Matthew Harmon

Matthew Harmon

Since 2006 Dr. Matthew S. Harmon has served as Professor of New Testament Studies at Grace College and Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. He is also a member of Christ’s Covenant Church, where he serves on the Preaching Team, leads a small group, and teaches regularly in their Life Education classes.

Find out more at his blog, Biblical Theology, which is a forum for all matters pertaining to biblical theology (and some entirely unrelated).

Follow him on Twitter: @DocHarmon

The Kingdom of God and Social Justice

[Recently], I taught a two-day course for the Equip Conference, put on by the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches. As the title suggests, the main burden of the not-for-credit course was to explore what the relationship is and should be between the kingdom of God and social justice. I approached the issue by: (1) providing a brief and necessarily selective historical survey of how the church has engaged these issues; (2) exploring the nature of the kingdom of God as revealed in both the Old and New Testaments; (3) revisiting Niebuhr’s fivefold typology from Christ and Culture and critiques of it; and (4) noting the vague and nebulous definitions of social justice. I also hosted a panel discussion with three individuals involved in ministries that broadly fit underneath this umbrella to hear their perspective on these challenging issues. It was a very enjoyable experience.

I concluded the class by stating Ten Theses for Further Discussion. I do not intend these as the last word, but rather a statement of key components to this discussion that need to be remembered if we are to be faithful to Christ in these areas. I am posting the first five below; the second five will follow in a later post.

  1. We must learn from church history. There is a rich and varied history of the church engaging these issues, and we are fools to ignore this history. By looking at the past we can benefit from the thinking and practice of those who have gone before us, while hopefully avoiding their mistakes.
  2. We must allow biblical and theological convictions to shape our engagement in social action. There are simply too many individuals and churches that jump into these issues out of compassion devoid of biblical and theological foundations. The responsibility for this rests primarily with the church to provide solid teaching on this area, but also for individual believers to ground themselves in Scripture. Compassion that is not rooted in the gospel will ultimately and inevitably lead to assuming and eventually even denying the gospel in the name of caring for people in this life.
  3. We must not collapse the already/not-yet tension. However one puts this together, we need to be sure to recognize both. Emphasizing the already to the neglect of the not-yet results in people thinking that our efforts usher in the kingdom, or worse yet that the ultimate goal of God is to improve conditions in the life. Emphasizing the not-yet to the neglect of the already results in people thinking that any engagement in social issues is a waste of time because it is all going to burn. Holding the two together holds the promise of engagement in social action while prioritizing eternal issues of heaven and hell.
  4. We must recognize that evangelical engagement with these issues will take different forms within different political, cultural, and social contexts. While it is increasingly popular to champion individuals like Abraham Kuyper and the goal of transforming culture, large numbers of believers simply do not have that option available. Believers in the Middle East and parts of Asia (just to name a few) have little or no access to the various institutions of a culture to effect transformation. Believers in the United States, by contrast, often do. Thus a one-size-fits-all approach to this issue simply cannot and does not work.
  5. We must prioritize proclamation of the gospel without neglecting social action. This is the point where our theology really surfaces. If we are convinced that heaven and hell are ultimate realities that each human being must face, then we will prioritize the communication of the gospel message. This does not mean that every kind deed must be accompanied by a gospel tract, but it does mean an intentional effort to share the gospel in the context of meeting physical needs or addressing social structures. Actions are not self-interpreting; there are plenty of nice moral people who do good things for the community and have no interest in Jesus Christ. If we are to distinguish our efforts from them (and at some level we MUST if we are to be faithful to Christ) there must be communication of the gospel. Faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17), not by simple observation of good works.

I’d welcome your thoughts on these first five theses.

