Some preachers produce abundant applications (or, implications?) for their congregations from biblical narratives, whether they are Old Testament historical narratives like Judges 4 or New Testament Gospel narratives like Mark 3. Other preachers insist they should offer only theological and practical implications. Still others refuse to recognize any implications or applications from Scripture narratives. They declare, “Biblical narrative is only descriptive, not prescriptive.” Which practice is best? Which practice is legitimate and in keeping with sound biblical interpretation?
New Testament Teaching
No matter what the topic, one should always begin with the Scriptures themselves. What does the Word of God teach? The very first biblical truth to note comes from 2 Timothy 3:16–17,
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (ESV)
Note the following:
- “All Scripture” includes all narratives and even genealogies.
- “Profitable” means “useful.”
- “Teaching” refers to providing instruction in pertinent areas of both faith and life—doctrine and living/practice.
- “Reproof” indicates “rebuke” and applying discipline or punishment.
- “Correction” has the sense of “restoration” or “improvement” in doctrine and practice.
- “Training in righteousness” means “providing guidance for responsible living” that reflects divine guidelines—living and acting according to what is right according to the revealed Word of God.
- “Complete” identifies preparation and proficiency or capability.
- “Equipped” refers to being made fully furnished and ready for service.
- “Every good work” refers to every resulting practice or step of obedience in living out biblical teaching.
In other words, no part of Scripture fails to have practical application to how a Christian lives—what he or she does, not just what he or she thinks. That is the apostle Paul’s teaching by the superintending work of the Holy Spirit in his writing these verses.
New Testament Examples from Christ’s Teaching
There is no need to look at examples from the Church fathers, the Reformers, or any other preacher throughout the history of the Christian faith. The Bible itself provides us with the best examples for how to provide application from biblical narratives. We can begin with the example of Jesus Christ’s own teaching and preaching. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus said,
“And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.” (Mark 12:26–27; see also Luke 20:34–38)
Jesus does not speak of implication, but of an undeniable propositional truth: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still live, even though they have died physically. From the narrative about the burning bush in Exodus 3 Jesus expected the readers to understand that there is life after death and a future resurrection. In addition, He expected the readers to apply that truth to the question concerning marriage in heaven in the believer’s resurrected state.
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus said,
“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4–6)
Note the same question, “Have you not read?”—Jesus holds us accountable for reading, believing, and applying the narratives in Genesis 1–3 concerning the creation of Adam and Eve. The application affects how we live: (1) We should marry. (2) A husband must make his wife a higher priority than his parents. (3) We should conduct marriage in a fashion that does not result in unfaithfulness or divorce. This is practical application of Old Testament narrative that Jesus expected the readers to have already made before He even said these words.
New Testament Examples from the Apostles’ Teaching
6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:6–13)
Please note the following:
- “These things” (v. 6) refer to more than just a single event recorded in Old Testament narratives about Israel’s past history.
- God intended those events to be “examples for us” (v. 6). The word “examples” (tupoi) refers to patterns or models that should be either copied or to be understood as models or patterns not to be followed. In other words, the narratives present events through which we can learn how either to live or not to live, to practice or not to practice.
- Those narratives were “written down for our instruction” (v. 11). The word “instruction” (nouthesia) refers to admonition or warning affecting one’s conduct—practical counsel for New Testament believers from Old Testament narratives.
- The examples listed in these verses are not exhaustive. Paul expects his readers to read the Old Testament narratives in such a way that they derive imperatives from them to apply to everyday living. The examples he provides here are “Do not desire evil” (v. 6), “Do not be idolaters” (v. 7), “Do not indulge in sexual immorality” (v. 8), “Do not put Christ to the test” (v. 9), “Do not grumble” (v. 10), “Take heed to yourself” (v. 12), and “Endure temptation” (v. 13).
What other imperatives might legitimately be drawn in the same fashion from those very same Old Testament narratives?
- Trust God to provide your needs in difficult circumstances (Exodus 16).
- Do not quarrel with your spiritual leaders (Exodus 17).
- Entrust the care of God’s flock to capable leaders who share the burden (Exodus 18).
- Give to the work of God (Exodus 25:1–9).
- Do not fear what appear to be overwhelming odds against success in claiming what God Himself has promised (Numbers 13–14).
- Obey the Lord exactly as He demands—do not modify His imperative by your impatience, anger, or unbelief (Numbers 20).
And, we haven’t even considered what might be learned from Romans 15:4 and similar texts.
Thoughts for Our Daily Paths
Even the New Testament itself leaves some application to the sanctified mind interacting with the written Word of God. Paul’s list of the “works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19–22) concludes with “and things like these” (v. 21). The list is incomplete and the apostle, by the leading of God’s Spirit, expects us to add to the list those works that belong to the flesh but have not been listed. In similar fashion, the apostle adds to the identification of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22–23) by saying “such things.” Again, he expects us to add to that list. Naturally, we should begin with the Scriptures themselves to increase both lists—this is not license to make up things out of thin air and to be creative. In fact, the applications might well arise out of the narratives of both the Old Testament and the New. The two lists in Galatians 5 should result in how we live (walk)—what we do—not just what we think about or itemize to be theological.
Did you make any rash promises today while flushed with pride over what you consider to be a great accomplishment? Would you respond to God’s chastening by saying, “Lord, I don’t find any direct imperative in the New Testament epistles about it. And, the narrative about Jephthah (Judges 11:29–40) only has some theological implications, so I wasn’t really disobeying You—Jephthah is not a model from whom I can learn anything”? Don’t respond that way. Don’t preach that way either. Being “doers of the word” of God (James 1:22) requires obedience beyond just the directly stated imperatives. Acting otherwise is, as James put it, deluding oneself. Keep Jesus’ rebuke in mind: “Have you not read?” Remember that He included reading Old Testament narrative in that rebuke–and expected a practical application from it by which one’s life demonstrates obedience.