Matthew S. Harmon (PhD, Wheaton College Graduate School) is professor of New Testament Studies at Grace College and Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. He is the author of Asking the Right Questions: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible [from which the following is excerpted] and several commentaries. He also serves on the preaching team of Christ’s Covenant Church, where he leads a small group and teaches the Bible regularly.
Helping others understand the Bible and apply it to their lives is a great privilege and a great responsibility. The starting point is making sure that we understand a passage and apply it to our own lives first. When people see that we have obeyed the text ourselves, they are far more likely to apply it to their own lives.
When it comes to helping others apply the Bible, we should begin by asking the questions for the four aspects of application. But there are two additional categories to think through when seeking to apply the Bible to the lives of others.
Analyze Your Audience
When it comes to applying the Bible to others, we need to understand the people we are leading. The smaller the group, the easier it usually is to know them well enough to make targeted application. But if you teach a large Sunday school class or preach to a larger group of people, you may not know every individual in your audience. Regardless of how well you know the audience, the starting point is a good working knowledge of the fallen condition in the passage. Try to be as specific as possible about the fallen condition. Think through examples that illustrate how the fallen condition might show up in different ways in the lives of different people.
When thinking about your audience, several factors are helpful to consider. Gender is a good place to start. The way a fallen condition works itself out in the life of a woman may differ from how it shows up in the life of a man. Cultural circumstances and values within a person’s ethnic background/context can often influence how a fallen condition manifests itself, as well as the gospel solution. The same is true of socio-economic status, spiritual maturity, and a person’s life stage or status (i.e., child, teen, college student, married, single, parent, retired, etc.). These categories work in combination to shape how the fallen condition plays out in a person’s life. As a result they will also shape some of the specifics of application for the various people in your audience.
Reflect on Individual and Corporate Applications
As Westerners we tend to default to thinking about application in individualistic terms. Through the gospel God calls individuals to repent and believe, as well as to obey him. But when God saves us, he saves us into a body of believers—the church. Scripture often addresses how the people of God live as a group, not merely as individuals.
So when thinking about how to apply a passage to the people you lead, be sure to consider how it applies to the corporate life of your small group, class, and/or congregation. Think through what the passage has to say about the way believers should live together as the church. Are there truths that the entire group of believers needs to partner together to obey? What does the passage say about how we should interact with each other and with those outside the church?
A Brief Example
Let’s consider an example. In 2 Corinthians 8–9, Paul addresses the issue of giving. In one of the key sections of these two chapters he writes:
Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. (9:7–8)
An obvious fallen condition is that our natural tendency to look out for ourselves prevents us from cheerfully and self sacrificially giving. Although the focus of the passage is financial giving, applying the passage goes beyond that kind of giving to include time and other resources.
For a teenage girl growing up in a middle-class family, the fallen condition might show itself in complete ignorance of the needs of those who live in her community. A young married couple with large amounts of student debt might think they cannot afford to give because it would take away money they could use to pay off that debt. A wealthy small-business owner may be giving simply to enhance his reputation in the church or the community.
What about applying this passage to the corporate life of the church? When it comes to budgeting, a church can so prioritize its own wants that it neglects giving to others. Or perhaps a church focuses its giving toward local agencies and ministries to help enhance its reputation in the community while neglecting international opportunities. God can use a passage like this to help the church evaluate not only the amount of their giving but also their motivations.
The more specific you can be, the more clearly you and the people you lead will be able to see the fallen condition at work. When you give specific examples that reveal the presence of the fallen condition, people will recognize their own thoughts, attitudes, and actions in what you are describing. The more specific you are in identifying the fallen condition, the more precision you will have in applying the gospel solution. The better you know the specific people you are leading, as well as the larger cultural influences that feed the fallen condition you have identified, the better you will be able to speak God’s Word into their lives.
A friend of mine once referred to this as “reading people’s mail.” In other words, when you identify the fallen condition and how it shows up in a person’s life, you want the person to have that moment where he or she thinks, “That’s totally what I think/believe/desire/do.” Once someone reaches that point, the gospel solution will seem especially sweet.