Interpretation and Application in Bible Study Material
The Text Has Only One Meaning
“What does this passage mean to you?” For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard this ominous question. In particular, as one not too far removed from the college scene, I know that this question is the at the center of many college Bible studies, discussion groups, discipleship groups, etc. But, why is it an ominous question?
adjective \ˈä-mə-nəs\ foreboding or foreshadowing evil 
Now, “evil” might be a strong word (emphasis on the “might”) but I do believe that “What does this passage mean to you?” usually forebodes mishandling of the text in a way that would make the biblical authors–and more importantly, the Holy Spirit–shudder. To this question, people respond: “To me this text/passage/verse means…” Now, that sounds all good and well. We don’t immediately sense DANGER.
If we use logic, we quickly arrive at a problem. It goes like this:
Person #1: “The text means __A___ to me.”
Person #2: “Well, the text means ___B___ to me.”
Do you see the problem yet? What happens when A and B are not equal to each other? What if A is the converse of B? They can’t both be true, because that would be illogical. So, what do we say? Here are a couple basic truths about Scripture interpretation:
- Every passage of Scripture has only one meaning
- Every passage of Scripture means what the original authors wanted it to mean
- Every passage of Scripture means the same thing today that it meant when it was first written
So, a given passage of Scripture has only one meaning. While a group of individuals may have different views of what the text means, that doesn’t change the fact that the Scripture only means one thing. Consider the old Indian poem about six blind men and an elephant:
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he,
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong! 
The second and third bullet points show us that the meaning of Scripture does not change based on the person reading the text OR the time period in which the text is read. So, reading the Epistle to the Ephesians in the USA in 2012 does not change the meaning because it was written in the Roman Empire in the first century AD.
What do we do, then, if someone says, “This text means _____ to me”? Do we punch them in the face. Probably shouldn’t do that. Here’s why: When most people say, “This is what the text means to me,” what they really mean is “This is how I (or preferably the Holy Spirit) apply this text to my life.” (Keep reading and I’ll discuss Scripture application) Notice the difference? A group of people who each claim the text means something different to them are simply illustrating the fascinating attribute of Scripture, namely that one passage with one meaning can impact (be applied to) a myriad of people in a myriad of ways. In other words the meaning of a text is fixed, but the application of the text is variable. Praise God that He knows us intimately and applies Scripture to us personally and individually to shape us into the image of Christ!
So, what does the text mean to you? To be honest (and I’m not trying to sound mean here) I don’t care what the text means to you. I want to know what it means. Period. Then, and only then, can we talk about how the Holy Spirit is applying Bible truth to your individual life, and that I do want to hear!
Interpretation and Application: Which Comes First?
First question: Which came first? The chicken or the egg?
First answer: Based on the Genesis account, I say it was the chicken.
Second question: Which comes first? Interpretation or application?
Second answer: Depends on who you ask.
Thinking back on the previous section, I talked about a group of people in which each person comes up with a different application of the same text. Is there anything wrong with that? Not at all! The Holy Spirit applies Scripture to us individually–and even corporately–but mostly individually. Isn’t it fascinating that you and I can read one single verse and yet be convicted or encouraged about two completely different areas of our lives?
Now, herein arises a very important question: Which comes first, interpretation or application? Well, let’s play out the two alternatives.
Alternative #1 – Interpretation before Application: We interpret the text to figure out what it means, and then the Holy Spirit applies that meaning to our lives and shows us how we are to respond to the new-found truth.
Alternative #2 – Application before Interpretation: We have no idea what the text actually means but we have an idea of a general point of application so we use that application as an outline into which we fit our interpretation of the text.
Hopefully, you can see that it is vitally important that interpretation precede application. Application is certainly important (see the next section), but how can we apply the Scripture to our lives if we don’t even know what it means? Furthermore, if we try to apply Scripture to our lives without first understanding it, we are building a foundation on shifting sand. When pressed, our applications will fail because they were not built on the firm truth of rightly-interpreted Scripture. So, figure out what the text means and then apply it to your life!
