It is of the utmost importance when studying the Word of God that a distinction is clearly made between interpretation and application. The interpretation of a passage is identified with the persons to whom the words were originally intended. It is the meaning as they would understand it. When the interpretation has been settled, then it is acceptable to make an application of those same words to others, so long as we do not weaken the original sense or come into conflict with other Scriptures. It may even be that an application has a far deeper meaning than the interpretation itself, and conveys truths far beyond it. However, no application (whoever makes it) should be regarded as sound or trustworthy unless the interpretation has been first ascertained. Interpretation always takes precedence over application.
Words convey what is in the mind of the writer. Thus if I receive a letter from a friend, I look at what words are on the page and readily appreciate the thoughts that lay behind them. It is not normal for people to write in code or to deliberately make the message difficult to understand. Interpreting the Bible is no different. The words on the pages of Scripture convey the mind of God, and the message, though profound, is written to be understood. Of course there are passages that are more involved than others, but God does not design Scripture to be obscure to His children! A human writer may not make his points clearly or well—this can never be the case with inspiration. The reason for a lack of understanding lies with you and I. This was an issue for the Hebrews: “For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that [one] should teach you what [are] the elements of the beginning of the oracles of God” (Heb. 5: 12). That the Ethiopian eunuch did not understand what he was reading (see Acts 8: 30, 31) is not surprising because he was not yet converted. However, he made rapid progress in his understanding once the glad tidings had got into his soul—compare the connection he makes between the position of Christ and his own situation (see vs. 33, 36). As Paul says elsewhere, God’s “words” are “taught by the Spirit, communicating spiritual [things] by spiritual [means]”—the “natural man” cannot receive such things (1 Cor. 2: 13, 14).
Fundamental to the understanding of how to interpret Scripture is 2 Peter 1: 20, 21: “knowing this first, that [the scope of] no prophecy of scripture is had from its own particular interpretation, for prophecy was not ever uttered by [the] will of man, but holy men of God spake under the power of [the] Holy Spirit”. Now the words “its own” have been rendered by the AV as “private”, which some have perverted by making it mean that Scripture is not to be interpreted by the individual for himself, but that he should trustfully accept what others have declared its meaning to be. Rome and its dictum of ‘hear the Church’ is most culpable here, but Rome is by no means unique in its attitude.
The true meaning of the verse is simple. It is a warning against treating each individual prophetic utterance as though it were a kind of self–contained saying to be interpreted in isolation from the rest of prophetic teaching. All prophecy is connected and inter-related and to be understood only in connection with the whole. To illustrate: if a piano-maker drew up plans for an exceptionally fine piano and entrusted the work in four sections to four different craftsmen, then anybody who endeavoured to ‘interpret’ any one of the resultant individual pieces would surely reach some strange conclusions. No reliable or satisfactory interpretation would be found until each piece was seen as related to the whole design. The same principle applies to every prophecy of Scripture. Nor does this mean just those passages that predict the future. All Scripture is prophecy in the sense that it communicates the mind of God. To return to our illustration: in practice, each one of the craftsmen, while entrusted with the construction of one section, would nonetheless work to an overall master plan. In the same way, while there are many individual prophecies in Scripture, all must be interpreted in the light of the whole Bible.
A well–known example is Matthew 13: 33: “He spoke another parable to them: The kingdom of the heavens is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until it had been all leavened”. This is usually supposed to refer to the Gospel permeating the world with good, but consideration of the use of the word leaven in the rest of Scripture would have prevented this conclusion being arrived at. The meaning of leaven elsewhere is invariably bad (see Exod. 12: 15; 34: 25; Lev. 2: 11; Matt. 16: 6; 1 Cor. 5: 6, 8), and so the transformation here must be for the worse. Scripture actually interprets Matt. 13: 33 for us—only if we read the passage in isolation are we forced to rely on human imagination!
What has been considered thus far leads on naturally to the subject of context, namely that the setting in which a particular verse, passage or chapter is put will give considerable help to its understanding. If this simple principle is not followed then the Bible is reduced to a collection of texts—a farcical position to adopt when one considers that the epistles, for example, were clearly written as whole letters! If James writes “to the twelve tribes which [are] in the dispersion” (James 1: 1), that is, to Jews and not Gentiles, then keeping that fact in my mind will help me in my understanding of all that he subsequently writes. No credible historian studying the letters of Queen Victoria would ever say that the names or backgrounds of the recipients were utterly irrelevant—and yet that is the stance many adopt in relation to Holy Scripture!
