
Yes, all Scripture is inspired, and yes, it’s all true. But no, it doesn’t all apply directly to us today. Remember that the primary purpose of studying the Bible is to learn about and love God more, not to create a list of do’s and dont’s. And keep in mind that every book of the Bible was written to a specific audience in a specific place at a specific time (read more here).
We need to be very careful to avoid mishandling Scripture; careless interpretation and application leads to false doctrines and all sorts of church problems.
But take heart! The Holy Spirit who inspired these words also lives in each of us who is a child of God, and He is our principle Guide as we study Scripture. Let’s approach this topic with humility and expectancy.
How to Determine What Applies and What Doesn’t
The key issue when reaching the application stage of Bible study is this question: To what degree is application of this passage legitimate and relevant now?
When we start our study with an understanding of the 5 W’s of the passage, we’ll know that each passage was written to a specific audience in a specific place and time for a specific goal. We’ve got to remember that original audience and keep them in mind as we begin.
Here are a few principles of application, borrowed again from my college Spiritual Formation class notes:
- Begin with accurate exegesis. We must first complete the Observations and Big Idea stage of study in “there & then” language before we reach the Application stage in “here and now” terms.
- Recognize the assumptions you bring to the text. We always bring baggage to the text; let’s recognize it and hold it loosely.
- Analyze the distinctives of the original audience. This is where the 5 W’s come in handy; make use of the historical background to understand the specific time, place, and audience the passage was initially written for. What are their defining characteristics?
- Consider clues from other Biblical passages. As some scholars like to say, let’s let Scripture interpret Scripture. Especially when dealing with Old Testament law, check to see if there are any New Testament passages that may shed light on that topic.
- Evaluate how the target audience is similar to and difference from the original audience. (If you’re doing a personal Bible study, you’re the target audience.) Feel free to make a chart or table. Doodling is always fun, too!
- Quantify the degree of transfer for the target audience. In other words, based on similarities and differences, determine on a scale of 1-10 how applicable a text is to the target audience.
Here’s a nifty little chart to visualize what the degree of transfer looks like:
So before we simply apply a text to our lives today, we need to do some background work, answering the 5 W’s of a passage, checking cross-references, and examining the similarities and differences between the original and target audience.
In the beginning, this will take some digging, but as you familiarize yourself with the books of the Bible and their original audiences, you’ll soon be able to do this process in a flash. That’s one of the rewards of being a lifetime student of Scripture: your knowledge grows deeper as you get more familiar, and your love for God will too.
- Begin with prayer. Now is a good time to recognize just how limited you are and how desperately you need the Holy Spirit’s help in Bible study. Come to Him willing and eager, and He will gladly guide you.
- Read John 15 (or whichever chapter you’re on).
- Describe the original audience. If you didn’t already answer the 5 W’s of the passage, pause and do so now (here’s the step-by-step post). Separately, describe your target audience (yourself, if you’re doing Bible study for yourself).
- Compare and contrast the original and target audience. Then determine the degree of transfer and how general or specific the application will be.
- Praise God for giving us the Bible, and ask for wisdom and dedication as you become a lifelong student of His Word.