The Dangers of Prosperity

In the final section of his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes:

“I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” (4:12)

We often think of the unique challenges and opportunities that facing lack/need presents. In those situations we are faced with the choice of trusting God for provision, or grumbling as the Israelites in the wilderness did (cf. Exod 16–17). But less frequently recognized are the dangers that abundance/prosperity brings. There are at least four that come to mind:

  1. Our hearts become more enamored with what God has given us than God himself. The more that we have, the easier it becomes for us to find our greatest joy in those things rather than God. It is this very danger that Jesus warned of when he said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6:19-21).
  2. We let our guard down against the enemy. We tend to think that Satan is most dangerous when we are facing lack/need, but he is just as dangerous (if not more) when we face abundance/prosperity. Suffering tends to sharpen our spiritual senses, driving us to realize our need for God. But when things are going well it becomes easy to put our lives on cruise control and start to doze off at the wheel. But our abundance/prosperity does not change the fact that “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Pet 5:8)
  3. We conclude that our prosperity/abundance is the result of our godliness. There is a sense in which the OT points in this direction. After all, under the Mosaic Covenant God makes it clear to Israel that obedience/faith will lead to blessing, while disobedience/unbelief will lead to cursing (cf. Deut 28). But several qualifications need to be made to encompass the totality of the OT’s teaching. First, the Mosaic Covenant functioned on the national level, indicating that the nation as a whole would be blessed or cursed based on their obedience or disobedience to the covenant. Applying this at an individual level is far more complicated. Second, one cannot conclude from a person’s suffering or prosperity the extent of their obedience or disobedience. That is one of the major points of the book of Job; his friends were insistent that his suffering was proof of disobedience. God’s answer makes it clear that Job’s suffering was not the result of sin. Similarly, Psalm 73 describes how the wicked prosper in this life. Third, while there are passages that correlate personal obedience and God’s blessing of abundance (e.g., Ps 112:1-6), we must not think of this as a quid pro quo in which man earns what he receives or that God is somehow obligated to bless in response to obedience. God does tend to bring blessing to those who are obedient, but even in those cases it is a gift of his grace since the very obedience in view is a product of God’s own work in that person’s life (Phil 2:12-13).
  4. Our trust/confidence is placed in what we possess rather than who possesses us. Paul identifies this as a great danger when he writes to Timothy “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17). Those who have abundance are less inclined to place their trust in God, because there is the appearance of security in their prosperity.

In Philippians 4:12 Paul claims he has learned the secret of contentment in either lack or abundance. That secret is knowing that our security rests not in our current financial situation but in the one who loved us and gave himself for us (Gal 2:20). No matter what your economic situation is today, whether rosy or bleak, God wants us to find our security in him. Beware the dangers of both lack/need and abundance/prosperity.

The Unexpected Advance of the Gospel (Philippians 1:13)

NOTEThis is a condensed excerpt from my forthcoming (2014) commentary on Philippians.

God’s relentless commitment to the advance of the gospel often works itself out in unexpected ways. From a human perspective Paul’s imprisonment would seem like a disaster. But in God’s providence it was the means by which the gospel would advance in a seemingly impenetrable place—the praetorian guard. Where Paul could not reach by any other conceivable means God had placed him to make it evident that his entire life is “in Christ.” In that sense Paul’s experience is not unique; throughout the history of the church God has often advanced the gospel by placing his people in circumstances and locations they could not reach themselves so that those beyond the apparent reach of the gospel might hear the good news and believe. Perhaps some who read these words are or will one day find themselves in just such a situation.

We can learn from Paul’s example here of making it clear in our interaction with others that all that we experience as believers is experienced in Christ. That means that even the worst of circumstances remain under his gracious rule. Our actions and experiences are not self-interpreting. Just as Paul had to make it evident to those he encountered that his bonds are paradoxically evidence of his status of being “in Christ,” so too believers today must explain to others that their own experience remains under the gracious rule of Christ.

