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?
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