the Spirit Watch
How To Study And Understand The Bible For Yourself :
Part 4 - Applying The Truth Of The Passage - Bridging The Gap
by Rev. Rafael Martinez, Co-Director, Spiritwatch Ministries
Whenever we start to talk about the experiences and ideas that a Biblical passage shares with us, we are bridging the gap between "then" and "now". This is the prologue to the final step of any good Bible study, that being developing ways to apply what you've learned from your observation and interpretation of a Bible passage. Application provides the capstone of the Bible study encounter - it is where the "rubber meets the road" in personal and practical terms when grappling with Bible truth.
An old Scottish preacher once observed that all good sermons should either begin in Jerusalem and end in Aberdeen (his hometown) or begin in Aberdeen and end in Jerusalem. His is a point that should be well taken by those who study Scripture for its' transforming power.
The thousands of years which separate the people of Bible times from our own contemporaries must be bridged by our intentional application of what weíve understood once having established the "Big Idea" and gathered a sound interpretation of the Bible passage in question. Once we understand and put into cultural context the unique customs of Bible time people, we find out quickly enough that their human needs and nature are pretty much the same as our own. This means therefore that we can learn from their examples and hopefully avoid the same pitfalls they were confronted by.
So in any personal Bible study, as part of the time of meditation you make over a Scripture, as much time should be spent grappling with the implications of what you've read and what you've understood. The precept should become practice. This is where the encounter with God becomes personal, and where the guidance of the Spirit of God over the believer's life leads them into joyous submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Observation followed by interpretation must then be completed by application.
This is what it means to truly live by the Word of God and it is an absolutely vital part of personal spiritual growth that makes the babe in Christ a growing disciple. If you will be an overcomer living a victorious, abundant Christian life, the intentional and personal application of Biblical truth to where you are living out your life is where your spiritual growth will occur. This is a far cry from simply following the rules of religious tradition one's been told all their life to follow; such a passive obedience often fails to yield any lasting spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22) that brings one into intimate relationship with the Living God. Personally grasped Biblical truth as received by personal Biblical study establish a believer in the Christian faith by the power of God's Word and Spirit like nothing else. There are no short cuts around this, and every mature believer knows this to be true.
How To Apply God's Word To Your Life
Let's take a look now at how the Bible student can diligently work to apply the truth he's learned:
1. Application stems from a Spirit-led interpretation of the passage - The steps of observation and interpretation just shared in our first two articles will help to ensure a proper and Spirit-directed interpretation of the Biblical verse you've studied. This is because you've spent the necessary and prayerful time in careful study of the content and have derived truth from it by a very focused and intentional process not hurried or harried by interruptions or peer pressures.
The history of the Christian Church has been rent by much division over various interpretations of the Bible, but for all of this long and sad controversy and its' subsequent impact on the mission of Christianity, there has been an underlying spiritual unanimity on essential Christian truths that crosses all sectarian borders. Although most Christian councils throughout history have hammered out the theological statements that summarize these truths, preceding them all has been a unanimity that has weathered the storms of heresy and division: I feel this historical unity has been a visible manifestation of the Holy Spirit's teaching ministry among the members of the Body of Christ in the first crucial centuries of the Church's existence.
The teaching ministry of the Spirit among believers has enabled generation after generation to keep the Faith under many a fire across the centuries, and this ministry has been primarily through His work in the individual Christian life first, followed by the Christian community in deliberation (Acts 15). Hence, as weíve said before and cannot emphasize enough, it is absolutely vital to realize that all soundly balanced personal Biblical study is led by the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit acting upon all of the elements of manís intellect and inner spiritual faculties Ė the heart, mind and soul. This is a divine act of Godís grace that we have pointed out is a gift He gives freely to all of His children (Luke 11:13).
There is surely no greater blessing than to encounter during oneís study of Godís Word the very presence of His Spirit as teacher. 1 Corinthians 2:9-15 establishes with clarity that the Holy Spirit is a divine Teacher whose educational work is intimately personal, illuminating the and enlightening the faculties of spiritual perception and comprehension of each believer in whom His indwelling Presence is found. We learn here that only His merciful ministry to us enables us to understand the spiritual truth of the Bible, and this has, obviously, enormous implications to us as we observe, interpret and apply Scriptural truth. Our diligence in study accompanied by the working of the Spirit in our inner man will never fail to "teach you all things and bring all things to your remembrance" (John 14:26).