Stirring the Mind to Contemplate the Glory of Christ

In his treatise “Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ,” John Owen offers six “directions” for stirring up the minds of believers to contemplate the glory of Christ (chapter 4):

  1. Let us get it fixed on our souls and minds, that this glory of Christ in the divine constitution of his person is the best, the most noble, useful, beneficial object that we can be conversant about in our thoughts, or cleave unto in our affections.
  2. Our second direction unto the same end is, that we diligently study the Scripture, and the revelations that are made of this glory of Christ therein.
  3. Another direction to this same end is, that having attained the light of the knowledge of the glory of Christ from the Scripture, or by the dispensation of the truth in the preaching of the gospel, we would esteem it our duty frequently to meditate thereon.
  4. Let your occasional thoughts of Christ be many, and multiplied every day.
  5. The next direction is, that all our thoughts concerning Christ should be accompanied with admiration, adoration, and thanksgiving.

There is a beautiful progression in these five directions. Owen begins by holding out the beauty of Christ as the highest end we could possibly pursue (1), and then directs us where to find that vision of Christ—the Scriptures (2). But he is not content to allow such a vision of Christ to remain in our times in the Word (whether through personal reading or hearing the Word preached and taught); he exhorts us to frequently reflect/meditate on the beauty of Christ that we have seen in the Word (3). Such meditation and reflection should not be limited to devoted time in the Word and prayer, but should spill over into our “occasional thoughts” throughout the day (4). He then concludes with the reminder that such reflections should not be merely an intellectual exercise, but should be joined with our affections (5).

Dr. Matthew S. Harmon is a Professor of New Testament Studies at Grace College and Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. Find out more at his blog, Biblical Theology.

The Gospel According to the Minor Prophets

This past Sunday we came to the end of my class on the Minor Prophets. In an effort to try to summarize what we covered in the previous twelve weeks, I focused on two key concepts and four key themes.

Two Key Concepts

  1. The Covenantal Context. After discussing things like author, date and historical context we quickly moved to what we called the covenantal context. We did this because the respective covenants were the governing structure of how God interacts with his people throughout the Old Testament. So in looking at each Minor Prophet, we paid careful attention to how they drew upon the Abrahamic (Genesis 12:1-3), Mosaic (Exodus 19), and Davidic (2 Samuel 7) covenants.
  2. Initial & Final Fulfillment. Although we tend to think of the relationship between promise and fulfillment as a simple one-to-one correspondence, we have seen that in the Minor Prophets that is often not the case. The various promises made in the Minor Prophets often have an initial fulfillment in an event in the near future of the prophet while at the same time having a final fulfillment in the distant future. Nowhere was this clearer than in our discussion of the Day of the LORD. Each of the various “Days of the LORD” are only an initial fulfillment of the final Day of the LORD at the end of human history.

Four Key Themes

Although there were a number of themes that we could have highlighted, the following four were particularly important in light of their prominence in the New Testament:

  1. Temple. As we have seen the rebuilt temple was puny compared to Solomon’s original temple, as well as the temple prophesied in Ezekiel 40. But God reassured his people that this rebuilt temple was a sort of “down payment’ on the fulfillment of his promises (Zechariah 4:8-11). In perhaps the last OT book written, God warns his people of his impending visit to his temple (Malachi 3:1-4). That promise finds its fulfillment in the NT. John the Baptist is identified as the messenger sent to prepare the way of the LORD (Mark 1:2-4). He prepares the people for the incarnate Christ to visit his temple (Mark 11:15-18). Of course, we have also talked in here about the fact that the NT identifies Jesus as the true temple of God (John 2:13-22), and we as the church are God’s eschatological temple (Ephesians 2:11-22; 1 Peter 2:4-10).
  2. Torah. Although the promise of the Law being written on his people’s hearts is found in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, we do see a related promise in Micah 4:1-8. The Law of the LORD will go out from Zion and rule over a restored people of God. To properly understand this promise we have to combine it with the promise of the gift of the Spirit in Joel 2:28-32. It is the giving of the Spirit that enables God’s people to obey God’s Law. The promise of the gift of the Spirit is fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. He enables God’s people to live in step with God’s Law.
  3. Turf. As we noted above, God promises to restore his people to the land in several places (Hosea 2:21-23). This promise is rooted in the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants. Building upon hints in the Minor Prophets this promise of restoration to the land is expanded into the hope of a new creation. In the NT this hope is most clearly articulated in Romans 4:13, where Paul claims that God promised that Abraham would inherit the world, and Revelation 21, where the new heavens and earth are described.
  4. Throne. In the aftermath of the devastation of exile, God kept alive the hope of a Davidic king. But when that royal dynasty never materialized after their return to the land, the hunger for a Son of David (Micah 5:2-5; Amos 9:11-15). Of course, in the NT it is obvious that Jesus is the promised Son of David who will rule over God’s people (Mark 10:46-52; Romans 1:2-4).

