I was very much aware that the New Testament writers like Paul and Peter wrote their letters to real flesh and blood 1st century believers or churches, but even in that light I unwittingly bypassed context looking for specific personal applications that I believed was encased in every passage.
Clearly “all Scripture is inspired by God” and fully profitable that “we may be equipped for every good work” (2Tim 3:16-17) but is it beneficial to be so preoccupied with finding personal relevance to the point where we ignore scriptural context? I truly believe this has created a whole host of interpretational errors and has led to a great deal of confusion.
Therefore, our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to first determine what the New Testament author intended to communicate to his immediate audience, and only after that attempt to make proper personal application. In other words, a text can’t mean today what it never meant to the first-century recipients.
All too often when reading a passage of Scripture I was inclined to automatically transpose the “you” to “me” or “us”. That seemed wise until I realized that by doing so I was ripping “audience relevance” from the equation, and therefore trivialized the lives of the original recipients—to the point where they were deemed irrelevant. By doing this we inadvertently transport segments of Scripture germane to a first-century culture and spiritual climate, 2,000 years to a westernized people who have virtually no connection to the original context.
By ignoring context we create significant confusion such that we unwittingly subject ourselves to Doubting Thomasitis. I surely had a bad case of this nasty superbug! Things just did not add up and the subliminal affects of doubt crept in to the point where it took a serious toll on my relationship with the Lord. It’s insidious yet I prevalent in the Church. Expectations become skewed when we attempt to move passages from their first-century moorings to current day settings. When we time-warp, for example the letter to the Hebrews, to the year 2008 instead of reading it in it’s original 0062 context, we introduce insurmountable hermeneutical issues.
We don’t recognize God’s faithfulness to the original recipients.
We expectantly wait for things to happen today that were prophesied to transpire in the first- century.
12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Hebrews 5:12-14 (ESV)
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, Hebrews 6:1 (ESV)
6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-8 ESV)
The immediate reflex for me was to personalize this passage—to bring it into my world. The assumption is that God is going to repay with affliction those who inflict ME and therefore inflict vengeance on MY oppressors. This may apply as a generalized principle but out of context we lose sight of what the Apostle Paul was conveying. The problem is that I’m not part of the Thessalonian Church and God never made that promise specifically to me. We must not lose sight of this fact.
By moving these verses into a modern day context, we fail to realize that Paul’s offering specific comfort to the persecuted Thessalonian Church, letting them know that God will avenge those who afflict them. We know historically that God made good this commitment adhering to Jesus’s “this generation” proclamation. During the ensuing 3 ½ year tribulation that began in the spring of AD 66 and terminated in the fall of AD 70, Jerusalem was obliterated and the oppressors witnessed God’s judgment first-hand. There’s no doubt that the Thessalonians were comforted by God’s faithfulness!
1,100,000 Jews died during the siege and another 80,000 were taken captive by Titus and the multinational force. God’s wrathful outpouring was evident to all!
What’s the lesson for us? How do we make application? By realizing that God is faithful to do exactly as promised within the time frame promised. Therefore, we know that if God was faithful to the first century believers who were in serious need of vindication, God will be faithful to us in our time of need. The problems come when we assume that the “flaming fire, inflicting vengeance” is to occur sometime in our future against those that may afflict us. This cannot be the case since the context of this passage forces us to confine Paul’s promised vindication to the oppressors of the Thessalonian believers in the latter part of the transition period, between the writing of 2 Thessalonians and the terrible day of the Lord in AD 70.
“not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:25 (ESV) (don’t forget that the YOU is not 21st century believers!) “The Day” was approaching rapidly. How soon would “all these things” be fulfilled? (Luke 21:22)
1 Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. 2 And Jesus said to them [not you & I], “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you [Jesus’ disciples], not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” [verse 34 tells the time frame when this was to take place]
3 Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age [not the end of the world as in the KJV]?” 4 And Jesus answered and said to them [not me & you] : “Take heed that no one deceives you [the disciples]. 5 For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. [in their day not 2,00 years future-and we have record of many who did come in this manner]
6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled [who is the “you” who should not be troubled?—The disciples] ; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet [end of what? End of the World? No, the end of the age] . 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. [all happened like clockwork – Acts speaks of much of this] 8 All these are the beginning of sorrows. [When was this all to happen? Verse 34 tells us]
9 Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you [kill whom?—the disciples], and you [disciples] will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. 10 And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. 11 Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. [and they did]
12 And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But he who endures to the end shall be saved. [from the ensuing temporal destruction that would befall Jerusalem in the tribulation of AD 66-70] 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world [Has this happened yet? See Col 1:6;23] as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come [the end of the age not the end of the world].
15 “Therefore when you see [not us you but the disciples] the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” [Luke tells us (Luke 21:20) that this desolaton will be the result of the armies that surround the city] (whoever reads, let him understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea [not Brandon or Opelika – no reason to spiritualize this text] flee to the mountains [in Florida!].
17 Let him who is on the housetop [not too many hanging out on housetops today in Tampa, FL or Kokomo, IN] not go down to take anything out of his house. 18 And let him who is in the field [Do you work in the field? Not a lot of folks do today. This is where people who pride themselves with the “literal” approach to interpretation, immediately take flight from the natural when it is not called for by the text] not go back to get his clothes.
19 But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! [wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference today—for goodness sakes, pregnancy virtually poses no problems today compared to 2,000 years ago!] 20 And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath [travel is not impeded in the winter or on Saturday in this day and age but it surely was then].
21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. 22 And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened. [I’m thankful they were shortened but the watchful Christians fled to Pella 3 1/2 years earlier]
23 Then if anyone says to you [the disciples], ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it. [the Kingdom was not to come with “signs to be observed” (Lk 17:20-21)]24 For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you [not us] beforehand. [they were supposed to know the season of His return]
28 For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together. 29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light [much like Isaiah 34:4:]; the stars will fall from heaven [much like Isaiah 13:10], and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
31 And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. 32 “Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you now that summer is near. [a clear indication that they were to know the timing, just not the actual day or the hour of His return]
33 So you also, when you see all these things, now that it is near–at the doors! [James 5:8-9 is quoting this] 34 Assuredly, I say to you, [not those of us living in 2008] this generation [not 50 generations from then!] will by no means pass away till all these things take place. Matthew 24:1-34 (NKJV)
Can you “see” how audience relevance shapes the way you read the Word? This makes all the difference in the world when interpreting Scripture. A passage like the Olivet, that may appear future to us when not considering the relevance to the audience at hand, is clearly meant for the generation that received it.
So as you read the Word always consider context and remember that little phrase: “The Scripture was written FOR us but it was not written TO us.”