How to Apply (or Live Out) Meaning
We will also illustrate the application of biblical principles using Philippians 4:13, a popular text that is often misapplied: “I can do all things through him [Christ] who strengthens me” (ESV). In each section, we will cite the step, discuss the process, and then apply it to our example.
Step 1: Grasp the text in their town by summarizing the original situation (historical-cultural context) and the meaning of the text for the biblical audience.
In light of the historical-cultural context, summarize what you discovered about the original situation or problem. Consider the book as a whole as well as the specific passage you are trying to apply. You can write a summary paragraph or simply list your observations about the situation. Either way, make sure that you have a clear picture of the original historical-cultural situation.
Regarding Philippians 4:13, we should note that Paul writes this letter while in prison awaiting trial (1:7, 13–14, 17). His faithfulness to Christ in the ministry of the gospel has landed him in prison. In this friendship letter, he exhorts the Philippians to stand firm in the face of external opposition and warns them against internal fighting. He reports about his own situation and thanks them for their ministry to him. In Philippians 4:10–13, Paul acknowledges their monetary gift sent through their mutual friend Epaphroditus. He also wants to make it clear that while he is most grateful for their gift, his ministry is ultimately dependent on Christ.
As part of this step, write a statement of what the text meant for the biblical audience, keeping everything in past tense. From this past-tense statement you will find it easy to transition to a theological principle. In this particular passage, Paul told the Philippians that he had learned to be content in a variety of difficult circumstances through Christ, who gives him strength.
Step 2: Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the biblical situation and our situation?
The Christian today is separated from the biblical audience by a “river” of differences (e.g., language, culture, circumstances). This river hinders us from moving straight from meaning in their context to meaning in ours. We are certainly part of the same great story, but our place in the story is often different from that of our spiritual ancestors. Sometimes the river is wide, requiring a long bridge for crossing. At other times, it is a narrow creek, which we can cross easily. We need to know just how wide the river is before we start trying to construct a principlizing bridge across it.
When we interpret New Testament letters, normally the river is not very wide or deep. There are exceptions, of course (e.g., dealing with the passage about meat offered to idols in 1 Corinthians), but usually this is the case. Regarding the Philippians passage, there are a few differences. Paul is an apostle and we are not apostles. Paul is in prison and most of us have not been imprisoned for our faith (or for any other reason, we hope). Neither are we members of the Philippian church that had supported Paul’s ministry financially.
But there are also similarities. We are New Testament Christians under the same covenant. We are also members of Christ’s body, the church. Moreover, many of us experience difficult situations as we seek to live out our faith. For the most part, the river of differences for Philippians 4:13 is not wide.
Step 3: Cross the principlizing bridge. List the theological principles communicated by the passage.
Simply write down the principle (or principles) that the passage communicates. When you identify the theological truths or principles conveyed by a passage, you are discerning what is timeless in the passage and beginning to bridge the gap between the biblical text and the contemporary world.
As for Philippians 4:13, you could say, “Believers can learn to be content in a variety of circumstances through Christ, who gives them strength.” Or you might prefer, “Christ will give believers strength to be content in a variety of trying circumstances that come as a result of following him faithfully.”
Step 4: Consult the biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?
Here you need to see how the theological principle you have discovered fits with the rest of Scripture. Although the Bible is made up of sixty-six books, it tells a single overarching story, and we need to make sure that our principle isn’t refuted by the clear teaching of the rest of the Bible. It’s particularly important when interpreting the Old Testament to see how a principle derived from an Old Testament passage might be fulfilled or modified in the New Testament.
But consulting the biblical map also applies when interpreting New Testament passages. For example, Romans 13 and Revelation 13 offer two complimentary perspectives on how believers should relate to the state: sometimes submitting to the state and at other times obeying God rather than the state. Both are important principles but neither one can be made absolute so as to completely exclude the other one.
With Philippians 4:13, we don’t see anything in the principle we have discovered that is refuted by the rest of the Bible.
Step 5: Grasp the text in our town. How should individual Christians today live out the theological principles? This step consists of several substeps.
a. Observe how the principles in the text address the original situation.
Look carefully at how the biblical principle addresses the historical-cultural situation. Here you are trying to see how the biblical author wanted his original audience to apply the meaning. What you find in this intersection between the biblical text and the original situation lies at the center of the application process. There will be certain key elements present in the intersection of text and situation that will prove significant for the rest of the application process. To find these key elements, focus on the heart of the both the biblical principle and the original situation.
