Archives For Application

Knowing how to apply an ancient text of Scripture to a contemporary audience can be a risky enterprise. There are many “dangers, toils, and snares” along the pathway.

There are two dangers in particular that we need to avoid:

  1. There is the danger of applying the text in a generic and predictable way. You know, “Read your Bible and pray and tell others about Jesus.” These kinds of applications are often like water off a duck’s back.
  2. There is also the danger of reading my own applications into the passage and in the process missing, eclipsing, or, even worse, contradicting the applications that come out of the passage.

Thankfully, there is a relatively simple (yet often overlooked) way of avoiding these dangers. Here it is–let the text itself supply the applications by stepping back and examining the immediate and/or broader literary contexts. I said it was simple. No rocket science here. Just basic hermeneutics. But I’m surprised at how often the context is ignored in application.

Here are five steps to keep you safe and scriptural in your applications.

The Process

1. Study your text and isolate the timeless truth.

Let’s say my text is 1 Peter 2:11:

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.

In this case the central command to “abstain from the passions of the flesh” is clearly timeless.

2. Don’t jump to the applications that come immediately to your mind.

At this point I’m asking, “How do I apply this command to ‘abstain from the passions of the flesh’ to my audience”?

Good and necessary question. But our tendency is to immediately import our own contemporary context back into the biblical text.

For example, Jack Eswine comments on v. 11,

Because sexual temptation is on the mind personally and culturally, we use our sermon from this passage to address the passions of pornography that wage war against our souls. (Preaching to a Post-Everything World)

Not a problem, right? Not necessarily. But there’s something else we need to do first.

3. Take the time to find out if and how the original author applies the timeless truth in the broader literary context.

Eswine remarks,

While this discussion [on sexual temptation] is necessary and helpful, we must first ask the question: What did Peter mean by this verse? What kind of passions were waging war against the souls of those to whom Peter is writing?

Asking these questions shows us that Peter does not address sexual sin in his letter. We reread his letter and realize that by passions that wage war against the soul, Peter had things in mind like malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, suffering for sinning, relational bullying, and revenge.

4. Give serious consideration to the possibility of applying the original concerns of your preaching text to your contemporary audience.

So before I jump to applications related to sexual immorality and uncleanness, I am going to consider addressing concerns like deceit and envy.

5. Extend the applications beyond the text or context based on your knowledge of contemporary issues and concerns.

Now go back to and explore your initial thoughts for application. But be sure to always distinguish between a “far” application and a “near” application:

It is not wrong to address sexual temptation as a far application, but doing so as a near application eclipses the wisdom the Bible has to offer. While other passages, such as the Corinthian letters, address sexuality in a near way, Peter’s letter helps us round out our understanding by being equally aware of how malice, hypocrisy, or revenge views for our affections.

The Benefits

What are the benefits of exploring the near applications of a text first?

1. It keeps you from being narrow minded in your applications.

It is always tempting as a preacher to deal only with hobby horses and address only those issues that you personally are struggling with or know others are struggling with. Giving sufficient attention to the context gets you to think more broadly and, therefore, affect a wider audience. If not, it is possible that certain categories of people and their struggles are entirely overlooked.

2. It gives you suggestions for applications you might never think of otherwise.

Here’s the flip-side benefit of factoring the context into your applications–it keeps you from succumbing to a “felt-needs” kind of preaching that only deals with what you or your listeners think they need to hear. Is it possible that God has insight into our true needs and that those needs are revealed through a close examination of the text in its context? Be careful not to “eclipse” (as Eswine puts it) God’s wisdom in your applications.

3. It gives contextual weight to your applications.

When you can show your listener how both the principle and the application come out of the text, that’s powerful. It’s powerful because it’s scriptural. It’s just another way to show them that your ear is first and foremost bent to the biblical text.

 

Questions: Can you think of other benefits to this process of exploring the context in order to arrive at your applications? What are some of the challenges involved in this process? 

 

 

What is your view of the significance of application in preaching? If you were forced to put a price tag on “application,” what value would you assign it?

Oddly enough, those who are most committed to saying what God said sometimes struggle to bring the point home applicationally. Others don’t even try.

In the most recent Masters Seminary Journal, Bruce Alvord describes the problem this way:

Some pastors teach as if their only duty is to explain the original meaning of the text they are preaching. They focus their energies solely on explaining the passage and fail to give exhortations to implement the information they have taught. (125)

Is that you? Is that me? Well, before we start defending ourselves and making excuses for why we don’t (or even shouldn’t) give much attention to application in our preaching, consider the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount? Yes, the Sermon on the Mount.

Alvord argues that

if you examine the greatest sermon Jesus ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount, you will see that he considered application to be a critical component. If you outline the sermon, you can observe how He valued it so highly that He included application not only in every one of His points, but also in each sub-point. To follow His example, we should not only explain the text well, but also help our listeners understand the present-day implications of that truth. (125, emphasis mine)

Here just one example from Matthew 5:17-19.

  1. Jesus explainsDo not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished
  2. Jesus appliesTherefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

There’s the “truly, I say to you,” and then there’s the “therefore.” That’s the example of Jesus: “Truly . . . Therefore.”

Alvord ends his article with several significant conclusions from his survey of Jesus’ sermon: (136)

  1. “Jesus highly valued application and employed it liberally in what is considered His greatest sermon recorded in Scripture.”
  2. “He included application throughout this sermon, even within the introduction. Every one of His main points and even every sub-point included it–18 out of 18 pericopes.”
  3. “Consider how large a portion of the sermon Jesus dedicated to application–57 out of 107 verses, which is 53 percent.”
  4. “Application was not only the goal but also the main point of His conclusion.”
  5. “Jesus directed His application not only to outward actions but also to inward attitudes. Nine out of eighteen of His applications (50 percent) were directed toward internal attitudes, while the other nine (50 percent) concerned outward actions. Jesus valued both and neglected neither.”

As Alvord notes, even the way Jesus ends his sermon is suggestive. So let’s end where his sermon does:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. . . . And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.

It seems application was important to the Master. Or should I say critically important? Do we share his perspective of application, and does it show in the way we preach?