As a large family gathered around the table for meals, each member took a turn praying for the food. Everyone, however, dreaded the meals when the youngest presided.
His prayers seemed like an endless ordeal because they were so specific. He would begin with the contents of his own plate and then work his way around the table: “Dear Lord, thank you for my egg, Mommy’s egg, Daddy’s egg, Stephen’s egg, and Lucy’s egg. Thank you for my bacon, Mommy’s bacon, Daddy’s bacon, Stephen’s bacon, and Lucy’s bacon. Then he would conclude his lengthy prayer by mentioning whatever remained on the table: “Thank you for the salt, thank you for the pepper, thank you for the butter, and thank you for the jelly. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” At that point everyone would breathe a sigh of relief and begin the now-cold meal.
One morning he surprised everyone. The usual, awful moment had arrived. The other family members bowed their heads, folded their hands and bit their lips. They all knew it would be five to ten minutes before they could taste the hickory-smoked bacon and the golden pancakes or drink their orange juice and once-hot coffee. The youngest began as usual, but astonished everyone by saying, “Dear Lord, thank you for this food. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” He had learned to generalize!
Though the Bible was written to particular people in particular situations, its message is for all people in all times. Since the time of Jesus, His followers have needed to know how to appropriately live in response to God’s grace, love, and salvation in Jesus Christ. How can we show our gratitude to the God who has given Himself to us? What does love for God and neighbor look like in the grind of daily life? Fortunately, God has shown His children what it means to live in relationship with Him. But sometimes that guidance is so specific that it seems to have no relevance for many modern readers.
Learning to generalize is one of the most important steps in applying the Bible. When, on the surface, a passage seems to have little application to our situation today, we need to look beneath the surface for a general principle.
The Greatest Commandment
The idea of finding general principles behind the specific teachings of Scripture is not a recent discovery. Jesus Himself taught us to do this.
An expert in the Law once came to Jesus in order to test His knowledge of Scripture. “Teacher,” he asked, “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” In asking this question, the expert was inviting Jesus to comment on one of the most important issues of the day.
Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Notice especially what He said next: “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (matthew 22:36-40, emphasis mine).
In other words, these two commandments summarized the rest. According to Jesus, these two commands capture the intention and spirit of every law, rule, and commandment in the Bible and explain the message of prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. These two commandments were so general that they could apply to many different situations. In fact, they could apply to every situation. They expressed the inner motive and ultimate goal of every law given by God.
Why then were so many commands necessary? They illustrate what it meant to love God and neighbor in the specific situations of everyday life for the various people in various circumstances to whom they were originally written. For example, what did it mean to love your neighbor in business practices? “Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity” (leviticus 19:35). What did it mean to love those who were hungry and needy? “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. . . . Leave them for the poor and the foreigner” (19:9-10).
In one sense, finding general principles behind the specific commands of Scripture is easy. Whatever the command, whatever the situation, we know that they are expressions of love for God and neighbor. From Genesis to Revelation the Scriptures emphasize that following Christ is primarily about our relationship with God and others—a relationship that begins with the God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ (philippians 2:5-11).
Yet it would get pretty monotonous if these were the only general principles we ever discovered. Imagine having love as the one and only theme of every sermon, every Christian book, every Bible study! Fortunately, this is not the case. Although the main themes of the Bible are so simple that even a child can understand them, there is greater richness and nuance in Scripture than we could ever imagine.
Levels of Application
The Bible contains many levels of application. These levels are like a pyramid, with only two commands (love for God and neighbor) at the pinnacle and all other instruction and requirements between the pinnacle and the base.
The commands near the top of the pyramid are fewer in number because they are more general and abstract. Those nearer the base of the pyramid (such as “Do not muzzle your ox”) are more numerous because they are more specific, detailed, and concrete.
The instructions near the base sometimes seem pointless or obscure until we move up to higher levels on the pyramid and discover the principles or reasons behind them. Conversely, the principles near the top of the pyramid often seem vague and abstract until they are fleshed out by the more concrete principles near the base.
Let’s look at a passage that illustrates various levels of application.
Paul’s instructions about food sacrificed to idols.
In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul gives instructions about a subject which seems irrelevant today in many cultures—food sacrificed to idols. However, when we look more closely at the passage we discover that the issue of food is only one level of application, the one at the bottom of the pyramid. There are two other levels in the pyramid, each of which can be applied today.
