The Bible is a long and at-times complicated book centered upon a short and simple truth: Jesus Christ died to save sinners. The Bible tells the great narrative that is unfolding in this world: the story of God creating, man falling, Christ redeeming, and the end coming to all sin and evil. The Bible serves as our guide to this story and to the characters who play roles in it. It does this through 66 books that span genres, cultures, authors, and centuries. It is a remarkable work that could only have come from the mind of God.
The Bible is a sure and steady guide to life and doctrine, but to be that sure and steady guide it must be properly understood and interpreted. Proper understanding and interpretation is dependent on one indispensable rule: Before you ask, “What does it mean to us now?”, ask “What did it mean to them then?” In other words, before you attempt to apply the Bible to your life and circumstances, anchor it in the lives and circumstances of its original recipients. Application must be related to meaning.
Sadly, Christian books and preaching are absolutely littered with teaching that has almost no resemblance to the Bible passages it is drawn from. Recently I reviewed a book that perfectly illustrates how we tend to move too quickly from the text to personal application without asking that all-important question. The author was writing about the importance of setting goals, and as he did this he quoted Habakkuk 2:2 where God tells the prophet, “Write the vision and make it plain.” And here is the author’s application: “Your goals must be in writing. … There is spiritual power in writing down your goals.”
I agree with the author that goals are useful and that writing down goals make them more powerful in the sense that you are now more likely to remember them, return to them, and take action on them. But to insist that there is spiritual power in writing them down, and to draw this from Habakkuk 2:2, well, that is a different matter.
When we read Habakkuk 2:2 and look for application, the first question we need to ask is “What did it mean to them then?” In other words, what did these words mean to the original recipients? The answer is quite plain: God had given his people a prophetic message and did not intend to fulfill it immediately; Habakkuk was to write it down so it could be recorded for posterity. That way God’s people could cling to that promise and, at a future date, rejoice that God had fulfilled it.
And now, on that basis, we can ask this: What does it mean to us now? How can we draw personal application that is related to the original meaning and application?
One application might be to rejoice that God reveals himself to us and that he always fulfills his words. After all, he told his people to write down these words because it was absolutely fixed that he would, in due time, do what he had said. He is the promise-making and promise-keeping God. Another application might be to look for promises God has made to us and to see where and how he has fulfilled them. Where do we owe God thanks and praise for keeping his promises? Where do we need to patiently and prayerfully wait for him to keep his promises? These applications flow right out of the “them then”—out of the way the original recipients would have understood the text.
We cannot fairly say that this text teaches that there is particular power in writing down our goals; in fact, we cannot say that there is anything in this passage about setting or keeping goals. Neither does Habakkuk mean to say anything about the power of writing. We cannot make those applications if we adhere to that one indispensable rule. If it did not mean it for them then, it does not mean it for us now.
As Christians, Christians who long to know and obey the Bible, we only really know God’s Word when we know it accurately. So before you make application, always ask the simple question: What did it mean for them then?
For more on this subject you can read the article 1 Triangle, 3 Corners, 4 T’s.
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