As the principle in Philippians 4:13 intersects with the historical-cultural situation, several key elements emerge:
Element 1: A Christian (Paul)
Element 2: A Christian who is experiencing a variety of trying circumstances as a result of following Christ faithfully (Paul is in prison because of his service in the cause of Christ)
Element 3: Christ will give the Christian strength to endure any circumstances
Again, to identify the key elements, you have to see what is essential in the biblical principle and what is essential in the original situation. When all of these components come together, then you’re ready to connect to our world and make application to our lives.
b. Discover a parallel situation in a contemporary context.
In discovering how to apply or live out the Bible, we have to be students not only of the biblical world but also of our own world. Search for a situation in your life (or your world) that parallels the biblical situation. When we speak of a parallel situation, we mean a situation that contains all of the key elements you identified in the previous step. In other words, the parallel situation must include the central teachings of the biblical text and not just a portion of it. As Jack Kuhatschek puts it, “If we omit one or more of these key elements . . . we are no longer really applying the principle found in the passage.”
Below we provide three scenarios. The first is only an apparent parallel situation since it does not contain all the key elements; the second and third are genuine parallels that do contain all the key elements.
Example 1. Philippians 4:13 has become a popular theme verse for Christian athletes in American society. The verse was even prominently displayed on the robe of a recent championship boxer. The phrase “I can do all things” no doubt motivated the boxer to defeat his opponent or at least to do his best.
Assuming that Paul and the boxer are both Christians (element 1 above) and that they both look to Christ for strength (element 3), we are still missing at least one key element of the intersection between the original situation and the text (element 2). Paul and the boxer have radically different understandings of the expression “I can do all things.” A close look at the literary context of Philippians 4:13 reveals that “all things” refers to a variety of trying circumstances. At this point in his life, Paul is experiencing a trial of need rather than a trial of plenty. When Paul says he can “do all things,” he is referring to being content or enduring rather than conquering. There is a big difference between the “trials” of athletic competition and the trial of being imprisoned for your faith.
We misapply the Bible when we grab a situation that is not a genuine parallel. There may be a superficial connection, but one or more of the key elements is missing. Ultimately when we misapply the Bible, we hurt people by pointing them toward false realities. People put their hope in something they think is true when it is not, and they suffer for it. In our example from Philippians, the principle of contentment in Christ whatever the circumstances is replaced by a proof text calling on God to help us win the game or the contest. How does this misapplication affect the faith of a losing boxer? Couldn’t the boxer actually apply this verse more appropriately after a serious defeat? What do you suppose God should do if this boxer fought another Christian boxer who also claimed the promise of Philippians 4:13?
Example 2. You are a Christian student experiencing financial difficulty. You had all your needs met when you lived at home, but circumstances changed when you answered God’s call to prepare for ministry. Because of your parents’ financial situation, you have to pay for your own education. You are struggling to make ends meet. The long hours of work turn into late nights and drowsy mornings in class. You believe God has called you to academic preparation, but you find yourself in a tough situation. You are tired most of the time and your spiritual life even seems to be affected. In spite of it all, you are trusting Christ for strength to hang in there.
Example 3. You are a single mother whose non-Christian husband recently deserted you because of your commitment to Christ. Your two small children suddenly find themselves without a father. The sense of personal failure weighs heavy. The social pressure of what people will say lingers. You face overwhelming financial burdens and worry about how you will survive on your part-time job. As life seems to crumble around you, God has given you an unshakable peace that Jesus Christ is with you, that he understands, and that he will see you through.
In these last two scenarios all the key elements are present: (1) a Christian (2) who is experiencing tough circumstances because of his or her commitment to Christ (3) looks to Christ for strength to endure. As you identify contemporary situations that are parallel you can have confidence that you are applying the meaning of the biblical text rather than an invented meaning. The next step is to be even more specific with your application.
c. Make your applications specific.
Once you have identified a parallel situation—a genuine parallel—you should give some thought to specific ways the biblical principle(s) might apply. What should the student and the single mother be or think or do as they turn to Christ for strength? (We say be or think or do because applications may touch on our character and our thinking as well as our behavior.) Sometimes the best application relates to how we understand God and his ways. If we never suggest ways to make our applications specific, people may not know exactly how to live out the message of the Bible in the down and dirty of real life. Don’t be afraid to make specific suggestions. People don’t just need to know what to do; they also need to know how to do it. We not only have to offer people biblical insight; we also have to offer them skills and wisdom for living out that insight.
