The Bible tells us to be doers of the Word, not just hearers (James 1:22, Matthew 7:21, Luke 6:46, Romans 2:13).
But sometimes it’s hard to know what we’re supposed to do with some parts of the Bible.
Some verses are easy to understand how to put into practice. For instance, Ephesians 4:28 says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” The thief needs to stop stealing, obviously. But the instruction doesn’t stop with a “don’t.” It continues with a “do” to replace the “don’t”: work hard and give to others who have a need.
But what do we do with passages that don’t explicitly contain instructions about what to do or not do?
I read somewhere about a man who, after reading the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2, felt that in response he needed to clean out his garage. Well, yes, God is orderly, and to some extent He wants us to be orderly as well. But I’m not sure that’s what the creation account is in the Bible to tell us.
Here are a few tips I’ve found helpful to understand how to apply Scripture.
Pray. We need God’s wisdom to know how to put His Word into practice.
Observe and interpret first. Observation, interpretation, and application are the three sides of Bible study. If we’re off on the first two, we’ll be off on the third.
Part of observation is seeing who said what to whom in the passage. Sometimes a command or promise is given to one person or group of people in the Bible, but they are not meant for all people or all time. However, God included those passages for a reason and there’s something He wants us to learn from them.
For instance, the Old Testament law in the first five books of the Bible was given partly to express God’s holiness and partly to show people that they could never earn righteousness by keeping it, because no one could keep it completely. New Testament writers take pains to explain that Jesus fulfilled all the law in our place and we’re not under it any more. But we learn about the cost and pervasiveness of sin in Leviticus and see symbols of Christ in the sacrifices (I wrote more about what we can get out of Leviticus in Where Bible Reading Plans Go to Die.)
Study the context. Mark 14 tells of a woman who broke open an expensive alabaster box and poured the costly perfume on Jesus. I read an article years ago where the writer compared the alabaster box to a girl’s virginity, something rare and precious that she could only give once. While I appreciated the parallel the author was trying to make, she completely missed the point of the passage. Instead, she made the passage mean something it didn’t mean. This demonstration was an outpouring of the woman’s love and a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and burial. Jesus Himself said she had “done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial” (14:8). Imagine the girls who read that article associating it with virginity for the rest of their lives and missing the extravagant love of this woman as well as the reference to Jesus’ death.
Prescriptive or descriptive? Part of interpreting the Bible (which I wrote more about here) is determining whether the passage is describing something we should emulate. Just because the Bible records people doing things in Scripture doesn’t mean it’s approving what they do or saying we should follow their example. Some of the historical passages are descriptive: they just tell us what people did. We can still make observations, but the passage isn’t there to give us an example to follow.
A prescriptive passage, though, is one that “prescribes” a certain behavior. Much of Proverbs and the epistles are prescriptive, though prescriptive passages are throughout Scripture.
I’ve seen people use Abraham’s example of looking for a wife for his son, Isaac, to say that we should promote courtship rather than dating among young people. Some said that fathers should choose spouses for their adult children, or at least be heavily involved in the process. The courtship vs. dating debate has been a hot topic that I don’t want to get into any more here; I just wanted to say that this passage in particular doesn’t teach it. We can learn from it the necessity to be careful and prayerful in finding a spouse, to look for one of the same faith, to trust God and seek His direction. But nowhere in the Bible are we told to find spouses for our children in the same way Abraham did.
Find principles to draw on. A former pastor once read an OT passage about oxen to the congregation. Then he asked, “Do any of you own oxen?” No one did. He asked, “How many of you have ever even seen an ox?” A couple of people raised their hands. The pastor said, “So this doesn’t apply to us. We just turn the page and move on, right?” We didn’t think so, and he agreed. Then he brought out several principles from the passage. An ox who accidentally gored someone was handled one way. But if the ox was known to be cantankerous and try to gore people, and the owner didn’t take any means to keep the animal penned in, the owner was more liable if the animal hurt someone. We can see the parallel with dogs prone to bite. If someone saw their neighbor’s ox wandering far from home, he wasn’t supposed to ignore it. He was supposed to help his neighbor.
Romans 14 lists several principles involving meat offered to idols. Some of the early Christians felt that meat was okay to eat, because the idol is a false god and the sacrifice didn’t taint the meat. Others felt it was wrong to eat that kind of meat because of the association with idol worship. Even though we don’t deal with this issue in most of the world today, several issues apply to actions like this where the Bible doesn’t give any clear teaching: do whatever you do as unto the Lord; be fully convinced in your own mind; don’t judge the brother who handles the meat differently than you would; don’t do anything that would cause another to stumble.
