How should I think about interpreting God’s Word? What methods should I use? How do I apply the Bible to my life? In this session of Secret Church 3, Pastor David Platt helps Christians to understand how to interpret and apply God’s Word.
- What Does It Mean?
- How Does It Relate?
- What Do I Do?
So, we have thought about our context. Now, we are going to investigate their context. The context, that which goes with the text, that surrounds any text that we study. Consider their context. The way we read and interpret the Bible, we have to get this, has to honor the time in which God chose to communicate. Never forget that Scripture was God’s Word to other people before it become God’s Word to us. So, this book wasn’t written just for us. It was written for God’s people throughout history, and it was God’s Word to them before it was God’s Word to us.
God Cares Deeply about Us
That means two things: number one, God cared deeply about them to give them His Word. I know I have mentioned the Middle East a couple of different times. It was my most recent time out of the country, and it was incredible being in a couple of those countries where so much Old Testament history was taking place, and to remember that this was the place that God chose to reveal Himself in that time period. It was just a reminder of God’s love for that region of the world. It is not just about them though. God cares deeply about us, and He wants us to see the meaning of this Word that He originally revealed to them.
There are all different facets of contexts. First, literary contexts. Literary contexts, and the first part of that is just thinking about literature genre. A genre is, basically, different genres of literature or different kinds of biblical text. When you read through this book, you will find all different kinds of genres. You will find stories. You will find speeches. You will find poetry. You will find prophetic oracles. You will find all kinds of different forms of literature, and what we have in this one book are a multiplicity of forms.
We Can Apply the Bible to Our Life by Knowing the Genres
What we need to think about here when it comes to genres, we need to know the rules involved with different genres. I say rules, and I want to imagine it like this. You have basketball, and you have soccer. If you try to play basketball with the rules of soccer, it is not going to go very well. Things are not going to go well. When one person comes in and thinks it is the rules of soccer at work, and everyone else is dribbling around a basketball it is going to look foolish. That is the same thing in basketball trying to apply to soccer. Try looking at different genres like looking at different games, and each one of them has different rules so to speak.
We have practical examples of this. One day recently, you might have read a newspaper, ordered from a menu, read a poem, read a letter, or meditated on a devotional book. Now, those are all different genres, and, obviously, you are not going to read a newspaper the same say you read a love letter, and you are not going to read a menu the same way you read a poem. These things are going to be different.
This is the danger, on a side note, this is the possible potential danger with topical preaching and topical study of the Bible that jumps around from this text to this text. It is like bringing something from a menu, something from a love letter, and something from a newspaper together and trying to figure out how they all relate to each other. That is very difficult to do. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be done, but it is difficult to do. You are not going to study Galatians and Song of Solomon the same.
You are not going to study those books the same. They have different rules, so to speak, that help us understand what they mean. You are not going to take the parables and do exhaustive word studies like you might do in the book of Galatians with “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” So, we are going to use different rules with different types of genres.
What you have, and what we are going to talk about in the second half of our study, are these types of genres. These are general, but in the Old Testament you have Narrative, or stories, Law, Poetry, the Prophets, and Wisdom. Sometimes they are intertwined, but those are the main genres. Then in the New Testament, you have the Letters, the Gospels which include parables but are a different type of genre in and of themselves. Then, the book of Acts, and you have Revelation, which is all to itself is a genre. So, you have these different genres you have to understand when reading the Bible.
We Can Apply the Bible to Our Lives by Knowing Its Grammar
Second in literary context is the grammar. Grammar. Individual words, phrases, clauses, all those affect the meaning, and in the surroundings. We have to realize that the Bible is not composed of many parts that exist separate from one another. The Bible contains an integrated message in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
I have some concentric circles there in your notes. What you have is an inner circle, which is the text you are studying. It may be a verse. It may be a paragraph. It may be a chapter. So, you have that text. Then, you have the immediate context in which it is found. Then, beyond that, you have a whole segment that many times they are contained in. Then, you have the rest of that Bible book that it is contained in. Last, you have the rest of the Bible. So, it is going to take time, i.e., years to really search the depths of the Word, because we are going to begin to learn more about these different circles that are intended to help to understand the Word, and all of those circles are of utmost importance.
You look at a text like Matthew 18:20. “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” How many times have we heard it quoted? Somebody comes up in front of everyone and says, “Church, where two or three are gathered together, there I am with them. So, praise God, He is with us,” and that is good. Yes, God is with us. The only problem is the unfortunate man over here was thinking, “Well, I was studying the Bible this morning by myself. Does that mean that God was not with me then? What do you mean when two or three have gathered?” What we have done, we have taken that passage, that verse, and we have ripped it out of its context.
You go back to that passage, and what you will find is Jesus is talking about conflict in the church, conflict between brothers and going to your brother and addressing him. Basically, it is describing church discipline, and it is a promise that Jesus gives that, when the church goes through very difficult times and when the church goes through conflict, He wants to remind you that right when you gather together, He wants to remind you that He is there with you in the middle of the conflict. Now it is an incredible verse, but if we take it out of its context, we miss the point of the passage.
Revelation 3:20-21, I think I left off Verse 20 accidentally. Remember, this is God speaking to the Church at Laodicea, and He says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” Then, you have verse 21 that is listed there in your notes, and many times we use that to say, “I want to invite you to come to Christ. Jesus is standing at the door of your heart and He is knocking.” The only problem is that it rips that verse out of its context. The Bible is actually speaking to the church there, and it is Jesus saying to the church, “You are keeping me outside your fellowship. I am standing at the door and knocking. Open the door and let’s experience the unity that was designed for the Church.” We have to know those different facets of context. Literary context.
