Question: “How can we know what parts of the Bible apply to us


Question: “How can we know what parts of the Bible apply to us
today?”

Answer: Much misunderstanding about the Christian life
occurs because we either assign commands and exhortations we should be following
as “era-specific” commands that only applied to the original audience, or we
take commands and exhortations that are specific to a particular audience and
make them timeless truths. How do we go about discerning the difference? The
first thing to note is that the canon of
Scripture
was closed by the end of the 1st century A.D. What that means is

most, if not all, of the Bible was not originally written to us. The authors had
in mind the hearers of that day and probably were not aware that their words
would be read and interpreted by people all over the world centuries later. That
should cause us to be very careful when interpreting the Bible for today’s
Christians. It seems that much of contemporary evangelical preaching is so
concerned with the practical application of Scripture that we treat the Bible as
a lake from which to fish application for today’s Christians. All of this is
done at the expense of proper exegesis and interpretation.

The top three
rules of hermeneutics (the art and science of biblical interpretation) are 1)
context; 2) context; 3) context. Before we can tell 21st-century Christians how
the Bible applies to them, we must first come to the best possible understanding
of what the Bible meant to its original audience. If we come up with an
application that would have been foreign to the original audience, there is a
very strong possibility that we did not interpret the passage correctly. Once we
are confident that we understand what the text meant to its original hearers, we
then need to determine the width of the chasm between us and them. In other
words, what are the differences in language, time, culture, geography, setting
and situation? All of these must be taken into account before application can be
made. Once the width of the chasm has been measured, we can then attempt to
build the bridge over the chasm by finding the commonalities between the
original audience and ourselves. Finally, we can then find application for
ourselves in our time and situation.

Another important thing to note is
that each passage has only one correct interpretation. It can have a range of
application, but only one interpretation. What this means is that some
applications of biblical passages are better than others. If one application is
closer to the correct interpretation than another, then it is a better
application of that text. For example, many sermons have been preached on 1
Samuel 17 (the David and Goliath story) that center around on “defeating the
giants in your life.” They lightly skim over the details of the narrative and go
straight to application, and that application usually involves allegorizing
Goliath into tough, difficult and intimidating situations in one’s life that
must be overcome by faith. There is also an attempt to allegorize the five
smooth stones David picked up to defeat his giant. These sermons usually
conclude by exhorting us to be faithful like David.

While these
interpretations make engaging sermons, it is doubtful the original audience
would have gotten that message from this story. Before we can apply the truth in
1 Samuel 17, we must know how the original audience understood it, and that
means determining the overall purpose of 1 Samuel as a book. Without going into
a detailed exegesis of 1 Samuel 17, let’s just say it’s not about defeating the
giants in your life with faith. That may be a distant application, but as an
interpretation of the passage, it’s alien to the text. God is the hero of the
story and David was His chosen vehicle to bring salvation to His people. The
story contrasts the people’s king (Saul) with God’s king (David), and it also
foreshadows what Christ (the Son of David) would do for us in providing our
salvation.

Another common example of interpreting with disregard of the
context is John 14:13-14. Reading this verse out of context would
seem to indicate that if we ask God anything (unqualified), we will receive it
as long as we use the formula “in Jesus’ name.” Applying the rules of proper
hermeneutics to this passage, we see Jesus speaking to His disciples in the
upper room on the night of His eventual betrayal. The immediate audience is the
disciples. This is essentially a promise to His disciples that God will provide
the necessary resources for them to complete their task. It is a passage of
comfort because Jesus would soon be leaving them. Is there an application for
21st-century Christians? Of course! If we pray in Jesus’ name, we pray according
to God’s will and God will give us what we need to accomplish His will in and
through us. Furthermore, the response we get will always glorify God. Far from a
“carte blanche” way of getting what we want, this passage teaches us that we
must always submit to God’s will in prayer, and that God will always provide
what we need to accomplish His will.

Proper biblical interpretation is
built on the following principles:

1. Context. To understand fully, start
small and extend outward: verse, passage, chapter, book, author and
testament/covenant.
2. Try to come to grips with how the original audience
would have understood the text.
3. Consider the width of the chasm between
us and the original audience.
4. It’s a safe bet that any moral command from
the Old Testament that is repeated in the New Testament is an example of a
“timeless truth.”
5. Remember that each passage has one and only one correct
interpretation, but can have many applications (some better than others).
6.
Always be humble and don’t forget the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation.
He has promised to lead us into all truth (John
16:13
).

As mentioned earlier, biblical interpretation is as much an
art as it is science. There are rules and principles, but some of the more
difficult or controversial passages require more effort than others. We should
always be open to changing an interpretation if the Spirit convicts and the
evidence supports.

Recommended Resource: The Quest Study Bible.

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