Before we look for these general principles, we must first understand the problem faced by Paul’s readers and how the passage applied to them. Why were they concerned about food sacrificed to idols? The Handbook of Life in Bible Times helps us cross this cultural barrier:
Even the relatively ordinary household duties of buying meat from the butcher or going out to dinner with friends were fraught with problems. Some butchers bought their produce wholesale from the pagan temples where it had been ritually slaughtered or partially offered as a sacrifice to idols. Christians in Corinth were unsure whether or not to buy such meat, or to eat it if it was set in front of them.1
Paul helps the Corinthians see this problem from a Christian perspective. He tells them that in one sense he doesn’t care whether they eat food sacrificed to idols. Why? First, he knows that there is really only one God: “We know that ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’ and that ‘There is no God but one.’ For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’), yet for us there is but one God” (1 corinthians 8:4-6). Second, Paul realizes that food is spiritually neutral: “Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (v. 8).
Yet Paul realizes that “not everyone possesses this knowledge” (v. 7). Some Christians who had been deeply involved in idol worship might misunderstand if Paul and others ate food sacrificed to idols:
For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ (vv. 10-12).
Rather than take this risk, Paul concludes: “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat [idol] meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall” (v. 13).
Although Paul’s conclusion not to eat idol meat has little application in many cultures today, the reasons he gives are still valid. In verses 8-9 he states that the real issue isn’t idol meat but rather “that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” In other words, there is a more important principle at stake: Paul doesn’t want us to do anything that might cause other Christians to sin by violating their consciences (vv. 7, 10). This would “wound” or “destroy” the persons, whereas Paul wants us to build them up in love (v. 1). This principle could apply to many practices today.
We have moved from the very specific and possibly irrelevant instruction about food sacrificed to idols to the more general and more applicable principle about not letting our freedom cause someone else to sin. Paul has even mentioned one of the two general principles behind this and every command of Scripture—that of building up our brother or sister through love (v. 1). Therefore, our pyramid in this passage has three levels of application:
Level 1 (the most specific): The Corinthians should not eat food sacrificed to idols if it causes those with weak consciences to follow their example.
Level 2 (more general): The Corinthians should not allow their freedom (in any area) to become a stumbling block to others.
Level 3 (the most general): The Corinthians should only do those things which build up others in love.
If we realize that every passage of Scripture is part of the larger biblical pyramid with its various levels, applying the Bible becomes much easier. If a passage appears too specific to apply to our situation, we simply move up a level, looking for a general principle that we can apply.
Finding General Principles
Finding general principles in a passage is the result of asking the right questions. There are three important questions to ask, especially if the passage doesn’t directly apply today:
Question 1: Does the author state a general principle? The passage in 1 Corinthians 8 illustrates the first and easiest way to find a general principle: simply see if the author states the principle, as Paul did in verse 9. New Testament writers often state a general principle and then give several examples of how that principle applies to specific situations. Not all of the specifics will apply to us today, but the general principles will almost always apply because they reflect God’s character.
Question 2: Why was this specific instruction given? Whether an author states a general principle or not, we can often find one by looking at the command itself and the reason for it. Biblical instruction is never random; it is always an expression of a higher level in the pyramid. When we discover why a command is given, we are able to move up one or more levels in the pyramid to a principle that is applicable today.
Question 3: Does the broader context reveal a general principle? As we look for general principles, it is important to consider both the immediate and broader context of a passage. For example, in 1 Corinthians 8 it was a simple matter to find Paul’s general principle, since he stated it in the immediate context (v. 9). In some passages, however, it might be necessary to look at the paragraphs or chapters before or after the passage. Ultimately, the entire Bible provides the context and guiding principles for every passage within it.
Finding general principles in Scripture is not the same as looking for proof-texts. Neither is it an attempt to tie up the truths of Scripture into neat little propositional packages. Rather, we look beyond the specific commands, examples, and promises of Scripture in order to seek the mind and heart of God. We want to grasp not only what God said (although that is extremely important) but also why He said it. Our passion is to develop a godly mindset, a worldview that is shaped by the Grand Unifying Theme of Scripture.
As we look for biblical principles, we are seeking to feel God’s heartbeat in the verses, paragraphs, chapters, and books of Scripture. With the help of the Holy Spirit, our goal is nothing less than to discern the mind of God.
Almost, But Not Quite
Several years ago some seminary students were asked to preach a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Each student was deliberately delayed until moments before his sermon was to begin. As each one raced frantically across campus with text in hand, he was met by someone posing as a person in need. Ironically, not one of them stopped to help the person—they had an important sermon to preach!
This section has tried to provide both a framework for thinking about general principles and a simple method for discovering them. However, a general principle can simply be a pious platitude unless we take one more vital step: We must seek to apply that principle to the situations we face today.
1 J. A. Thompson, Handbook of Life in Bible Times (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986).