Then, second, historical-cultural context. Remember, we talked about how we bring our culture and when we begin to interpret Scripture. Well, the original audience brings their culture to Scripture as well. The historical-cultural context. If our interpretation of the Bible is going to be valid, it has to take into account the history, the culture of that day. We have to know that. In Old Testament Secret Church and New Testament Secret Church, studied the background of each of those books and understanding these background are very important for understanding how to interpret those books. So, they are connected.
Know the Author
We have to get to know the author. Get to know the author. Use your notes from Old Testament or New Testament Secret Church. When was Hosea writing? What is the background behind that? You can tell from the tone of Galatians. I think we mentioned it a a few times. What is going on the situation there from Paul? What kind of relationship did Jonah have with the Ninevites? Why does Luke not include this or that in his story in the book of Acts? Why does he not tell us exactly what happened to Paul at the end? Why did he leave the story incomplete there? We have to understand what Luke is doing as an author in order to answer those questions. Get to know the author.
What we are going to do, I have John 21:24 listed there. I want us to take John 4 as an example here, which is Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well. I was trying to use a story that is familiar to many of us, and I want us to think about the historical-cultural context that is needed there. Well, we need to know is who wrote this book, and that is why I have John 21:24 listed there in your notes. “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.” John wrote this. Now, we get to know the author.
Know the Audience
Second, get to know the audience. Biblical books, every biblical book, is written to specific people for a specific purpose. When you read the Gospel of Mark, Mark is writing to many believers who are facing persecution. So, that affects the way that we interpret the book of Mark. You get to John 20:31. This is a passage that we read earlier. Why did John write this book? He wants us to “…believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and…have life in his name.” So, we have the author and the audience.
Understand the Geographic Conditions
Then, get to know the geographic conditions. When you read John 4:3-4, and it says, “When the Lord learned of this, he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. Now he had to go through Samaria.” At that point, you see this geographic emphasis in the text. You go, and you look at a map and see this path leaving Judea and going back to Galilee. The most common path for Jews to walk in that day because of the deep hated for Samaritans was to go around Samaria, but John 4:4 says Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” It is a image of Jesus going, really, in a sense, outside of the norm because He was pursuing the people that no one else cared about, that everyone else ignored. That is the description we have been geographically given.
Know the Social Conditions
Get to know the social conditions. John 4:7. When we read that, “When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “’Will you give me a drink?’” Socially, this behavior was considered unacceptable, a man talking to a woman in public. Not only a man talking to a woman, but a Jew talking to a Samaritan. This is very unacceptable socially. We don’t understand that unless we know the historical-cultural context there.
Get to know the religious conditions. “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)” You know the religious divide that goes all the way back to the Old Testament, where the Samaritans accept the first five books of the Old Testament but reject the ones after that, and the Jewish people accepted the entire New Testament. The divide that is there as a result of that. We need to know the religious conditions in John 4.
Get to know the economic conditions. “’Sir,’ the woman said, ‘you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?’” (John 4:11-12). We need to know that, economically, this woman would have to come out repeatedly to this well to get water. Most of the time you would come out with others, but she is coming out alone which tells the reader something about her. There are economic conditions at work here.
Political conditions. At the end of their conversation, “The woman said, ‘I know that Messiah’ (called Christ) ‘is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.’” (John 4:25-26). They were looking for a political Messiah. That was the expectation, and it helps to understand the expectations of Messiah for how Jesus is being revealed in the Gospels.
All those different facets of context. You see how, in just one passage, you see geography, history, politics, economics. This is were a Bible handbook is really helpful, but if we don’t have that, then we need to really look for clues that help us understand the different divides that exist, the different issues that are being raised.
Knowing Theological Context Helps Us to Apply the Bible to Our Lives
We have literary context, historical-cultural context, and then, the theological context. Every passage we study in Scripture fits into the overall story of Scripture. This is another reason why we did Old Testament and New Testament Secret Church first. Each of those times we did Old Testament and New Testament, the second half of those evenings we discussed a theological overview to understand what was going on in the Old Testament and New Testament. If you were have studied that, you know we observed the patterns that were being developed in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament, how the New Testament continued these patterns. So, take the various contexts and think about where each passage that we are studying fits into those contexts.
I love this quote from J. I. Packer. He said,
The Bible appears like a symphony orchestra, with the Holy Ghost as its Toscanini, each instrument has been brought willingly, spontaneously, creatively, to play his notes just as the great conductor desired, though none of them could ever hear the music as a whole…The point of each part only becomes fully clear when seen in relation to all the rest.
We don’t read different texts in isolation from one another. We read them in their theological context, how they fit in to the overall message of the Bible. Those different contexts that they bring, that we bring, to our studies, we need to be aware of.
Basic Principles for Bible Interpretation
We summarize it this way: basic principles for Bible interpretation. Number one: remember the context rules. Context rules. Never take a Scripture out of context to make it say something that you think would be good for it to say. That is an abuse of the Bible, and sometimes, we do it because we want it to speak to a certain situation, or we want it to say something to encourage somebody else, but we don’t help people by misinterpreting Scripture to try to aid their situations. That does not help people. Remember the context rules. The ultimate author is God, and we do not need to add to His meaning.
Always seek the full counsel of the Word of God. We have seen how the more we study Scripture, the more we will understand the entire story. We will more easily understand how this fits in to the entire story. When we face difficult texts, texts that are difficult to interpret, to understand, it is going to help us to have an overall understanding so that we do not begin twisting this and twisting this, and, all of a sudden, this entire meaning gets jumbled. Always seek the full counsel of the Word of God.
