Lecture 8: Application
Course: How to Read Your Bible
We are in the next to the last of our sessions in our how to study the Bible seminar. Next week, we’re going to do an overview of the whole process and pull everything together. What I want to encourage you to do is to read the third and the fourth chapters in the book for next week. You may have already read the overview chapter which is chapter 3, but read that again even if you’ve already read it because it really pulls everything together and gives you kind of a sense of the step-by-step development of the process of Bible study. And next week we’ll also make some suggestions about processes, how do you get into a rhythm in your life of Bible reading and Bible study.
What we want to do this week is to talk about application. It’s a very, very important part of Bible study or Bible reading, and interestingly it is one of the most difficult. We have a tendency to hear what the Word says when we read it or we hear somebody preach or even if we study it. It’s pretty tough at times to bring it all the way down to specific application where we actually say, okay, I’m going to work this into my life. But that is one of the most – if not the most – dynamic aspects of Bible study and Bible reading because as we see God transform us that’s when things get really exciting. When we see God really changing us through our application of the Word and we see that Word as acting powerfully and transformatively in our lives, then it gets very, very exciting.
I like the story of two old guys – you may have heard me tell this before, but I like it so much I’m going to tell it again anyway. Two old guys were walking together beside a lake and they came upon a frog that was bigger than normal. They were curious about that and so they stopped. And all of a sudden, one of the men picked up the frog and looked it in the eyes and this frog said to this old guy, “I’m not really a frog. I’m a beautiful princess, and if you will kiss me, then I’ll turn into myself and we can live happily ever after.” And so the old man looked at the frog and, after a few minutes, put the frog in his pocket and just went walking on down beside the lake. After a while, his buddy was curious, and he said, “Aren’t you going to kiss the frog and see what happens?” And the old man said, “Nah, at my age, I think it’d be more interesting to have a talking frog.”
Well, that story says something about follow through, and when we read or study the Bible, a temptation is to be passive as we hear or encounter the Word. It's very easy to come and listen and sit back, and when we're hearing somebody preach, just kind of let the Word hit us and then go on. It's very easy for me to read passively, if you will, even though that's an action, to read the Word in such a way that I read it and I said, boy, you know, I got my Bible reading done. And even when we study, we may go through the process of study and say, "Well, I learned this and I learned this, and that's kind of a cool insight, or I didn't know that about the background." But it's quite another thing to go all the way through the process and say, "Okay, what are the principles here that apply to me this week?" When I'm reading 1 Corinthians 13, I may say, "This is cool. This is about love. I'm supposed to love everybody. That's okay. Let's go on to chapter 14." But it's quite different if I say, "Okay, what are the implications of this. What does active love look like in my life this week?" And so I come down to an application that says I need to do this for my wife this week. I need to do this with my children this week.
And it becomes measurable. It becomes something that I can say I have acted on. I was obedient in response to the Word. That becomes quite a different thing when we begin taking seriously applying the Word in very specific kinds of ways.
I will give another illustration of this. Imagine you came over to our house. My wife’s a great cook and great hostess. As you came in, you smelled blueberry pie cooking and pork chops being grilled. And, boy, you were getting excited because you were hungry and you came into a beautifully set table. And as we moved from having some conversation in the gathering room to the table, you looked over at Pat preparing all the plates. But instead of bringing the plates to the table, she just started scraping the plates off in the wastebasket. And you’re puzzled by that. She came over and sat down and after a few more minutes of conversation, you said, “What’s going on? Why did you dump the food into the wastebasket?” And Pat and I said, “We feel like the preparation and the initial presentation is the thing. What we really enjoy about meals is the initial preparation bringing it up to this moment. It’s not about the eating of the food.” Well, you would think we were crazy if we did that. And you would be very disappointed because your experience had been truncated. It had been cut short.
Well, we don’t do that in those kinds of situations in life. We need to think through how we carry Bible reading and Bible study all the way through to the process of application in our own lives in very specific ways. Now let me say something before we get into the actual points here. Sometimes application is going to be a specific action where I can say this is measurable. This is something that I’m going to go do this week. Sometimes, though, we may learn a theological truth and the application may be our affirmation that God is a God of goodness, for instance. And my application for the week might be for me to reflect and meditate on that and let that enter in to my prayer time as I pray to God and praise him for being such a God of grace and goodness. At times, it may not be a very specific kind of action. It may be something that I am affirming as a truth that I may not go act on. But what I want to press you to do is to think more about making your application something that is active. We’re not ruling out this other side of it where I’m just holding to a belief or I’m entering into worship. Those may be the applications. But I want you to think about as you hear the Word preached today, as you read the Word next week, maybe as you study it yourself, how you can, in a concrete, specific way, put that truth into action in your life, even if it is in a small way. That is something that can really help you in your life. That's when the Word gets exciting.
