“The last thing some church goers need is another Bible study. They are already know more than what they are putting into practice.” [Dr. Tony Evans]
Links to the other 6 parts of this series can be found at the bottom of this article.
PART SEVEN: APPLICATION
“…[it is] what I do that defines me.” (Batman)
Jesus once said, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”
Likewise, Paul the Apostle once said, “It is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law who will be justified.”
And James has added, “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.”
The last step is the foundational step (Christianity: based on paradoxes that make sense)
Across the New Testament you see this emphasis on doing the Bible instead of just hearing it (or often in our case, reading it). And that leads me to the conclusion that we could be absolutely correct in every way in our previous 6 essays on this topic–we could have the right 66 books, the right content in those books, very good translations in English and impeccable interpretation philosophy–and still miss the point of the Bible.
This last essay will deal with the topic of application, or putting the Bible into practice. For those who have been educated similarly to me on this you may note that I am going to try to keep this as simple as I can. I appreciate efforts by my seminary professors and many others to push people into using words like “contextualization” for this area of biblical theology, but I think we often make things like this more nuanced than they should be. And I love nuance. The above quotes from those who wrote the New Testament are not complex or deep and while this subject can be broken down, my aim today is different.
Maybe Batman doesn’t have the best theology
Let me start by giving a definition of “truth” that I think will help crystallize what Jesus, Paul and James said. This definition could be argued or broken down further, but in my opinion it is a sufficient starting point: Truth is the point where our interpretation of a Bible passage intersects with how it should be applied to our lives. To say it another way, the point of each Bible passage is to figure out 1) what it meant to the original audience (our last essay focus) and 2) what it means to us today.
Or to say it even more practically, Truth is not “We need to have faith.” Neither is it “Noah built the ark because God commanded him to.” It’s something like “God commanded Noah to build the ark to show faith and so we should have faith to do the difficult and crazy things God leads us to do.” Granted, there is more to the Noah story in both interpretation and application, but that is at least part of it. Without interpretation we cannot be sure the message is from God. Without application, we cannot live in obedience to God. Truth is neither merely facts nor merely action (I love the Batman quote above, but within Christianity it has a much different starting point than popular superhero culture). It is both. And both are essential to Christianity.
We know we need to read and learn the Bible. Yet if there is not genuine life change–genuine character transformation by a person in response–then true Christianity is not happening (2 Corinthians 5:17). Often at my church I will pray after a sermon that God will change our thoughts, our actions, our prayers, our reactions, our attitudes, our words or our very being. Application could be one of these things, or several or something different. But there must be some response to the Bible or else we are just like people who look in the mirror and see something on our face and then leave and forget to do anything about it. We are fools with houses on the sand.
Make Disciples “As You’re Going” Means You Have to Go
Since we discussed interpretation in depth back in Part 6, I will only focus on application today.
A extremely significant question in dealing with application of the Bible’s passages is: How can I know what was only for the original audience to practice and what is for me to practice. At the very beginning of the fascinating book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, William J. Webb gives pages of lists of nothing but commands from the Bible and asks his readers to mark with an X which ones are for us to follow today and which are not. A few examples are:
__ “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (1 Cor. 16:20)
__ “You should wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14)
__ “Heal the sick, raise the dead, drive out demons.” (Matthew 10:8)
__ “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)
__ “Do not put tattoo marks on yourself.” (Leviticus 19:28)
And he lists several dozen over a few pages. But you get the point. Sometimes it may seem arbitrary why we put into practice some things literally and for all time such as “Go make disciples of all nations,” but we do not practice commands like “Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife.” You better believe I looked for a wife! Why do we follow some Bible commands and not others?
We are still learning beans….
Well, going back to my last article, context is definitely a key to knowing. We talked about different kinds of context and several of them not only matter to interpretation, but also application and we touched on that last week. But it bears repeating in clearer terms this week.
Covenant context is crucial to this. Old Covenant (Old Testament) Jews had 613 laws, some moral and some ritualistic, that God had them follow. But the New Covenant of Jesus Christ abolished the Law (John 1:17, Romans 6:14, Galatians 2:21). So I do not believe that getting a tattoo in and of itself is sinful now. Yet some laws, like at least 9 of the 10 commandments, are repeated in the New Covenant and so I do believe that adultery and coveting are still sins before God.