Remember that Scripture will never contradict Scripture. Scripture will never contradict Scripture. Compare Scripture with Scripture…use cross-references. This is an important part of Bible study. If your Bible does have little notes, little letters, cross-references, that are in your Bible, use those cross-references. You are studying verses, and you see a word that catches your attention, it will often have a little letter there with a verse of where else Paul has used that word, and it will help you. Cross-references are important so compare Scripture with Scripture.
The best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture. The best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture. So, when you are having a hard time understanding something, let other parts of Scripture help you understand that. “Now Pastor, you said Scripture will never contradict Scripture. When I look in Scripture, I see the responsibility of man talked about, and I see the sovereignty of God talked about. How do these two fit together?” This is that point where we realize there is tension and mystery to the Word of God. There is tension and mystery. That doesn’t mean that they contradict. It does mean that we study them as the text that we have and not become frustrated with the fact that sometimes it doesn’t all just become very clear together. There is a bit of mystery to that.
I think, sometimes, when people get frustrated, if I look at them and say, “You know I am the pastor, but I can’t explain the entire Bible to you,” I hope that is not discouraging to you. I hope it is not discouraging that someone with a finite mind would not be able to understand an infinite mind. Let’s not get too downhearted about that, and it leads to this next thing.
Avoid basing your doctrine on an obscure passage of Scripture. Avoid basing your doctrine on an obscure passage of Scripture. There are some texts that we come to, and they just do not seem to add up. They do not seem to make sense, and we can’t figure it out. We can get very frustrated. I love this verse from 2 Peter 3 (16). This is what Peter said about Paul’s writings. Listen to what Peter himself, Peter the apostle, said about Paul’s writings.
He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
I find encouragement that Peter had a difficult time with some of the things that Paul wrote. So, find encouragement in that. It is OK. Do not twist them, but know some of them are difficult to understand. Find confidence, though, in the fact that the things God wants us to understand most, He has made more than clear. The things that God wants us to understand most, He has made very understandable.
Interpret Scripture Plainly
Interpret Scripture plainly. What I mean by this is avoiding that spiritual meaning. Trying to find what is that deep meaning that is even further than what it looks like on the front, on the face of it. Interpret Scripture plainly. Now, here is the point. There are some times when the Bible does use figurative language, or the Bible is showing us a meaning that is much deeper than the text may show. Here are some guidelines, and I am just going to hurry through these. Guidelines you can go back to when you begin to think, “Is there a more profound meaning here?” Use these guidelines.
Guidelines for Interpreting Scripture
Number one: use the literal sense unless there is a good reason not to. Literal, plain sense unless there is a good reason not to.
Number two: use a figurative interpretation when the passage tells you to do so. Remember the passage that we looked at about the slave owner and the free woman? It said look at this figuratively. That is a good sign. So, look at it figuratively. So, if it says do it, then do it.
Third, use the figurative sense if the expression is an obvious figure of speech. “As the deer pants for streams water, so my soul pants for you” (Psalm 42:1). OK? That is an obvious figure of speech.
Number four: use the figurative sense if a literal interpretation goes contrary to the context of the passage, the context of the book, or the purpose of the author. So, we want to see the unity here. Use the figurative sense if the literal interpretation involves the contradiction of other Scripture. That is somewhat similar to that. Then, finally, use the figurative interpretation if a literal meaning is impossible, absurd, or immoral. So, just remember that. If it is impossible, absurd or immoral for that to be the case, then, obviously, there is a figurative sense intended. That is what I mean to interpret Scripture plainly.
Finally, conclude the process of interpretation by describing the author’s intended meaning in the passage. Summarize the text. What I want to encourage you to do, and this is a part of what is on the sheet in your notes, the major question you want to ask is, “What is the point?” What is the point? When you have done all of this observation, it says at the bottom of this sheet, this half-sheet, taking into account literary, historical, culture and theological context which we just talked about, identify in one or two sentences the primary meaning of this text for its original readers.
What is the point? In one or two sentences, you want to sum up the main idea. Whether it is a verse, a passage, or a longer segment of Scripture, what is the point? You want to be able to lay that out in a verse or two at the bottom of this page.
Be responsible with this. Remember, it is not what does the text mean for me, it is what does the text mean to its original readers? A text cannot mean what it never meant. Be concise. You do not have to make this more difficult than it is. So, be simple and be specific. Be specific. As you are coming to a conclusion, do not write down “God is good.” He is. He is very good, but write down what Paul said to these people to demonstrate that God is good. You want to be specific in how you write that down.
Then, the final step on interpreting Scripture is to check your conclusions by finding support in the church. By finding support in the church. Here is what I mean by that. Be very wary if you study a passage of Scripture, and you find an interpretation in that Scripture that nobody else in 2,000 years has found. I am not saying the Holy Spirit is still not speaking to people.
However, I am guessing that you are not going to come up with a new interpretation, and I am not going to come up with a new interpretation, and, finally, somebody is here that the Holy Spirit can actually reveal this truth that He has been waiting to reveal to you. It is not the way it works. So, if you find something that nobody else has, if you were to look in a commentary on this or that, and nobody else in the world has come up with this interpretation that you have found, then, at least be wary of that. OK? At least study very cautiously from that point on.
Interpretation in action. If you were to begin to study Acts 1:8, and, remember, we have talked about how you would have a list full of things, you would have truths written all over this page when it comes to observing Acts 1:8, and you come to the interpretation part of it, what does it mean? You might write down here a sentence. I am going to give you a sentence that might be similar if you have some blank space there in your notes.