Summary List of the Theological Big Idea for Each Minor Prophet

As a final review tool, I have provided a summary chart on your handout for each Minor Prophet and the Theological Big Idea that I identified for it.

Theological Big Idea for Each Minor Prophet

Hosea God’s people must turn from their idolatrous pursuit of lovers who will not satisfy and return to the Lord, their true husband and redeemer.
Joel In the coming day of God’s universal judgment, those who call on the name of Jesus Christ will be filled with His Spirit to enjoy the new creation with Him forever.
Amos When the Day of the Lord comes, God will judge the sins of His people and reconstitute His people under a Davidic king to inhabit a new creation.
Obadiah God will soon defeat the enemies of His people and establish His rule over His people forever.
Jonah God’s extravagant compassion towards us should prompt us to be conduits of compassion to others.
Micah Because our sin has been judged at the cross and we live in the last days, we must walk humbly with our truly unique God in heartfelt obedience.
Nahum God will judge the wicked and restore His people to freedom through His ultimate Warrior-King, Jesus Christ.
Habakkuk Even when we cannot trace God’s hand of justice or providence, we can patiently trust and rejoice in His character.
Zephaniah Yahweh is a mighty warrior who brings judgment but saves the remnant who flee to him as their King.
Haggai Yahweh will renew His presence among His people and re-establish His reign over His people by sending Jesus Christ as His Messianic King.
Zechariah God’s people already participate in the restored Jerusalem through repentance and faith in Jesus as they await the consummation of God’s kingdom.
Malachi God calls his people to repent of our apathy towards his proper worship and fear his name in anticipation of the great and fearful Day of the LORD.

Want to hear more? Check out the links below:

Week 13 – Conclusion (Audio)

Week 13 – Conclusion (Handout)

The Role of Background Studies in Interpreting the Bible

This current academic term I am teaching a course entitled Biblical Backgrounds here at Grace. The goal of the course is introduce students to how people thought, communicated, and lived in the ancient world during the Old Testament, New Testament, and Intertestamental periods. To do this I emphasize key people groups and political, cultural, theological, and literary developments that form the background to the Bible.  Students are exposed to insights from geography, cultural anthropology, sociology, philosophy, politics, literature, and history for the interpretation of Scripture in light of the history and culture of the people to whom it was addressed.

But the study of background materials raises some important questions. After all, sometimes information from background studies is used to claim that a biblical text cannot mean what it seems to say. While it is true that background studies can shed important light on a text, I am convinced that God has spoken in Scripture in such a way that believers can achieve a sufficient, basic understanding of the text without advanced training in backgrounds. Yet the use of background studies does have the potential to greatly enrich our understanding of the Bible and as a result our understanding of who God is and how he expects us to live.

Here then are four summary statements on the value of background studies in Interpreting the Bible:

  1. Studying the history of the Ancient Near East (ANE) and the Greco-Roman world is a means of recovering knowledge of the events that shaped the lives of people in the ancient world.
  2. Studying the archaeology of the Ancient Near East (ANE) and the Greco-Roman world is a means of recovering the lifestyle reflected in the material culture of the ancient world.
  3. Studying the literature of the of the Ancient Near East (ANE) and the Greco-Roman world is a means of penetrating the heart and soul of the people who inhabited the ancient world in which Israel and the early church lived.
  4. Studying the languages of the the Ancient Near East (ANE) and the Greco-Roman world is a means of gaining additional insight into the semantics, lexicography, idioms, and metaphors used in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

Special Note for Pastors & Teachers:

It is natural that those who have invested the time and energy necessary for studying background materials and languages to share the fruit of those labors. And pastors and teachers should use these tools to enhance their teaching and preaching of God’s Word. But it is possible to do this in a way that discourages people rather than edifies them. The person in the pew who hears a steady stream of “what the Greek actually says here” or “The [fill in Bible translation] gets it wrong here; the Hebrew should be translated…” is being taught to not trust their Bible. Why would the average layperson read their Bible on their own when they are constantly being taught that they really can’t know what it says since they don’t know the original languages?

