The Relevance of Preaching: Applying an Ancient Text to Modern Situations

 |  November 12, 2018

The Bible is relevant. God’s Word is just as living, active, and penetrating today as it was when the Spirit first inspired its writers to record its truths for its original recipients.

Unfortunately, we preachers sometimes muddle its relevance as we attempt to preach it. We cross a bridge called “application.” We anchor the bridge in the ancient world, evaluating historical and cultural contexts, analyzing biblical languages, and discerning original authors’ intents. Then, we cross the span of millennia to demonstrate the Bible’s relevance to the contemporary world, explaining how the ancient, Spirit-inspired Scriptures should influence our perspectives and behaviors today.

Some interpreters cross the application bridge with trepidation, so fearful of leaving the ancient world that they arrive on the contemporary side sapped of power and focus—if they arrive at all. Others race recklessly across, disregarding biblical integrity along the way and, too often, falling into the ravine of application heresy.

How can we cross the application bridge in a manner that both maintains biblical integrity and demonstrates the Scriptures’ piercing relevance for today? We can navigate the bridge that once loomed long and frightening by asking three questions.

1. What does the text teach?

Because correct application grows from careful interpretation, the faithful preacher begins not by asking “How does this text apply?” but by asking “What does this text teach?  What did God demonstrate about Himself, His people, and His world through these verses?” Through this careful observation of the passage’s context and language, we discover what truth, concept, or idea that God taught first to the passage’s original audience and then to believers today.

At this beginning of the process, we are not yet homileticians. We are exegetes. Homiletics will come later. But first, we roll up our sleeves to do the difficult work of Bible interpretation.

For example, a study of Philippians 2:1–11 might reveal this truth: Jesus provided the definitive example of humility through His incarnation and crucifixion.

2. What is the text’s purpose?

God intends biblical texts to teach His truths. He also intends for these truths to accomplish some purpose in readers. After identifying what truth a passage teaches, therefore, we should ask what God intends that truth to accomplish. Does He expect this text to send readers to their knees in repentance, or to the heights of worship? Does God intend this passage to equip believers to perform some ministry, or to instill in them a sense of hope? Stated as specifically as possible, for what purpose did God include this truth in the Bible?

Asking and answering this question unleashes the text to “happen again” for today’s listeners.

To continue the previous example, an interpreter might conclude that God intends Philippians 2:1–11 to inspire believers to follow Christ’s example of humility by sacrificing their own ambitions and interests for the sake of others.

3. What might we think, feel, or do differently if the text accomplished its purpose in us?

A text’s application grows out of its purpose. We ask what believers today might think, feel, or do differently if the passage accomplished its purpose in them. The answer typically comes in the form of imagined possibilities rather than absolute lists—dreaming of various ways the passage might apply to contemporary believers.

If Philippians 2:1–11 accomplished its purpose in believers today, to complete our example, believers might relieve their spouses of more parenting duties at home, hold their tongues when they’re tempted to wag them about their own accomplishments or give their vacation time to serve a week of church camp. On a deeper level, they might sacrifice their careers to serve on a mission field, spend their retirement years serving a nonprofit, or cash in their portfolio to help the poor.

The application bridge—though it offers exhilarating adventure—sways and creaks, tempting dangerous falls. Rather than cowering with trepidation, however, or racing recklessly across, the faithful Bible interpreter can use these three questions to cross the bridge with careful confidence, allowing the Bible to penetrate believers’ hearts and lives.

Daniel Overdorf is the Dean of the School of Congregational Ministry and Professor of Pastoral Ministries at Johnson University in Knoxville, Tennessee. He is the author of Applying the Sermon: How to Balance Biblical Integrity and Cultural Relevance and One Year to Better Preaching: 52 Exercises to Hone Your Skills.

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