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How can we know which parts of the Bible apply to us today?

Since the Bible was written so long ago, does that make it difficult to know which parts of the Bible apply to us today? Our world and culture today are vastly different from two millennia ago, so are there some biblical principles we can legitimately ignore now? Well...we shouldn’t ignore something important just because we’d prefer to ignore it. At the same time, situations change, and we must adapt. The best response to truth might not always look the same for different people or in different moments. So how are we supposed to know which parts of the Bible apply to us today?

The short answer is CONTEXT. That includes lots of different ideas, but it boils down to something simple: every part of Scripture has one interpretation but many possible applications. When we truly understand the interpretation, we can make good choices about application. Now, that doesn’t mean some sections of the Bible are meaningless today, and it certainly doesn’t mean any section is wrong. Every part of the Bible speaks to all people—everywhere, always. What changes is how it applies and what choices we’re supposed to make in order to follow those words as God intended.

Step Zero: Keep Everything in Context

To interpret Scripture, we need context. That means that we read the passages both before and after the statement in question and knowing how the original audience would have understood the message. Context also means examining the original language to see how words fit together.

Yes, that can be a really deep, involved process, but that’s why Christians are meant to study the Bible together—not 100% alone. Faithful believers can pass along truth to others, supported by deeper ideas from those who can uncover them.

Step One: Interpret the Principles

The first thing we need to know is that each part of Scripture means something. Careful study provides a single interpretation—that is, what God originally meant when He inspired those words. That interpretation may be specific or vague, but what it can’t be is meaningless. The interpretation of a passage is where we get broad principles like “don’t commit idolatry” or “all children must honor their parents” or “only belief in Christ results in salvation.”

A huge mistake in interpreting the Bible is skipping straight to application, as if God’s command was shallow or overly simple. That’s exactly what Jesus criticized the Pharisees for. They would take a command such as “honor the Sabbath” and miss the broader, more important meaning that God desires mercy over sacrifice (Matthew 12:1-7). Of course, literally “honoring the Sabbath” was part of the meaning, but that wasn’t ALL of it.

For example, the Old Testament says, “Don’t commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). Jesus repeats this command in the New Testament (Luke 18:20). Scripture makes a big deal about sexual sins, so adultery is clearly a sin—for all people, at all times. However, Scripture also speaks about our intentions and our motivations (Proverbs 27:19; Psalm 94:11). That means the command not to commit adultery involves more than the physical act of cheating on a spouse.

This is an important reason why the Bible gives us a context to wrap around everything God tells us: the “greatest commandment.” The "greatest commandment" is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-6 and repeated (by Jesus) in Matthew 22:36-40: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind."

Step Two: Apply the Principles (if Applicable)

The next step is application. This is where we see how the interpretation of Scripture affects actions, attitudes, and choices in specific situations. This requires that one interpretation will be applied in more than one way (John 7:24).

If you’re married, the main application of “don’t commit adultery” is obvious: don’t cheat on your spouse. What if you’re not married? That’s where the full, entire meaning of Scripture comes into play—it can imply things beyond the literal words. Jesus pointed out that aspect in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). He said that physical adultery was a sin, yes, but so was lusting after someone in the mind (Matthew 5:27-30). So the application of “don’t commit adultery” includes not looking at or thinking about others in a sexually-charged way. That applies equally to both married and single people.

In some situations, yes, there’s little to apply. "Don’t commit adultery" has practically zero connection to a six-year-old’s behavior or thoughts. It will make a difference for that child some day because the command is just as true for them as it is for anyone else. Still, it’s fair to say the concept of adultery doesn’t really “apply” to a child that young.

This is also why it’s OK to say some Old Testament laws aren’t required of all people at all times. For instance, God commanded the nation of Israel not to eat shellfish (Leviticus 11:10-20). But accurate interpretation proves the restriction was meant only for the nation of Israel as a way to set them apart from the world. By not eating shellfish, Israel demonstrated how God is entirely disconnected from anything unclean.

There’s no deeper moral command or principle beyond that, and we do not see the restriction repeated in the New Testament. So for today's Christians, the restriction of “don’t eat shellfish” does NOT apply. That command still means something, and it still teaches us an important idea about God's purity. But the application, for today's Christian, does not mean anything literal or physical.

Remember: Scripture Doesn't Expire

The “newest” books of the Bible were completed almost twenty centuries ago. The earliest books are fifteen centuries older than that. When Scripture says something we’d rather not be told, modern people often jump to the excuse that those writings are old or obsolete. This is why most people who say, “That doesn't apply to me” usually mean, “That’s old-fashioned, and I don’t like it. Therefore, I'll ignore it.”

However, those texts were given by God for a reason. Those who dismiss parts of the Bible are not likely looking at it very in depth. In fact, they probably aren’t looking at it with ANY depth. Some will approach the Bible with twisted, bizarre excuses that are just that—excuses to change the interpretation so they can pick a more preferred application.

These kinds of critics will often claim statements like “don’t wear clothes made of two different fibers” (Deuteronomy 22:11) should either apply in the exact same way as rules about sex—or that neither statement should apply at all. As if there were a "blanket" way to apply every biblical principle. That’s not just incorrect, it’s immature, and it’s extremely dishonest.

Also dishonest is the attitude that some parts of the Bible are obsolete or outdated and should be ignored. The Bible that contains the history of Israel's commands from God is the same Bible that teaches the world to love all people, to be forgiving, and shows how God has mercy on us all.

So, all parts of the Bible are meaningful, to all people, at all times (2 Timothy 3:16). At the same time, those words apply differently in different situations. Sometimes, that application makes very little practical difference. But no part of Scripture is obsolete, outdated, or something we can ignore.

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TL;DR

Every word of the Bible means something. When we look at all the details, we’ll come to one interpretation for each passage. That interpretation is true, for all people, at all times. However, that truth might be applied differently in different situations. “Don’t commit adultery” is meaningful to married people, single people, and children—but each person’s application looks a bit different. The same information we use to interpret a Bible passage tells us how and where to apply that principle.

By: Jeff Laird

Jeff is a staff writer with Got Questions Ministries and used to be a mechanical engineer. When he's not accidentally setting things on fire in his workshop, or petting strange dogs, he loves helping people better understand God’s Word and how it applies to our lives. Jeff's calling is to untangle the "big picture" of Christian faith, making it easier to understand.


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