How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Step 12––Practical Theology

Series: How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament 

by Jason DeRouchie October 20, 2022

To summarize How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament, this blog journey has supplied twelve steps from exegesis to theology. I categorized each of the twelve under the acronym TOCMA, which stands for Text > Observation > Context > Meaning > Application.

  • Text: “What is the makeup of the passage?”

(1) Genre; (2) Literary Units and Text Hierarchy; (3) Text Criticism; (4) Translation

  • Observation: “How is the passage communicated?”

(5) Clause and Text Grammar; (6) Argument-Tracing; (7) Word and Concept Studies

  • Context: “Where does the passage fit?”

(8) Historical Context; (9) Literary Context

  • Meaning: “What does the passage mean?”

(10) Biblical Theology; (11) Systematic Theology

  • Application: “Why does the passage matter?”

(12) Practical Theology

This is our final installment in this series, and it addresses step 12. Having exegeted the text and grasped God’s intended meaning, you as the interpreter now need to apply it to yourself, the church, and the world, stressing the centrality of Christ and the hope of the gospel. Such is the task of practical theology, by which we seek to live according to the biblical author’s intended effect.

God Gave the Old Testament to Instruct Christians

To apply the OT faithfully, one must have the conviction that God intends us to do so. That is, preachers and teachers must recognize that the OT is Christian Scripture, which God gave long ago to serve saints today.

1. Old Testament Reflections on the Main Audience of Old Testament Instruction

The OT authors consciously wrote their documents for new covenant members. For example, Isaiah noted how his audience was spiritually disabled, unable to grasp the words he proclaimed (Isa 29:9–11; cf. Rom 11:8). Nevertheless, he also envisioned a day when “the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see” (Isa 29:18). Thus, Yahweh told Isaiah, “Inscribe it in a book, that it may be for the time to come as a witness forever” (30:8). In that day, he says, “Your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it’” (30:20–21).

Similarly, Yahweh told Jeremiah to write for God’s restored community. “Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you. For behold, days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the LORD, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall take possession of it” (Jer 30:2–3). Jeremiah needed to write his words in a book because the new covenant members would need them, and it was they that would understand them (cf. 30:24–31:1; cf. 31:33–34).

2. New Testament Reflections on the Main Audience of the Old Testament Instruction

Paul, too, stressed that God gave the OT for new covenant believers. Referring to the statement in Genesis 15:6 that Abram’s faith was “counted to him as righteousness,” Paul asserted that “the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also” (Rom 4:23). Indeed, “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction” (15:4; cf. 1 Cor 10:11). “All Scripture is … profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Peter even explicitly states that God revealed to the OT prophets that their words were principally for us, not them (1 Pet 1:10–12). Therefore, far from being not applicable for believers, the OT is more relevant for Christians today than for most in the old covenant.

General Guidelines for Applying the Old Testament

In his book Old Testament Exegesis, Douglas Stuart offers helpful guidelines for applying biblical texts.[1] Here I develop them, using Exodus 19:4–6 to illustrate the process.

1. The Passage’s Original Revealed Application

a. Identify the application’s audience.

Does the passage target individuals, groups, or institutions? If one can’t differentiate in this way, why not? If the object is individuals, what kind (e.g., believing remnant or faithless rebel, parents or children)? If the object is a group, what kind (e.g., the community of faith, a nation, clergy)?

The second masculine plural “you” throughout Exodus 19:4–6 suggests that the target is every individual within the entire community. God redeemed the nation as a whole, and he called this nation his “son” (Exod 4:22–23).

b. List the application’s external life issues.

Here we consider: With what aspects of life is the passage most concerned? What do we encounter that is similar or related to what the passage addresses? Is the application directed toward matters that are more interpersonal in nature? Is the concern social, economic, spiritual, familial, etc.? Does the passage relate directly to the people’s relationship with God?

In Exodus 19:4–6, we see the personal experience of communal deliverance (v. 4). This deliverance should produce a daily pursuit of God among a geopolitical nation that is distinct from the surrounding nations (v. 5). This pursuit of God should give everyone a sense of life’s purpose (v. 6).

c. Clarify the application’s nature.

Some passages inform the mind, supplying information, whereas others direct the will, giving instruction. Some focus on the root of faith; others address the fruit of action. One passage describes some aspect of God’s love (i.e., inform), while another commands the reader to love God wholeheartedly (i.e., direct). One may clarify the nature of trust (i.e., faith), while another illuminates the nature of deeds. Often these two pairs come in packages so that informing leads to directing and believing leads to obeying. Ask, “Does this passage supply an indicative or an imperative? Does it address more the heart and head or the hands?”

On the surface, Exodus 19:4–6 recalls God’s gracious past redemption and informs Israel of their future responsibility and calling. Implicitly, the text calls the people to godward allegiance for the sake of mediating and displaying God’s glory to the nations. In addition, Exodus 19:4–6 explicitly addresses action and state of being, calling Israel to “hear” and “keep” and “be” (v. 5). Only to the level at which the people desire the promise of being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation and believe the promise-maker can act will they be motivated to heed his voice, keep his covenant, and intentionally seek to live as his treasured possession.

d. Determine the application’s time focus.

