Do you have to apply the Bible? If we believe the Bible to be God’s revelation to us then we must view it as having authoritative significance. We may be able to glean lessons and morals from other books, but we must approach the Bible as containing not just recommendations but commands. You can read Shakespeare and walk away unchanged without much consequence, but the Bible demands a response. The process of application, however, is not as simple as just opening up the book, reading a sentence and doing what it says.
To begin with, the Bible is more than just a list of rules for life. Although the Bible does contain lists of commands, half of the Old Testament, and half of the New Testament is Narrative; telling us what happened. Even the epistles, prophets and other writings that make up the rest of our Bible focus much more on the truth of who God is and what he has done than what we must do. The letters of Paul for instance generally break into two halves, the first half laying a doctrinal foundation and only the second half focusing on application. In tension to that however, Paul himself says that ALL Scripture is profitable for instruction in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16-17) How then do we translate the majority of the Bible into how we should live?
On top of recognizing what the Bible is we also need to recognize where it came from. The Bible was written over the course of a long span of time (none of them now) in many different places (none of them here) across diverse cultures (none of them ours). The distance between us and the authors and original audience of the Bible is often described as a river. Time, culture and place (not to mention language) flow between us and them and the process of application is the process of building a bridge from shore to shore. We must avoid two oversimplifications. The first is saying that the culture recorded in the Bible is always right; that each and every command is for us without modification, that we should dress, talk and live like those in the Bible because that is “Biblical”. To live this way is to try and camp on their side of the river. The other oversimplification is to explain away all the commandments of the Bible as being cultural and therefore subjective, optional and unauthoritative. To live this way is to try and camp on our side of the river. Neither one builds the necessary bridge that application involves.
Lastly we must recognize the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Martin Luther famously said that Jesus did not come as a law giver but a law keeper. The New Testament tells us that Jesus came and fulfilled the Old Testament Law completely and that action changed our relationship with the law. We have a New Covenant in Jesus Christ and therefore are not subject to the Old Covenant. To illustrate, whereas nine of the Ten Commandments are re-stated in the New Testament as commands for us, “honor the Sabbath” is absent. Instead we are told that Jesus is our Sabbath. Jesus also abolished the dietary laws of the Jews as not being necessary because of what he accomplished. Christians are often accused (and sometimes guilty) of “cherry picking” what in the Bible we must do, and what we need not. Often this downplays the significance of what Jesus has done for us.
Now we can properly see the complexity of the issue of application. The Bible is more than, and in fact primarily not a list of rules. The Bible must be viewed and understood in the culture it was written in/to and then transferred into our culture. Jesus’ death drastically changed our relationship with the Old Testament and the Old Covenant. For the next few weeks we will discover both WHEN and HOW to go about the process of application. Here’s a preview of parts 2-4:
Part 2: Normative or Regulative
Part 3: Descriptive or Prescriptive
Part 4 Permanent or Temporary