In the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, a Coke bottle is thrown from an airplane and lands in a tiny community of African bush people. Because it dropped from the sky, they think the bottle is a gift from the gods.
At first this isolated tribe is puzzled by the bottle’s strange appearance. They have never seen glass before, not to mention a bottle. What is this thing good for? Yet after a while they begin to find many uses for the Coke bottle. Because of its hardness, it makes an excellent hammer for smashing roots. Because it is cylindrical, the bottle can be used as a rolling pin. They find it can even be used as a musical instrument if they blow into the opening. The more they think about it, the more uses they discover for the bottle.
In one sense, a biblical principle is like that Coke bottle. We know the principle is a gift from God—even if the Coke bottle isn’t. But at first we don’t know quite what to do with it. Its usefulness only becomes apparent as we think about how it can affect our lives.
Yet it is precisely at this point that many people fail. Some simply don’t take the time to reflect on how the principle might apply to the situations they face. Others make the opposite mistake of applying the principle to situations for which it was never intended. Like the bush people, they use a biblical “Coke bottle” as a rolling pin!
“If You Love Me”
Previously, we saw that Jesus taught that love for God and neighbor summarizes “all the Law and the Prophets” (matthew 22:36-40). In a culture absorbed with the details of Scripture, Jesus told the “expert in the law” to look for the big picture, the principles behind the Law. In other words, He encouraged him to move his eyes from the base of the pyramid to the pinnacle.
However, it would be wrong to assume that Jesus did not care about the specifics of Scripture. Just before He went to the cross, He told his disciples: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (john 14:15, nasb). Later in the same passage, He put it another way: “Whoever has My commands and keeps them is the one who loves me” (v. 21).
In other words, just as Jesus urged the expert in the law to move his eyes from the base of the pyramid to the pinnacle, so He urged His disciples to move from the pinnacle back down to the base. It isn’t sufficient to love God or neighbor in the abstract. Our gratitude for what God has done for us through Jesus must be expressed in specific and concrete ways. Just as God’s love is behind every command in Scripture, so the converse is also true: Every instruction, rule, or command in Scripture is a specific way of expressing our love for God and/or our neighbor.
In fact, the general principles we discover in Scripture are inseparable from the specific directions. For example, it is impossible to show that you love someone without expressing that love through patience, kindness, generosity, and so on. Likewise, it is impossible to be generous (or patient or kind) to someone without doing so in specific ways, such as giving the person food, money, clothing, or something else he or she needs. Our love and our generosity are never really expressed until they reach this tangible level.
Therefore, after we discover a general principle in Scripture by moving up one or more levels in the pyramid, we must move back down the pyramid—all the way to the base! In other words, having discovered a principle behind the situation faced by those in Scripture, we must now apply that principle to situations we face today.
Applying General Principles
As we seek to apply a general principle to our lives, we have two options: (1) We can apply the principle to the identical situation faced by those in the passage; (2) we can apply it to a comparable situation.
Applying a principle to the identical situation. As we read the Bible, there will be times when the situation faced by the original readers is identical to our own. For example, in Ephesians 6 Paul tells his readers to “put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against . . . the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (vv. 11-12). Although Paul’s words are couched in the language of the first century (the imagery of Roman armor), his instruction is as vital today as it was then. Why? Because the ultimate nature of our battle has not changed in 2,000 years. We still struggle against evil spiritual forces, and our only defense is the power of God.
Likewise, when the author of Hebrews tells his readers, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have” (13:5), we know his words transcend the barriers of time. Money has always been an object of passion and allure. Undoubtedly, people in every age have said, “How much is enough? Just a little bit more!”
Because our situations are identical to those faced by the original audience in both passages, God’s Word to us is the same as it was to them.
Applying a principle to a comparable situation. Quite often, however, our situation is not identical to that of the original readers. In such cases we must move up a level in the pyramid, looking for a general principle we can apply to a comparable situation. Our circumstances must be truly comparable to the original situation in order for the principle to apply. For example, the principle behind Paul’s instruction about eating food offered to idols was that we should “be careful . . . that the exercise of [our] rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 corinthians 8:9). Unfortunately, this passage and the one similar to it in Romans 14 have been used in ways that Paul never intended.
A few years ago many churches claimed using drums and guitars in church were sinful for Christians because they were a “stumbling block” to the older generation. However, they were trying to apply Paul’s words to a situation that simply wasn’t comparable to the one in Corinth or Rome. For Paul, a stumbling block was something that “causes my brother or sister to fall into sin” (v. 13). In the case of drums and guitars, for the older generation, a “stumbling block” was something offensive or distasteful. Likewise, for Paul a “weak brother” was someone who was tempted to imitate the behavior of those who ate idol meat. But I seriously doubt that the older generation was tempted to buy a guitar or set of drums.
On the other hand, it may be correct to apply the “stumbling block” principle to the practice of drinking alcoholic beverages. If my “freedom” to drink might tempt a former alcoholic to resume a practice he cannot control, I should give up that freedom. This is comparable to the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols.
The Missing Ingredient
At times, understanding and applying the Bible may seem more mechanical than spiritual. After all, where does God fit into this process? Has He merely left us with a set of principles to discover and obey, while He has gone away? And even if we were to uncover all the principles in Scripture about living for God, is it even remotely realistic to think that we can live up to them? Do we receive God’s grace and the gift of his Son only to be doomed to fail to live up to that grace?
Earlier in this section, I quoted Christ’s statement: “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me” (john 14:21). The remainder of the verse supplies the ingredient which is missing from this discussion. Jesus goes on to say: “The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” Love is the dominant force in our relationship with Jesus Christ. However, as in any relationship, love must be expressed. Jesus wants us to express our love for Him by obeying his commands—following His example of what it means to love God and neighbor. He, in turn, promises to continue to express His love for us by revealing Himself to us. Understanding and applying God’s Word allows us to know Him better, which results in even greater love and obedience. It is a beautiful cycle of reciprocal love.
Against the backdrop of the Bible’s Grand Unifying Theory of God’s loving community, our response to what we learn in Scripture—who God is, what He has done for us, and what He expects of us—should be anything but dry and lifeless. It is a warm, affectionate, even passionate means of showing Christ how much He means to us.