Bottom line: Use the background tools to enhance people’s understanding of and confidence in the biblical text, not undermine it.

3 Ways to Handle False Teaching and False Teachers

All one has to do is walk into most Christian bookstores or tune into so-called Christian radio/TV to realize that false teaching is alive and well. So how should a gospel-centered church respond?

Titus 1:10-16 shows us how. But before noting what that passage tells us, it is important to note that Titus 1:5-9 provides us with qualifications for elders. Within the context of Titus, then, the necessity of biblically qualified elders is in part rooted in the need to deal with false teaching.

Having established that, in Titus 1:10-16 Paul identifies three ways that gospel-centered churches handle false teaching:

1. Gospel-Centered Churches Recognize False Teaching/Teachers (Titus 1:10-13)

When doctors are in medical school, part of their training involves diagnosing illnesses by the symptoms that present themselves. In the same way, Paul provides us with some diagnostic tools to recognize false teaching. He instructs us to observe their character (insubordinate, empty talkers, deceivers, etc.), their tactics (upsetting whole families, playing to the culture), and their motivation (shameful gain).

2. Gospel-Centered Churches Rebuke False Teaching/Teachers (Titus 1:13-14)

When Paul says “Rebuke them sharply” he uses a play on words with the false teachers’ promotion of circumcision. In effect Paul says something like, “Use the sharp knife of correction with those who wield the dull blade of circumcision.” Paul is not advocating legal action, nor is he promoting a witch hunt. But false teaching is so dangerous that it requires corrective action. The goal of that corrective action is “so that they may be sound in the faith” (1:13). The word translated “sound” can also mean healthy. True spiritual health comes from the gospel, not false teaching.

3. Gospel-Centered Churches Resist False Teaching/Teachers (Titus 1:15-16)

Knowledge of what the gospel teaches about various subjects is the preventative vaccine that enables the believer to resist false teaching. Truly embracing this vaccine produces not merely head knowledge of the gospel, but good works that flow out genuine saving faith.

Regardless of whether you are an elder or not, every believer is responsible for being so familiar with the true gospel that false teaching is immediately obvious. The gospel is the only way that we can be made pure, because it points us to the only one who is truly pure-Jesus Christ. And everyone who has their hope set on him purifies himself in anticipation of his return (1 John 3:1-3).

Application: Pressing the Text upon the Heart (Part 9)

Today we come to the end of our series on application. In case you missed any of the posts, here are the links:

Part 1 – A Theological Framework
Part 2 – We Resemble What We Worship
Part 3 – Fallen Condition
Part 4 – Gospel Solution
Part 5 – Making the Fallen Condition Personal
Part 6 – The Four Aspects of Application
Part 7 – The Levels of Application
Part 8 – The Three Orders of Application

Of course, a fundamental premise throughout this series is the crucial role of repentance and faith. When God reveals to us our fallen condition it is imperative for us to turn from it and embrace by faith the solution that the gospel offers.

To wrap things up, I wanted to try to synthesize the most helpful things from this series of posts. What follows is a list of questions that I try to ask every time I read Scripture. There are five main questions, but I have included sub-questions under each that give the bigger picture of what I am trying to get at with each question.