II. Principles of application
In this whole idea of going on this trip, this is the time when we get what we came for and we’re heading back home with it. So let’s talk about the souvenirs, if you will, the principles of application. How do you bring the Word back home in a way that really changes your life?
A. Do the work of study and interpretation before application
Well the first thing is we’ve got to do the work of study and interpretation before application. If you think again about that illustration of the foundation of a home. When we built our home, we dug the footing for the house prior to building the house itself. And when you dig that footing to the house, you want to make sure that that footing is as solid as it can be. It’s got to be on earth that’s not going to move. That earth needs to have been packed down very well. The footing has got to be the right size and the right depth. You’ve got to have the right consistency of the concrete that goes in there. In many situations, you’ve got to have reinforcements put into the concrete. The reason is if you don’t get the foundation properly laid, then you’re not going to be able to build on it in a stable way. You can have the most wonderful well-built structure and frame for your house, but if the footing is faulty, then what’s going to happen is that the structure is going to crack and sag and maybe even collapse eventually.
My tendency, and I’m guessing for many of us, our tendency is that we want to read and study and get on to application right away. But we really do need to take it through the process of interpretation, of digging a little bit deeper to really try to understand what the Word says, because we don’t want to merely build our spiritual lives on impressions that are not based on is actually being communicated in the Word.
Now again, our goal is to hear the Word. It’s to hear the Word and to respond to it. It’s not just to analyze it and slice it up and get it under us. It’s to hear it. But we want to be sure that we are hearing it well. Just like in interpersonal communication. If my son Joshua wants to talk to me about something, it may take me a little while to tune into exactly what he’s talking about and I have to work at hearing him if I’m going to respond in the right way and really give him some help there.
So the first thing we want to do is we want to do the work of study and interpretation before application.
B. Get specific points of application from the passage being studied
The second thing is get the specific points of application from the passage on which you are focusing. If we’re not doing this then we’re doing what I would call springboard study. That means that I’m going to study and read the passage a little bit and then I’m going to spring off into whatever I want to think about in terms of what it says. There’s a lot of us preachers who preach this way. We read the passage and then we just dive off into whatever we want to talk about. Well, we need the points of application to come out of the passage itself. It needs to be organic in that sense.
Again, the blueberry bushes around our home. You’re not going to ever go out there and find blackberries on the blueberry bushes, because there’s something in the nature of those blueberry bushes that they produce blueberries. They’re not going to produce blackberries. You’re not going to go out there and find strawberries on those bushes. They are going to produce in accordance with what’s inside of them as blueberry bushes. And so what we want to do is we want to draw our points of application from the passage on which we’re focusing. We want to let those points come out of that passage itself.
Now let’s look at some steps here in doing this.
1. Write a summary of original situation or problem addressed
The first thing in doing application is we want to write a summary of the original situation or problem being addressed by the passage. Now we may do this in just one line, but we want to say, for example, when Paul was writing to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 13, what was the original situation he was addressing. What is Paul doing there in 1 Corinthians 12 through 14? He’s dealing with a specific topic and he’s doing it for a specific reason. But what are they?
Well, the whole context is really about spiritual gifts, isn’t it? So when he’s talking about love in 1Corinthians 13, he has a very specific context in mind. What is the historical situation he’s addressing? Yes, they were abusing the gifts and saying unless you have this particular gift, then you’re not an insider with us. And they were becoming prideful, arrogant in their use of the gifts. And so, what would you say is the situation? Why was Paul bringing love to bear in 1 Corinthians 13? What is the original purpose of him bringing that up? How would you boil it down in essence?
Their situation was they were thinking of themselves as super-spiritual, but they were violating really the law of love in that process. And so what Paul does is he brings this topic of love to bear and says, “You can speak with the tongues of angels, and if you don’t have love, you’re in bad, bad shape.”
So what I would write in terms of a summary of the original situation if I were dealing with 1 Corinthians 13 is this: In the context in which they were abusing gifts and therefore hurting each other in the church, Paul says you need to make love paramount in that situation.
