In previous posts I have defined Inductive Bible Study, and talked about the first two steps — observation and interpretation. The 3rd and final step, and the reason we study the Bible, is application. Application is the “so what” of Bible study. After observing and interpreting, we ask ourselves (with the Spirit prompting us): so what am I going to do as a result of what I have learned? It is here that we move knowledge and what we’ve studied from our heads to our hearts and act upon it. As we immerse ourselves in Scripture, we develop within ourselves the mind and heart of God. We want to be able to think and to respond to every situation the way God himself would. Application IS both theoretical and practical— and how we live (the practical) will flow out of what we believe (the theoretical).
The heart, then, behind this series is not simply to pass on knowledge, though loving God with our minds is something we are commanded to do. We study the Bible to come to know God better, hear his voice, and to be transformed in thinking and deeds as He works in our lives. James 1:22-25 says “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing.” Application is looking into the mirror of Scripture and walking away a changed person. This change occurs supernaturally as we come to know God— as we choose to conform our lives to obedience to Him, through the out working of the Spirit in our lives.
So how do we make the jump from the original audience (2000+ years ago) to today? First, we need to understand the original situation. This is uncovered through the first two steps of observation and interpretation and as you work through the BRI (Basic Required Information). These are some summarizing tips/ideas to keep in mind as we move into application:
- God’s Word is Timely. God spoke to specific situations, problems, and questions. Throughout Scripture, God becomes personally involved in people’s lives, speaking directly to their needs in ways that are appropriate to their situations. This is good because we are given examples which are concrete rather than abstract. However, the concrete nature of Scripture can create a problem: our situations, problems, and questions are not always directly related to those of the Bible. Therefore, God’s Word to the Original Audience does not always seem immediately relevant to us.
- Timely, Yet Timeless. Just as God spoke to the Original Audience, so He still speaks to us throughout the pages of Scripture. Because we share a common humanity with the people of the Bible, we discover a universal dimension in the problems they faced and the solutions God gave them. When, on the surface, a passage seems to have little application to our situation today, we need to look beneath the surface for a general principle.
- We Need to Become Time Travelers: Crossing the Barriers.
- Crossing the Time Barrier. We often lack important information regarding the historical context into which the events of the Bible took place. Unless we understand this, we might hear what the author is saying, but we don’t know why he is saying it.
- Crossing the Cultural Barrier. The events of the Bible took place in many different cultures: Egyptian, Canaanite, Babylonian, Jewish, Greek, and Roman (to name a few). It is not uncommon, therefore, to read about customs or beliefs that seem strange to us since they are so far removed from our own culture today.
- Crossing the Geographical Barrier. As we learn about Biblical geography, many Bible passages take on new meaning. We can become familiar with biblical geography by utilizing maps printed in our Bibles, Bible atlases, and Bible dictionaries.
- Crossing the Reading Barrier. One aspect of learning how to study the Bible is to develop our reading skills— the kind of skills that will help us whether we are reading the Bible, a novel, newspaper, or magazine. Some guidelines: identify the type of literature, get an overview of the book, study it passage by passage, and be sensitive to the mood of the book.
As we begin to move into the application step, we find that some passages directly and specifically state principles and timeless truths we are to live by (like the 10 commandments), while other passages seem to have little application to us today. In the latter case, we need to look beneath the surface for a general principle. For example, Romans 16:16 says “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” A kiss was a typical and culturally appropriate way in which Christians of that time and place would greet each other (this is the type of information you might uncover as you work through the first two steps of inductive Bible study— observation and interpretation, as well as the BRI). This command had specific cultural application for the original audience but it may seem irrelevant to us today. Yet the timeless truth beneath the surface, and the general principle that Paul is communicating, is that believers are to greet each other warmly, in a way that demonstrates brotherly love. So a cultural statement is an expression that can be understood only within a certain cultural context and/or period of time, like the above command in Romans. A timeless truth is one of God’s principles that stands true regardless of differing times and cultures— like the 10 commandments or the general principle in Romans 16:16— to greet other believers in love.
Here are some guidelines for finding timeless truths:
Old Testament Commands
Right or wrong, many often assume that some OT commandments no longer apply to us, while on the other hand, we feel certain that others are valid for today. To properly determine which are valid we need to understand some basic facts about the OT:
- The OT contains over 600 different commands (mostly in the Pentateuch).
