This lesson is part of Mel Lawrenz’ “How to Study the Bible” series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
I always feel a little insulted when I read instructions on something like a tube of antiseptic ointment and they tell me: APPLY TOPICALLY. NOT TO BE INGESTED. I figure that much is obvious. There is a real problem, of course, if someone somewhere swallows a medicine that is supposed to be applied to the skin.
Application is the last step in the so-called inductive method of Bible study. The first step is to observe (examining the words, the structure, the details), the second is to interpret (figuring out what the author meant), and then application. We know that if our observation is incomplete or our interpretation is askew, we will miss the truth and power of Scripture. But it is also true that misapplication of the meaning of biblical texts is invalid and even dangerous.
Here are some of the most common mistakes to avoid when applying Scripture:
1. Imagining a spiritual meaning in a narrative text that is not embedded in the text itself.
Narrative texts—whether they are the stories of the Old Testament historical books, or the four Gospels, or the book of Acts—mostly tell us the unfolding of real-life stories. We gain lessons about life from the stories, but usually there is not a simple “moral to the story” unless indicated by the text itself. The way God guided the Israelites through the wilderness is not the way he guides you or me to a job opportunity. The military tactics of Joshua are best understood as a description of what happened, not as a strategy for successful living. The transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain was a unique historic event. Its significance is about the identity of Jesus, and does not really have a parallel in my life. Narrative texts have meaning in the context of the whole sweeping story of the people of God. But their details may be applied only when clearly indicated or there is a transcendent principle like Joshua telling the people “choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15).
2. Taking historical narratives as prescriptive rather than descriptive.
Narratives tell us what happened, they don’t necessary tell us what should have happened then, or what should happen today in our lives. For example, we glean from the book of Acts how the first generation of Christians lived, but that does not mean these prescribe how we should live. Acts 2:46 says the first believers met every day in the temple courts. That does not mean that believers today are obligated to gather every day in one specific place. They sold their property and gave the proceeds away, an example of generous, open hearts, but not a command that believers should be socialistic in their lifestyle. We know that in the first century churches were led by elders, sometimes supervised by an apostle or apostle’s representative (like Timothy). Later in the New Testament the role of deacons was developed. But this does not mean it is wrong today for a church to have a senior pastor, or for there to be pastors of children and evangelism and worship or small group leaders.
2. Using an application that is not connected with the actual meaning of the text.
Jesus’ statement: “I am the bread of life” is not about physical nutrition. Hebrews 12:1‘s “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” is not about competing with your co-workers or neighbors. It is about perseverance, as is directly stated in the text.
3. Reading your own theology into the text.
If someone has strong convictions about baptism, that’s fine, but it is a mistake to see baptism wherever there is water splashing about in the Bible. Grace is amazing, it really is. And it appears throughout Scripture, including in words like mercy, love, benevolence. But grace is balanced by truth. Likewise, someone who loves to proclaim truth must not leave grace behind. It is hard for us to see what our theological presuppositions are, but if we do not, we will frequently apply Scripture in unbalanced ways, and we are less likely to have the joy of discovery of truths we had not seen before.
Applying Scripture is the reward of study well done. We just need to make sure we’re applying the truth exactly where it belongs.
Mel Lawrenz trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a Ph.D. in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, the latest, How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.