Looking for Application In the Bible

In James 1:22, we are reminded not just to read the Bible but to do what it says! Looking for application in the Bible is important – but we need to be careful! Not every verse or passage you read has a straightforward application – and if we force it, we risk misinterpreting the text. Annabel Robinson, an experienced editor and author of Bible reading reflections, shares tips to help us find application in the Bible.


The Bible is such a magnificent collection of stories, poems, sayings, history, instruction, love literature . . . translated in the seventeenth century into superb English prose that it’s possible to read it just to savour the language. And many people do.

So much so that hundreds of phrases coined by the early translators of the Bible have become commonplace in the English language.

Common Phrases Inspired by the Bible

  • go the extra mile
  • put words into someone’s mouth
  • a wolf in sheep’s clothing
  • a leopard cannot change its spots
  • casting your pearls before swine

Some passages are written so beautifully that people use them without paying attention to what the writer meant. High on the list would be Paul’s “hymn to love” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) which is often read at weddings, although it isn’t referring to the love between man and wife.

It’s easy to let your eye slide over passages like this without ever giving a thought to what they might mean if we took them seriously for our own lives.

And so we are all taught the good advice: look for the application.

Applying the Bible to Our Lives


When we read “love your neighbour as yourself” and let that sink in, we realize that it means we should treat everyone with love, consideration and respect. Even the person at work who drives everybody crazy!

When we read that Jesus told Peter to forgive “seventy times seven,” that means we should get rid of that list of people against whom we hold a grudge.

When the application isn’t clear

But most of the Bible doesn’t lend itself to such a straightforward application. What if your reading for this morning had been the story of Dinah (Genesis 34), or even John 1:1-4 or Acts 27:1-12? It’s hard to see in these passages what the Bible is telling us to do. What can easily happen is that we twist what we read to make it fit what we already know.

It’s been argued in a “well-known sermon” that David’s problems in 2 Samuel 13-20 were because David hadn’t “mastered essential parenting skills.”

Joseph’s troubles that began when his brothers threw him into a pit (Genesis 37) are often seen as the result of his father’s favouritism. (Application: don’t show favouritism to one of your children.)

We lose doubly when we press every passage for application. We make the Bible say something it isn’t saying, and we miss what it is saying.

It’s one thing to hear this pointed out, but another thing to read the Bible so that we do hear accurately what God is saying to us.

We lose doubly when we press every passage for application. We make the Bible say something it isn’t saying, and we miss what it is saying.

Some Tips for Finding Application in the Bible


Read the whole story.

Most of the Bible is narrative. Stories. Try reading the story, for example, the story of Joseph, from beginning to end. This would mean reading Genesis 37-50 as one story. The “lesson” is made clear at the end. Then see how the shorter episodes fit in.

Read Larger Chunks.

The way we usually read the Bible is to read about a dozen verses at a time. The Scripture Union’s “theStory” does just this so that Bible reading becomes a part of our lives. But if you are reading a narrative passage, pay attention to the larger story. Take time in your week to read in larger chunks. The Sunday theStory suggestions for further thought sometimes suggest this.

Think about “application” in a larger context.

If you’re reading about Paul’s shipwreck in Acts 27, thank God that he reassured Paul and showed him the incredible things that would happen once he got through this (v 24), and that Paul’s life (and Luke’s!) hung by a thread (think how many times that happens in the Bible). You might also thank God that someone (Luke) took the trouble to write it all down and that many unknown scribes copied the text so that we can have it in our Bibles today.

Pay careful attention to context.

Paul may have told the women in Corinth to “be silent” (1 Corinthians 14:34), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that women ought to be silent today. Or, for that matter, when he told Timothy to bring certain things when he came to see him, that we all ought to go to Troas to pick up his cloak and the parchments (2 Timothy 4:13). It takes some discernment to know what commands are specific to the original situation and which we should understand more generally. Pay attention to any other place the topic is mentioned in the Bible. Bear in mind that Paul’s letters are letters—written to specific people in specific situations. Our situation may be different. Listen to the Holy Spirit for guidance here.

Consider cultural context.

People in Bible times (the two thousand years from Abraham to Paul) didn’t necessarily think or act the way we do. There’s no evidence that anyone in David’s time knew or cared about “parenting skills.” Or that the writer of Genesis thought about psychological issues.

Recommended: The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

Over time, as we get to know the whole story of the Bible better, become increasingly better informed about the world of its writers, grow in our knowledge of Jesus Christ and listen to the Holy Spirit, we will grow better at knowing how to apply the Bible well.

So listen to the Bible on its own terms. There’s more in the Bible than instruction.

Listen to the Bible on its own terms. There’s more in the Bible than instruction.

Related Articles: Reading the Bible in Context, Fractured Bible Engagement

© Scripture Union Canada, 2021

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