Old + New = Timeless (Probably)
If a command or behavior is found in both testaments it is extremely likely that we need to be practicing it today. Especially if it is repeated over and over. This is one reason I think Christians are justified at times in crying out in disappointment with God. You find this all over the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms, but also in Job and the prophets. And you see it in the New Testament with Christ and Paul when they faced death. So I think it is a legitimate biblical application to be raw and honest with God when we are in pain.
Similarly, if you can only find a command in one or two places in the Bible, it makes it more likely that it is not a timeless command. Jesus told his apostles in John 20: “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” This is about the only place you find this command in the Bible yet it used as a basis for getting a priest to forgive your sins in some Christian denominations. Other places in the Bible make it clear we go straight to God through Jesus our priest (Hebrews 4) and that we are all priests (1 Peter 2), so I would argue that this command in John 20 was only for the apostles and fixed for their time. This, in my opinion, also happens at times in Paul’s writings (no matter what you believe about women speaking in church, very few people I know require women to cover their heads) and everything he writes needs to be checked against the general sweep of Scripture.
Prayer Is Not A Substitute For Action…
Immediate context will often help you know how to apply something. Common examples include Jeremiah 29:11 being about a group going into captivity and the passage that says “where two are three are gathered, there I will be” being a reference to church discipline. Common examples like this have been discussed by many so I’ll give you a less recognized example. In Exodus 14:13-14, Moses says, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard someone read those verses on KLOVE radio or put them on Facebook or Twitter. Yet in the very next verse God says, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.” Surely there are verses that teach us to be still before God (Psalm 46:10), but this is not one of them. Context in this case teaches us that there may be a time to stop praying and start moving.
Why Kiss Hello When You Can Just Say “Heeelllooooooo…”?
Something else to consider with biblical application is the idea that some things are timeless commands given as principles wrapped in cultural directives. For example, the command to greet with a holy kiss. I have little doubt based on passages like Ruth 2:4 and Romans 16 and Hebrews 13:24 that greeting people well is a very biblical thing to do. I think it is a timeless command that is very under-preached in the church. Yet, not all cultures do the kiss hello thing (and some people, like Jerry Seinfeld, rebel against it). So we see a principle–greet each other with joy and blessing–given in cultural terms, kissing. For many of us, a handshake or a smile or just words of greeting will do. It’s our culture. But we still apply the principle.
There are many more principles of application we could discuss but as always, I do not write to cover all ground or even most of it; I write to spur you on to more thought and more study from people who can take you further than I can. And I will close with this: I believe any given passage in the Bible must be interpreted within its fixed-for-all-time meaning that cannot change. What those passages meant 2,000 and 3,000 years ago are what they still mean. Yet application is very, very different. It changes constantly. We need to give other Christians room to apply the Bible differently and avoid these culture wars over application. Can Christians commit heresy or just make mistakes with application? Of course, and we need to check all applications against Bible context, good godly wisdom from church people and prayerful consideration. But it is probable that people around you will have different ways of applying things like how to find God’s will, what kind of music is good for worship, and a thousand other things.
When Said and Done, Let There Be Less Said Than Done
It was my intention to close with this topic so I could conclude with the thought that we could talk about the Bible all day and how reliable and it is, but if we do not let it change us, it is essentially meaningless. If you have tracked with me, you probably have spent hours reading. I’ve spent dozens of hours writing and editing. But the time comes, as it did with Moses and Israel in Exodus 14, to get moving.
It is my prayer that this series of articles on the Bible has been helpful to as many people as have needed it. If you have any questions about anything I’ve written, please feel free to contact me through the site or otherwise.
To read the Part One Introduction, Go Here.
To read Part Two on the Old Testament Canon, Go Here.
To read Part Three on the New Testament Canon, Go Here.
To read Part Four on the Transmission of the NT, Go Here.
To read Part Five on the Translation of the Bible, Go Here.
To read Part Six on the Interpretation of the Bible, Go Here.