Reading and studying The Bible can appear to be an easy task when it comes to the last stop in our study process that we often make the first: application. Often putting the cart before the horse, we may open up the pages of Scripture, looking for prescriptions to help us feel better about a trial we are going through or encourage us to keep pressing through when faced with different things. And while it may appear harmless or even we may feel we have pretty good study habits, it is revealed where we may need a little reform, when we begin to apply verses, books and chapters to our own lives, without regard for the original readers in mind or the context that is unique to a specific people or for a specific purpose.
Whether you've been a long time student of The Bible or you're fairly new to it, there will come a point in which we must ask the question: How exactly should I apply Scripture?
In The Spirit's divine work of carrying men along as they spoke from God in writing Scripture, we mustn't forget an important aspect of Bible reading and studying. Every book has a specific readership who heard the writings of that specific author first. And because this is true, there are some things that the author is trying to communicate directly to that audience that would impact the way they lived their lives and the things that they believed about God. So, before we can accurately make an application of a text we read, to our own lives, we must first honor the author's goal in writing, learn about the original audience who was on the receiving end and see what the text is overall communicating about the triune God.
Let's uncover some ways together, on how we should apply Scripture faithfully.
PILL BOTTLES & FEDERAL LAWS
On the warning label of any prescription medicine bottle, reads a warning that can alter the way the recipient of the message will handle its contents.
When doctors prescribe medicine to their patients, they assess a variety of factors that can contribute greatly to the health of the patient. Family medical history, personal medical history, current medications being taken, diseases, weight, and so much more, are highly considered when medicines are prescribed for a patient. Not only do these factors become a consistent set of things seen across the board to consider of the patient, but certain medicines can lead to fatality if these things aren't taken into consideration.
Likewise, it is important that when we speak of how we should apply Scripture faithfully, we MUST do so by reading the "label" first. The label on pill bottles contain important information that lets the patient know how much of and how often to take their medication. It tells them how to take it, what time of day, side effects and ultimately what the medicine is actually for.
Comparing this to our application of Scripture, we too must treat Scripture like we would the label on someone else's prescription medicine. We want to become mini-archaeologists who don't rush ahead to make a finding about ourselves, but carefully handle the text by asking questions like:
● Who is the original audience of this specific text?
● What was going on in this particular culture and point in history, that made this author say this specifically to them?
● Is there a bigger overall meaning that is pointing to a general principle or idea I need to understand?
● Am I reading this like it was written to someone else first or directly to me? If so, how will this impact my understanding?
● Have I rightly divided, comprehended and interpreted this text before I try to apply it to my own life?
● Is my application being made in light of the finished work of Christ or the works that I am trying to do to make myself better in His sight?
If we take pills from bottles with other people's names on them and swallow them without considering the elements that went into the placing of them to begin with, we will find ourselves in some tough situations. For this reason, this is why we have whole religious movements like the Hebrew Israelites, that will condemn Christians for eating seafood, because they didn't honor the application process, by starting with reading the label first. So, let's be good students of God's Word, and read the label.
When seeking to apply Scripture to our lives, we must also consider the nuances of prescriptive texts versus descriptive texts.
Prescriptive texts are texts that are intending to give us a how-to or command that we are to follow verbatim or in the principle of.
An example of a prescriptive text would be 1 Corinthians 10:31:
Paul here is communicating first to the church at Corinth, to consider his words about idolatry and to instead, use their lives to do not evil, but to do all things for the glory of God. The Corinthians lived in a city that had a serious reputation for being sexually immoral, practicing various religions and engaging in all sorts of corruption.
The discussion of pagan idol feasts and marketplace idol food was what led Paul to say what he said to the Corinthians in this text (10:31). He tells them in ch. 10 v. 20 that those pagans sacrificing food to idols are offering it to demons and not to God. Therefore, he prohibits them from participating in such things. It is important to note that this section of Paul's words was in reference to eating meals in public temples of food being sacrificed to idols.