  • What do we learn about God?
    • What aspects of God’s character do we see in this passage?
    • What do we see God doing in this passage?
    • What things, events, people, and situations is God concerned about?
  • What do we learn about man/mankind?
    • What aspects of the image of God (longings, desires, interests, values) are reflected in this passage?
    • What fallen conditions (desires, attitudes, actions, beliefs, etc.) are stated, described, or implied in this passage?
    • What struggles, challenges, temptations, and realities to walking with God are stated, described, or implied in this passage?
  • What do we learn about redemption?
    • What does this passage reveal about the nature of our salvation?
    • What is the “gospel solution” to the “fallen condition” that this passage states, describes, or implies?
    • In what specific ways has Jesus obeyed in the areas where you have failed?
  • What do we learn about ministry?
    • What does this passage teach us about the nature of ministry (its joys, its pains, its challenges, its rewards, etc.)?
    • What does this passage teach about the way I should lead/care for God’s people?
    • What does this passage teach about the way God’s people respond to leaders?
  • How should I apply this text to my life?
    • What does this passage indicate that I should know, think, or understand?
    • What does this passage indicate that I should believe?
    • What does this passage indicate that I should feel?
    • What does this passage indicate I should do?

Application: Pressing the Text upon the Heart (Part 8)

Not all lines of application are created equal. We have all sat through a sermon, Bible study or Sunday school class and heard someone (perhaps even the preacher or teacher!) make an application from a text that makes us scratch our heads and wonder where in the world that came from.

One way to avoid this experience is to think through the different "orders" of application. What I mean will become clear as I explain each of the three orders of application:

  • First Order: Those points of application that can be shown to relate directly to the main point of the passage. These should be obvious from the text to most anyone reading or hearing the passage. They are the equivalent of low-hanging fruit that is ripe for the picking!
  • Second Order: Those points of application that can be shown to be a reasonable inference from the main point of the passage. These may not be immediately obvious to all who read or hear the text, but upon brief explanation should be clear. In this case the fruit is higher up in the tree but is still reachable by standing on your tip-toes.
  • Third Order: Those points of application that can be shown to be a reasonable inference from an incidental aspect of the passage. These are not obvious to the reader or hearer, but with substantive explanation can be made clear. In this case the fruit is near the top of the tree and requires a good ladder or even a bucket truck to get to it.

So let's apply these different orders to Philippians 1:27-30:

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

For the sake of our exercise, let's say that the main point of the passage is this: We must live out our heavenly citizenship according to the pattern of the gospel. Now let's suggest some possible applications for each order:

  • First Order: I must believe that my primary identity is as a citizen of God's kingdom, not the USA. This challenges the broader culture around me that finds identity in belonging to this world and one of its various subcultures
  • Second Order: Because the Christian life is a fight/struggle, I need to be more intentional in my efforts to grow spiritually. These efforts must be within the context of the body of Christ, for it is in fellowship with other believers that God gives me the strength to stand firm.
  • Third Order: Because persecution is a reality faced by my brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, we as a church should financially support Voice of the Martyrs.

Hopefully these examples give you a clearer sense of what I mean by the different orders of application. Regardless of whether you are doing personal application or application for teaching/preaching, the emphasis should always be on first order, and only then move on to second or third order. You want your people to come away from the text saying, "That makes total sense. It's obvious that's what I should think, feel, believe or do."

In our final post in this series, we will attempt to summarize the entire series into something that is manageable.

Application: Pressing the Text upon the Heart (Part 7)

In our last post we spoke of the different aspects of application. Now we move on to consider the different levels of application. While this topic is more relevant to those who preach and teach or lead Bible studies, there is value in it for every believer. In what follows, I am largely adapting what Mark Dever has done....

Our tendency, especially in the West, is to think of application in very personal terms. And in a sense, that is truly where we should begin, since our first responsibility before God when reading his Word is to respond ourselves. But application is much broader than that. There are many levels to application that we should think through:

  • Non-Christian: How does the passage speak to the unbeliever? How does it call him/her to repentance and faith? How does it warn, rebuke, correct, prod the unbeliever? What does it say about the danger of the unbeliever's situation, the exclusivity of Christ, the sinner's need for a Savior, or the sufficiency of that Savior as a substitute for the sinner?
  • Public: What does the passage say about our lives and roles in the public sphere, both as Christians and non-Christians (e.g., government and/or our neighborhood)?
  • Christian: What is the significance of the passage for the individual Christian? How does it call him/her to deeper repentance and faith? How does it warn, rebuke, correct, motivate, comfort or encourage the Christian?
  • Local Church: What is the significance of the passage for the corporate life of our local church? How does it call the local corporate body to tend to its corporate life together and corporate witness to the unbelieving community around it?

