How to Apply A Passage of the Bible

How can I apply this Bible passage to my life?

As you sit down to study the Bible, whether in a personal study, a quick read or in a small group, this is often the big payoff question, isn’t it?  I’m fairly certain you don’t pick it up for the genealogies!

In this 8th and final post in our series entitled the 7 Rules of Bible Interpretation EVERY Christian Should Know, I want to give you some practical principles for answering that question.

We’ll be looking at Rule #7 – Life Application.

Life Application of the Bible’s Message

The following chart displays the process for Rule #7 – Life Application in graphical form.

how to apply the bible

Step #1 – Start with the Biblical Audience

Step #1 in the process of finding a life application begins with the biblical audience.

What did the author of this passage want to communicate to the original audience?  It’s critical you begin there.

Many Christians start with the question What does this passage mean to me?  It leaves them open to reading things into the Bible that the writers never intended to say.

Step #2 – It’s the Principle That Matters

In Step #2, we take the original message of the Bible and try to translate that message into a more universally applicable idea.  Here, we are looking for the essence of that original message, stripped of its cultural trappings.

What is the principle that is being taught?

Step #3 – The Modern Audience

In Step #3, you take the principle you have established in Step #2 and apply it to a wide variety of contexts, whether it is as a person, spouse, parent, student, employee or citizen?

An Example of Step #1 – Biblical Audience

Allow me to give an example of each step in Rule #7 – Life Application.

In Leviticus 11  there are some prohibitions about eating certain kinds of animals.  Here is a brief sample:

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Of all the animals that live on land, these are the ones you may eat: You may eat any animal that has a divided hoof and that chews the cud (Lev 11:1-3).

Step #1 requires that you figure out the original message to the original audience?  Using some of the rules in this book we could deduce that God is interested in two things with this passage: 1) Israel’s identity and 2) Israel’s holiness.

Identity speaks to Israel as a nation and what it meant to be a people rescued from slavery to serve the living God. Holiness speaks to the moral character of Israel and the way it was meant to reflect God’s holiness to the rest of the world.

This is the original message for the prohibitions on food.

An Example of Step #2 – Universal Principle

Step #2 requires stripping this passage of its cultural trappings.  Thus, while the food laws are no longer valid, the principles they espouse certainly are.

Reading Leviticus 11, we might summarize its principles in this way for modern Christians:

God wishes that Christians maintain their identity as his people.  In addition, he desires that they maintain a high moral standard regardless of the immorality of the culture that surrounds them.

An Example of Step #3 – Modern Application

Now that we have a universal principle, we can apply it to almost any situation.  Let’s take the business world for example.

To maintain a Christian identity (i.e. a self-understanding that I am part of God’s community) and a high moral standard in a business setting would yield the following applications:

  • No cutting of corners in any aspect of my job
  • Fair contract negotiations and wages with my employees
  • Placing a high value on people and on healthy relationships within my organization
  • Not compromising my integrity to get ahead or close a deal

Just like Israel was instructed to separate themselves from the negative cultural influences that surrounded them, you as a Christian must also separate yourself from those values in the culture that would compromise your holiness and identify as God’s beloved child.

Helpful Guidelines for Finding a Universal Message

Now that you have a better handle on the process for applying a passage of the Bible, the following guidelines will be helpful in locating a universal message.

1) Generally speaking, God’s moral commands tend to be relevant no matter the time frame

God is interested in relationships and many of his moral commands are setup to protect their integrity and love whether in the home, at church, work or society.

When you spot something in the Bible that damages relationships, it is probably still applicable in a modern context: lying, cursing, adultery, abusive language, unhealthy anger, exploitation of others and many sins like these are never in style.

2) Make sure you understand the topic or life issue that the passage touches upon

“Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” (Ex 20:3) speaks to the issue of Israel’s relationship to God.  Will his people be faithful to him?

The translation to a modern context would not be too difficult after that.

3) God values faith, obedience, devotion and trust

Passages that model the above behaviors or warn against their opposites usually do not require too much cultural translation.

4) Is the passage directed to an individual, a group or an institution?

Ask yourself to whom the passage is directed.

If the passage is directed to a person you must ask yourself what type of person: married or single, clergy or laity, rich or poor, man or woman, powerful or weak, etc.?

When Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, this is not a principle that should be abstracted to fit into any type of relationship.

If the passage is directed to a group, again you must inquire what kind of group: family, children, friends, parents, siblings or church members?

1 Corinthians 13:4-8, enumerates the wonderful qualities of love. However, the passage is not directed to a married couple or to friends but to believers in the church.  It describes the kind of love that should exist between brothers and sisters in Christ.

Another question you might ask is does the group have some type of religious, political or economic focus?

The book of James levels a biting critique of employers who exploit their workers, something that is still as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago.

5) Be careful with promises found in the Bible

Normally, the promises and commandments of God are aimed at three groups of people: the nation of Israel, Old Testament believers, and New Testament believers:

  • The promises and commands directed to New Testament believers are more likely to be those that can be applied to believers of our time.
  • Some promises and commands directed at Old Testament believers can be applied to the believers of our time. This will depend on the content and context.
  • Some commentators spiritualize the promises to the nation of Israel and apply them to modern contexts.

The following promise was made to wayward Israel: “If my people who are called by my name repent and return to me, then I will heal their land.” However, we cannot hold God to this promise for modern day America, since the United States is not a theocracy under a covenant with God.

6) Learn to differentiate between a principle and a promise

Typically, the proverbs we read in the Bible are more principle than promise. They suggest likely results from suggested behavior.

