For believers, the main aim of reading and studying the Bible is to find meaningful and relevant application on a personal level. For some passages, finding application can be fairly straightforward. However, for the majority of passages, finding application can be very difficult. Although it can be hard to admit it, many, if not the majority of Christians find much of what they read in the Bible rather remote and meaningless and irrelevant to life today.
The reason for this is that the Bible was not actually originally written for us, and our situation today, whenever “today” is. The Bible was written over a period of over 2000 years, to various different groups of people in very different historical and cultural situations to us. Each passage in the Bible needs to be interpreted, by seeking to determine what it meant to the author and original readers, before attempting to find helpful application to life today. Excessively literal reading and application of the text can often be of little actual help and can easily cause a lot of confusion and legalism.
Some passages of Scripture do not appear to be limited by culture or time, so they can be directly applied to today. I call this instant application. This is the easiest form of application. We read the passage and it immediately means the same to us today as it did to the original readers. Examples would be some of the theological statements in Paul’s letters such as, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus ...” (Rom 3:23-24). The truth that Paul proclaimed to his original readers in Rome is the same truth today. However, even with examples like this, a much greater understanding and a deeper revelation will be gained by reading and studying the passage in the wider context of the whole book, and seeking to determine its message to the original readers.
In reality, such passages are only a small minority, when compared with the whole text of the Bible. There are large portions of Scripture which, on a first reading, appear to have little or no relevance to today, which can prove to be quite frustrating to a modern reader. The big question is what we do with these. One option is essentially to ignore them, and focus mostly on the easier passages, which seem to have more meaning to believers today.
In his second letter to Timothy, Paul wrote this well known passage, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful in teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17). When writing this, he was actually referring to what we now call the Old Testament. At the time he wrote this in the mid 60's AD, much of the New Testament had not yet even been written. Some Gospels and letters had been written, but these were only at a very early stage in the process of being recognised as Scripture. Even the title “New Testament” would not exist for another 100 years.
For believers today, we can safely assume that this passage is applicable to the whole Bible, so the challenge in this process is to find relevant and meaningful application today from any passage in the Bible, whether in the OT or NT.
The well known writer John Stott called his book on preaching, “Between Two Worlds”. The job of a preacher is to bridge the gap between the world of the Bible, and the world of today. To bring a relevant message, it is necessary to understand the original literary, historical and cultural context of the passage, and then to bring a message which is relevant, meaningful and helpful to listeners today. This principle is also completely valid for the process of finding personal application from a passage. The target is to be able to bring an application which fits the aims Paul gives in 2 Timothy: teaching, reproof, correction, training in righteousness, and equipping for good works.
This diagram can be a helpful tool in this process:
There are two triangles. The one to the left represents “THEN”. The base of this triangle represents what the text meant to the original readers, which is the interpretation of the passage. Before being able to make a legitimate application from any passage of Scripture it is necessary to determine its meaning to the original author and readers.
The one to the right represents “NOW”, whenever “now” is. The base of this triangle represents how the text can be legitimately applied to today.
The triangular shape is significant, with a broad base, rising to a single point at the top. Each triangle has the following three levels:
The Bottom Level - Specific Details
The bottom level represents the specific meaning and detailed message of the passage (whether for then or now). The message often has many aspects and details, represented by the wide base of the triangle. However, these are often restricted to a particular time or culture.
The Middle Level - Principles
The middle level moves more towards general principles, or timeless truths, which can be drawn from the passage which are no longer limited by time or culture. There are far fewer principles than specific details, represented by the narrowing of the triangles.
The Top Level - Foundations
The top level represents the single foundational principle, which is love. This is why each triangle rises to a single point.
The great message of the whole Bible is that God loves us (Jn 3:16), and has provided a means of salvation through Jesus. When Jesus was asked what was the most important commandment, his answer was to love God, and love your neighbour. This means that every passage of Scripture to a greater or lesser extent illustrates one or more of these aspects of the foundational principle of love:
1. God loves us
2. We are commanded to love God
3. We are commanded to love our neighbour.
It is these three aspects of the foundational principle of love that form the heart or core of the Gospel. These become the non-negotiable truths of the Christian faith.
