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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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?