You don’t have to write down these exact words. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” You say, “What is the point of Acts 1:8?” Jesus encouraged His disciples by promising them He would send the Holy Spirit to enable them to take the gospel to the entire world. That is the point. Jesus encouraged His disciples by promising them He would send the Holy Spirit to enable them to take the gospel to the entire world. That is the point.
Then, you have to summarize. What does it mean? What is the point? Jesus encouraged His disciples by promising that He would send the Holy Spirit to enable them to take the gospel to the entire world. OK. Those are the first two parts on the front of this sheet. Again, I am using this as an illustration. If you want to walk away tonight and use this as a Bible study guide, then I want you to have something practical like that. Maybe you don’t use this. Maybe you use something like that, or you develop or adapt this. You do whatever works best for how you can best accomplish this.
Bring It back Home
How Does It Relate?
Then, you would turn it over, and we have two steps on the back. Bring it back home and apply it in your home. So, let us think about how to bring it back home. How does it relate? This is the shortest step, but in some ways, it is the most challenging step. Remember, this is how the text travels. We are sitting on the plane now. We have been in here in Acts 1. We have observed all these things in Acts 1. We have figured out what the point was for the original readers. Now, we are getting on the plane, and we are thinking, “How does this travel to the twenty-first century? Bring it back home. How does it relate?
The goal here is to identify the timeless truth. Maybe there are a one or two different truths, but you are looking for the truths, the principles that are in this passage that are timeless, that transcend cultures. This is the theological principle that applies to all people of all times. Now, we are still not to application. We are going to get there in just a short time, but we are thinking through a timeless truth. All right? We have this scenario. Jesus encouraged His disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit to enable them to take the gospel to the entire earth.
Timeless Truth in the Bible
Now, let us think through some timeless truths. Here are the guidelines. The timeless truths. Five characteristics when you think of a timeless truth. Number one: timeless truth is biblical. Hopefully, I do not have to emphasize this, but it should be reflected in the text, and not just in that text, but, second, the timeless truth is compatible (with the rest of Scripture). It is biblical and compatible. In other words, a truth in Acts 1:8 that is timeless should not contradict a truth in Nehemiah 1.
They would not contradict each other. If they did, then one of them would not be truth. OK? A timeless truth is biblical, second, compatible with the rest of Scripture, and, third, the timeless truth is eternal. That is why it is called timeless. It is not connected to a specific situation. This is not just what was going on in Acts, this is what happens to all people of all times. Eternal.
Fourth, the timeless truth is cross-cultural. This is where we separate what is happening in this specific cultural context to what the truth is behind how that affects all cultures. Traveling across the ocean, cross-cultural. Fifth, the timeless truth is applicable. It is applicable in Acts 1:8, and it is applicable in the twenty-first century. It is applicable here and there. Timeless truth: biblical, compatible, eternal, cross-cultural, and applicable.
Now, let me give you some examples of what I mean by that. What are the timeless truths in Acts 1:8? I have four listed here that really summarize these five components of timeless truth. OK. If you were to step back from Acts 1:8, what are some timeless truths that are here? One timeless truth: the Holy Spirit falls upon the people of God personally. The Holy Spirit falls upon the people of God personally. OK? Maybe a second one: the effect or the result of the Holy Spirit in believers’ lives is witness to Christ. The effect or the result of the Holy Spirit in believers’ lives is witness to Christ. I know it is tough to write all this down as you think through it, but I want you to get the main idea. If you can get it all written down that is great, but get the main idea.
Maybe a third one: the Holy Spirit empowers followers of Christ. That is a timeless truth. The Holy Spirit empowers Christ-followers, and maybe a fourth one: the Holy Spirit wants the world for Christ. The Holy Spirit wants the world for Christ. It is a timeless truth. It was there in Acts 1, and it is here as we study this text. The Holy Spirit wants the world for Christ. The Holy Spirit empowers Christ-followers. The effect or result of the Holy Spirit in believers’ lives is witness to Christ. Anybody who has the Holy Spirit, the effect of the Holy Spirit in us is witness to Christ. The Holy Spirit of God falls upon the people personally. These are timeless truths that apply to the first century, second century, third century, all the way to the twenty-first century. Biblical, compatible, eternal, cross-cultural, and applicable. OK.
Now, based on those timeless truths, and this is very important, what you have on the back of this sheet, it says identify the timeless truths that relate to the original readers and to us. Now, on this sheet, it says in studying an Old Testament passage filter theological principles to the New Testament. We will talk about that later in just a little while.
Apply It in Your Home
How Do We Apply the Bible to Our Lives?
The last step we make, then, is apply it in your home. Now we are are to application. We have not started there, we are ending there. Apply it in your home. Now, I want us to think about the differences between interpreting the Bible and applying the Bible. What are the differences here? Interpretation focuses on meaning. What does the text mean? Application focuses on action. What am I going to do as a result of what the text means? Application focuses on action. Interpretation has a singular meaning.
Remember, we are looking for what the Holy Spirit means in a text. Some of you, when I said, “Don’t say what does the passage mean to me,” you thought, “Doesn’t it mean different things to each one of us?” No. It means this, but it applies in different ways to many us. So, interpretation focuses on a singular meaning. Application involves multiple actions, multiple actions, different specific scenarios where this text applies. Interpretation is the same for all Christians. Application is different for specific life situations. These are the differences between interpretation and application. Interpretation involves getting into the Word. Application involves the Word getting into us. That is how the Word is going to manifest itself in us. Finally, interpretation asks, “What does this text mean?” Application asks, “How does this meaning apply to my life?” So, what we have done is we have observed, understood, and related this text.
Now, we are thinking, “OK. What does this mean for my life?” Here are three steps to responsible, biblical application. Number one: meditate on the timeless truths. By meditate, just let it penetrate your minds and hearts. You look at those timeless truths we just listed, and you let them penetrate your minds and hearts.