2. Write the general principles of the passage
Now the second thing we want to do is write down the general principles of the passage. The principle should be reflected in the text. It should be timeless. In other words, it’s not just going to be bound to the first century. It’s going to be something that’s applicable to all people at all times, so it should not be culturally bound. If it's a statement that is specific to that culture, then it’s not a universal principle.
The principle should correspond to the rest of Scripture. If I start coming up with principles that nobody else in Scripture ever thought of and nobody in the history of the church has thought of, then I’m probably coloring outside the lines. The principle should be relevant to both the biblical and the contemporary audience.
Now how would you boil down and put it. How would you state a principle related to 1 Corinthians 13? How would you make it a statement of principle that would be applicable to them, to us, to Christians of any age? How would you state it? What would be a concise way of saying what’s the principle from 1 Corinthians 13?
One of you said: "When you deal with people, deal in love". That’s very broad and something that’s going to be applicable in just about any situation. Somebody want to state it another way? “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Picking up on another biblical passage there. Can you bring it down a little closer to their situation?
We could say something like in the context of the church, love needs to be paramount over even spiritual gifts or the exercise of spiritual gifts in ministry. Now that brings it down to a little bit more specificity than the general principle of love, and that allows us to look at specific situations in which we might find ourselves.
3. Apply principle to specific current situations similar to original context
We have seen how the principle addressed the original situation. That’s pretty clear. Think of situations in the modern church that might parallel that situation. What might be a situation in our context in church?
Well, it may be that sometimes people can be so oriented to driving home their particular point of theology that they’re not loving about it. They wind up really hurting people. That would be a theological parallel. What about in ministry and the use of spiritual gifts? What would be a parallel there with our situation? Something we might find ourselves in or maybe even in our own personal ministries. What would be an example of a situation in which I may not be sensitive to the need to exercise love in a context. And I’m really excusing myself because what I’m doing is I’m exercising a spiritual gift, I’m doing ministry, and so I’m not tuned into how this is affecting other people.
Maybe I am teaching or preaching in such a way, and so intent in just communicating the message, that I’m not sensitive to the timing, context, people’s specific situations. I’m not saying that I can’t preach and teach in a way that is authoritative and forceful, that God could use to bring conviction. I’m saying that in the context of my teaching, what am I getting at? What am I driving for? Is the motivation love? Is it to build other people up? Is it to help them in what is going on? Or is my carrying out of my specific gift actually hurting people in their context because I’m wrong-headed in the way that I’m approaching it and I’m not really oriented to love? So that might be a specific situation of church-wide context. Maybe for you, you can think about your specific spiritual gifts and the specific ministries that God has given you and ask yourself at times is there fallout from the way that you go about this where you are not really acting in love toward certain people around you?
I think part of it is motivation. Now I think with the Corinthian situation, they were just wrong-headed about the nature of that particular spiritual gift and it was causing arrogance. But at times it is a motivational situation. And at times, when we get off with our gifts and off with our ministry where we’re hurting people, there could be a theological problem there - something's wrong with the way we think about God or about what are doing and why we are doing it.
So you might think, okay, for me personally and in the way I exercise my spiritual gifts, is there fallout here because I’m not acting lovingly towards certain people? And then you make the applications to your own life.
Let me give you a situation and you help me think of how I may be specific in my application. Let’s say that I was dealing with someone who was a friend and I really rebuked him in a way that I may have been hitting on something that was true in his life but the way I went about it was harmful. I was too harsh. I did not extend grace. So I may have been exercising a ministry there, if you will, and devastated that person. I was right. They’re wrong in that situation, but I’m studying 1 Corinthians 13, and God brings me to conviction and says, “You know what? Yes, you were right, but you were also wrong because you did not act in love, and what you actually did with that person devastated him rather than putting him on a road to recovery."
Now what would be specific action I could do at that point that would help me bring this down to something that I need to do? What would be a specific application? It might mean going to that person and asking for forgiveness. And I need to watch my attitude and the way I go about this. I need to be careful not to go and say, “Now I was right about everything I said about you." What I need to do is humble myself and say, "I was wrong for using these words in the situation. I could tell that it really hurt you and I want to ask your forgiveness. I was wrong.”
With our children, one of the things we’ve tried to teach them to do is not to say I’m sorry because sorry may simply mean I got caught. And I’m sorry I got caught. When you say “I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” what you’re doing is you’re handing the ball to that other person for them to do something with it. And so it may be that that’s what I need to do. It may be I need to write a letter and I need to say “Here is how I should have gone about this and I just want you to know I’m here to support you and encourage you,” and that kind of thing.