Does the passage call for present faith or action? Does it look back to something in the past or ahead to something in the future?

Exodus 19:4–6 called Israel to make an immediate response. And for every future generation in the old covenant, God’s revelation will remain the same. He had set Israel apart to express his worth in the world. Through this single nation, the world would be blessed, and Israel’s lives of surrender would parade God’s upright character until the time when the promised deliverer would overcome the world’s curse with a blessing.

e. Fix the application’s limits.

Does the passage function more as background or support? Is it part of a larger passage that suggests a clearer application than your passage does? Is it one of several passages that all function together to suggest a given application that none of them individually would quite have? Does the passage call for a response that could be misunderstood or taken too far? In what ways does the passage not apply?

Exodus 19:4–6 is perhaps the most foundational synthesis of the revealed purpose of the old covenant within Scripture. It looks back to the Abrahamic covenant promises and anticipates God’s revelation of his person and word at Sinai. It expresses God’s revealed will for Israel, but it does not address the implications of failure.

f. Summary

Exodus 19:4–6 synthesizes the old covenant by addressing the nation of Israel’s redemption and life-calling in relation to the world. It explicitly informs but also implicitly directs, calling for action and motivating this call by the promise of global impact. The words target every community member and address a surrender to Yahweh that impacts every facet of life in every present and future generation.

2. The Passage’s Theological Significance[2]

a. Clarify what the passage tells us about God and his ways.

Theology matters. When applying the OT, it is important to recall what we have learned about Yahweh’s unchanging character, desires, values, concerns, and standards, and what our passage says about his purposes in redemption.

Exodus 19:4–6 portrays Yahweh as one who delivers in order to create people who can in turn display his excellencies. With respect to his character and actions, he is an able warrior God who redeemed Israel from Egypt (v. 4). He is a God who commands, establishes covenants, and treasures some more than others (v. 5). Finally, he is a God who motivates through promises and desires his people to mediate and display his greatness to the world (v. 6). One could make appropriate application from these features, for his work in the new covenant is very analogous (see 1 Pet 2:9).

b. Assess how Christ’s fulfillment of the OT impacts applying the passage.

Some of the questions we can ask here are as follows: Does the passage speak directly to old covenant structures that God transformed in the new? How has the progress of salvation-history influenced how we hear and apply this text? How does the passage anticipate Jesus’s life and work, the church age, or the consummation? Does the text express time-bound or culturally bound elements that no longer relate to us this side of the cross? Does the NT cite or allude to the particular text in a way that clarifies its lasting value for Christians?

Christ’s work fulfills Exodus 19:4–6 in at least three ways: First, the initial exodus typologically anticipated a greater, second exodus that Jesus himself embodies. In Exodus 19:4, Yahweh highlights his defeat of Egypt and his deliverance of Israel from the bonds of slavery. Christ’s death and resurrection initiates for all believers the antitypical exodus, the ultimate redemption to which Israel’s liberation from Egypt only pointed (Luke 9:31; cf. Jer 23:5–8).

Second, Christ fulfilled the charge of this text as the perfect king-priest. Israel’s fleshly, rebellious hearts were hostile to God, making it impossible for them to submit to God’s law or to please him (Deut 9:5–6; 29:4). But where God’s corporate “son” failed to be the kingdom of priests and the holy nation for which Exodus 19:4–6 called, his individual Son Jesus, as Israel’s royal and priestly representative, succeeded. Christ’s perfect life embodied the ideals of righteousness the law requires (Rom 5:18–19; 8:4). Thus, based on Christ’s fulfilling the law, God now charges and empowers the new covenant community to fulfill Christ’s law (Rom 2:26, 29; 13:8–10; 1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2). This includes applying OT laws in view of how Christ fulfills them (Matt 5:17–19).

Third, Christ perfectly represented the nation of Israel as a holy king-priest, succeeding where they failed and by this magnifying God’s holiness to the world (see esp. Isa 49:1–6). And now, for those of us in him, God has made us “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9).

3. The Passage’s Lasting Significance for Today

Consider one chief application that is most central to and flows naturally from the passage. Keeping in mind God’s unchanging nature and his progressive purposes, and reading the passage in the light of Jesus’s new covenant work, what is God calling for in this passage?

With respect to Exodus 19:4–6, perhaps the simplest synthesis of what this passage calls for through Jesus is that the church is to live as a royal priesthood and holy people, proclaiming through our life-witness the worth and majesty of God (1 Pet 2:9). Our unchanging Lord is consistent in what he requires, in what he intends, and in the way he uses promises to motivate obedience. Like the nation of Israel, the church is called to follow the instruction of our chief, new covenant mediator: “Make disciples of all nations, … teaching them to obey all that I have commanded” (Matt 28:20). And as we do, we will display God’s great worth and power.

[1] Douglas Stuart does not include this element, but it is essential for applying the OT faithfully.

[2] Douglas Stuart, Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, 4th ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 25–29.


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