I’ll just dive right in. Let me say something kinda… controversial.
What a passage means to humanity and what it means to you will overlap, but they may also be different at the same time.
I’m not saying that the ultimate meaning for God’s word is changing all the time. I’m saying the application of it is. So William Carey (the legendary missionary of ages past) read the call of God to Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15. The passage is about Abraham, not William. About the promise to the displaced family group that would eventually become the nation of Israel, not about a Brit with a passion for souls. But as William read it, God said to him, “This is your story too. I’m calling you to India as a missionary. Go.”
Let’s be perfectly clear. The passage doesn’t say that. At all. It doesn’t mean that everyone who has faith will leave normal for a life of mystery in a foreign country. But it did to William Carey, and not a Christian on earth would dispute that fact.
How can it be? It can be… because the Holy Spirit often applies scripture out of context when it comes to guidance. Not when it comes to theology, you understand. Just when it comes to practice. Or when it comes to helping us interpret life going on around us.
How can I say that? Because God does it all the way through scripture. He breaks the human “rules of hermeneutics” all the time (this is where we can watch Spirit inspired people handling scripture and learn from them). My favorite example is a passage in Matthew when Mary and Joseph flee with Jesus into Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous appetite. “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son,” Matthew writes (Matthew 3:15). Sounds like a pretty clear prophecy, right? Bang on!
Or not. Let’s take a look at the original verse, the one the Spirit of God is referring to.
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and burned incense to images” (Hosea 11:1,2).
First of all, the passage isn’t about the son of God, but about Israel—whom God says is like a son to him. It’s a metaphor, not literal like Matthew applies it. Secondly, the passage is about a rebellious son that wanders away and worships idols. Not exactly a stellar family resemblance to Christ. But the Holy Spirit, looking to Mary and Joseph’s time in Egypt, links the two. He takes Mary and Joseph’s little trip and that ancient passage—and says, “Prophecy fulfilled!” In other words, God yanked this passage right out of context to make a point in their present day. Maybe Mary and Joseph were meditating on this passage, like William Carey was praying through Genesis 12, and God confirmed the angelic message to flee to Egypt by bringing it to their attention. Who knows?
All I do know is, that’s not good hermeneutics, if we’re going to be strict and honest about it.
Or how about this one: Judas hung himself on the eve of Jesus’ arrest, right? So that left eleven disciples. In looking for what to do next, Peter quotes Psalm 109:8: “May another take his place of leadership.” The disciples are convinced God has spoken. They move forward with selecting Judas’ replacement (Acts 1:15-26). The Bible said so, so we do it. Right?
Wait. Let’s read Psalm 109 and do some “hermeneutics” to see if this is a “valid” interpretation. It’s a Psalm of David, and the context was his rant against people who have betrayed him and had become his enemies. Enemies who were still alive, to be precise:
“Wicked and deceitful men have opened their mouths against me… they attack me without cause… they repay me evil for good, and hatred for friendship. Appoint an evil man to oppose him; let an accuser stand at his right hand… may his days be few; may another take his place of leadership” (Psalm 109:2-8).
Let’s be frank. David isn’t trying to be prophetic. He’s too upset about people in his own life for that. He’s praying that God would strike down one of his enemies, and that he’d do it with style. He’s asking God to create a vacant position, not asking for wisdom about how to fill one. This is about vengeance, plain and simple. So how did Peter get what he did out of it? Not with hermeneutics, that’s for sure. My guess is that he was reading the Psalms that morning, looking for a word from God—and when he saw this verse, God impressed something on his heart like, “Peter, I have been betrayed by one of my friends too—in this case, by Judas. His place among the twelve is vacant. Replace him.”
And so they did. By allowing the Holy Spirit to use a verse to speak to them without being bound by the author’s original intent, the context, flow, Hebrew word definitions, grammar, or syntax. And God will do the same for you… Often.
Now, he won’t lead you to do anything immoral. He won’t create new theologies that way. Truth is set, and it’s eternal. But in applying the word, don’t be surprised to see him using scripture in all kinds of unique and delightful ways that can never be repeated or boiled down into a principle to bank on.
One day a couple of years back, after I had lost my job as a youth pastor in a growing church, God told me to read the story of Noah. So I did. And I look, look, look, looked. And I noticed that the story of Noah is full of dates. The day the flood came. The day God closed the door. The day the rain stopped. The day the first dove was sent. And came back. And the second. And the third. And the day the ark came to rest on the mountain. The day they walked out onto dry land. Lots of dates!
And I sensed God saying, “You are in a kind of ark right now too, waiting on me for deliverance and guidance.” More to the point, I also felt him lead me to look at the dates. To line up the first date with the day I lost my job. So I did. And then forgot about the whole thing…
Until later that year. Until I remembered the dates. “The seventeenth day of the second month…” and so-forth. And cross-referenced them with what I had recorded in my prayer journal that year. And realized that every major date in Noah’s story had an equivalent in my own life. Like the day the dove and raven were sent out. That was the very day I sent out a resume. The day the dove returned with the olive leaf was the day I received first word of what would become my next ministry assignment. And the day after Noah came out of the ark with his family was the day we moved our family to the new town to begin our ministry there.
Now, you might be worried about where this all leads us. Doesn’t it open us up to all kinds of relativism? Everyone can interpret what they want, now? No, they can’t. I’ve been pretty clear about all that. No new theology. No contradicting what’s already written. Test it with other believers. But it is what it is.