The short-form process of discerning and appropriating the meaning of a Biblical passage includes the four basic steps of (1) observation, (2) interpretation, (3) correlation, and (4) application. The more detailed process exegetical process includes nine steps: (1) verify text and translation, (2) understand background and context, (3) identify structural keys, (4) identify grammatical and syntactical keys, (5) identify lexical keys, (6) identify Biblical context, (7) identify theological context, (8) secondary verification, and (9) exposition.
Steps one through seven of the detailed exegetical process correspond to observation and interpretation in the more summary process. Both methods include a verification element, and both culminate with appropriation (exposition and application). Compared side by side, the processes coincide as follows:
Abbreviated Process Detailed Process
Observation………………….1. Verify text and translation
……………………………………2. Understand background and context
……………………………………3. Identify structural keys
……………………………………4. Identify grammatical and syntactical keys
……………………………………5. Identify lexical keys
……………………………………6. Identify Biblical context
……………………………………7. Identify theological context
Interpretation………………(The result of the seven observational steps)
Correlation……………………8. Secondary verification
As a result of the seven observational or exegetical steps, we can formulate and test our interpretation, and we can appropriate the passage properly. The exposition of a passage includes a discussion of the applications of a passage, and should include some consideration of primary and secondary application. Primary application refers to how the original audience was to respond to the passage, while secondary application references expected responses of later (i.e., secondary) readers.
The distinction between the two aspects (primary and secondary) is critical. Without acknowledging the distinction we would not be able to discern whether or not we (the modern readers), for example, are expected to go to a nearby village to obtain the colt of a donkey (Mt 21:2). All seven observational steps help us differentiate between primary and secondary application, as we discover what is descriptive and what is prescriptive.
Descriptive is that which describes, as in historical narrative. Acts 5:1-11, for example, describes what took place when Ananias and Sapphira lied in order to make themselves look more godly. Prescriptive is that which prescribes, or commands. Prescriptive material is that which provides directions for the audience. Matthew 28:18-20 contains one prescription, the imperative make disciples (matheteusate). Further, because this imperative is in a descriptive context (the passage is describing what Jesus said to His disciples), we can recognize that the passage is describing a prescription for the disciples, and thus the primary application of the passage was a call for the disciples to obey the specific command. We can certainly draw a secondary application from this passage, from the description of the events that took place there, and from other Biblical contexts which focus on disciplemaking (eg., 2 Tim 2:2). But the primary application of this passage is for the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking – just as in Matthew 21:2, the primary application is for the specific disciples Jesus was addressing (thus we are not obligated to obtain the colt of a donkey).
In considering primary and secondary applications, the first question to be asked is whether or not the passage is descriptive or prescriptive. Next, if the passage is prescriptive, we need to ask for whom is it prescriptive? Consider Exodus 19:4-6, as an example:
‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. ‘Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.”
These verses are descriptive, in that they are the record of what God said to Moses (see 19:3). They are also prescriptive in the sense that they contain information Moses was commanded to pass along to Israel. So in answer to the question regarding the recipient of the prescription, the answer is Moses. There appears to be another prescriptive layer here, as the content was to be heeded by Israel (“…hear My voice and keep My covenant…”), but it is not until the message is delivered that it becomes prescriptive for Israel. So we might identify the primary application as for Moses to communicate what God spoke. There are a number of secondary applications we might draw from this description of Moses’ prescription, but only one primary application. Further in 19:7 we read a description of Moses fulfilling the prescription of 19:3, and delivering God’s message to Israel. The primary application of 19:7 would be for Israel to respond to what was given them. Again, we might draw any number of secondary applications, but the primary application is limited to the initial audience.
In considering the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive, it is evident that we need to identify the direct recipient of any prescriptions so that we can properly apply (primary) the passage. Once we have done that we can move on to the more descriptive elements that would lead us to secondary applications. Let’s examine one more example. Consider Acts 16:11-34, the account of the Philippian jailor coming to believe in Christ. The context is descriptive, as it is a narrative describing events that happened. This is most obvious from the use of past tense and the sequence of the events as they are described. However, in 16:31 we discover a prescriptive element in response to the jailor’s question of what he must do to be saved. Paul and Silas responded that he should believe (pisteuson, aorist active imperative, second person singular) in the Lord Jesus. In order to correctly apply the passage, we must identify who is the recipient of the prescription. In this case, it is the Philippian Jailor. The primary application of the prescription is then that the jailor needed to believe in order to be saved. It is not correct to apply the passage as a universal formula for salvation – even if the conditions are universally applicable. The primary application of the prescription is not to you and me; rather it was for the Philippian jailor. Now, of course we might draw many appropriate secondary applications, as we recognize that the formula is indeed universally applicable (all who believe in Jesus Christ has eternal life, see, Jn 6:47, for example), but we need to be careful to distinguish between the primary application and the secondary. In instances like these we must keep in mind that arriving at a proper conclusion (in this case, what one must do to be saved) does not justify misapplying a passage.
As part of the interpretation process, we must recognize descriptive and prescriptive language, distinguishing between the two. In so doing we will have a much clearer understanding of primary and secondary applications in a given context.