Now if you broaden it out to the broader principle that Paul mentioned a minute ago, then what would be some things for you this week? What would being driven by love look like for you? What would be a specific application for you this week? If you were dealing with this, who would be the people in your life, what would be something you could do for them this week that would be an expression of love for them? And when you get down to application in that sense, that’s when things really start happening. Because I think the spirit of God honors us acting on his Word. It’s an exciting thing when you see God beginning to change your life on the basis of the Word.
4. Example of application: Phil 2:5-11
Now let’s give it a try also with Philippians 2:5-11. This is a passage we’ve looked at. And I want us to back up and look at the whole context of the passage, and I want us to walk through this process of application again and see what we can do with it here. And then we’ll wrap up with the last couple of points. Let’s look at the whole of chapter 2:1-11.
''Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the spirit? Are your hearts tender and sympathetic? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one heart and purpose. Don’t be selfish; don’t live to make a good impression on others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourself. Don’t think only about your own affairs but be interested in others, too, and what they are doing. Your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took a humble position of a slave and appeared in human form. And in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal’s death on the cross. Because of this, God raised him up to the heights of heaven and gave him a name that is above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the father.''
Now if you look at Philippians 2:5-11, it is a wonderful confession. Some people believe it’s a hymn that was written in the early church, and it is used beautifully to describe Christ, his coming to earth, his living out servanthood, dying for us, and then being exalted back to the right hand of God. But we have to take this in its context. Now in the context, why is Paul using it as he is? What would you say is the summary of the passage? And what are the general principles?
''Write a summary of the passage''
Well, if you looked at a summary of the passage, you would say probably something like this: Paul is addressing the need for unity and servanthood among the Philippians and he is using Christ as an example. That’s the summary of the passage. That’s really the essence of what is going on here.
''Write the general principles''
Now, what would you say are some general principles found in Christ’s example we have in Philippians 2:5-11? How would you bring it down to something that’s applicable back in the first century and applicable today?
Yes, the principle of humility. Christians need to have humility towards one another. That’s a good principle. What else? In situations of conflict or disunity, seek servanthood. Seek to be a servant. Now that is a great and powerful principle. Is there another way of stating it? Think about the implications of servanthood. If every time I found myself having friction with somebody else, if I stopped myself and said, “What would servanthood look like here?” Can you think of another principle?
If you had been digging and studying this passage, what you would find is that in Philippians you find at the end of chapter 1 at the beginning of chapter 4 some real strong hints here that one of the main reasons why Paul was writing Philippians in the first place was because of disunity in the church. In fact, he is so focused on that topic that when he gets to chapter 4, he mentions a couple of ladies in the church who evidently were leaders in the church, Euodia and Syntyche, and he says to them – he actually says to a fellow worker, “Help these wonderful coworkers to get it together.” And so it must have been a very, very serious problem. So we would say that Paul applies the principles directly to that original situation. In this moment of conflict and disunity in the church, he says you need to follow the example of Christ who emptied himself and took on the role of a servant. So, that’s the original situation.
''Apply to similar situations in modern context''
Now again as we move to situations in the modern context, think about various areas of modern life to which this would apply. What we want to do is we want to start closest to a parallel with their situation. So what would be some things that we have in common with them, some parallels that might tell us about the context in which we could apply this principle of humility and servanthood in the face of disunity? What would be the most immediate parallels for us in our situation?
Well, to be closer to the original situation Paul was addressing there, would it not be the context of the church again? The most immediate application is going to be in the context of the church. When we are facing situations of friction or disunity or whatever, then we need to again think about how would humility and servanthood manifest itself.
We need to remember that this has to be taken in the broader context of Scripture. There will be times in the church when you really have to work hard to work through things and you’re going to be frustrated. It’s not always that everybody says, “Oh, well, let’s just serve each other.” Sometimes you have to do the hard work of working through problems. But a lot of our problems, a lot of the friction causing disunity in the church comes about because we want our agenda and we’re selfish and we're arrogant. The application then is for us to say, okay, what is humility, what does sacrificial service look like? And once we turn that corner and begin serving other people, then we start seeing that friction and disunity dissolve.
