How can we know the correct application of a passage of Scripture?
It is common for Christians and non-Christians to become confused about the meaning and the application of verses in the Bible. A man once asked me why there are so many different meanings for each verse. The answer I gave him was there are not many different meanings for each verse. There is only one meaning for each passage of Scripture. For example, when the apostle Paul wrote the book of Ephesians, he did not intend for each person who read it to have a different understanding of what he was trying to communicate. Most people who write a letter or an email try to avoid confusion about what they are trying to communicate. Scripture does not have multiple meanings in each verse. How do we then determine the meaning and the application of scripture? That is the question we will answer.
Why Different Explanations of Scripture Exist
The reasons different views about the meaning of Bible passages exist are varied. Some people have only an elementary knowledge of the Bible. Some intentionally twist the meaning of Scripture. Some passages are difficult to understand, and some confuse the meaning of a verse with the application of a verse. The worst reasons of all is that some are false teachers and some are unbelievers.
For example, some of the individuals interpreting Scripture are unbelievers who are not filled with the Holy Spirit and, therefore, cannot accurately understand what they are reading. That is the message of 1 Corinthians 2:14-15 which states unbelievers or the natural man cannot understand spiritual truths since the Holy Spirit is not living within them.
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. 1 Corinthians 2:14 (NASB)
The Holy Spirit only dwells within Christians (Romans 8:9; Ephesians 1:13). As a result, false teachers who typically are unbelievers cannot understand the true meaning of Scripture. Consequently, they distort Scripture. Often they want to twist the meaning of Scripture. They want it to support their viewpoint. They are not interested in knowing what God is communicating to them. They do not believe in God. The study of the Bible to them is an academic activity. 2 Peter 1-3 warns us that false teachers introduce “destructive heresies” and deny that Jesus is God. 2 Peter 3:15-16 adds that they are untaught.
. . . and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. 2 Peter 3:15-16 (NASB)
Even though the Holy Spirit is dwelling within Christians, they can still teach error if they are untaught and have not been diligent to study the Bible. Sometimes a Christian will become serious about a passage of Scripture and will study for a brief period of time; but due to a lack of understanding of the rest of the Bible, they will come to the wrong conclusion. One must have a solid grasp of the entire Bible to adequately understand individual verses and passages. Some people fail to realize that one cannot read just a single paragraph in someone’s letter or email and then claim that they understand it. They have to read all of the letter or email in order to keep each paragraph in context. Consequently, even well-intentioned Christians can make serious mistakes (James 3:1). As 2 Peter 3:15-16 states, there are some hard things to understand in Scripture. That was the admission of the apostle Peter.
Therefore, the apostle Paul commands us to diligently study the Bible in order to know the truth.
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15 (NASB)
Notice the key word “workman.” The Greek word for workman is ergates and it has the meaning of “work harding” or “strenuous.” That is, one who desires to know the meaning and application of Scripture must be committed to working hard to understand. In Hebrews 5:11-14 we are told that Christians should be on a diet of meat and not the milk of the Word. Unfortunately, some Christians are not interested in serious Bible study but instead want to be spoon fed the Bible. It is also disappointing that many teachers of the Bible have a minimal understanding of the books of the Bible or of the topic they are teaching. They rely on someone else’s materials which may contain errors.
How to Determine the Correct Meaning
The message so far is that serious, hard study is required to understand the meaning of the Bible. But sadly, some untaught Christians arrogantly believe that they have great understanding of Scripture even though they have limited training and knowledge of the Bible. Christians do not have to go to seminary to understand the Bible, but they must diligently study, day after day or night after night for years. We need to be committed to a life long study of the Word of God. Those believers who are serious need to go to a biblically based conservative seminary, Bible Institute or regularly attend classes at their church that seriously teach Scripture in depth.
But not everyone can do that because some churches provide only a diet of simplistic Bible teaching. That is, the pastor serves a steady diet of topical sermons and elementary teachings from the pulpit. He may be more interested in meeting “heart-felt-needs” instead of actually explaining what God said. Maybe a good way to explain it is that they only read the parts of the Bible that interests them. Even then they may change the words.
Therefore, Christians must invest in biblical study tools such as commentaries on the Bible, an excellent systematic theology and background dictionaries, for example. Learning the Greek and Hebrew languages or investing in and using Greek and Hebrew language tools are essential since our English Bibles fail to accurately communicate with precision the meaning of the Greek text. For example, many Christians do not know that in the Greek language there are four types of “if” or conditional statements. That can change the meaning of the passage.
Determining the meaning of a verse, chapter and a book is hard work. It can take hours of hard comparative study. Peter said that there are some things hard to understand. That is, why we are challenged to be “a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” We should be like the Christians in Berea in Acts 17:11. They examined Scripture to check out the apostle Paul.
The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Acts 17:10-11 (NASB)
Determine the Application
Once the meaning is determined, the application must then be determined. Sometimes the application is very clear. Here is a very simple example,
Jesus wept. John 11:35 (NASB)
The meaning of the verse is that Jesus wept or cried. In the Greek language, there are numerous words that can mean crying. The Greek word here is dakryo. It means that Jesus shed tears. It helps us to understand that He did not wail loudly (klaio) or cry intensely (alalzo). Now we know the meaning of the verse, but what is the application. It is important to know that there is only one meaning, but there can be many applications. Therefore, what applications can we derive from this verse?
The first application from this passage is that it reveals Jesus, our God, had emotion and loved people. It is a real life illustration. Another application is that we should care for and love others too! Another application is that it is okay to cry since Jesus did.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is another example. The context of the passage teaches that women are not to preach or teach when the church is gathered together for worship. That is, they are not to teach or preach when both men and women are present.
The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35
For a full explanation of this passage please read, “Role of Women In The Church.” But what is the application? The application leaps from the meaning. Women are not to teach the public assembly of the church. Instead of teaching men, women are to be in a learning role from their husbands. Rather than instructing men, she is to be learning from men and her husband has the primary responsibility to teach her (Genesis 18:19; Deuteronomy 6:6-9; Ephesians 5:25-27). That is one application. Another application is that it is an example of a wife in submission to her husband.
These two examples illustrate that a passage or verse will have only one meaning but many applications.
In summary, verses and passages in the Scriptures have only one meaning, but they can have many applications. But we must never force meaning or an application onto a verse. That is called eisegesis. In contrast, we must seek to discover the meaning in the passage which is called exegesis. This is how we delineate between the proper meaning and the resultant personal application of Scripture in a distinct and clear manner.
Suggested Links:Role of Women In The Church
What does it mean that the Bible is inspired? – Inspiration of Scripture
Why is the Bible at times difficult to understand?
Are any of the English Bible translations 100% accurate?
What are the basics of theology?