So let's look at Philippians 1:27-30 and work through each of these levels:

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

And now for each level I'll suggest some possible application:

  • Non-Christian: (1) Since faith is a gift from God, this passage calls the unbeliever to ask God to overcome his/her doubts and give him/her the necessary faith to be saved. (2) Persisting in persecution of God's people will ultimately result in his/her eternal destruction.
  • Public: (1) Persecution of Christians is evidence of a culture that is hostile to God and in danger of God's judgment. (2) Because Christians are citizens of God's kingdom, their final loyalty will be to God and not the state.
  • Christian: (1) Because suffering is a gift from God it should be embraced as an opportunity for growth rather than avoided at all costs. (2) The gospel of Christ is the measuring stick by which our entire lives are to be evaluated.
  • Local Church: (1) Because persecution is to be expected, we as a congregation should be preparing our people to suffer through preaching, teaching, etc. (2) Because unity is so important to standing firm in the faith, we as a congregation must pursue unity in the gospel.

These are just a few of the possible lines of application for each of the levels. But they should be enough to give you a sense of what I mean by different levels of application.

In our next post, we will address the different orders of application.

Application: Pressing the Text upon the Heart (Part 6)

Today we will discuss what I refer to as the four aspects of application. These aspects should be kept in mind both for our own personal application of Scripture as well as attempting to make application when you are teaching or preaching.

For most people, when we think of the area of application, our thoughts turn to asking the question, "What does the next tell me to do?" This can be true for pastors as well, who feel the compulsion to end every sermon with two or three tangible action points that the congregants can do that week. Imagine that a pastor is creative enough to come up with three new action points each week. If he preaches 50 times in a year, the congregation has walked away with 150 things to do over the course of a year. In such a situation is it any wonder that Christians become legalists?

The answer to this problem is to take into account all four aspects of application:

  1. Think: What does the text want me to think? What false beliefs does the text correct? Remember that central to what God does in us as believers is transform us by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2). Since we are called to take every though captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), it is essential that we allow God to change our understanding of who he is and the world around us.
  2. Believe: What does the text want me to believe? What false beliefs does the text correct? It is one thing to understand something, another to put your trust/faith in it. If we are going to take seriously that "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17), then we must move from simple comprehension to trust in / reliance upon the truth of what God's Word says.
  3. Feel: What does the text want me to feel? What sinful emotions does the text correct? While it is fashionable for people to say that no one has the right to tell them how to feel, God has absolutely no qualms about telling exactly how we should feel. The Psalms are filled with commands to rejoice, while the prophets often tell people to weep over their sin.
  4. Do: What does the text want me to do? What sinful actions does this text correct? While we do not want our application to consist solely of doing, that does not mean we ignore the many places where Scripture specifically tells us to do things like pray, speak the truth in love, forgive one another, etc.

Let's take an example to flesh this out. Here is Philippians 4:4-9 (ESV)

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me--practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

So in light of this text, let's walk through each of the different aspects.


  • The Lord is near (both in that he is present with us no matter where we are and in the sense that Christ's return is imminent). 
  • The peace of God transcends my ability to completely understand it.
  • I must fill my mind with things that are true, honorable, etc.


  • I must believe that Lord is near even when he does not feel near to me
  • I must trust the God's peace is capable of protecting my heart and mind from anxiety no matter what my circumstances
  • I must believe that things I have learned and received and heard and see in God's Word are sufficient for my growth in godliness.