Using the triangles diagram in the application process
The aim in the application process is to move from the base of the left triangle to the base of the right triangle, from interpretation to application, from what it meant to the original readers, to the way the text can be found to be relevant to believers today.
As noted above, for some passages it is possible to move directly from then to now, as there is instant application. But for the vast majority of passages, there are one or more barriers which prevent this.
Four barriers which prevent instant application
I have put four barriers on the diagram. The order of these is not important, and it is possible that more barriers could be added to the list. If one or more of these barriers is identified when reading a passage, then instant application is impossible.
The individual barrier
This occurs when the passage was originally written to, or describes events in the life of a particular individual person, or group like a church. An obvious example was when Paul asked Timothy to bring his cloak and books (2 Tim 4:13).
The cultural barrier
This is when there are significant cultural differences in the way people lived between then and now. These would include many aspects of everyday life, such as what people eat, what they wear, and various social customs. When cultural elements are identified, the tendency
today is to ignore the passage altogether. However, Paul’s statement from 2 Timothy still
holds, so we do not really have that option. There may be difficulties in deciding how to
apply the passage, but we need to try.
The barrier of time or history
This can often be similar to the first barrier, as many passages fit closely into their own time
period in history. The fact that we are now living between 2000 and 4000 years later is very significant.
The Old Testament barrier
The Old Testament, or Covenant, described God’s relationship with Old Testament Israel. Jesus introduced a New Covenant through his death and resurrection, which fulfilled the Old Covenant, bringing it to its completion. Believers in Jesus are not bound by the Old Covenant. This means that every passage in the OT has to be understood in its context of the Old Covenant with Israel, but when seeking to bring application, the OT has to be understood in the light of the greater revelation that was brought through Jesus and his Kingdom.
Moving to principles
If one or more barriers are identified, then instant application is not possible. It is necessary to
move up the left-hand triangle to the general principle. These are timeless truths which are not limited to a particular individual, culture, or whether they come from the OT. Any passage in Scripture will have one or more timeless truths. Often there will be one major truth from the passage and a number of smaller ones. For some passages, identifying these can be quite a challenge.
Bringing a principle to today
Once a timeless truth is identified, it can be brought over above the barriers to today. However, merely identifying timeless truths is not application. By its very nature, application implies a change of thought, which should lead to an appropriate action, or change in lifestyle. It is necessary to bring the timeless truth or principle and make it concrete into today’s world, moving down to the base of the right-hand triangle. As noted above, this represents what the passage means to us today, whenever today is. In the same way that the passage had a specific detailed message to the original readers, application has the aim of bringing a specific detailed message to readers today. This can be on a personal level, but also on a community level, to the church, or even to nations or the global community.
To conclude, these are a few examples of how to use the triangles when seeking to find application from any passage of Scripture.
The Book of Philemon
Paul wrote to Philemon asking him to welcome back his runaway slave Onesimus, to forgive him, and to recognise that he had become a believer and valuable co-worker with Paul. Philemon was called to welcome Onesimus in the same way as he would welcome the apostle Paul (v17). At least two barriers prevent any instant application. One is the individual barrier. Paul was asking his friend Philemon to forgive his slave Onesimus. These were individuals who lived nearly 2000 years ago. There is also a cultural barrier of slavery. Slavery was central to Roman society, and hopefully not such an issue in most societies today.
For more about slavery in New Testament times, please see the page about Slavery.
We therefore need to find some timeless principles in order to cross the barriers, and find relevant application to today. The main principle is that of forgiveness. Paul saw the great importance of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus being restored. So after reading this book we need to ask whether there are any individuals who have wronged us we need to forgive, or if there any we have wronged we need to ask forgiveness from. It is only at this stage we have actually applied the Book of Philemon.