Then, second, relate the timeless truths to today. Now, in order to do that, what we have to do are one or two different things. First, we have to see the timeless truth in its original situation. How does that timeless truth apply in that day? We look for the people, the places, relationships, ideas that were affected in that original situation by this timeless truth. Now, try to understand me, and I am going to give you an example even beyond Acts 1:8 to think through. How did this timeless truth apply to those people in that time in that place?
Then, identify a contemporary situation, a twenty-first-century situation, that parallels the original situation. It is the same, and look for important elements, the people or places that might parallel over here.
Now, let me give you an example. Let’s take a quintessential, misapplied verse of Scripture, Philippians 4:13. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” OK. Now, what we are going to do, we are going to look at that verse. Now, how did that verse apply? We are going to look for the timeless truths here. Well, let’s even get some background to this text. We have Philippians. Paul is in prison, and he is writing this letter. He has lived through very difficult times. He is writing this letter to a group of people, and he is challenging them to stay firm in the faith. They have been an encouragement to him. At times, they have given materially to him, and so, he has a close relationship with them.
In Philippians 4:10-13, he is talking about the support and relationships he has had with them, and it is in the context here, when we were doing these first two steps on the front side of this page, it is Paul talking about contentment. He says, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.” He has talked about how he has known what it is like to be in want and need and knows what it is like to have plenty. He knows what it is like to have enough and to not to have enough, and that is what leads into this verse, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” So, maybe the timeless truth would be, “Believers can be content, followers of Christ can be content in a variety of circumstances because Christ gives strength no matter what those circumstances are.” Something like that. That is kind of the timeless truth.
Now, as we think about how to apply that, we are going to meditate on that timeless truth, and we need to relate it to today, a contemporary situation. Look at the important factors that are involved in Philippians 4. You have a Christian, Paul. We are Christians, too. You have a period of difficulty, suffering, they are going through because of their relationship with Christ, and you have Christ who gives strength in the midst of that. OK. So, you identify those important elements there.
Then, you begin looking at a contemporary situation, the twenty-first century, and you think of a situation that has all those characteristics. What we need to find is a contemporary situation that matches the original situation. If it doesn’t match the original situation of those important elements, we are going to misapply the Bible. Let me give you an example. Two soccer teams go on to the field tomorrow. You have a Christian on one side saying, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. We can win this game.”
The only problem is there is probably a Christian on the other side who has the same verse written on his wristband. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Both of them have the same pep talk. “We can do it. I can do it. We can. This team can win this game.” Now, either they have a problem, or God has got a problem when it comes to this game tomorrow, because, obviously, you have two teams that are using Scripture to say that they are going to have the strength to win this game, but only one can win.
Now, the missing element here, maybe you have a Christian on each team, and maybe you have Christ who gives strength, but the missing element is someone who is in a period of suffering because of their relationship with Christ. Therefore, to take this passage and apply it to mean that we are going to win this game, obviously, rips this passage out of its context. Obviously, we realize that. I mean the reality is if you really were to apply this in context, you may get hurt in that game, and the entire purpose of that verse is to teach you that you are going to be OK in the midst of getting hurt on the soccer field. When it is 10 to zero, and you sit there and say, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” now, that is getting a little more, not quite parallel, but it is getting closer. OK? So, maybe you don’t want to write that on your wristband. OK?
So, maybe we take another situation. Maybe there is a single mother who, when she came to faith in Christ, her husband completely deserted her. He has left her with three kids, hardly any finances to meet their needs, struggling through the battles of being a single mother and finding herself in financial difficulties and sometimes alone. Now, here you have a Christian, you have a Christ who gives strength, and you have somebody who is going through a time where they are in want or in need. You have a parallel situation here. So, you say to a single mother, or you say as a single mother, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Now the Bible is being applied rightly.
You look for the parallel, and when there are differences, you have to note those because they are going to affect the way the Bible is applied. That is what I mean by identifying the original, seeing the timeless truth in its original situation. Identify a contemporary situation that parallels the original situation. We misapply the Bible when there are not parallels there. Then, relate the timeless truths, specifically, to that contemporary situation like we just did.
So you meditate on it, you relate this truth, then you practice the timeless truth. You practice it, you obey the timeless truth. You put it into practice.
2 Timothy 3:14-4:2. We won’t read all through it, but we quoted this earlier, this description of Scripture being God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, training and righteousness. I want to encourage you, and this is on the back of these sheets, I believe when we read Scripture there are five primary questions we need to ask. Let me say that every text doesn’t necessarily answer every one of these questions, but if the only question that we ask when we come to a text of Scripture is, “OK. What am I supposed to do based on this,” then we may miss some of the applications. So, the first question to ask is “Who should I be? Who should I be?” Christianity is not primarily a religion about doing, it is a religion about being. It is about Christ in us. How does my character need to change based on this text of Scripture?
How Should I Think?
Second question: how should I think? How should I think? We need to learn from the Word how to think “Christianly.” This is where correcting in righteousness, this idea of being able to discern truth from error based on what we study here. Christ affects the way we think. How do I think “Christianly?” How does this text affect the way I think and the way I perceive things?
What Should I Do?
Third, what should I do? What should I do? That is where we might go through a list like this: a sin to avoid, a verse that I need to memorize. Is there a promise that I need to claim, a prayer that I need to pray, a command to obey, a condition for me to meet, a challenge to face? What do I do? Don’t only be hearers of the Word, be doers of the Word.
Where Should I Go?