  • I must rejoice in the Lord and not find my joy in the things of this world.
  • I must not be anxious because God is the God of peace


  • I must let my "reasonableness" be know to all people, not just those who are easy to along with.
  • I must let my requests be made known to God through an active prayer life
  • I must practice the things I have learned and received and heard and seen in Paul and other godly examples.

While this is far from an exhaustive list, it should be enough to give you an idea. The important thing is to recognize that application is a much broader concept than simply "do this."

In our next post, we will look what I refer to as the different levels of application.

Application: Pressing the Text upon the Heart (Part 5)

Although I had mentioned in the previous post that I would deal with the different aspects of application next, upon further reflection I have decided instead to address the issue of personal application. In my last post, I walked through several fallen conditions and their corresponding gospel solutions. But if you read closely, you will see that the fallen conditions are expressed in general terms. This was intentional, since my goal is to identify different aspects of our "fallenness" that the text identifies as universal. But now my goal is to articulate how each of these fallen conditions specifically manifests itself in my own life. It is at this point that the process of application moves from general to specific, since a fallen condition may manifest itself differently in my life than it does in yours.

Let's take the example of the parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12:13-21. In the midst of this parable, Jesus warns his listeners:

Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (Luke 12:15)

So a pretty obvious fallen condition would look something like this:

We seek to find life/joy/fulfillment/contentment in the abundance of our possessions

But this fallen condition can show up in a variety of ways. For example:

  1. For the person who is wealthy, it may reveal itself in the sense of pride and arrogance that believes all that they have is the product of their own hard work and has nothing to do with God's common grace.
  2. For the person who is poor, it may reveal itself in the constant preoccupation with acquiring more money/possessions, believing that if only they had a little more wealth it would solve the vast majority of their problems.
  3. Regardless of a person's wealth, it may reveal itself in working long hours at the expense of time with family, believing that life is found in providing a certain standard of living for his family.
  4. It may reveal itself in a person who turns to shopping or buying things to deal with the difficulties or frustrations of life, believing that buying one more thing will bring them the joy they are seeking.
  5. It may reveal itself in a person who is stingy and refuses to give generously, fearing that if too much is given away the desired lifestyle will not be attainable.
  6. In the person who is retired, it may show itself in an attitude that views the retirement years as an entitlement to be lazy or selfish in how time and resources are spent. After all, because of his years of hard work he is now entitled to spend his time and energy on whatever he wants.

Hopefully that gives you a sense of what I mean when I say that the fallen condition identified in a passage can reveal itself in different ways depending on a person's circumstances, personality, upbringing, culture, etc. Because I am not a wealthy person, it could be quite easy to read Luke 12:13-21 and think, "Since I am not wealthy, this passage really has nothing or very little to say." But when I realize that the fallen condition is a disease that has a variety of symptoms depending on the person, I am reminded to ask diagnostic questions that reveal the presence of the disease.

The recognition that the fallen condition reveals itself differently in different people is also an important bridge to applying the text to others when you teach or preach. If you were preaching or teaching Luke 12:13-21, it would be tempting for the people in your group/audience who do not view themselves as rich to "check out" because they think the passage has nothing to say to them. But when you help people to see the fallen condition and its various symptoms, it becomes much more difficult for anyone in the group/audience to think, "This passage has nothing to say to me."

As a final note on this subject, the more specific you can be, the more clearly you and the people you lead will be able to see the fallen condition at work. Try to give specific examples that reveal the presence of the fallen condition so that when people recognize their own thoughts, attitudes and actions in what you are describing, they will realize that they think, feel or act that way because they are infected with the fallen condition you have identified. The more specific you are in identifying the fallen condition, the more precision you will have in applying the gospel solution. The better you know the specific people you are leading as well as the larger cultural influences that feed the fallen condition you have identified, the better you will be able to speak God's Word into their lives. A friend of mine once referred to this as "reading people's mail." In other words, when you identify the fallen condition and how it shows up in a person's life, you want them to have that moment where they think, "That's totally how I think/feel/act." Once a person is to that point, the gospel solution will seem especially sweet.

Lord willing, next week, we will move to the different aspects of application.