Now context can be immediate or distant. For example, take Matthew 24: 40, 41: “Then two shall be in the field, one is taken and one is left; two [women] grinding at the mill, one is taken and one is left”. The explanation generally given is that the one taken is removed for blessing when the Church is raptured. Now the immediate context is the parallel the Lord makes between the event He describes and the days of Noah. There the ones taken away (see verse 39, “and took all away”) were taken for judgment not blessing. This does not fit with the popular explanation.
A not–so–immediate context is the chapter itself. The subject of Matthew 24 is the answer to the disciple’s question “when shall these things be, and what is the sign of thy coming and [the] completion of the age?” (v 3). Thus in verse 30 we read of “the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory”. The verses about two being in the field are introduced with similar phraseology (see v 39). The chapter is clearly not about the rapture but Christ’s appearing in glory.
A more distant context is the parallel passage in Luke 17: “I say to you, In that night there shall be two [men] upon one bed; one shall be seized and the other shall be let go” (vs. 34). Seized for blessing and let go for judgment? The reverse is surely true.
Finally, there are references in the Gospels where persons are taken for judgment, and others left for blessing—as in the parables of the darnel and the wheat, and of the seine net (see Matt. 13: 41 – 43; 49). This and all the rest demonstrate that Matthew 24: 40, 41 is connected with the appearing of Christ in glory and not the rapture, and that those taken are removed for judgment and not blessing. Context matters!
Before looking at the application of Scripture we need to examine its counterfeit. True application is very different from what is called spiritualizing—a practice which has quite the opposite effect on the passage that its name would seem to imply. Spiritualizers ignore what may be learnt from the interpretation of the passage, and merely use the words of God to convey their own human messages. It may be done with very pious intentions, but insofar as it shuts out what God intended to say, then it must be rejected as unspiritual. Amos 4: 12, “prepare to meet thy God” is a typical example. This verse is sometimes used as a Gospel appeal, as if the prophet were talking about meeting God as a Saviour. God can be met as a Saviour, but this passage has no connection with such an encounter. The interpretation is a solemn warning to the nation of Israel that having persisted in their rejection of Jehovah, they must now meet Him in His wrath. Any application must take account of these facts. To apply what speaks of judgment as referring to salvation is not only absurd, but reduces the Bible to a collection of words that can be twisted to accommodate any message that the preacher in his wisdom sees fit. Genuine application would take account of the interpretation – as in using this verse to speak of judgment to come in a general way
When the child Jesus was taken by his parents into Egypt, Matthew records that this was “that that might be fulfilled which was spoken by [the] Lord through the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Matt. 2: 15). However, if we turn back to the prophet we find that he was not talking about Christ, but God’s earthly people: “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos. 11: 1). So far as the OT is concerned, the interpretation of the passage belongs to Israel. However, through inspiration, the NT writer takes up the passage again and applies it to Christ, in effect giving it a double meaning or interpretation. There are many other examples of this ‘inspired application’ in the Scriptures where we can have no doubt about a deeper meaning to a passage because the Scriptures themselves are explicit about it.
Much more caution needs to be exercised when passages are applied in ways that are not unequivocally sanctioned by the Bible. Few, for example, would doubt that there are many aspects of the life of Joseph that are a beautiful foretaste of Christ, but the Bible never actually says so. When we move into areas of Scripture where such parallels are even less certain, then we are in perilous territory. How much mischief, for instance, has been wrought by wrongly applying to the Church the OT prophecies about Israel’s blessing? This doesn’t mean that we should shrink from all but the most obvious applications, but it does mean that we need to be cast upon God for wisdom and understanding. Novel applications are often presented in a dogmatic way and as capable of being perceived only by the most ‘spiritual’. This is a sure sign of one who has gone astray, and is leading astray.
Some applications can also be given a depth of meaning as regards detail far beyond what the Holy Spirit could possibly have intended. We know, for example, that the events of Israel’s wilderness journey can be applied to present–day believers because the Bible says so: “these things happened [as] types of us” (1 Cor. 10: 6). However, the application has limits—it does not apply to all the details. For example, that the war with Amalek is a type of the Christian’s struggle with the flesh (see Gal. 5: 17) seems reasonable. Dig down into the detail though, and we see that it is only the “men” (Exod. 17: 9) that fought, whereas all believers are to be involved in Christian warfare. The application will break down if it is stretched too far.
It ought to be evident by now that the Bible needs to be handled with spiritual skill. This is the substance of Paul’s exhortation in 2 Tim. 2: 15: “Strive diligently to present thyself approved to God, a workman that has not to be ashamed, cutting in a straight line the word of truth”. If we heed this exhortation, then there is no limit to the bounty that will be opened up to us from the treasures of truth—but if we neglect it through carelessness or self—will, then we will remain stunted in growth and be at risk of wandering from the path of the faith itself.