Perhaps the best way to make your applications specific is by creating real-world scenarios or stories. These stories function as illustrations or examples of how a person might put the biblical principles into practice. They help us move beyond abstract principles to capture the color and emotion of the biblical text through stories. We are quick to admit that these real-world scenarios are not on the same level as inspired Scripture; they are merely analogies. But we intend for them to be guided by the Holy Spirit and faithful to the biblical principles (i.e., consistent with the author’s intended meaning). We also want the contemporary audience to know that God’s Word is eternally relevant. Real-world scenarios should be both faithful to the meaning of the text and relevant to the contemporary audience. Let’s give it a try.
Example 1. A real-world scenario making specific applications for the student.As a student you might gain encouragement and strength from a conversation with a pastor or a professor who knows the trials and rewards of preparing for ministry. Christ often works through his people to provide strength, and you could use a good conversation or two with someone who has been there. Ask them specifically about ways to manage your time and options for financing your education. They may suggest other people to consult. You could also do what Paul did and make your trust in Christ public by communicating your thoughts in writing, perhaps in a letter to a friend. As you confess Christ’s ability to sustain you during the dark times, your faith will grow even stronger.Also, do not hesitate to cry out to God in prayer and be honest with him about your tough situation. Make the heart prayers in the Psalms your own. Praying honestly may not change your circumstances, but it will make you more aware of God’s empowering presence. God has called you to prepare for ministry. The work is hard and the hours long—it’s tougher than you ever imagined. But you can do it because Jesus Christ is there for you. He loves you and has plans for you. He will be there every minute of every day to give you strength to go on. You can do everything through Christ!Example 2. A real-world scenario making specific applications for the single mother.As a single mother you could do many of the same things that the student did—get counsel from a mature Christian, write down your thoughts, and pray honestly. You may also want to study other biblical passages that speak about husband-wife relations, divorce, remarriage, and so forth. God will give you wisdom as you search his Word. There may be business people in your church who could assist you in making financial plans. Having a plan to provide for your kids will ease many of the day-to-day worries.What about your husband? Throughout this entire ordeal you have been a faithful wife. You have prayed constantly that your husband would allow the Lord to calm his restless spirit, but he made a decision to leave. He knew that your ultimate loyalty was to the Lord and that you would follow Christ above all, even him. While his leaving has been tougher than you ever imagined, you have come to know God’s grace and peace in ways that are beyond explanation. While you are frightened about the prospects of going it alone, you are not really alone. Of this one thing you are now sure: your Lord will never abandon you—never! He always keeps his promises. You can do all things through Christ.
Real-world scenarios furnish a wonderful way of making specific applications that are both faithful to the original meaning of the text and relevant to contemporary life. This approach works especially well when interpreting biblical stories since you don’t have to create entirely new scenarios. Instead, you just retell the biblical story for the contemporary audience (an approach sometimes referred to as contemporization). To contemporize a biblical story, you retell the story so that the effect on the contemporary audience is equivalent to the effect on the original audience. We translate the meaning of the story into our own context and reproduce its effects on the contemporary audience. Take a minute to read Jesus’ parable of the lost son from Luke 15:11–24:
11Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.13“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.17“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20So he got up and went to his father.“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.21“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’22“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.”
In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace? Philip Yancey contemporizes this parable. He retells the story in a contemporary setting so that when you hear the story, you feel just like Jesus’ original audience must have felt. See what you think.
A young girl grows up on a cherry orchard just above Traverse City, Michigan. Her parents, a bit old-fashioned, tend to overreact to her nose ring, the music she listens to, and the length of her skirts. They ground her a few times, and she seethes inside. “I hate you!” she screams at her father when he knocks on the door of her room after an argument, and that night she acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed scores of times. She runs away.
She has visited Detroit only once before, on a bus trip with her church youth group to watch the Tigers play. Because newspapers in Traverse City report in lurid detail the gangs, the drugs, and the violence in downtown Detroit, she oncludes that is probably the last place her parents will look for her. California, maybe, or Florida, but not Detroit.
Her second day there she meets a man who drives the biggest car she’s ever seen. He offers her a ride, buys her lunch, arranges a place for her to stay. He gives her some pills that make her feel better than she’s ever felt before. She was right all along, she decides: her parents were keeping her from all the fun.
The good life continues for a month, two months, a year. The man with the big car—she calls him “Boss”—teaches her a few things that men like. Since she’s underage, men pay a premium for her. She lives in a penthouse, and orders room service whenever she wants. Occasionally she thinks about the folks back home, but their lives now seem so boring and provincial that she can hardly believe she grew up there.