''Apply to broader context''
So the church would be the most immediate situation, but I think we can have application going out from there to the family, for example. Say, if I’m in my family, and I have disunity and friction taking place there. My tendency when I get mad at Pat about something is I get frustrated with her and I want to say, “I am right about this. She’s just flat wrong and she ought to get it together.” Sometimes I respond that way. What I need to do is in those moments I need to be confronted by this word that says what would it look at this moment to meet your wife’s need. What would humility look like? What would servanthood look like? And when I’m confronted with that, when I’m in the midst of my emotion of being angry, I don’t want to do that. But I need to be confronted by the Word and respond in that way so that I am humbling myself in order to meet her need.
So do you see how we move through the process where what we try to do is identify the situation, the principles used in that situation, how those principles might parallel common situations in our lives, and then bringing you down to very specific application. If I was dealing with this and we were in the moment of conflict and disunity, it might be that the application for me would be to say, you know, this afternoon I need to go home and I need to do this in order to serve my wife. So bringing down to very specific applications.
What I want to challenge you to do as you think about this next week is as you read the Word or even as you hear the message preached this morning to begin thinking along these tracks of saying, “What is one thing I could do this week to apply this word to my life? What’s one thing I could do this week to bring this down to where I’m following through on this?” I think that in some ways in the American church we have created a culture of being hearers of the Word rather than doers. Because we have so many opportunities, so much of the Word coming at us, that we can become passive on everything and just go through the motions of hearing it rather than really following through and doing it.
C. Apply to your own life first
Well, let me give you a couple more points here. The third point is to apply the text to your own life before you attempt to apply it to the lives of others. And this gets back to the key of authenticity, that at times we may study the Word or read the Word and say, “Boy, he really needs to hear that. You know, I’m going to make sure that he gets this.” So you leave big posters with that Scripture around so your friend or your spouse or whoever will get it. Jesus came at the Pharisees and said the Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and inside it’s full of greed and wickedness, and there’s just a real danger that we have the Word skirt around the outsides of our lives and we’re throwing it out at other people, and we’re not embracing it very deeply ourselves. And I think that authenticity means that we have got to embrace the Word very personally, very authentically before we try to share it with somebody else. It’s got to be something that is real in our lives and that we are seeking to apply to our lives.
A guy wrote a letter to the I.R.S. and said, “I’m sorry I haven’t been able to sleep at night because I didn’t pay my taxes like I should, so here is a check for $200. And if I still can’t sleep, then I’ll send you the rest.” That's not motivated by authenticity. It's just trying to relieve the tension of the moment. But we really need to seek to apply the text in our own lives. In fact, I would say that needs to be about 95 percent of what we do, and then share it with other people in whatever context God gives us the opportunity.
D. Lead others to make specific application of the text to life
The fourth thing is lead others to make specific application of the text to life. I’m thinking here specifically in our roles as teachers and parents, and in other kinds of situations like that. If we will get into a rhythm of life in which we are specifically applying the Word to our own lives, then we can authentically be used of God to help others apply the Word in their lives.
When I talk to my students about this, I talk about staying away from VIGs. I think at some time I’m going to have a t-shirt made that has VIG on it and with a big “no” sign through it. And what is VIG? It is a Vague Idealistic Gas. C.S. Lewis said something to the effect that Jesus never dealt in vague idealistic gasses. He wasn’t just throwing philosophy around. Jesus brought it down to where the rubber meets the road of our lives. It’s so easy for us to get in a trap when we’re trying to deal with application. A vague idealist gas is, “Oh, okay, I need to love people more. That’s great. Hey, we need unity in the church.” But what we need to do is we need to bring it down again to specifics.
When I was a graduate student in seminary, I was grading for a man named Tommy Lee. He went to be with the Lord a number of years ago. He died of cancer. He was teaching hermeneutics or Bible study, and he had the students do a study of Ephesians chapter 5, and it’s about the husband-wife relationship. And a student was sharing in his paper this illustration that came out of his relationship with his wife. He said, “I went home to my wife and I told my wife, ‘I just want you to know I’ve been studying this passage and I’m willing to lay my life down for you as Christ did for the church.’ And his wife says, “Why don’t you just do the dishes a few times on your way to laying down your life for me?” His point was that you can say you’re going to lay down your life, you’re willing to die for somebody, but you’re not willing to die for somebody if you’re not willing to live for them. Really that’s the point that Paul is making in that passage. So we need to help people come to specific applications, to bring our lives in line with the truth of God’s Word.
In the next session, we’re going to wrap things up. We will look at the overview of the whole process and try to tie all the strings together, and hopefully that will give us a good start.