In most contexts, diversity is a beautiful thing. Creation reflects an incredible array of diverse kinds of beauty. As I watch the sun begin to rise over the Atlantic Ocean, I see wispy clouds high above, with a thick puff of clouds just above the horizon. There is enough clear sky in between for the sun’s gentle rays to cascade over the still, calm water – water that would normally be stirred up by the wind and currents. The gentle waves wash in to shore, barely audible, but still ever present. There are so many colors, shapes, sounds, and smells. It is almost too much to take in, and yet, it is all these things working in unison that makes the sunrise such a beautiful sight. God understands how to paint a scene, and diversity is one of His most remarkable tools – no one appreciates variety more than Him.
But there are also contexts where diversity is not a blessing. Let’s say that I hand each of ten people a small piece of crumpled paper with a formula written on it: 31+X= 86. If I asked those ten people to tell me the meaning of X, and nine of them came up with answers other than fifty-five, we would recognize the answers to be diverse, but not necessarily beautiful. We would recognize those answers as wrong, at least within our basic mathematical system. So it is with the Bible. God has communicated in such a way as to be understood, but we often fail to ascertain the Author’s intent. As I peer over the horizon at ever brightening sky I see His handiwork, and I recognize that the heavens declare His glory (Psalm 19). As I peruse the pages of Scripture, I need to recognize that He is communicating a message – ultimately, for His glory also (Ephesians 1), but understood by different interpretive methods.
In understanding Scripture, we observe what the text says, we interpret what it means, and we must apply it properly. This last point is where we often get it wrong. We must distinguish between primary and secondary application. Primary application refers to how the original audience was supposed to take action, based on what was said or written. Secondary application refers to what we – the non-original audience, many years later – are supposed to think or do based on what has been written. For example, in Matthew 26:18-19, Jesus tells His disciples to talk to a certain man. We seem to have no problem recognizing primary application here (have any of you attempted to talk to that specific man?), but when Jesus tells those same disciples to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), we suddenly lose the ability to distinguish between primary and secondary application.
My point here is not to suggest that we shouldn’t be making disciples, it is only to say that if we are not consistent in our interpretive methodology, then we will be inconsistent in our application of Scripture. If we don’t distinguish between primary and secondary application, then who is to say what we should or should not do? There are passages that command people be stoned to death for touching a mountain (e.g., Exodus 19:12-13), and other passages that mandate forgiveness (e.g., Matthew 6:12-14). We should answer a fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26:5)…wait – no we shouldn’t (Proverbs 26:4). In this way, we could cite passage after passage with confusing results, but I think the point is clear already – if we fail to interpret properly (seeking to understand what the Author intended), and we fail to distinguish between primary and secondary application, then we will be confused at best and blasphemous at worst.
So let’s consider this. How many of our opinions about who we are, how we should think, or what we should do are formulated on faulty interpretive method? These concepts are simple, but not easy. Are we willing to re-examine everything in light of His word? As simple as that process can be, it can also be painful. But it is so very necessary, and so very fruitful.
Now the sun has risen beyond the clouds, and is shining directly upon me. The sunrise has passed, and a new day has begun. Today, how will we handle His word? Will we ignore it altogether? Will we abuse it to the point that it is unrecognizable? Or will we sit humbly before our Master, with the same patience as if awaiting the beauties of the new morning’s sunrise?