Then, where should I go? Where should I go? The reason that I tell you to ask this is because this is the question that I don’t think we ask when we study Scripture. Well, one of the two questions that we don’t ask very much. All of Scripture, I believe, is intended to be read in the context of mission. When you read the New Testament, this is the people that are going to the nations with the gospel. If the text does not propel us to go, if the text propels us to sit back in our Christian lives and not do anything to affect the cause of Christ in the world, then we may be missing the message of the text. Where should I go? Where does this text cause me to go make disciples, and that leads to this last question.
Who Will I Teach?
Who will I teach? The Word was not intended just for you. Is the Word going to stop with you or spread through you? The best way, write this down, the best way to learn the Bible is to teach the Bible. When you are teaching this Word, you will have to know it. Now, I am not just saying you have to be teaching it to a group of 2,000 people or teaching it to a group of 200 or 20 people. It could be teaching it to one person, but I think we need to ask this question whenever we study the text and realize that whatever God is teaching us is not just intended for us.
It is the whole message of 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. Whatever Christ does in me is intended to flow through me. His comfort in me is intended to comfort others. That is the idea. It is the description in the Word. When Christ teaches us, then we have to ask, “How can I teach this to somebody else?” It doesn’t mean that you have to sit down and have 45-minute Bible studies with them. That would be great in some circumstances, but the truth of how it applies to your life is to look for opportunities to reproduce that, to teach it to others.
I want you to imagine with me a church that walks out every time they meet, asking, based on what we saw in the Word, “Who am I going to be? How am I going to think? What am I going to do? Where am I going to go? Who am I going to teach this to?”
Just imagine, imagine thousands of people from around the world asking those questions. Maybe even more amazing though, imagine a whole congregation of people asking those questions by studying the Bible every single day, and asking, “Who am I going to be based on this text? How I am I going to think? What am I going to do? Where am I going to go? Who am I going to teach?” That is multiplication of the Word of Christ to the nations right there. If we will do it, if we will apply the Word.
So, “application in action.” Go back to Acts 1:8. We did this with Philippians 4:13. Identify important elements involving timeless truth in Acts 1:8. We have Jesus there. You have the Holy Spirit there. You have these places: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. You have those certain places, and then you have followers of Christ, but don’t forget there is a small difference here. These are followers of Christ without the Holy Spirit before the Holy Spirit had come, pre-Holy Spirit. They are waiting for the Holy Spirit. Those are the important elements in Acts 1:8.
Now, identify any situations, real-world scenarios so to speak. Think of a situation that has those important elements. You think of that while you are doing this study. Followers of Christ, but notice the difference. Notice the difference. It was future with them. It is present with us. OK? We are not waiting on the Holy Spirit. We have the Holy Spirit, those of us who are following Christ. Followers of Christ, you have Christ, the Holy Spirit and we are not in Jerusalem. We are not in Judea and Samaria, but we are in the ends of the earth. So, you have those important elements that are parallel.
Now, write out how those timeless truths that we saw, some of those we listed, how do they affect this particular real-world scenario, say us in this room? I would say the primary application is this: believers in Christ, this is what I would write there, believers in Christ today, right here, can know that the Holy Spirit is in us. Christ-followers can know the Holy Spirit is in us to enable us to reach the ends of the earth as witnesses to Christ. The Holy Spirit is in you, right now, to enable you to reach the ends of the earth as witnesses to Christ.
That is Acts 1:8 applied to Christians everywhere, and so, we would ask these questions. I am going to give answers to each of the questions. You might not answer, like I said, every single question based on every text, but ask this question: “Who should I be?” I should be filled with the Spirit, walking in His power on a daily basis. Christ is in me. The Spirit of Christ in me, filling me, empowering me.
“How should I think?” I should think of myself as a witness to the glory of Christ. That is who I am. I am a witness, and I need to think of myself as a witness. I should think with no geographic boundaries in my life. The Holy Spirit doesn’t see any geographic boundaries in my life, and, therefore, I should not either. The Holy Spirit is in me to reach the ends of the earth.
“What should I do?” I should trust the Spirit of God to use me to accomplish His purpose in the world. That is why He is in me, to use me to accomplish His purpose in the world.
“Where should I go?” I think we have no other option, based on Acts 1:8, than to go to the ends of the earth. This verse leaves us no other option. I go to the ends of the earth.
“Who will I teach?” It may be I teach a few people. For me, it means I teach the faith family on Sunday. I teach my wife, I teach my husband, I teach my kids, I teach my co-workers, I look for opportunities to pass this Word on. Now, that is the image that is represented on the back of this page. At the top, bring it back home, how does it relate, identify these timeless truths, and then apply it in your home. What do I do? Study through those five questions.
That is the overview of this page. That is the foundation. That is the most important take away. What I want us to do, though, is the rest of the study I want us to think about this process: observe – what do it see in a text? Understand – what does it mean? Then, relate – how does this text relate to me? How does the text travel, and then apply it, bring it back home and apply it in our home. What am I going to do?
Journeying Through Different Genres
The Unique Challenges of Various Types of Literature in the Bible
Now, I do not want to underscore the importance of this material. This is all material that I think we need. What I want us to do is study these different genres, and I want us to look at them like different games, different sports, and we have to figure out what the rule is for each game. What the rules are for how to interpret this or that.
So, you come to that next idea. It is almost like, even go back to the mission trip analogy, we are going into different countries. You are going to look for different characteristics in the Middle East than you do in Indonesia or China or South America. So, we are going into different countries, and we are going to spend different amounts of time in there, because some of these areas are easier to interpret than others. I want us to study through different genres, and what we are going to do, is look at four things.
