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Tackle the Application of Less-Direct Passages: Reading the Bible for Personal Application, by David Powlison (Part 4 of 5)

7 July, 2010

More helpful thoughts from David Powlison on how to personally appropriate the saving message and wisdom of the Bible in our own circumstances today. Ephesians 6:17

4. Tackle the Application of Less-direct Passages

Application is a lifelong process, seeking to expand and deepen wisdom. At the simplest level, simply read through the Bible in its larger chunks. The cumulative acquisition of wisdom is hard to quantify. A sense of what truth means and how truth works is overheard as well as heard. But also wrestle to work out the implications of specific passages.

Consider two examples. The first presents an extreme challenge to personal application: a genealogy or census. These are directly irrelevant to your life. Your name is not on the list. The reasons for the list disappeared long ago. You gain nothing by knowing that “Koz fathered Anub, Zobebah, and the clans of Aharhel” (1 Chron. 4:8). But when you learn to listen rightly, such lists intend many good things—and each list has a somewhat different purpose. Among the things taught are these:

  • The Lord writes down names in his book of life.
  • Families and communities matter to him.
  • God is faithful to his promises through long history.
  • He enlists his people as troops in the redemptive reconquest of a world gone bad.
  • All the promises of God find their “Yes” in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).

You “apply” a list of ancient names and numbers by extension, not directly. Your love for God grows surer and more intelligent when you ponder the kind of thing this is, rather than getting lost in the blizzard of names or numbers.

The second example presents a mid-level challenge. Psalms are often among the most directly relevant parts of Scripture. But what do you do when Psalm 21:1 says, “O Lord, in your strength the king rejoices”? The psalm is not talking about you, and it is not you talking—not directly. A train of connected truths apply this psalm to you, leading you out of yourself.

First, David lived and wrote these words, but Jesus Christ most fully lived—is now living, and will finally fulfill—this entire psalm. He is the greatest human king singing this song of deliverance; and he is also the divine Lord whose power delivers. We know from the perspective of NT fulfillment that this psalm is overtly by and about Jesus, not about any particular individual.

Second, you participate in the triumph of your King. You are caught up in all that the psalm describes, because you are in this Christ. So pay attention to his experience, because he includes you.

Third, your participation arises not as a solo individual but in company with countless brothers and sisters. You most directly apply this psalm by joining with fellow believers in a chorus of heartfelt gladness: “O Lord, we will sing and praise your power” (Ps. 21:13). The king’s opening joy in God’s power has become his people’s closing joy.

Finally, figuratively, you are also kingly in Christ. In this sense, Jesus’ experience of deliverance (the entire psalm) does apply to your life. Having walked through the psalm as an expression of the exultant triumph of Christ Jesus himself, you may now make it your experience too. You could even adapt Psalm 21 into the first person, inserting “I/me/my” in place of “the king” and “he/him/his.” It would be blasphemous to do that at first. It is fully proper and your exceeding joy to do this in the end. This is a song in which all heaven will join. As you grasp that your brothers and sisters share this same goal, you will love them and serve their joy more consistently.

God reveals himself and his purposes throughout Scripture. Wise application always starts there.

(Excerpted from the excellent ESV Study Bible)

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