Question: How can one verse of the Bible be used in so many ways. As I study, I reach each story as specific to its situation and people. Foe example, when Jesus says, whatever you ask of me I will give. I take that as specific to the disciples. Yet many today people understand this as God talking to them. Which is it?
Answer: Let me say at the outset that I wish more people would read the Bible as you do. I can tell by your question that you understand something basic about writing (and hence the Bible) that many people miss: Every author has an intention when he writes a passage, and it is incumbent upon the reader to find out what that intention is—rather than projecting his own notions back upon the communication and saying, “This is what the author means.” Taking anybody’s work (and this includes God’s) and bending it to other purposes (whether by malfeasance or indolence) is fraud—plain and simple.
Your question reminded me of the old teaching about Scripture that says, “Every word in the Bible is for us, but not every word in the Bible is to us.” Indeed, nothing is wasted in God’s word! We can use every story as an example. However, we should not take every utterance as a personal instruction. That being said, I do not want anyone to get the impression that the Bible is merely a book of information rather than a vital guide for living. That’s not true. It is full of personal instruction! Therefore, our task is to discern between that which informs and that which convicts—and we can begin by exploring the technical particulars of documents in general. Then we can move on to the Bible in particular.
First, all documents have three primary elements: an author, an audience and a subject. So, all documents must be from someone, to someone and about something. Second, an author is saying one thing and not another thing… and it is incumbent upon the reader to discover just what that is. Third, communication does not occur in a vacuum. Every author, every audience and every subject is necessarily contained within a time, a place and a culture. In most documents, these elements constrain the primary audience. But there are other audiences too, such as secondary or tertiary audiences—and it is critical to understand that the Bible’s primary audiences were the authors’ contemporaries, and not us. So, where does that leave today’s readers? We are a secondary audience. But this requires some qualification.
The challenge with a book like the Bible is that we must approach it two ways. On one hand, we must strive to understand it with technical proficiency; this requires that we constantly evaluate who the primary audience is—because it is not us. On the other hand, we must seek to “own” the Bible’s precepts, and this requires us to read Scripture as if God were speaking into our ears… and praise God! He is! (John 16:13). Although this might sound like a dichotomy, we understand enough of how the Bible works to overcome that difficulty almost inductively.
For example, most Christians understand that we should not murder (Ex. 20:13). And we do this by “taking ownership” of that 6th commandment even though the Decalogue was written over 3000 years ago—and to an Eastern (not a Western) people. But we also understand that it is inappropriate for Christians to sacrifice bulls and goats today (Heb. 10:4)—even though that was a requirement for that very same audience! So, how did we decide to obey the 6th commandment but to stop obeying the bit about animal sacrifices? We took counsel from the New Testament.
The biggest “favor” a Christian can do himself is to know the New Testament really well. This will keep him out of trouble on many fronts—but especially so as a Christian who is trying to decide what to do about the Old Testament. In general terms, we Christians continue with the Old Testament’s moral code (that is, we don’t kill, we don’t steal, we honor our parents, etc.), but we don’t carry-on with the particulars of the sacrificial system. But this is because we have a new piece of information: Jesus’ death on the cross paid for all our sins! (1 Jn. 2:2).
Because Jesus provided the final atonement by his own death on the cross, we no longer have to make those stop-gap sacrifices which were necessary before his death. But would there be any harm if we kept sacrificing animals too? Yes. Such activity would show that we have ignored God’s progressive revelation.
God revealed his truth over time, and today’s Christians know many things that the Old Testament faithful did not know—and we are responsible for that the new information. Therefore, sacrificing animals in an era where Jesus has fulfilled (John 19:30) every requirement for atonement, would be a contemptuous act against the Son of God (Heb. 6:6). So what about behaving morally? Does that now show contempt for God too?
Not at all. Yes, it is true that we are now free from sin’s condemnation (Rom. 8:1). But it is not true that this gives us a license to sin (Rom. 6:15). In fact, if we are indeed children of God in this age, we had better look like it! (James 2:14). How do we do this? We should continue to live morally—just like the Old Testament faithful! So today, sacrificing animals would insult the Christ… while living morally honors him. This is not dichotomous nor is it a flip-flop. This is the logical result of a progressive revelation.
Compared to the Old Testament faithful, today’s believer knows the whole plan of redemption—so our responses to the Old Testament’s instructions reflect discernment, not dichotomy. We can see that God was addressing different audiences throughout time, and we will never understand Scripture if we throw discrete biblical ideas into one big pot and make Bible soup. Instead, we must constantly evaluate the context for clues about audience and purpose to understand Scripture as God intended. Therefore, understanding that the Bible’s documents were always and only written to God’s ancient people (and not to us) is a critical part of interpreting Scripture.
But (and this is a huge but) we cannot let the technical points of “audience” change our responses to God’s precepts. Indeed, we must obey God. But we do this by using our knowledge of audience to understand better what God is actually saying—and particularly what he is saying about how we should act in our contemporary lives. Once we understand what God wants, only then should we live our lives as if we were the primary audience.
I have written all of this by way of caution, because your instincts are correct about the Bible as a piece of writing. It was indeed written to certain people at certain times about certain things—and not to us. But the caution is that we should not stop there; we must use that knowledge to understand the text critically—but not to win any arguments. We want to make sure that we are serving God as he wants to be served… not as someone thinks he wants to be served. That is our continual struggle.
So, what about that Scripture you mentioned—the one where we ask God for things and he gives them to us. Because with all this talk about audience the question remains: Was that Scripture given only to his disciples? Or was it to us too? Let’s look.
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7–8, NIV)
That passage was for us, too (but not as the Prosperity-Gospel preachers would have you understand it—and I am guessing that this is what’s at issue with you). As to the audience, these teachings concerned the Kingdom of God (Mat. 6:33), and the Kingdom of God is a big basket; it includes all the faithful—not just the faithful of Israel and not just the disciples.
So yes, Jesus was indeed speaking to his disciples—perhaps primarily, but not exclusively. After all, the crowd was larger than just the disciples (Mat. 5:1). Many in attendance were merely curious about Jesus. But many of his enemies were also in the crowd! Nevertheless, he was speaking to them all (and to us). But what was he saying? That we can be rich? Not at all. Jesus was speaking the truths about the Kingdom of God—but he was speaking by way of wisdom and not by way of formula. The Prosperity-Gospel believers misunderstand this, and they also ignore the sermon’s context.
The context of the Sermon on the Mount is clear: Don’t worry about your prosperity! Foster a relationship with God and he will supply your needs… but he will do this in the way that he determines is best for you—not in the way you demand. Therefore, the reader should be thinking more in terms of “the birds of the air” than mansions in Bel Air. So—and in spite of what Prosperity preachers spew—Jesus does not want you rich. He wants you holy. God will sustain you—that’s the promise—but riches are not there for the asking. A full life in Christ is.