There are two dangerous extremes in Bible reading. The first is to study the Bible academically as if it consisted only of ideas to be understood. The second is to read the Bible impressionistically as if it consisted only of isolated Christian life-tips. Some Christians almost deny that God speaks to people today. They poke fun at the idea of God using the Bible as a guide book for life. They tell jokes like the one about the lady who would pray for guidance as to which sock to put on first. Another joke concerns a man seeking guidance from the Bible who opened it at random and read, ‘Judas went out and hanged himself’. Flipping quickly to another page, he read, ‘Go and do thou likewise’. In desperation he turned to another page, only to read, ‘That thou doest, do quickly’. However amusing such arguments are, we need to understand that when we read the Bible, it is not a case of us examining it. Rather, it is really the Bible that is examining our lives. The Bible is God’s word – it speaks to us. How do we hear the Bible’s message for our lives today? Obviously, if there is a command that applies to us, we should obey it. If there is a promise,we should take it to heart and if there is a rebuke we should take heed. We should follow the good examples we see in scripture.
However, we must be aware of the danger of ripping sentences out of their context. Does 1 Corinthians 3.16 (‘You are the temple of God … the Spirit of God dwells in you’) teach that Christians should not smoke? No. This verse refers to the church at Corinth rather than to individual Christians. The context is the seriousness of dividing the church. A preacher wanting to inveigh against smoking would be on safer ground quoting the similar verse in 1 Corinthians 6. 19 where the context is clearly that of the believer’s body. Take another example: Galatians 3. 28. This verse is applied by some to argue that, in Christ, men and women are equal and therefore women can do what men do for Christ. This verse does indeed use very gender-inclusive language, but it is not writing about service for Christ. The context is about salvation. The lesson is that all can be saved.
We must also realize that not everything in the Bible applies to us today. The progressive nature of scriptural revelation means that certain truths and commands applied only at certain stages of God’s revelation. We are no longer under the Old Testament law. We cannot have the Holy Spirit taken away from us, Ps. 51. 11. Neither are we under the food prohibitions,Col. 2. 16, nor do we use imprecatory prayers, Rom. 12. 14, nor is our gospel anymore restricted to Jews, Matt. 10. 5.
One important question we need to ask as we read the Bible is, ‘Why did the author write this?’ Why did Paul write Romans 6. 23? Was it so that people would get saved? No. In Romans chapter 6 Paul writes about the change in lifestyle of a Christian – we are not to continue in sin. In verses 12-23 the Christian is pictured as being in new employment and contrasts are drawn between the old and new employers, contracts, products and wages. Verse 23 is primarily a warning to professing Christians that, if there is no evidence of repentance, then they are not saved at all. They are still serving the old boss, sin – and beware: his wage is death. What is the point of John 4? Is John here showing us from the Lord’s example how we, too, can be successful personal evangelists? Or is this passage teaching us something about the reception of adulteresses into the church? No. John’s main point – as seen by placing this incident after Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus – is the fact that Christ came to be the Saviour of all, even adulterous Samaritan women. Other applications might have some validity, but the primary application is a gospel one. Context often helps determine the main point.
Behind many specific applications lie general principles. Therefore, even though I do not possess certain gifts of the Spirit, I may still apply 1 Corinthians 14 to myself by striving to edify the church rather than showing off my spirituality. The question of cultural relevance arises here. Some argue that certain scriptures only applied to a first-century context – alleged examples include foot-washing, shaking dust from feet at unbelievers and holy kisses. Therefore, they say, we need only adopt the general principle. Space forbids examination of individual examples, each of which is quite different. Generally speaking, however, by comparison with the Old Testament, the New Testament is not culture bound. It calls upon us to be counter-cultural by obeying God’s word.
God’s will for our lives not only involves general directives (e.g., holiness, thankfulness,1 Thess. 4. 3; 5. 18) but also at times specific guidance, e.g., Ps. 73. 24; Rom 1. 10; 1 Cor. 1. 1. God is hardly going to guide us in relation to life decisions if we are disobedient to His word. Nevertheless, God still guides us today. On a number of occasions when God guided Peter, He repeated the guidance three times. He did this when giving Peter the vision of the descending sheet, the cock crowing and His restoration of Peter with the words, Do you love me? Therefore we need to avoid drawing hasty conclusions about guidance form God’s word, but instead wait prayerfully upon God for further repeated confirmation that it is indeed His voice we are hearing and not simply our own. Reading God’s word carefully, consistently and consecutively is the best safeguard against foolish ideas such as going out like Judas to hang ourselves.