- The OT is the record of God’s covenant with Israel.
Guidelines for Applying OT commands:
- Is the command restated in the NT?
- Is the command revoked in the NT?
- What is the principle behind the OT command?
Although we are no longer under the Old Covenant, we need to remember that the laws of the Old Covenant reflect God’s character. Therefore, the principles behind these laws should still be valid, even though some specific expressions of the laws may be obsolete.
New Testament Commands
Much of the teaching of the NT can be applied directly to us today, but sometimes a biblical teaching is directed so specifically to the culture of the ancient world, that another culture cannot understand it. So, as I mentioned above, we need to evaluate whether specific statements are cultural and temporary, or timeless— spanning across all ages. We should understand that every cultural expression in the Bible is a result of some timeless principle. And even though a cultural expression cannot be carried over directly to another culture, the timeless truth behind it can. Just because it is cultural does not mean it can be ignored.
Applying Biblical Examples
There are many excellent examples in the Bible. The difficulty, however, is knowing which examples we are to follow and which we should avoid. The method used for applying a biblical example will depend on what kind of information the author gives us about the example. We will come across:
- Explicit Examples: In which the biblical author tells us explicitly whether a person or group is a good or bad example.
- Implicit Examples: In which there are no explicit statements about whether the actions of the example are right or wrong, but the author gives implicit approval or disapproval of what is done. In order to evaluate this, we need a basic knowledge of Scripture so that we can interpret it based on principles taught elsewhere in Scripture. As I mentioned in my post on Historical Narratives, such books often simply state what happened— not intending to imply that we should follow their examples.
Applying Biblical Promises
Because we are no longer under the Old Covenant, we cannot assume that promises of that covenant directly apply to us. Such promises are usually associated with the blessings God promised the people of Israel if they obeyed His law. Before applying a promise, we must identify the person or group to whom the promise was originally given. Most prophetic books were written directly to Israel and Judah. We cannot ignore the original audience and historical context of these books without serious danger of misapplying what we read.
Categories of Promises Directly Intended for Us
- Promises that are universal in scope.
- Promises given to the church.
- Promises given to other groups to which we belong.
Conditional or Unconditional
Once we conclude that a promise applies to us, we must also ask whether the fulfillment is dependent in any way on our actions or attitudes.
Promises vs. Principles
A principle is not the same as a promise. A principle is usually based on who God is— and God never changes. But a promise is based on what God has said He would or would not do. Both the conditions and the recipients of His promise have sometimes changed greatly from the Old to the New Covenant.
Promises vs. Proverbs
In spite of appearance, most proverbs are not promises. They are wise sayings or principles that are generally true of life. Those who follow the advice given in Proverbs will have wisdom for dealing with the practical areas of life.
Finally, here are specific application questions we can ask ourselves as we are considering our observations and interpretations:
- What are the timeless truths in this book or passage?
- What am I to believe? Do I need to change anything I have previously believed?
- In view of these truths, what changes should I make in my life? Are there attitudes or actions that I need to change?
- How does this truth encourage me?
- What do I see about the character of God? How does this aspect of God’s character speak or minister to me?
- What specific steps or actions can I take to carry this application out?
Here is a second list— of broader application questions:
- What effect could this truth have on the world of business?
- How would this truth affect the way my church should function?
- What difference should this truth make to the way we approach education?
- What difference should this truth make for family life?
- How does this truth affect the Christian’s relationship with the government?
- What would this truth mean for the worship life of my church?
- How should this truth affect the attitude we have for the lost or our approach to missions or other religions?
- Does this understanding help me deal with any of the complex issues of medical ethics?
- How does this insight affect the way we look at the future?
- What can I learn from this about the Christian’s responsibility in the area of social justice, to the poor, homeless, handicapped, refugees, etc?
- What can I learn about the Christian’s perspective of entertainment?
You can download and print the above questions here.
In upcoming posts I will cover some of the remaining types of literature: parables, epistles, gospels, apocalyptic literature and understanding Revelation, as well as how to do a character study, word study, and more.
Thanks for following along. As you dig into the Word, may you come to know Him more intimately, may you hear Him speak to you, and may the Spirit work in your heart to make you more like Him!