When I started learning how to teach the Bible, I was told that a good Bible study required three things—observation, interpretation, and application. Although I eventually grasped the first two, the third of these remained surprisingly elusive. How does one apply the Bible? Certain texts appear to answer this question directly. “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Seems easy enough. All I have to do is avoid killing someone, and I have this one in the bag. Text applied.
Aside from the fact that there’s more to apply from this text than avoiding murder, we also need to recognize that most texts aren’t like this. How do we apply the stories of Jesus contained in the Gospels? How do we apply the courageous acts of the Old Testament judges? How do we apply John’s apocalyptic descriptions of the beast and the war he wages against the saints in Revelation? Applying these passages is not quite as easy.
The first piece of advice I was given was to S.P.A.M my applications. That is, my applications were to be specific, practical, applicable, and measurable. S.P.A.M was intended to make sure that I actually did something in light of my study rather than leaving the text without any application. Unfortunately, this nifty little acronym was perhaps missing the most important piece—applications that were textual.
Outside of passages with fairly straightforward commands, it’s not uncommon to hear points of application that are, at best, only loosely connected to the text. But this just doesn’t seem right. Scripture not only communicates specific truths but also it guides us in terms of how those truths might be applied. Those who apply Scripture faithfully not only S.P.A.M. their applications. They S.P.A.M.T. them. A couple of specific examples may be helpful.
Consider the comparison the author of Hebrews makes between Jesus and the angels in the opening of his letter:
“Of the angels he says, ‘He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire.’ But of the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.’” (Hebrews 1:7–8)
The point of this text is clear: Jesus is God. Angels are not. Therefore, Jesus is greater than the angels. But what do we do with this? How do we apply this truth?
I’ve heard many well-meaning sermons on this text argue that this comparison compels us to refrain from worshiping anything other than the living God. According to this view, the author was attempting to condemn angel worship (a practice supposedly common among first-century Jews) by showing that only Jesus, as the divine Son, was worthy of worship. The takeaway, then, is that we shouldn’t worship any object or person other than the Lord Jesus Christ.
Certainly, the author of Hebrews would generally agree with that application, but was this what he was trying to do with this particular text? The wider context suggests that the answer is “no.” In the next chapter, the author writes,
For since the message declared by the angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? (Hebrews 2:2–3)
Bingo. The author is not trying to condemn angel worship at all. In fact, his argument assumes that his readers hold angels in somewhat high regard. After all, the Mosaic covenant was mediated by angels, and it brought curses against those who disobeyed. How much worse, the author warns, will it be for those who neglect the new covenant, which is mediated by the master of those angels—the divine Son. Here’s the takeaway: the Son’s message (the gospel) is better than the angels’ message (the law) because he is better than them. So, listen to him.
Preachers who wish to apply this text correctly should help their congregations follow the argument. Is it correct to condemn the worship of persons or things other than Jesus? Of course. But this isn’t the author’s main point.
Get Rid of Your Wealth?
As another example, consider Jesus’ interaction with the rich young ruler in Matthew 19. Wanting to know how to inherit eternal life, the young man asks Jesus what he must do. Jesus replies that he must keep the commandments, and then he lists off the commandments (see Matthew 19:16–19). The young man replies that he has kept the ten commandments, but he has one problem—wealth. The young man is rich, and when asked to give up his riches, he walks away in sorrow because his heart belonged to mammon, not God.
On the surface, this text would seem to be about money, and to a certain extent, it is. Jesus clearly explains to his disciples that the young ruler’s response demonstrates how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (see Matthew 19:23–24). But if you make the application all about getting rid of wealth, you’re likely to miss a rich thematic layer that Matthew has been building since the Sermon on the Mount.
Previously, Jesus said that to enter the age to come, one must have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). True righteousness must be from the heart. For instance, one must not merely abstain from murder. He must abstain from even murderous intent (Matthew 5:21–22). The story of the rich young ruler makes a similar point.
The rich young ruler claims to have followed the commandments Jesus mentions, but his inability to give up his wealth demonstrates that he lacks righteousness at the heart level. In fact, he has actually failed to obey the first commandment, for his wealth has taken the place of God in his life (Matthew 19:21–22). Thus, this story implicitly shows what it looks like for a righteousness to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. It is not enough to merely affirm or claim to follow the Ten Commandments if your heart is still tethered to anything other than God. Applying this text rightly involves some heart-level probing to see what may be taking the place of God in our lives. Righteousness must be internal, not just external.
A Couple Suggestions
Learning how to mine textual applications like these requires time and patience and is often more of an art than a science. There are, however, a couple things that will help hone this skill.
First, root your applications in the point of the text. As we saw with Hebrews 1 and Matthew 19, the text doesn’t merely give us truths to do with as we like. It guides us in the application of those truths. It goes without saying, then, that intentionally following the logic of the text often makes these applications much easier to find.
Second, remember that context is king. The textual applications in Matthew 19 and Hebrews 1 can be discovered by continuing to read the surrounding paragraphs and chapters. Before you look to commentaries or cross-references, read the context, and then read it again. D. A. Carson once said that he reads the entire book a dozen times when he prepares his sermons. This is excellent advice. The context is where these treasures are often found, so make sure to zoom out a little in order to get a fuller picture. This will go a long way toward making your applications not only specific, practical, and measurable, but also, and most importantly, textual.