2. Application must be based upon derived principles - A principle, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is "a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption" and can also be viewed as "a rule or code of conduct." They are about how we live in accordance with what we believe, so our summarization of a Biblical truth from any verse and chapter should also engage us at the level of our personal commitments to a Biblically renewed lifestyle and thinking. Despite what contemporary Christian culture may assume, knowing what is right never guarantees that doing what is right automatically follows. Discerning Christians know this well.
Therefore, a principle serves as a bridge between observation/interpretation and application of the precept under review.
And a Biblical principle is drawn from a personal grasp of the responsibilities, blessings and implications that come from an understanding of a Bible truth. Such understanding, as enabled by the power of the Spirit of God, will always result in a change of attitude and behavior as the believer submits to the promises and commands that are made clear. So a proper application must include attention to oneís response to revealed Biblical truth. It will ensure that those who would call themselves "hearers of the Word" will also become "doers of the Word" as well as the apostle James exhorted in James 1:22. This attention to practical application is brought home by James in verses 23-25 of that same chapter as he compares passive confession to active practice, showing how the one who "looketh into the perfect law of liberty and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer .. this man shall be blessed in his deed."
3. Application involves finding elements the reader has in common with the original audience Ė We may live in the 21st century, in a culture of cutting edge science, sophisticated culture and inconceivably advanced technology, but no matter who we are, fundamentally we are no different and no better than the ancient congregations and mission fields that the 1st century Christian Church ministered in. The human condition is still the same wherever you may go Ė we are still, as ancient humanity was, a terribly needy people alienated from God, ourselves and one another by our fallen, sinful state of human depravity, and we still recognize our deep spiritual lack and emptiness. We, like they, still need to repent and submit to the Lordship of Jesus over our lives as He beckons to us. So despite the vast cultural differences we may have with the Christians of ancient Palestine or pagan Rome, we all have the same needs, the same lack and the same promise of God to meet with us as we draw near to Him. It is this common bond of our fallen, spiritually needy humanity that establishes
Therefore, a good application of Biblical truth is for us to do all we can, after interpretation, to relive the Biblical text through further study of the cultural setting in the verses weíve read. The goal is to bring students into a world far removed from their own, visualizing a culture and a world based upon the tangible details found in the text we study. From the ancient setting of the text to our busy, modern world, we are attempting to "bridge the gap" between these two worlds, moving from the known to the unknown. After all, bridging the gap is a two-way trip, and the Bible student must strive to also become a translator who can relate the details of a Biblical passage to familiar experience. This translation occurs at several levels: here are some practical tips to follow in gleaning such information:
Use Biblical commentaries and dictionaries to gauge your application - Use only scholarly works produced by Biblical scholars and commentators who have sound academic credentials and who accept Scripture as the final rule for spiritual practice. Let their own broad knowledge of the many fields relevant to Biblical studies - languages, archaeology, ancient history, exegetics, etc. - provide informed perspectives to your studious attempt to develop application. An important point that will ensure you maintain dependence upon the Word and Spirit: seek input from these reference works only after youíve arrived at your own application. You will be quite surprised to see how much you will already have grasped on your own through the power of Godís Spirit when comparing your interpretation with that provided by a Bible expositor. You can learn much from them, but give time to your own study first.
Know the customs and practices of the passage writer's world. The understanding of ancient cultural practices among a group of people is invaluable in understanding the hearts and minds of Bible characters and events. For example, understanding the ancient enmity of Israel to their Samaritan brethren is essential to grasping the full impact of the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4. Knowing what the customs concerning the gleaning of fields by the poor brings depth to understanding the compassion given to Ruth by Boaz. These are just a couple of examples that a good reference book would provide information on that brings greater depth to knowing why people acted as they did in Bible times. Such books are widely available today.
Note the attitudes and ideals of the characters as they interact within the passage. It has already been noted that humanity is pretty much the same throughout time and that the same values, feelings and reactions of the people of Bible times were very much like our own. Few there are among us who couldnít see themselves challenged by the passion of Mary, the busywork of Martha, the lamentation of Job, and the zeal of a Nehemiah? We can relate to the joy, sorrow, fear and pain they can feel as well as see ourselves struggling with temptation and passion as they did. How we perceive the men and women of the Bible for who they were as they lived, loved, believed and died brings a greater level of personal identification with them. And as we observe how they responded to the events of Biblical history, we in turn will then appreciate the counsel and commentary of Bible writers on their lives more than we thought possible.
