Dr. Mel Lawrenz is Minister at Large for Elmbrook Church.
The world is a better place when millions of Christians study the Bible seriously, searching hard for the original meaning of its authors, uncovering the foundations on which all of life can be based. But the world is not a better place when those students of the Bible neglect to apply the truth of Scripture to real life accurately and faithfully.
There was a group of people in Jesus’ time who prided themselves on studying the Scriptures, but their application of it was selfish and skewed. We know them as the Pharisees and Sadducees and “teachers of the law.” One day when Jesus confronted them over their interpretation of the Scriptures Jesus just came out and said: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). A shocking statement, for sure.
Knowing the Scriptures means careful reading, observation, analysis, background checking, etc. and then applying the meaning of the Scriptures to real life.
Here is an extremely important principle: a particular biblical passage has a singular and specific meaning—that is, it does not have many different meanings. But a particular biblical passage does have multiple valid applications.
For example, James 1:19-20 says, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
We study this passage to get at the specific and singular meaning. We note that this injunction is similar to Proverbs in the Old Testament (which is true for much of the book of James). It is not directed at one particular group of people (as might be the case in a book like 1 Corinthians or 1 Timothy), but is a principle of healthy living for all believers. We look at key words like “listen” and “angry” and “anger.” We conclude that this passage is a general exhortation to believers that we should listen more and react less. Especially, we should hold in check any knee-jerk reaction of anger.
Now we apply the singular meaning of that passage to life. The application goes to many different real-life situations, and validly so.
Husbands and wives should take the effort to really listen to each other, which may mean asking back and forth for clarification, rather than reacting in anger, which erodes a marriage.
When people react negatively to a Christian leader’s decisions, the leader should not react in resentment, but listen carefully, seeking to understand and even to acknowledge the validity of at least a portion of the objection. Above all, the leader should not react in anger.
When a believer is confronted by a fellow-worker, it can be good Christian witness to listen to the confrontation, try to understand what it means, and to honestly engage the critic, rather than just reacting in anger.
A parent whose kid is upset can choose to take the time to understand what exactly is going on rather than just reacting in anger.
The applications of James’ “quick to listen… slow to speak… slow to become angry” can go on and on. And that is what is exciting about studying and applying the Scriptures. When we study the Bible we are acting as objective analysts. We commit ourselves to getting at the objective meaning that the prophets and apostles intended to convey. We do so out of respect for the authors, and even more, out of respect for God. And once we get the meaning, we enthusiastically seek to apply it to as many different life situations as we can.
Jesus did not want his listeners just to debate his meaning. He wanted his teaching to shape their lives. That is why he said:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matt. 7:24-27)
It is why James said:
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25)
We study the Scriptures not to gain some special, secret knowledge. We study the Scriptures in order for our lives to be confronted, challenged, and transformed. That is the art of applying the Bible.