Just because you follow God’s teachings does not mean you are guaranteed to live a long life as Proverbs 3:1-2 preaches.

It’s a principle and not a promise.

God’s promises typically have something to do with the work of Christ.  Jesus is coming back for his church, the saints in Christ will be resurrected, Jesus will never leave or forsake his people, etc. These are iron-clad promises, that will always be true no matter what.

7) Seek out what the text demands? Is it a change of thought, feeling or behavior?

When Jesus tells his disciples that their leadership style should not match that of the Gentiles (Matt 20:25-26), he is requesting a change both in thought and behavior.

Even though we don’t have the same types of leaders as in Jesus’ day, the Lord still prefers leaders who are different from that of the prevailing culture, who value other people and give themselves sacrificially. This does not require too much translation even for today.

8) In the case of ancient laws or mandates that may have a cultural component, find the reason for why a certain law or mandate was given

Why were priests required to sacrifice a lamb in the tabernacle?

Why did Christ wash his disciples’ feet prior to his death? Was it because they were dusty? Perhaps!

But remember, washing people’s feet was the job of a slave. This remarkable act of humility demonstrated much more than a straight teaching could. Thus he taught his disciples humility and service even though our Western culture typically does not practice washing feet today.

9) When dealing with Old Testament narratives or New Testament parables keep in mind that these generally illustrate one central idea

When you read narratives or parables and you find a central idea you have found your universal principle.

Don’t get bogged down with the details in a narrative or parable (unless the parable is specifically interpreted that way by Jesus or the gospel writers. This is the case with the parable of the sower, for example, which Jesus explained in great detail.)

In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus wants to communicate the notion that we should extend mercy to anyone who is in need.

The road traveled, the fact of the robbers, who passed by when, are supplemental details.  Yes, it is somewhat important that many religious leaders passed by the man and the Samaritan stopped.  But here you would emphasize the contrast between the two types of people and not try to find a hidden message in each type of person.

Rule #7 – Life Application in Action

Let’s work through Rule #7 using Joshua 7:1-26. I would suggest you read this chapter in the Bible in its entirety before continuing with this lesson.

The Sin of Achan (Joshua 7)

In Joshua 7:1-26, we read a story of a man named Achan who removed some expensive articles from the battlefield during Israel’s conquest of the promised land and stored them in his tent.

Because of this sin, Israel was defeated in battle with their next foe in Ai. When Achan’s sin was discovered, he and his family were divinely judged and had to pay the price with their lives.

Use Rule #1 – Pre-Existing Conditions

At the outset we should always be applying Rule #1 – Pre-Existing Conditions to every passage we study.

As you’ll recall, “Pre-existing conditions” is a way to refer to the many preconceptions we might have as we approach the Bible. We are not neutral readers. Sometimes, what we believe can really distort our understanding of the Bible or blind us completely to its message.

For example, if we approach the case of Achan’s sin and his punishment through a modern lens, we might conclude any of the following things:

  • God is mean, vindictive or unjust for taking someone’s life simply because they stole a few items.
  • How could God condone outright genocide?
  • War is never justified under any circumstance. After all, didn’t Jesus tell us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek when someone struck us?

If we already have our minds made up about something, it will be that much more difficult to hear what the Bible is trying to say on its own terms.

All right then, if we lay aside our modern preconceptions what can we see happening at the level of the story? Why was the Lord so upset?  What was the original message to the original audience?

The Devoted Things

A careful reading of the passage reveals that God was displeased about something called “devoted things.”

You can see that this phrase appears four times in this passage, 7:1, 7:11, 7:13 and 7:15 with a similar concept expressed in 7:12:.  So clearly, whatever Achan had done, it was a serious offense.

Now that we know Rule #4 – Culture Shock, we are in a position to study exactly what was so special about the “devoted things.”

Essentially there was a particular way of going about the conquest which stressed that the battlefield, and everything on that battlefield, belonged to the Lord.

Every person, animal and item in the city was in a sense consecrated or devoted to God. It was devoted to destruction. Because there were certain rules in this type of “holy war” nothing could be removed from the battlefield.

It would be like stealing something from the temple.

As you can see, under this scenario, Achan’s sin wasn’t just removing a few items from the city but an outright desecration of the war, a defiance of its rules and a direct rebellion against the Lord himself.

Universal Principles of Joshua 7

Principle #1 – We should never act in a manner which the Lord has expressly forbidden

This is the original sin, if you will, and the results then were disastrous too. Thus, ignoring God’s commands and doing what he has expressly forbidden is wrong regardless of which century we live in.

Principle #2 – There is no such thing as a “personal” sin

Any sin that we harbor in our lives is never truly a personal sin. We may think our disobedience against the Lord only affects us personally, but that is not the way God set things up.

We are highly interdependent creatures. The things we do (for good or ill) have the potential to affect not only us, but our families and communities.

Achan’s sin and the judgment that followed is a very vivid way to express this principle. There are no personal sins.

Principle #3 – Sin (sooner or later) brings judgment down on our lives

When we dabble in sin, we may escape the day of reckoning for a while, but we are only fooling ourselves.

Apart from the impact sin has in our lives (pulling us away from our loved ones, our church and the Lord), we are always likely to reap what we sow.

We must ultimately pay for the damage we cause to ourselves or to others.

Conclusion

The concept of applying a passage of the Bible is part science and art.  Using all of the rules helps you to get closer to the original message of the Bible.  This message can then be translated into a universal principle which has much wider applications.

God bless your study of his word.

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