In English class, I always hated reading poetry. We would read the simplest poem and somehow there was all kinds of hidden meaning and application we were supposed to extract from it. What the author really meant was anyone’s best guess.
I always told myself that if I ever published a book of poetry, I’d include an appendix explaining the meaning behind each poem. I don’t want anyone coming up with their own conclusions about what I might have meant.
Yet, just like in my English class, this approach is often taken in Bible study. In my time as a Christian I’ve attended many Bible studies and small groups. At some point in the discussion the leader innocently asks the question, “What does the passage mean to you?” I silently cringe as I suffer through the responses. I never know what’s going to come out of people’s mouths. Some answers are good, but others leave me wondering if they know anything about the Bible.
“What does the passage mean to you” is the most dangerous question in all of Bible study. Let’s look at why, and then look at a better way to approach biblical application.
What does this verse mean to me?
Does such a question have any place in Bible study? Maybe. Personal application is important, but only after we understand what we’ve read. Yet, this question is often asked in a group setting without caution. The group’s leader rightly wants to know how we individually apply the verse; but, that’s not always the answer given in return. This makes it the wrong and most dangerous question to ask, even in personal Bible study.Personal application is important, but only after we understand what we’ve read. Click To Tweet
An Example of Bad Application
By way of illustration, let’s take the question to its logical conclusion.
When we ask the question, “What does this verse mean to you?” the answers are endless. It can be biblical or completely off base. But, with the interpretation left in their hands, how can we say they’re wrong?
Just like 2+2=4, there is always a correct answer to the question. Let’s use Romans 1:19 to illustrate. The verse reads as follows:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (ESV)
What does this verse mean to you?
A bad answer might sound like: God reveals himself to everyone, and that can look different for each person. So, we don’t necessarily need the Bible to tell us who God is. We only need to search ourselves and the world around us. That’s how we know God.
Such an answer might sound good, but it’s full of theological error. But how can we refute it? That’s what it means to them, right?Approaching the Bible with your own thoughts & feelings is not the right way to interpret or apply it. Click To Tweet
This approach throws our thoughts and feelings onto the text, instead of pulling the truth out of the text. This is how false doctrines creep into the church. It only takes erroneous answers getting thrown around unchecked.
So, what is the right approach?
The Right Approach
The Author’s Intent
When someone creates, they do so with intention, whether it be a letter, painting, or song. There is reason and meaning behind their work. The author always has a reason why.
The Bible’s authors wrote with purpose. God gave each a message to deliver and there was always a reason for it. Paul wrote letters to address issues in various churches. The prophets warned of God’s wrath and the need to repent. Even the Psalms and Proverbs have purpose.
As students of the Bible, we must figure out why each author wrote. Only then can we dissect further.
Once we understand the why, we can look at the audience and how they would have received it. The Bible is an ancient document and thousands of years have passed since it was first penned. As such, there are historic and social contexts that need to be understood.
We cannot look at the Bible as a 21st Century document. We must look at it from the view of the original recipients. How would they have understood the author’s words? What actions would that have taken in response?
This context is important if we are going to get to the bottom of what a passage means.
Never read a single verse apart from its context.
Read the surrounding verses to get a fuller view of what the verse says. Don’t be afraid to read the entire chapter or book if you have to! The goal is comprehension.
A verse taken out of context can easily be twisted to say whatever the reader wants it to say.
It is only after we figure out the original meaning that we can begin to ask ourselves how a given passage relates to us.
There are a series of questions we should ask when we apply the Bible:
- Is the message specific to the audience, or is the principle timeless?
- Is there a command to obey?
- If there is no command, what response should there be to the text? How will you live differently?
The key is application, not giving your own meaning to the text.
The question is no longer, “What does this verse mean to me?,” but “How should I apply this verse?”Ask yourself how to apply the text. Don't ask what it means to you. Click To Tweet
Put It to Work
Let’s use our example from above and study the text correctly.
Paul’s letter to the Romans was written to a group of Christians living in Rome. He wanted to share the gospel with a mixed Jewish & Gentile congregation, while addressing specific issues they had. The immediate context of Romans 1-3 is answering whether man can be right with God apart from obedience to God’s Law.
The Life Application Study Bible says the following in response to Romans 1:19:
In these verses, Paul answers a common objection to belief in God: How could a loving God send anyone to hell, especially someone who has never heard about Christ? In fact, says Paul, God has revealed himself plainly in the creation to all people. And yet people reject even this basic knowledge of God. Also, all people have an inner sense of what God requires, but they choose not to live up to it. Put another way, people’s moral standards are always better than their behavior. If people suppress God’s truth in order to live their own way, they have no excuse. They know the truth, and they will have to endure the consequences of ignoring it.
With that in mind, how can we apply this verse?
A simple answer might be:
Even though God makes himself known through nature, it does not teach enough to bring salvation. We must know more of who God is beyond what nature displays, namely who Jesus is. Deep down, people know that God exists and have his law written on their hearts; but, they need the gospel to fully know God and how to be reconciled to him.
What’s Your Approach
Do you want to understand God’s message as he wrote it? Or, do you want to find the meaning that works best for you? Your approach will determine whether your faith flounders or flourishes.
The next time you’re in a small group or study and asked “What does this verse mean to you?,” turn it around and answer this question instead: How can I apply this verse to my life?
Weekly Study Prompts
This week, meditate and journal on the following passages:
- Monday – Jeremiah 31:31-40; 32-33
- Tuesday – Jeremiah 52; 2 Kings 24-25
- Wednesday – Ezekiel 1:1-3; 36:16-38; 37
- Thursday – Daniel 1-2
- Friday – Daniel 3
- Memory Verses: Ezekiel 36:26-27; Daniel 4:35