When reading the Bible, before we can properly determine what a passage means for us today, we must first identify what it meant to the original recipients.
Today, Bible readers and students enjoy the benefits that come from thousands of years of history and the Scripture-related efforts of so many who have come before us. In many ways, truly, we stand on the shoulders of giants.
For example, you and I don't have to translate the Bible into English so that we can easily read and comprehend the Scriptures. Nor do we have to strain ourselves just to get access to the Scriptures. We don't even have to spend much time in order to gain a deep understanding of exactly what a Greek or Hebrew word from the text means.
All of these things—and thousands more—have been done by those who have come before us.
Unfortunately, like most conveniences, these can be dangerous if we aren't careful.
When we pick up our Bibles, use a smartphone app such as YouVersion, or browse the text online at sites like biblegateway.com, we have this nice, pretty, packaged product.
What is so difficult to remember in our studies and reading is how we got that product—the history behind the Scriptures (and our modern translations of them!).
Here is a simple truth that, if you will internalize, meditate upon and habitually recall during your reading and study, it will totally transform how you understand the Bible:
The Bible was not written to you. The Bible has been preserved for you.
Let me illustrate how this impacts our thinking and why it matters.
Imagine you are sitting in church listening to a sermon.
The pastor says, "Turn in your Bibles to Psalm 23."
What's your first thought?
"What page is Psalm 23 on?"
You remember that Psalms is basically the halfway point in "the Bible," so you put your thumb there and open the page.
"Ah, yes! I got to Psalms on the first try! Boom! Okay, where am I? Oh, Psalm 138. I gotta go backwards."
You locate Psalm 23 and look up again and note that the pastor has the text on the slide.
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," the pastor begins reading.
What's your next thought?
For most people, they immediately begin thinking about themselves and how what they're reading applies to them! We all do it. I do it too!
But remember, that psalm wasn't written to you (directly), it was preserved for you! I'm not suggesting Psalm 23 doesn't apply to us today. Rather, I'm saying that:
Before we can properly determine what a passage means for us, we must first figure out what it meant to the first people who received it—the primary audience.
GOD inspired that message to be written at a specific time, to a specific audience, for a specific reason(s).
- Instead of asking what page the text is on (in our conveniently bound singular book), we should ask ourselves who the writer is.
- We should think about each "book" of the Bible as a separate manuscript that was written by a unique work.
- We should think about the time period that this text was written.
- We should consider what was happening at the time that the text was written.
- We should identify to whom the text was written initially.
- And we should determine what GOD's intended message was for the first audience.
Once we understand what the passage meant to the original recipients, we're now ready to figure out what the intended takeaways are for us.
There are three possible outcomes:
- The application for us is exactly the same as it was for the primary audience. For example, consider 1 John 4:7, which says:
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.
(1 John 4:7 NIV)
This passage means exactly the same thing for us as it did for the original recipients 2,000 years ago. Because this is a timeless principle.
- The application for us is different than the primary audience, but still applicable. This is the most common scenario. For an example, consider the first part of Romans 16:16:
16 Greet one another with a holy kiss.
(Romans 16:16a NIV)
While some would disagree, most accept that Paul's instruction to kiss other Christians was intended more as a general cultural warm welcome than a specific instruction for all times and cultures. Most Bible students agree that the takeaway for us is to love and greet one another in the Lord Jesus.
- The passage was intended specifically for the original recipients and has no specific application for us today. Here's an example of one such passage:
3 Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. 4 They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.
5 Greet also the church that meets at their house.These instructions are quite obviously not relevant for us today. Priscilla and Aquila have been dead for 2,000 years so it's kinda hard for us to greet them here in this life.
(Romans 16:3-5 NIV)
Most of the time, Bible teachers assume that passages apply to us just the same as they did the primary audience. Psalm 23 is a good example. Yes, the meaning is similar, but not exactly the same as it was for King David, or any Jew living before the new covenant.
Here's another example:
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
(Ephesians 6:10-17 NIV)
Most people would say that this applies to us exactly the same as it did the first century Christians. But they would be wrong. In order to understand why and how it differs, you've got to apply this Primary Audience Principle throughout earlier Scriptures so that you can understand what was happening in the years soon after Paul wrote these things.
Practice the Primary Audience Principle and it will transform how you understand the Scriptures. The difference is not insignificant or trivial. It's massive!