First, I just want us to, very briefly, talk about some of the difficulties in certain genres. Second, we are looking at some general guidelines, and, then third, I want us to walk through, just very quickly, (a practical process for reading certain genres) and we are going to examine some of these quickly, the observe, the understand, the bring it back home and the apply. Examine those four steps in each genre, and then look at an example, but we really won’t have time to do examples. So, we just won’t have time to do it. Yeah. OK. Here we go.
Journeying Into the New Testament
Begin studying the letters, the New Testament letters. I want to start here because they are probably the easiest. Journey into the New Testament and think about the letters, known as the Epistles. We have some difficulties here. There are some things in the letters that we leave our study saying, “What in the world does that mean?” Paul says that “(if) there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?” (1 Corinthians 15:29) Apparently, people were getting baptized for the dead, and we really don’t know a lot about why or what. What is going on there?
So, what in the world are we supposed to do? Let me give you an example from just one book, the letter to the Romans. It says in Romans 12:10, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.” OK. Easy enough. That is easy to apply. Now, the second one. Romans 13:1: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Now, what does that mean when you are living in a persecuted country, and the authorities say, “Don’t gather together for worship?”
All right, maybe that is a somewhat harder. Then, you get to Romans 16:16: “Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings.” Now is that what we are going to do? Well, we said in Romans 12:10 “be devoted to one another in brotherly love.” Of course, we do that. Romans 13? Well, maybe. I am not sure how that looks. We get to Romans 16, and it is talking about kissing each other, and we are thinking, “What has happened in the book of Romans? How do you know which one to do and which one not to do?”
General guidelines for reading the letters. New Testament letters are occasional documents. Now, here is what I mean by that. They are written to a specific audience, at a specific time, to address a specific situation.
New Testament letters are addressing specific situations. We are going to go swiftly through these notes, so just get ready to keep turning. There were some circumstances that caused these letters to be written in all these instances. Maybe there were behaviors that needed to be corrected. We need to realize that, oftentimes, when we see Paul talking about husbands and wives, wives submit to your husbands, husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church, it is not just this isolated teaching that is out there.
He is addressing something that is happening there in Ephesians, and he is addressing something that is going on there in Colossians. So, we need to know there was a specific occasion that was bringing this about, behaviors that need to be corrected, doctrines that need to be straightened out. Paul is not just writing a systematic theology here, he is correcting some false teaching, misunderstandings that need to be clarified.
Now, here is the problem. This makes it difficult because, much of the time, we have the answers, but we don’t know the questions. You see how that causes problems? It is like listening to one side of a conversation when we read a New Testament letter. There is something going on here, and there are some assumptions, even, that are shared with these two groups – the writer and the audience that we do not know specifics about. So, we have to get into that. That creates many difficulties.
We have to be careful. We are careful not to conclude, then, too much from only one letter, only one letter. We have to put these letters together to see the overall message. In order to understand the conversation better, we have to familiarize ourselves with all these different letters. You look at 1 Corinthians 15:29, which I mentioned previously, talking about being baptized for the dead. When you look at that Scripture, you have to realize there are like 40 different guesses that good Bible scholars have about what is going on in 1 Corinthians 15:29. So, let us not get too impeded by this. Let us put it together with some of the other letters, and I think some of those things will be minimized a bit.
We are confident that God has clearly communicated to us what is most important. We have talked about that. We can be confident that God has clearly communicated to us what is most important. So, there are occasional documents.
Second, New Testament letters are not theological treatises. This is not a theology book. Look at how often Paul discussed justification. Paul talked about justification many times, but actually, when you look at it, he uses that word 15 times in Romans, and I think six or eight times in Galatians, but he uses it only two times in all of his other letters. He is not trying to give us a theological treatise on justification. That was something important to be addressed in that particular situation. Any time we see theology, it is theology addressed to a particular situation, and what we have to realize, when we think about our theological ideas, and maybe even some of the questions we have theologically, we have to realize, the answers, theological answers that are being given in the New Testament letters are answers to their questions not ours. Do you understand?
This is very important. We sometimes go to the New Testament letters trying to get answers for our theological questions when those were not questions back then that were being addressed there. So, when we go to New Testament letters looking for an answer on abortion or an answer on remarriage or an answer on infant baptism, some of these things were not a problem at that point in time, so they weren’t addressing some of those things. So, we may be asking questions that the text is not intending to answer in the first place. That is very important.
Overall, New Testament letters have a common form. They start with an introduction, usually an identification of the author. I wish Hebrews would have given us that, but it does not do so. Not all letters have all of these things, but usually they start with an introduction of the author. These letters are representations of the people that are behind them. That is what a first century letter would do. It is like an authoritative substitute. I told you about the letters that I got from my wife that she would write to me. I mean that, this was like an authoritative substitute. You know, if she is not here and we spent a summer apart, I have at least got her letters. That is kind of the idea.
Then, we go on to an identification of the audience, a greeting, a prayer or thanksgiving. Sometimes this turns into a whole doxology, and we have to realize that those are not in everyone. Hebrews doesn’t have much of that. 1 John doesn’t have those formal elements. Some letters have some and some do not. Introduction. In the body there is no set format to the body of the New Testament letter, but it is the bulk of it. Then, the conclusion. Sometimes it is the final greeting.
You look at Romans 15 and 16, it almost looks like an introduction. Then, you have a farewell, and these various elements that are listed there. You see a holy kiss on there, autograph, prayer requests, greetings, all those different things that are listed there. Here is the point. I have mentioned one or two times that some of these letters have these and some letters don’t. Differences in form are often clues to meaning.
