The Context Wars I- Applying the Bible Correctly

My friend Aaron recently told me he wanted to study the Bible. He asked me if I was willing to receive his study notes. I, the “wannabe busy-bee”, was a bit reluctant, but then- why not help?
One of my life-thrills is to see friends have a fresh desire to study the Bible as it is – as God’s Word. I hope that is where Aaron is. He’s going to have challenging and transforming times ahead because He will spend time with God! Also, I get to learn from Aaron’s study time. For example, the first text he sent spoke to my life and was quite encouraging. Now, this post is based on something Aaron and I discussed as he studied the book of Luke.
Aaron seems high on finding practical application from the Bible, which is an excellent thing. As he studied the beginning of the gospel of Luke where the Bible describes John the Baptist’s God-fearing, blameless parents, Aaron concluded that we too need to be God-fearing and obeying, no matter what happens.
But is it right to look at 3 verses and draw an application based on that, while not paying attention to the chapter and the book itself?

Do we do that to newspapers? Most of us do not read 3-4 sentences in the middle of a news report about a landmark Supreme court decision, form our conclusions and then take action based on those misinformed conclusions.

If we don’t handle the opinions of men childishly, what gives us the authority to handle God’s Word that way?
Being a child of God doesn’t give us freedom to depart from common sense.


Image credit – . CC0 BY license

Is it possible that in our zeal to get quick applications, we could be ignoring God’s intention when He gave us the Bible as a book?

Consider the book “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”. It doesn’t matter how many times they play Quidditch in the book – J.K. Rowling is not primarily explaining how to catch the Snitch while riding a broomstick.

There is a larger story, a bigger focus– it is about Harry Potter and it has got to do something with the prisoner of Azkaban.

Now we may not always have the luxury of clear intent in the titles of books of the Bible, but there are surely ways to know the author’s intent. God has given us wise works in commentaries– let us look ’em up. We do injustice to God’s intentions when we don’t do the work of knowing what the author of any book in the Bible wrote that book for.
Chapter 1 of the gospel of Luke, for example, is not primarily asking us to live blameless lives- that is the intent of passages like 1 Thessalonians 2:9-10 & Philippians 2:13-15.
The books of Luke and Acts are two volumes of a single work, which tells the story of how God calls the nation of Israel and later, all nations to follow Jesus (Introduction to the Book of Luke, NIV, Biblica). It is the declaration to a non-Jewish audience about the long-awaited news of rescue from sin by Yahweh, God almighty himself.
So when we read the record of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the main point is not that they were blameless- the focus is on how God kept His promises, right from the one to Adam and Eve to all the Old Testament prophecies about a Rescuer and Sin-bearer. God sends his angel to this undeserving but God-focused couple, and tells of their future son, John the Baptist, who will bring many Israelites back to the Lord and prepare them for the Messiah himself. Wow !!

The whole book’s purpose must affect our life-application, even when we are studying a few verses.

But is it wrong to apply Godly traits from examples present in the text, like my friend Aaron did?

Do share your comments below.

8 Replies to “The Context Wars I- Applying the Bible Correctly”

  1. Hahah, thanks for taking time and reading this, Rohin bhai…!
    What do you think about application – how do you approach it this way? Honest- years of “immediate application syndrome” has left me not thinking about the Bible or the book of Romans, for e.g, when I study Romans 4.
    It is a hex I must undo!

  2. Thanks! it is a timely reminder. This is something I have done for years and I see it being done from pulpits and in Bible studies all the time. Actually, it is more common to interpret/apply the Bible this way nowadays. I think this comes out of a wrong understanding of “divine inspiration” of Scripture. Most people who try to find applications in every word and punctuation mark in the Bible believe that there is some spiritual significance and application to be derived from every verse since every word in the Bible is ‘divinely inspired’.

    1. Hmm.. that’s interesting. So Johns bhai, you are saying that there is a correct understanding to “Divine inspiration” that many Christians miss today?

      1. Yes. Those of us that pick 2-3 verses from the middle of a passage devoid of its context believe that since the Bible is ‘divinely inspired’, we do not need to worry about the context. God can (and always does) speak through individual words, verses etc. So, we can take John 3:16 and go off on a tangent about one word like ‘love’ or ‘begotten’ in that passage.

        Am I making sense?

        1. Hmm.. I see what you are saying.
          So in the above example, are we justified at any point to learn from the example of Zechariah and Elizabeth?
          There are Bible study techniques that promote this, i think, the Sword technique. You remember –
          – What does the text say about God?
          – What does it say about man?
          – Any example to follow?
          – Any warning given?

  3. We can learn whatever the text says about Zechariah and Elizabeth, but we cannot add to what the text says! The 4 questions you gave – are good enough, as long as I stick to the original intent of the questions! So, I should stick to finding out ‘what the text says’ not ‘what I think the text says’. Also, there might be some passages that does not necessarily have an example to follow or a warning given – unless I see them in its wider context.

    For example:
    If I read Luke 1:8-12 and decide that those verses teach us that God will speak to us only when we are busy serving him, then I am not telling you what the text says, but what I think the text says! The text just says (1)Zechariah was a priest and his name was chosen by lots, (2) The angel of the Lord spoke to him. Period! 🙂

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