Both the preacher and his people are concerned that the sermon be relevant and easily applied. And this valid concern can lead to abuse in cases where the preacher begins by searching the text for applications without taking the time to find out what the text actually says. In actuality, however, the preacher who truly expounds the text need not be overly anxious about application because the Bible is an application from Genesis to Revelation.
When Moses penned the Torah in the Sinai after the Exodus, virtually every line was of immense relevance to the Israelites, as it told them who God was, where they came from, what God expected of them, and where they were going. And when Israel’s prophets prophesied to Israel, they were, by and large, applying the Torah to the people’s conduct. Every one of the 150 Psalms was meant to be sung and applied. The apostle Paul’s declaration that the Scriptures are God-breathed is coupled to his declaration of their comprehensive fourfold applicability: they are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). The history, pericopes, and parables of the Gospels unfold application upon application from the life of Christ. As to the relevance of the Epistles, each letter addresses problems in the church. As has been said, there would be no New Testament as we know it if the New Testament churches had not been not so naughty!
The truth is that if we understand what the application was in Sinai or in Jerusalem, or in Galilee or Corinth or Ephesus or Rome, it will be relevant today in Singapore and New York and Rome. The scholarly anxiety about “the pastness of the past” and the bringing of the two horizons of ancient culture and contemporary culture together is not as daunting as is supposed when we remember that God is the author of Scripture and that he had a future audience in mind when he caused the Scripture to be written, as Peter Adam so persuasively argues in Speaking God’s Words. And, as Scott Hafemann has written, “The very fact that God has chosen to reveal himself in a space and time-bound collection of writings means that cross-cultural, cross-linguistic, cross-temporal communication is possible.”
Of course, while understanding the text’s application and believing that it will apply in Chicago is the necessary first part of the work, careful contemporary application is the other. We must be astute observers of culture like the choice men of “Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chr 12:32). We must read the culture through its newspapers and bestsellers and media outlets. We must understand its pop and corporate idolatries, as well as the prevailing intellectual and political currents. And we must intimately know the existential needs of our people, which can only come by daily shepherding our church families amid the joys and woes of life.
In all of this, the person of Jesus must be at the center of our application, just as he was for the apostolic church. He is the only one who can satisfy the longings of today’s culture and save and satisfy our souls.
This blog post is taken from R. Kent Hughes, “The Sermon and the Greek New Testament,” Unio cum Christo 2.1 (April 2016): 169–85. The full text of the article is now available on the website.
1 Peter Adam, Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Expository Preaching (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), 101–2.
2 Scott J. Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2000), 169.