Some responses are inward. One source I read years ago said that we should end every time of Bible reading with an action item, a plan to put into practice what we read.
To be sure, if we’re convicted from the passage we’re reading that we need to confess something to the Lord or apologize to someone, we need to act as soon as possible.
But some parts of Scripture are there to promote wonder, awe, and worship of God and faith in His ability and power and wisdom. Those passages will affect our actions, but they’re concerned with the condition of our hearts.
And some passages can’t be obeyed just by checking off an action item. Say, for instance, we read the passage about loving our neighbor. We think about our literal next-door-neighbor, an elderly widow living alone. We decide next time we have the mower out, we’ll cut her grass as well as ours. And maybe we’ll make some banana bread and take a loaf over to her. And we brush our hands and think, “There! I’ve loved my neighbor.”
But did God put that command in Scripture to inspire random acts of kindness to check off our to-do list? Yes, love will manifest itself in thoughtfulness and actions. But love is more than an action item. It’s an attitude of heart to carry with us all the time. Like when another neighbor’s backyard party is too loud and long. Or when he keeps borrowing your tools and returns them broken and dirty, if he returns them at all. Or when a neighbor child rings the doorbell just after you finally got the baby to sleep. Passages like the one about the Good Samaritan teach us that our neighbors are not just the friendly ones and that ministering to others can be inconvenient and costly. But what a picture of Christ, who sacrificed Himself for us while we were yet sinners.
Much more could be said about applying Scripture. But one last point I want to make is that the more we read the whole Bible, the more we’ll understand it and know how to apply it.
What tips have you found to help you put Bible teaching into practice?
(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)
When reading the Bible, I ask God to open my eyes, ears, and heart to absorb His message. I have learned that each time I read Scripture, I can learn something new. 🙂 I am thankful for the Word of God.
Amen, to all you said. 🙂
I just read your explanation about what “Adorn the doctrine of God” means. My women’s Bible study is reading Titus and this is raising a lot of questions. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and insights.
Thanks so much, Janet!
This is great information! I would love to share a link to this article in my Friday post. Each Friday I share Biblical life applications from my reading that week.
Thank you for sharing this!
I’d be happy for you to share the link. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.
Thank you so much!
Really good tips here. Thank you Barbara! It just goes to show that God’s word is so rich and complex, we’ll never really learn/know it all regardless of how many times we read it. Our new church has kind of been turning some of my thinking on its head. I grew up thinking one “accepted Jesus” and became a Christian. They seem to follow more an idea that some are “elect.” This has encouraged me, in my Bible reading, to pay close attention to particularly what Jesus has said about what it means to be a Christian/be saved, etc. It’s good to read with “new eyes” sometimes.
There’s always something new to learn and apply from Scripture, and I love your suggestions and principles for doing it well. I often come across details in Scripture that I’ve never noticed before, or I wonder why a particular detail or wording was considered important to include in a Biblical account, but not other information that I’d like to know. I look at the passage in different translations, look at the meaning of the word in the original language, and consider other places in Scripture that talk about the same event or principle. Scripture will not contradict itself! So especially when I find what seems like an instruction or principle to follow that I’m not sure about – that’s one that I think and pray about more and keep searching the Scripture for related references.
All good practices. We have to discern the meaning before we can even begin to consider how to apply what we read.
Love this post Ms. Barbara. I too immediately said “Pray”, but I also thought “Study.” So often, many hear God’s Word at church or read God’s Word at home, and all these things are good. However, if we never go beyond that, the meaning for us is often missed. I’ve learned to be a ruminant when it comes to digesting God’s Word. I consume it, and then I digest it several more times throughout the day to get the most spiritual nutrition I can from it. Thank you ma’am.
Amen! We need to pray, study, and think to get the meaning from a passage before we can discern how to rightly apply it. I love what Paul told Timothy: “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7).
This is a great post, Barbara! We do need to be careful, and prayerful, in how we interpret what the Bible is telling us to do. I also think the application can be different at different times and for different people – e.g. as we’re reading a familiar passage, the Holy Spirit prompts a particular response. And I agree, sometimes the response is not about “doing” something but about growing our understanding of God our our love for him.
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I’m so happy you touched upon this. As I’ve been having some trouble understanding some things. I read the Bible daily but I’m on my second time reading it straight through. I use the NIV Life Application Study Bible so it comes in really handy with understanding and application. You’ve got some great application tips here and I’m noting them.
Thanks bunches for sharing this with Sweet Tea & Friends this month dear friend.
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