Not all lines of application are created equal. We have all sat through a sermon, Bible study or Sunday school class and heard someone (perhaps even the preacher or teacher!) make an application from a text that makes us scratch our heads and wonder where in the world that came from.
One way to avoid this experience is to think through the different “orders” of application. What I mean will become clear as I explain each of the three orders of application:
- First Order: Those points of application that can be shown to relate directly to the main point of the passage. These should be obvious from the text to most anyone reading or hearing the passage. They are the equivalent of low-hanging fruit that is ripe for the picking!
- Second Order: Those points of application that can be shown to be a reasonable inference from the main point of the passage. These may not be immediately obvious to all who read or hear the text, but upon brief explanation should be clear. In this case the fruit is higher up in the tree but is still reachable by standing on your tip-toes.
- Third Order: Those points of application that can be shown to be a reasonable inference from an incidental aspect of the passage. These are not obvious to the reader or hearer, but with substantive explanation can be made clear. In this case the fruit is near the top of the tree and requires a good ladder or even a bucket truck to get to it.
So let’s apply these different orders to Philippians 1:27-30:
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
For the sake of our exercise, let’s say that the main point of the passage is this: We must live out our heavenly citizenship according to the pattern of the gospel. Now let’s suggest some possible applications for each order:
- First Order: I must believe that my primary identity is as a citizen of God’s kingdom, not the USA. This challenges the broader culture around me that finds identity in belonging to this world and one of its various subcultures
- Second Order: Because the Christian life is a fight/struggle, I need to be more intentional in my efforts to grow spiritually. These efforts must be within the context of the body of Christ, for it is in fellowship with other believers that God gives me the strength to stand firm.
- Third Order: Because persecution is a reality faced by my brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, we as a church should financially support Voice of the Martyrs.
Hopefully these examples give you a clearer sense of what I mean by the different orders of application. Regardless of whether you are doing personal application or application for teaching/preaching, the emphasis should always be on first order, and only then move on to second or third order. You want your people to come away from the text saying, “That makes total sense. It’s obvious that’s what I should think, feel, believe or do.”
In our final post in this series, we will attempt to summarize the entire series into something that is manageable.