Bible Basics 2: Meaning + Significance = Application

In the last installment of Bible Basics, we made the point that a passage means only what its A(a)uthor[1] intended it to mean.  A right interpretation is one that matches up with what the A(a)uthor of the passage meant when H(h)e wrote it.

However, while there is typically only one meaning of a biblical passage – the one intended by the A(a)uthor of that passage – that meaning may have different significance to different people.

Here’s an example:  suppose I said “it’s starting to pour.”  I’m the author of that sentence, so I get to decide what it means and what it means is that it’s starting to rain really hard.  That’s the meaning.  However, that one meaning might imply different things to people in various circumstances.  For a farmer who’s been praying for rain, my statement implies that his prayer has been answered.  For a mason pouring a sidewalk, my statement implies that his fresh concrete is in danger.  The statement has one meaning that is independent of the interpretation or even the circumstances of the hearer.  But that one meaning has different significance to different people depending on those circumstances.  When things are working right as far as communication goes, what they do with that statement will start with the meaning , proceed to identification of  the significance of that meaning for them, resulting in relevant action or application.  The farmer will thank God for sending rain.  The mason will rush to get a cover to protect the fresh concrete.

In other words, application = meaning + significance.  Because the significance of a correct interpretation of a Bible passage may vary a bit for people in different circumstances, the application might also look a little different. In that way, the one correct interpretation of each Bible passage can be relevant to everyone, whatever their circumstances.   So we shouldn’t ask “what does this passage mean to you?” but rather “What does this passage mean?”,  “What is the significance of that meaning in your circumstances?” and, finally, “How will you apply that in your life?”

When we start with a right understanding of the intended meaning of a passage and then ask careful questions about the personal significance of that meaning, we can be confident that the applications we come up with are going to be consistent with God’s Word and honoring to God Himself.

But it all starts with correctly identifying the A(a)uthor’s intended meaning of a passage.


[1] This rather strange construction is simply intended to be short-hand for the idea that God is the ultimate Author of Scripture but that He inspired individual human authors whose unique personalities and writing styles  are still observable in the text.