Meaning and Application

A key idea that we need to master when we seek to understand the Bible is the difference between the meaning of a text, and the application(s) of a text. Any given text has only one meaning, with many possible applications. The Ten Words tell us not to steal, and the meaning of the text is “Don’t steal!” (Of course, one can explain the meaning more fully, but it doesn’t mean any less than that.) Applications, however, abound: Don’t steal from God (Malachi 3:8), don’t steal from your parents (Matthew 15:4-6, and notice here that it is possible to break more than one commandment at a time!), don’t steal from your neighbor (Luke 19:1-10), and so on.

The point is that a text has one meaning, and only one meaning, and that meaning holds for everyone. No one is permitted to steal. However, applications vary widely, and the same application might not apply in different cases. Imagine this: two families might have two very different applications of this principle when it comes to the cookie jar: one family might have an open jar policy, where anyone can take a cookie at any time, as long as there are still cookies left, which wouldn’t be very long. In this house, taking a cookie without asking isn’t stealing. Another family might have a closed cookie jar, where permission is required before taking a cookie. In this house, taking a cookie without asking is stealing. When a closed-jar kid visits an open-jar home and sees people raiding the jar all day without asking anybody, he might go home thinking that he had spent the day with a family of thieves, and judge them in his heart by a false standard. Here’s the problem: If he confuses meaning (“don’t steal”) with his particular application (don’t take cookies without permission), he will mistake a man-made rule that attempts to apply the meaning of Scripture for the actual meaning of Scripture itself. Now, it might be a very fine rule, and very helpful in his home, but he cannot ask or expect anyone else to follow his rule in their own home.

Does this really ever happen, though? Sadly, yes: the Pharisees, as a general class, were masters of this sad art, and it led them to kill Jesus as a law-breaker, when he was actually a law-loving tradition breaker. And it happens today in many discussions among Christians concerning all kinds of issues: baptism, worship, education, entertainment, and many others. Applying Scripture needs to be done in humility, and only after the work of finding out the meaning of a text has been done. Some applications will be a net that catches everyone, and some applications will only affect one individual. We need to hold our applications of Scripture more loosely than we hold on to the meaning of Scripture.

So I want us to think deeply about the difference between the universally relevant meaning of a text and the particular applications of a text. We don’t want to beat our brothers and sisters in Christ over the head with an application that may not apply to them. Instead, we want to share life with them, life that comes as the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to edifying applications of the true meaning of the text.

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