A few verses later, he tells them that even though the idols aren't real, the Corinthians should consider the good of their neighbor (1 Cor. 10:24-30) and to eat from the meat market whatever is sold without raising questions on the grounds of their consciences. He says the earth belongs to God and everything in it, therefore it isn't necessary to raise those questions. He then instructs them on how to go about an invitation of an unbeliever who may possibly set food before them in their home privately, that has been sacrificed to idols. He reminds them again to not question simply for the sake of conscience, but to only refuse to eat the food if it has been disclosed to them that the food indeed has been sacrificed. This he says is to be done for not the sake of the Believer's conscience, but that of the unbelieving person.
Paul then goes on to say in encouragement and with authority, for the Believers at Corinth, to be mindful that whatever they eat or drink or whatever they do, to do it to the glory of God. He then tells them in v. 32 to basically remember that in our pursuit to glorify God, to also consider others with the lesson he just gave in mind, because the end goal of all of our efforts is so that many will be saved (1 Cor. 10:33).
See how important it is that we handle this text prescriptively? If we approached it descriptively, we could be led astray thinking we could just live how we wanted without regard for God or the good of others. Paul cleared up a lot of arguements that could potentially arise for us modern day Believers too. He reminds us the importance of knowing our neighbors and knowing how to live amongst even those, who don't share our faith and may do things that are unpleasing to God. Our Gospel witness is primary and it should be considered when choosing to or not to participate in certain things.
Descriptive texts are texts that are intending to describe a process, tell a narrative or inform us of something important about God or the people being spoken of.
An example of a descriptive text would be Acts 2:1-4:
In this particular text, we see being fulfilled the promise of Jesus spoken to the disciples, that The Helper, The Spirit of The Living God, would come and descend after His ascension to Heaven.
We are met with a descriptive account of a mighty rushing wind filling an entire house, divided tongues like that of fire appearing and resting on each disciple and the filling of them with The Holy Spirit. This beautiful set of text is informing us not only about God and His power, but what He was doing as a continuation of what Jesus said would be done. We learn here two things about God: (1) That He keeps His Word and (2) that the power of The Spirit is so great that He caused the disciples to speak in languages that tore down a barrier of language. God wants us to understand and take away from this text that not only is His power unlimited, but He uses it for the glorification of Himself and the advancement of The Gospel.
Many people will take this text and seek to make an application of it in a prescriptive way. This has led to many Believers thinking that if they don't "speak in tongues", then they aren't filled with The Holy Spirit. And that is completely untrue. From the point of salvation onward, The Spirit dwells with and empowers every single Believer. He is a sure deposit and only a successful one time transaction when we're being transferred from the domain of darkness into God's marvelous light, is needed. It's also cool to note that the word "tongues" being used in v. 4 translates to the word "languages". In this specific translation of the word, is what is being communicated in this particular verse. Therefore, we can rest assured that this gift of tongues had a specific purpose, which led up to a great moment in redemptive history, that we should read with a descriptive lens, resulting in an encouraged heart in awe of the majesty and power of God.
RESPECTING THE LABEL
Once we have considered the "label's" contents and rightly assessed our original audience, author and asked our important questions, we then can make a right division on whether we are to handle the passage prescriptively or descriptively.
Carefully considering and thinking through these things keeps us from making bad applications by swallowing someone else's medicine or even turning the good works that God foreordained for us to do into chore-like, performance-based achievements. When we know what The Word says and we understand what it is teaching, then we can make proper applications. But, in order to do this, we must spend adequate time in the comprehension and interpretation processes of Bible study.
Practically, this may mean that we don't just read a "Verse of the Day" and take it as a face value application, but instead, seek to be that mini-archaeologist we discussed earlier, and take our time to dust and dig. By becoming better at this each time we sit down to study or read, we'll watch ourselves grow in faithfully applying Scripture to our lives. To rightly apply Scripture, we must rightly divide Scripture through faithful and patient study.