September 13, 2009

Applying the Bible – Part 2: How to apply the Bible

There are many factors involved in applying the message of the Bible to your own life and community. It’s not possible to treat all of the nuances of application in such a short space, but a broad outline and a few examples should create a framework which will allow you to pursue your own study and begin applying the Bible to your life. With time, you’ll begin to see that the richness of biblical application extends well beyond what is presented below.

Applying a Bible passage in 3 steps
1. Determine what the passage means in its context – As stated in Part 1, this is crucial for proper application. Study the passage, consult any necessary resources, and seek to understand what the passage meant to its original audience and how it applied to them. Attempt to place yourself within the historical and cultural situation. How would I have received this message? What would I have thought or done? If I were conversing with the author, what would I have asked, or how would I have answered? This understanding serves as a necessary control on interpretation to keep us from reading our own ideas into a text, and to keep us from applying a passage in ways that are not consistent with the inspired author’s message.

2. Extract the continuing truth from the passage – What is the theological truth or underlying principle that drives the original application? What does this passage tell us about God? What does it tell us about humans? These truths may be right on the surface of the text, or they may be a little deeper, underneath a culturally specific command or a narrative account.

3. Apply that truth to contemporary reality – Your application may be general or specific or both. Look for situations today that parallel those of the original audience. Does this truth have any relevance to my life? Is there anything in my life and thought that is contrary to this truth? What changes would bring my life into conformity with this truth? Start a discussion with friends and family. They might see a relevant application that you haven’t thought. Prayer and humility are especially important in this area, as we are vulnerable to being found in error or sin, as well as being required to do something uncomfortable. Our natural inclination will be to subconsciously (or consciously) refuse to acknowledge those things. Ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten and convict you to see and obey what you’ve learned.

Example 1: Old Testament Law
If you build a new house, you must construct a guard rail around your roof to avoid being culpable in the event someone should fall from it. Deut 22:8 (NET)

Original Meaning – During this period, the roof was flat and regularly used as a living space, whether for socializing or as sleeping quarters (see 1 Sam 9:25; 2 Sam 11:2). The requirement for a guard rail (or “parapet”) served to protect people on the roof from falling and being injured or killed.

Continuing Truth – Clearly, the intent of this law is to be concerned for your neighbor’s well-being. This can be considered an extension of the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (see Mk. 12:31; Gal 5:14). This command serves to curb our natural inclination to dismiss our part in another person’s well-being under the guise that they need to take responsibility for themselves (“am I my brother’s keeper?”). Specifically, this speaks of taking care to create a safe environment under your domain of responsibility to prevent an accident, even if it is a result of negligence on the part of the other person (such as falling off the side of a house).

Contemporary Application – While most homes don’t use the roof as a living space, any potentially unsafe condition in a home could be considered a parallel situation (stairs without banisters, exposed wiring, dead batteries in a smoke alarm, etc) and care should be taken to avoid them.

Example 2: Teaching of Jesus
He also said to them, “You neatly reject the commandment of God in order to set up your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever insults his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone tells his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you would have received from me is corban’ (that is, a gift for God), then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like this.” Mark 7:2 (NET)

Note: This passage provides an example of one of the additional factors involved in biblical application. When asking how the message would be received by the original audience it is possible to consider the passage above from the perspective of two audiences. The first would be the Pharisees as the original recipients of Jesus’ words, and the second would be the early Christians as the original recipients of the gospel of Mark. This might or might not have any effect on your interpretation/application, but it should be taken into consideration either way. This example will focus on the Pharisees as the recipients of Jesus’ words.

Original Meaning – The Pharisees noticed that the disciples do not perform ritual washings before eating their meals and inquire of Jesus why his disciples do not follow the traditions of the elders. These washings were not part of the OT law, but had developed into a religious custom over time. It’s possible that the tradition grew out of an application of the priestly washings (see Lev. 7:19-21; 22:3-9) to all of life, perhaps using the concept that all of Israel is a Kingdom of Priests (see Ex 19:6). Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being hypocrites, honoring God with religious customs while setting aside His commandments in the process. The specific example given is that of “Corban.” The Jews has a custom whereby one could make a financial pledge to the temple and would be absolved of obligations that they might have had with the money (such as caring for one’s parents). As a result, this religious tradition had taken precedence over God’s command to honor father and mother.

Continuing Truth – Religious practices, however pious and honorable they might be, can become a hindrance to true worship and obedience of God. It is possible to have an external appearance of devotion and holiness, while our hearts are far removed from a love for God and a desire to obey Him. This hypocrisy may not even be evident to us. The Pharisees truly believed they were being devoted and obedient, but Jesus points out that this is not really the case as they had managed to disregard a clear command of God in observance of religion. This is a continuing theme throughout the Bible (See 1 Sam 15:20-23; Prov 21:3; Isa 1:11-17; Mic 6:6-8; Matt 23:23, etc). God desires our hearts, and he desires for us to obey Him.

Contemporary Application – The danger of falling into the hypocrisy of the Pharisees is just as real today as it was then, particularly in the area of Christian ministry. Do we have an equivalent to Corban? Consider the stories that abound of missionaries and pastors who have dedicated their lives to work of ministry, but who have neglected their families in the process. If I offer my life on the altar of Christian service, does that absolve me from the biblical command to provide for my family (both physically and spiritually)? If I give 10% of my income to the local church, am I then free from any other responsibility to provide for the poor and needy? If I attend a church service and a weekly Bible study, I am living out the biblical mandate for Christians to be a community marked by love and care for one another? Do any of our religious practices, however pious and devotional they may be, leave us setting aside a clear command of God, either explicitly or in practice?

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