Differences in form are often clues to the meaning. What I mean by that, when you go to Galatians, and you don’t see at the very beginning the strong thanksgiving, you see him go directly into a rebuke, you realize that there is something happening between Paul and the Church in Galatia that is being addressed here. He doesn’t even spend time doing the nice thank you or nice prayer of thanksgiving. Instead he says, “Why are you deserting the gospel” from the very beginning. So, that gives us a clue as to what is going on right there.
Practical Process for Reading the Letters
A practical process for reading the letters. Now, this is going to be the same in each one of these things we look at. We are going to look at observe, understand, bring it back home, and apply it back home.
Observe their home: What do I see? Two things to think about. Number one: read. By that, I mean begin reading the letter aloud through in one setting. Read it. These letters, they would be delivered, and someone would stand there or sit there and read the letter from beginning to end out loud to an entire congregation of people. Now, that was the setting that letters came in. How do you and I read letters? We read them, most often, silently, small parts here or there, to ourselves alone. Spend some time with your family and read out loud Philippians from cover to cover. Spend some time with a group of people and just read aloud a letter from cover to cover. You get an idea of the scope that is happening in a way that you do not get by just reading it by yourself. It is like taking one of those letters from my wife, say she has written me a five or six page letter, and it is a good one.
When I get the letter, I am not going to begin reading it on page three, and the next day, read half of page four, and then the next day, read half of page two. That would not be the way you would read a love letter, obviously. Well, that is oftentimes how we read New Testament letters, and we do not realize that this paragraph right here was really dependant upon what was said in this paragraph earlier in the passage. You see how these things are important for letters.
Read and then, second, reconstruct. You have to understand the original situation behind the letter. Ask all those questions that we talked about asking. You have to reconstruct the situation. So, that is your observation.
Now, you are understanding their home: What does it mean? I want to encourage you, when you read letters, to think in paragraphs. Think in paragraphs. For each paragraph and series of paragraphs, write down in one sentence or two sentences the answer to the overall question, “What is the point?” What is the point? You want to write that down. Think about paragraphs. Now, it does not mean that you do not study individual verses. There are some individual verses that are full of meaning. Think paragraphs. What is the point of this paragraph? How does that relate to the point of this paragraph? What is the flow of all these paragraphs together?
Then bring it back home: How does it relate? Look for the biblical and compatible. Remember that which is aligned to the text there and with all of Scripture. Focus on truths that are central to the message of the text and all of the Bible. Here is what I mean by that. When you read the letters, and you see it talk about the sinfulness of man, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, these are important, central truths. When you see the letters talking about, for example, the holy kiss and women’s head coverings, or this or that which are not central to the meaning of the whole Bible, then put a less emphasis there when it comes to these timeless truths that we are identifying. Look for the eternal and cross-cultural.
Focus on truths that are consistently taught in Scripture. Remember, because you have these different settings, sometimes Scripture may say something in one setting that might look differently in another setting. So, when you have thoughts on the political situation in Rome in one instance, and another instance when you have thoughts on eating this kind of food that maybe is a little different from this letter to that letter, do not spend too much time on that, but look for that which is consistently what is taught. For example, things like sexual immorality, homosexuality. These are things that are spoken clearly, consistently, about in all these letters combined. So, spend time on that which is central, not on that which is more peripheral.
Finally, look for the applicable. Focus on truths that are inherently true in all situations. True in all situations. Just like I mentioned, Paul’s sin list. All the sexual sin lists. They all start with avoid sexual immorality. Those things are inherently true. They are inherently immoral, but foot washing, this kind of food or that kind of food, exchanging the holy kiss, Paul’s personal preference for celibacy, those things are not inherently true in all situations. So, write out the timeless truth or truths using present tense verbs. “God is doing this,” “God does this,” “Jesus does this,” whatever it looks like in different paragraphs, passages that we are studying.
Then, apply it in your home: What do I do? Meditate on the truth, remember, and then relate the timeless truth to today. Remember, we studied through how to do that. Maybe an example like Philippians 4 and taking the original situation, put it next to parallel situations, and then looking at how we can apply those things. Relate the timeless truth, specifically, to contemporary situations. Ask the five questions.
Let me give you an example. I think you have it there in your notes. You look at Hebrews 12:1-3.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
You have that description in Hebrews 12:1-3. What I wrote down was a list of things that you would write down. Your overall context: Why was Hebrews written? “Therefore,” at the beginning of Hebrews 12:1, why is that there? This instruction to persevere and discipline, that is what Hebrews 12 is writing about. The imagery here. “Let us.” That verb is mentioned three times.
Throw off two things. There is a list: everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. Run with endurance. That is a theme that we see throughout Hebrews. Fix our eyes on Jesus because He has gone ahead of us. He endured. Why? For joy, for the joy that is set before Him, He endured the cross. All these different things. Then, you have the purpose statement in Hebrews 12:2-3. So, you write down all those things.
Then, understand their home. What does it mean? I kind of concluded and said the author of Hebrews encouraged these Jewish Christians to endure in their faith despite opposition. He reminded them that the only way they can endure is focusing on Jesus Himself. Now, hopefully, that is responsible. It is simple, but it is specific. It is what is going on in that context, and then, you turn it over and look at the second part.
Bring it back home: How does it relate? The Christian life, now these are the timeless truths, the Christian life is like a race that requires effort and endurance. The saints who have gone before us provided valuable examples of endurance that encourage and inspire us. To run the race successfully, the Christians need to reject the things that hinder their progress and focus completely on their relationship with Jesus. Those are timeless truths.
Then, we take those, and we ask these questions about application. I will not read through each of those, but you see the description I wanted to give you. We did Acts 1:8, a description of how that might look with a New Testament letter.