She has a brief scare when she sees her picture printed on the back of a milk carton with the headline “Have you seen this child?” But by now she has blond hair, and with all the makeup and body-piercing jewelry she wears, nobody would mistake her for a child. Besides, most of her friends are runaways, and nobody squeals in Detroit.
After a year the first sallow signs of illness appear, and it amazes her how fast the boss turns mean. “These days, we can’t mess around,” he growls, and before she knows it she’s out on the street without a penny to her name. She still turns a couple of tricks a night, but they don’t pay much, and all the money goes to support her habit. When winter blows in she finds herself sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores. “Sleeping” is the wrong word—a teenage girl at night in downtown Detroit can never relax her guard. Dark bands circle her eyes. Her cough worsens.
One night as she lies awake listening for footsteps, all of a sudden everything about her life looks different. She no longer feels like a woman of the world. She feels like a little girl, lost in a cold and frightening city. She begins to whimper. Her pockets are empty and she’s hungry. She needs a fix. She pulls her legs tight underneath her and shivers under the newspapers she’s piled atop her coat. Something jolts a synapse of memory and a single image fills her mind: of May in Traverse City, when a million cherry trees bloom at once, with her golden retriever dashing through the rows and rows of blossomy trees in chase of a tennis ball.
God, why did I leave, she says to herself, and pain stabs at her heart. My dog back home eats better than I do now. She’s sobbing, and she knows in a flash that more than anything else in the world she wants to go home.
Three straight phone calls, three straight connections with the answering machine. She hangs up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she says, “Dad, Mom, it’s me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a bus up your way, and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.”
It takes about seven hours for a bus to make all the stops between Detroit and Traverse City, and during that time she realizes the flaws in her plan. What if her parents are out of town and miss the message? Shouldn’t she have waited another day or so until she could talk to them? And even if they are home, they probably wrote her off as dead long ago. She should have given them some time to overcome the shock.
Her thoughts bounce back and forth between those worries and the speech she is preparing for her father. “Dad, I’m sorry. I know I was wrong. It’s not your fault; it’s all mine. Dad, can you forgive me?” She says the words over and over, her throat tightening even as she rehearses them. She hasn’t apologized to anyone in years.
The bus has been driving with lights on since Bay City. Tiny snowflakes hit the pavement rubbed worn by thousands of tires, and the asphalt steams. She’s forgotten how dark it gets at night out here. A deer darts across the road and the bus swerves. Every so often, a billboard. A sign posting the mileage to Traverse City. Oh, God!
When the bus finally rolls into the station, its air brakes hissing in protest, the driver announces in a crackly voice over the microphone, “Fifteen minutes, folks. That’s all we have here.” Fifteen minutes to decide her life. She checks herself in a compact mirror, smoothes her hair, and licks the lipstick off her teeth. She looks at the tobacco stains on her fingertips, and wonders if her parents will notice. If they’re there.
She walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect. Not one of the thousand scenes that have played out in her mind prepare her for what she sees. There, in the concrete-walls-and-plastic-chairs bus terminal in Traverse City, Michigan, stands a group of forty brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and great-grandmother to boot. They’re all wearing goofy party hats and blowing noise-makers, and taped across the entire wall of the terminal is a computer-generated banner that reads “Welcome home!”
He interrupts her. “Hush, child. We’ve got no time for that. No time for apologies. You’ll be late for the party. A banquet’s waiting for you at home.”
Wouldn’t you agree that contemporization is a powerful tool for making specific applications of biblical principles? Yancey’s retelling helps us experience Jesus’ parable of the lost son in much the same way that the biblical audience probably experienced it.
One word of caution is in order concerning real-world scenarios. You need to study the biblical passage carefully, especially the historical-cultural and literary contexts, so that the real-world scenario or story you create will accurately reflect the meaning of the biblical text. Otherwise you will be making a specific application for a biblical text that doesn’t exist. It takes discipline, hard work, and creativity to come up with a scenario or to retell a story in a way that is both relevant and faithful to the original meaning. Please, please, please do your homework so that your scenario will reflect that meaning.
The best way to remain faithful to the biblical meaning is to stay tied to the key elements you identified in Step 5a. Very simply, after you write a draft, ask yourself, “Does my scenario contain all of the key elements?” If not, revise the scenario until it does contain all the key elements. A real-world scenario or story must be tied to the text, or you will be doing nothing more than reader response (see unit 7).