Use reference works about the lands of the Bible well-defined terrain maps - The physical features of the Ancient Near East are among some of the most vividly depicted terrain in the entire world and good study aids that bring light upon them should certainly be part of oneís Bible study. The great attention given to the regions of the "Promised Land" by many Biblical writers is a powerful and evocative focus intentionally made to emphasize in both literal and symbolic forms many spiritual truths. For example, the lands of Sodom, Egypt and Babylon, as fertile and prosperous as they were, are viewed as a symbolic reference to degenerate spiritual and social life by many a Bible author. Understanding these lands and their culture in contrast to the lifestyles of the righteous who "confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims in the earth" gives new depth in our consideration of our own role in todayís world (Hebrews 11:13-16, 1 John 2:15-17). The many references to water, rivers, and rain were used by various writers to depict Godís blessing or judgment in a wide variety of contexts (Proverbs 1, Joel 2:23, Psalm 137). Knowing that the ancient Near East is an arid semi-desert/desert land allows us to appreciate further this symbolism further. I could continue, but time fails us. Suffice it to say that investing in reference books that help map out where these lands were, what their climate and fauna were like will help you connect even further with the many connotations these references have in Scripture.
Use contemporary language to rephrase Biblical expressions and descriptions - Using your Spirit-sanctified personal imagination in visualizing the Bible's world using the passage's verbal cues and rephrasing it in modern terms to bring it fully alive to our present day culture is a great way to communicate it to others. Modern day paraphrases such as the Kenneth Taylorís Living Bible, Eugene Petersonís "The Message" and others are attempts to do just this, and their great popularity among many believers shows how great the desire is by believers in understanding Scripture at a modern level. Bible students should seek, as they hammer out their application, to try to rephrase Biblical passages where they legitimately can, in their own terms that communicate the original intent of the writer but in a new way.
One could say, for another example, that the Elijahís despair in the cave he hid in from the wrath of the wicked queen Jezebel was a sign of "burnout" as a result of the literal "manhunt" that her "APB Ė all points bulletin" had placed upon him (1 Kings 19:1-5). 2 Kings 7:3-4 relates the reasoning of the four lepers outside the siege of Samaria by the massive Syrian army: in so doing, we can describe these men as caught in a "Catch 22" or "no win" scenario, fearing death by starvation in Samaria or death at the hands of the warriors of the local "super power." Many a gifted Bible teacher engages in this kind of rephrasing and Christians certainly have every right to do so themselves to help share what theyíve learned with others.
However, a word of caution: this practice should be used sparingly and carefully: a too frequent use of this can risk trivializing Scripture and lead one into assuming rephrased meanings that may not always easily translate into modern day equivalents. This can, if engaged in too liberally, undermine the careful interpretation youíve already arrived at. And unfortunately, far too many Bible teachers today substitute their own clumsy and often contradictory rephrasings as Scripture itself with no regard for the process of observation and interpretation weíve discussed. The popularity of many television "preachers" and "teachers" with questionable doctrines today bears this out.
While they may be dynamic, appealing charismatic orators, their spins on Scripture in many instances have only contributed to a furtherance of questionable interpretation of it. Such "study" doesnít often engage their audiences in Bible-based examinations of their lives based upon Bible-based exposition. Their audiences are indeed enamored with their unique delivery and personality that may elicit great personal reflection, but often this reflection is not based upon solidly founded consideration of the Biblical text itself. Instead, the speakerís own cleverly, engagingly delivered personal biases and opinions about Biblical content are presented in brightly packaged studies claiming to be the "uncompromised Word." Donít let this keep you, however, from engaging in your own attempts to do so. Just ensure that your rephrasing translates concepts from Scripture as directly as possible.
Bringing The Bible Home: A Good Bible Study Revisited
So now, as we close our study of 1 John 2:3-5, letís summarize again what weíve learned.