Another principle is that this letter shows the power of the Gospel to cross over the social and racial barriers of the time. Paul was a Jew, Philemon and Onesimus were Gentiles. Philemon was a slave owner, and Onesimus was a slave. These three individuals are all one in Christ representing each side of the greatest religious and social divisions of their time. This book seriously challenges any racial or social prejudices we may have.
This book also challenges the institution of slavery, calling Philemon to recognise his slave no longer as his property, but as a fellow human being, and valuable member of the body of Christ.
Jesus washing the disciples’ feet (Jn 13:1-11)
This is a well-known account in the ministry of Jesus, when shortly before his betrayal he took the job of a servant to wash the feet of his disciples. Interpretation is fairly straightforward, as this passage is a narrative, which records events that happened. Some people claim that believers today must also wash each other’s feet as a demonstration of humility.
However, in this passage, again there are barriers. First is the individual barrier, as the passage is a narrative which records Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. There is also a strong cultural barrier. Washing feet in first century Israel was an important part of hospitality. People generally wore sandals, so feet became dusty, dirty and uncomfortable. When welcoming a guest to a home, it was the responsibility of the host to command a servant to wash the feet of his guest. At the last supper, there were no servants present, and none of the disciples were willing to do this menial task for the others. This is why Jesus himself took on the task of a servant to wash his disciples’ feet, saying afterwards, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you”. (v14-15).
Moving to the general principle, Jesus gave a very practical demonstration to his disciples the need to be willing to serve one another, not lording it over one another. So to find application from this passage, we may need to move beyond the literal washing of feet. Because washing feet is not culturally relevant in many societies today, there may be other more appropriate menial tasks we should be willing to do to serve one another, and to demonstrate humility. These could include doing tasks we often dislike or look down upon, like doing the washing-up, scrubbing the floor, cleaning the toilets, weeding the garden, or even washing feet if necessary and culturally appropriate.
Wearing tassels on your cloak (Deut 22:12, Num 15:37-41)
In the law of Moses is this command, “You shall make tassels on the four corners of the cloak with which you cover yourself” (Deut 22:12). For the people of Israel, the command was direct, that they should add tassels on the four corners of their cloaks. In this passage no reason is given for this, and looking at the immediate context does not add anything particularly helpful. However there is a similar command in the Book of Numbers, “The LORD said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them, and not follow the lust of your own eyes ...” (Num 15:37ff). This also gives the reason for the command.
When attempting to find application from this command, again it hits at least two barriers. The first is the cultural barrier, and the second is that it is in the Old Testament.
Most instructions about dress in the Bible should be considered to be strongly cultural, as the style of clothing varies dramatically between cultures and over time as well. To insist that believers today should literally wear cloaks with tassels on them would become a legalism which is culturally anachronistic, as well as serving no real helpful purpose.
These two passages are included in the Law of Moses, in the Old Covenant, so are not binding on New Covenant believers, unless the same instruction is clearly brought forward into the New Testament. It therefore comes up against the Old Testament barrier.
The most frequent response to passages such as these is to ignore them, dismissing them as merely cultural. However, they still are part of God’s inspired Word, and according to Paul, valuable for teaching, reproof, correction, training in righteousness, and equipping for good works. Therefore we need to find relevant and legitimate application for today, if we are going to use Scripture properly.
Because of these barriers, it is necessary to move to the timeless principle. Help is given in the second passage where the reason for the command is given. When seeking to interpret and apply OT laws, one of the key questions to ask is why God gave that particular command to Israel. Each of his laws has a logical purpose and reason for being there. The reason for the law often gives us the general principle.
For more about how to understand the OT Law, please see the page about OT Law.
The reason for this law is that the fringe or tassel should act as a reminder to remember the commandments of the LORD and do them, and not follow the lust of your own eyes (Num 15:39). The context of this reminder would appear to be when someone was tempted sexually. So the general principle would be having some object, perhaps worn on the body or clothing, to remind us to serve and obey God, and to resist temptation. This is not a legalistic command, but could be a helpful wise action. The form of this could vary greatly, but could include wearing a badge or necklace with a cross on it. These can act as a reminder, but also as a silent witness to others.