The Need for Application
Now that I’ve made a big deal out of rightly interpreting the text, I can turn to the application of Scripture. When I say that application is secondary to interpretation, I don’t mean that application is unimportant. Application is vitally important in Bible study! If we don’t apply the text to our lives, we might as well not study it. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is not the goal of Bible study. We learn the Word so that we can be shaped by it. As we encounter the truth of the Word, we rub up against it like a coarse rock against a piece of sandpaper.
There is a tendency in Bible teaching and preaching to focus too much either on interpretation or application. The first group of teachers/preachers say a lot about what the text means, but they never tell us what we should do in response. We leave thinking, “Now what?” The second group of teachers/preachers tell us to do a lot of things, but they never tell us why. We leave thinking, “Um, okay…” Like much of life, balance is what we need. Yes, we need to know what the text means, but we also need to know how we are to respond to the text.
For me personally, when I teach/preach, I tend to let the Holy Spirit do the application. I focus mainly on what the text means, since it is only from a proper meaning of the text that we can actually respond appropriately. When I do provide points of application, I use generalities and not specifics. For example, if the text is about following Jesus, I’ll challenge people to examine certain areas of their lives to see if they have surrendered everything. That’s a pretty general challenge, but it leads people to look at their own lives and find the specific areas in which the text confronts the sin of “incomplete surrender.” I give the big picture and trust the Spirit of God to get really personal and specific.
An Example of Improper Application
Finally, here’s an example of a Bible study curriculum making too much out of application and the resulting consequences.
The text for the study is 1 Peter 2:18-25
18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
The larger context of the passage is “submission to authority.” Peter challenges his readers to submit to all authority, even bad authority, not because they want to, but because they are really submitting to God. Within the theme of submission to authority, Peter speaks to those (in particular, servants) who are suffering unjustly under harsh authorities. He tells servants to obey their masters even when they are beaten for no good reason. They should not try to remove themselves from this suffering because Jesus suffered for them. As they endure suffering, they can expect God’s blessing, and should entrust themselves to the one who judges justly, as did Jesus when we was suffering.
Now, the title of the Bible study material for this text was “Living with Stress” and the entire point of the study was to teach people how they can live with stress today. At this point you may be wondering what I was wondering the first time I read through the material: “What does this passage have to do with stress?” Immediately, I want to show “NOTHING,” but I’ll give the author of the material the benefit of the doubt. I think he was trying to find a contemporary equivalent for what Peter’s readers were enduring. He was trying to make a contemporary application based on the ancient text, which is certainly a good thing, but I think he missed the mark a bit.
Here are a couple thoughts about the text and the curriculum:
- The text is clearly about suffering for the sake of Christ, even if its unjust suffering, because it shows submission to authority and, ultimately, submission to God.
- I’m pretty sure that the average American’s stress over job, family, health, and finances hardly compares to the persecution and suffering of Christians in the first century AD. Now, I realize that I don’t know what it’s like to suffer in the first century AD, but I do know what stress is like. So, I’m willing to go out on a limb here and say the two aren’t exactly apples and apples.
- Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:12, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” NOT “will be stressed.” Peter was telling his readers that, if they chose to live as Christ-followers, they would suffer for it. They could act like pagans and overthrow their authorities, but that wouldn’t be right. The reality is that Christians will suffer unjustly in this life. They will be persecuted for their faith. They will suffer hardships because they refuse to compromise Scriptural principles. BUT, in the end, God will make all things right.
My problem with this material is two-fold: First, I think the application is completely wrong. The text is about suffering, not stress. To avoid suffering is to teach people that we no longer suffer, which is false.
Second, the teacher who uses this material sees the title and automatically thinks that the passage is about stress. Then, as he/she studies the material, they interpret the text through the lens of application. Then, they teach the students that the text is about stress. What the author of the material does is focus all on the application. Everything is about, “What does this text mean for me?” As discussed above, application is incredibly important. But, don’t focus so much on the application that you completely disregard the meaning of the text.
May we understand the Word, apply the Word, and live the Word.
Grace and peace.
 John Godfrey Saxe <http://www.noogenesis.com/pineapple/blind_men_elephant.html>