We must first commit ourselves to a daily time of study in which the Spirit of God is our teacher and welcomed into our private time of study by prayer and praise. Our readings of Scripture will be followed by careful observation on what we find in it. Once this is done we can grapple with what the observations uncover:
Observations on 1 John 2:3-5
Keeping the commandments of Jesus Christ are the focus
Those who say they keep His commandments but donít are self-deceived deceivers
The commandments of Jesus are also called "His word"
Those who do keep Jesusí words are those who keep His commandments
Knowing a true worshipper of God is revealed by whether he/she keeps Jesusí word
The writer is contrasting those who keep Jesusí words with those who claim to but donít
Those keeping Jesusí words will find Godís love purifying and perfecting them
The "Big Idea" of 1 John 2:3-5 drawn from the observations:
1 John 2:3-5 Ė Knowing the difference between those who obey God and those who donít
A breakdown of what that "Big Idea" points to as it's topic and theme:
The Passage Topic: Discernment
The Passage Theme: Recognition of the godly comes from a godly walk
Careful interpretation of the verses:
The apostle John is making a strong statement of contrasts in these passages that bears out his review of how to recognize oneís true standing before God. A professing believerís confession of a true knowledge of the Lord Jesus is revealed by their commitment to a lifestyle that honors His commandments and who will be perfected by His Spirit-bestowed Love. This is in sharp contrast to those who donít embody this passion in their lifestyle, and these are people John calls self-deceived persons who donít walk in truth who therefore are falling short of Christian perfection. In contemporary language, John speaks of professing Christians who can "talk the talk" but not really "walk the walk" as all too painfully real people we see in our church circles week in and week out (they may even be us). He then, however, contrasts this sad state with the blessed believer who practices whatís been preached to him of the words of Jesus and who exhibits the fruit of a deepening adoration of God evident in their own words and deeds.
Finally, derived principles for personal application drawn from our observation and interpretation
1. If I am to live a real Christian life, I must be committed to obeying and living out the commandments of Jesus Christ that He has given us in the Bible. Keeping His Words are the central
2. I will not fool anyone into thinking I am living for and serving God if I live a hypocritical life of saying one thing and doing another. Those who live such lives are only fooling themselves.
3. I must seek to know Jesusí commands and what they mean to my life, and as I do so, I will not only draw closer to Him, but will find His character begin to arise in my own life which all will see.
Some Closing Thoughts
I have shared with you what I believe to be a sound process in how to study the Bible for yourself and how to glean all you possibly can out of it for your personal spiritual growth as God grants it. I have not begun to really discuss this in the necessary yet equally important context of Bible study at the level of Christian community, namely small groups and church educational programs. That is, of course, outside the scope of this article. And yet, how the people of God embrace Biblical truth and how they understand it in the larger context of a local congregation of Christian believers will profoundly affect how they grow and how their church also engages the world outside it that needs to be impacted with that truthís great Light. Thereís so much more I want to say about the depths of the Bible in terms of the themes and settings of the Old and New Testaments (such as how the concept of the Law of Moses and the Gospel of Jesus compare, and so forth) that I simply donít have time for. This will have to come in a future article.
For now, however, I am hoping that the process of Biblical study Iíve shared will enable the believer who has always been wanted to know how to study the Bible but who has struggled to know just how to do so. My calling and training has long been to empower the believer with wisdom and knowledge that will enable them to live an abundant Christian life. This article is a humble contribution to those who have longed for such a life changing knowledge and wonít depend upon a human charisma, religious tradition or a cultic dogmatism to impart the spiritual impact that only the Word of God provides.
The process Iíve laid out is not an easy one, but it is as entirely Word and Spirit-centered as I believe the Scriptures would have it to be. My prayer is that it bless and edify you, and that the path Iíve tried to forge will help you pursue a lifetime of Bible study that will open your eyes to God and His purposes for your life that no man can take from you. May you learn from these articles how to be taught of God without having just to believe blindly what others tell you about Christian Faith: learn it for yourself and be changed forever!
The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary edited by Merrill Tenney, Zondervan, 1963
Encyclopedia Of Bible Difficulties by Gleason Archer, Zondervan, 1982
3 Crucial Questions About The Bible by Grant Osborne, Baker, 1995.
How To Read The Bible As Literature by Leland Ryken, Academie, 1984.
Scripture And Truth edited by D.A. Carson and John Woodridge, Paternoster, 1995
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