[Editor's note: This is the second part in a two-part series on how Scripture helps with contemporary issues. Be sure to read Connecting the Bible with Real Life.]
Before I muddy the waters a bit regarding the ease with which we use ditch passages, let me affirm several things. First, it’s absolutely right to use passages that speak specifically to our everyday experiences. As believers in Christ, we have continuity with God’s people in the Old Testament and New Testament. We share the same struggles common to people of all eras, so we should expect God’s revelation to them to resonate with us. In addition, let’s not forget that God’s Spirit gives wisdom and direction in the application of Scripture to life. Although I will stress throughout this book the importance of deeper study of Scripture and people, I want to affirm the often impromptu, Spirit-led connections between the Bible and life that you have experienced in ministry. You already have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). At the same time, just because God’s Spirit graciously uses your current knowledge of Scripture to connect with people, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dig deeper as you have opportunity. View this book, then, as an opportunity to dig for more treasure, even as you use and enjoy the riches you already have found!
So grab a shovel and consider this challenge: Should ditch passages be so easy to apply? Consider one of the easiest of ditch passages, Philippians 4:6-7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Have you used that passage in your own life and ministry in the midst of fear, anxiety, and worry? I certainly have. My concern is not whether this is a helpful passage to use in this situation—it is! Rather, my concern is how we go about using it and whether we have at least considered some of the complexities surrounding the use of this “easy” passage.
For example, has it ever hit you that there is about a two-thousand-year gap between the Philippians who received Paul’s letter and your friend who is struggling with anxiety? How much overlap is there between the people, the social-cultural context, and situation(s) in that first-century church and suburban America two millennia later? More fundamentally, how can a snippet of ancient mail addressed to other people bear fruit in our lives today? Of course, one answer is, because it’s in the Bible, it is God’s revelation for believers of all ages, times, and places. That is true! At the same time, I don’t want us to sidestep the historical, cultural, and situational gap that exists between the first century and now. What gives us the right to extract a verse or two and import it to the present without giving attention to its original context? Shouldn’t we take that into consideration?
As I’m writing this, the Republican and Democratic races for the presidential election are in full swing. One tactic used time and time again during the debates is for one candidate to seize upon a phrase or statement of an opponent, rip it out of its context, and use it to characterize (caricature) the opponent’s position. We chafe at such misrepresentation in politics or in our own relationships and conversations.
That is why we need to ask a question we often cheerfully ignore: How can we be so sure we are using Scripture properly when we apply it to our friends’ situations? How can we be sure we are doing justice to the author’s intent? Put another way, how can we judge if we have successfully traveled to the first century and back again with the apostle’s meaning intact?
That challenge is even greater when we consider Old Testament passages. Is it fair to use Joshua 1:9 as an encouragement for an evangelistic campaign without considering the historical and cultural gap between then and now? What do nomadic Israelites about to engage in bloody warfare have to do with fearful believers about to share tracts with drug users on the streets of north Philadelphia? Suddenly, ditches look more like canyons!
Similarly, life problems aren’t as easy to assign to the ditch category. The fact is, people’s lives are a complex maze of thoughts, emotions, actions, motives, circumstances, and experiences. What do you say to the angry wife who lives with a lazy, irresponsible alcoholic and is trying to deal with four children in various states of anger and rebellion themselves? Should you take her to Ephesians 4 to instruct her regarding her anger? Maybe. But maybe not.
Or consider how God’s Word ministers to the man who cannot rid himself of the anxious thought that he left the door unlocked when he left for work that morning. How does scriptural truth interrupt his cycle of obsessive thinking and the compulsive checking that disrupts his schedule every day? Will you take him to Philippians 4:6-7 or Matthew 6:25-34, which speak explicitly about worry? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Is, in fact, a passage on worry most apropos? Are you sure that’s the most important pastoral issue to address?
We need to realize that so-called ditch passages and ditch problems may not be so straightforward after all. Great, you may be thinking, You’ve just taken my already ‘small’ functional Bible and made it even smaller! Now I feel even more tentative about using Scripture in ministry! If you feel that way, please read again the first paragraph of this section! I do not want to make it more difficult for you to minister to others using the Bible. My intent is not to open a Pandora’s box of difficulties that limit your application of Scripture. Rather, I hope you will sense increasing freedom in your ministry as you engage the Bible and people more deeply. What might this look like?
I learned to play tennis in high school. I received minimal instruction but played frequently, so I became a decent player. Years later I played for the first time with a friend who had been a standout on his collegiate team. He asked if I wanted some pointers. He recognized that I had nearly reached the limits of my previous instruction and practice. We started with my serve. Suddenly the racket felt like a foreign object in my hand! Double fault after double fault ensued. I seemed to regress rather than progress. But, over time, what initially felt awkward became smoother and more skillful. Eventually, my new style of serving surpassed the accuracy, speed, and spin of the old. There was a long-term payoff. In a similar way, I don’t want to take away your well-practiced “service” of ditch passages; I want to help you make it even better!
Consider the challenges I have posed so far as “speed bumps,” particularly for the use of ditch passages for ditch problems. Slow down! There’s more than meets the eye for this passage or this person. Seek to deepen your Spirit-led intuitions, and your use of Scripture will be even more fruitful. Your “hunches” with Scripture and with people may be right on target, but how much more helpful your ministry will be when you understand them even more deeply from the Christ-centered perspective this book advocates.
Let me give further encouragement: canyon passages aren’t so impossible and canyon problems aren’t so impossible! What makes canyon passages such as the building of the tabernacle, the book of Obadiah 1, or 1 Chronicles 1 potentially meaningful for believers today is that they are all part of an unfolding story of God’s redemption, a redemption that finds its climax in Jesus Christ and into which we’ve been caught up by God’s magnificent grace. We are those “on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). Because we are united with the One who fulfills (completes) Israel’s story, we share some measure of continuity with the Old Testament people of God, on whose behalf Exodus or Obadiah or Chronicles was written. Similarly, we stand after the cross, resurrection, and the pouring out of the Spirit, in continuity with the New Testament writers and their audiences. What sets up Philemon or the most perplexing parts of Revelation (or any part of the New Testament) to be relevant for us today is that we share the same Savior, the same redemption, and the renewed kingdom brought by Jesus Christ.
It is true that the Bible is historically and culturally situated. And it’s true that those factors require careful consideration in our interpretive efforts, a fact I will stress throughout this book. But because the Bible is “divine discourse” that finds its fulfillment in the Word, Jesus Christ, we will find that he is the key for bridging canyons (or ditches for that matter). It’s our Book because it’s his Book, and we are his!
What about canyon problems? Although the Bible does not give an exhaustive, step-by-step approach to modern problems unforeseen by the biblical writers, it does provide a comprehensive view of people and problems that allows us to wisely dive into the thorniest issues of contemporary life. It treats sin and suffering in such profound and multifaceted ways that no struggle, no matter how complex, stands outside the gospel light it sheds. It is wisdom that unravels the Gordian knots of twenty-first-century struggles.
1. Which verses, passages, or books of the Bible do you tend to return to again and again? Why?
2. Are there parts of the Bible you have never read? Why?
3. What current problems in your life, ministry, and church community defy an easy application of Scripture? How are you seeking to bring God’s Word to bear on those struggles?
In CrossTalk: Where Life and Scripture Meet, Michael R. Emlet gives you the tools to connect the Bible to your life and to the lives of your family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. You will learn to understand people and God's Word in ways that promote gospel-centered, rich conversations that help you and those you know grow in love for God and others.