Can a 2000-year-old book—the holy Bible—provide counsel that directs our lives today? And what about those portions that are even older than 2000 years, going back to the O.T. world of pharaohs and patriarchs?

Despite our skepticism that the Old Testament may not be as helpful to us as the New, Paul wrote, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17 NIV).

Paul illustrates his process of applying the text when he answers questions posed by the Corinthian believers. This newly formed church, fraught with disagreements and immorality, was made up of converted Gentiles who were unfamiliar with God’s laws. Old habits had to be replaced and old thought patterns transformed. But where should they begin?

Paul showed them how to apply lessons from Old Testament accounts to their “modern” scenarios. The church was divided on issues of Christian freedom, like whether it was permissible to eat meat sacrificed to idols. How would this practice affect their walk with God? How might it affect others?

First, Paul addressed the situation in Corinth that gave rise to the problem (1 Cor. 8–9). Second, he referred to the O.T. passages where Israel was going through a similar struggle—wrestling with temptations toward the very idolatry from which they had been delivered (10:1-10). Third, Paul explained that Scripture was written so it could be applied to our lives, taking into account the progression of God’s plan in Christ (10:11-13). Finally, Paul showed how he applied the principles of God’s Word to the eating of meat and the broader issue of freedom in Christ (10:14–11:1).

Outlining Paul’s Application

  1. The Corinthians struggled with the transition from idolatry to Christianity (1 Cor. 8–9). These new believers experienced deliverance from a distorted and oppressive view of life—they had once acknowledged local deities, worshiped their idols, and followed the regulations of false religion. Though now free in Christ, many still struggled with the pull of their past lives. This sounds much like the nation of Israel when they left Egypt.
  2. Israel’s struggle to live in their newfound freedom paralleled the tensions the Corinthians were facing to live as new Christ-followers (10:1-10). Israel had responded poorly to trials and temptation in their wilderness journey, becoming a model of what not to do.
  3. Paul explained that the O.T. Scriptures were written to provide warnings and guidance for modern readers (10:11-13), always keeping in mind that the application must be in accordance with God’s plan to redeem mankind through Christ.
  4. Paul applied the appropriate O.T. principles to the Corinthian situation for their continued obedience to and fellowship with Christ (10:14–11:1). He understood that the Corinthians’ real challenge was their lack of familiarity with God’s Word and their lack of skill in applying what they knew.

Following Paul’s Pattern

Step #1 The Right Attitude

The starting place for all application is trust in God and His Word (Prov. 3:5-6; 1 Cor. 10:13).

Step #2 The Right Perspective

Focus on the restored creation promised by God. We place our faith in and base our walk on the promise of God’s redemption and its fulfillment in Christ (1 Cor. 10:4; 11:1).

Step #3 The Right Diagnosis

Study the Bible to know which stories parallel your situation (1 Cor. 10:1-10), or which circumstances required similar principles of wisdom. Just as Paul found the story of Israel’s “temptation to idolatry in the midst of freedom” to be a helpful parallel to the Corinthians’ question, you may look to the stories of the O.T. for lessons in faith, courage, repentance, and more (1 Cor. 10:14).

Step #4 The Right Prescription

Step out in faith to do what is right, based on the example and wisdom of Scripture (1 Cor. 10:15–11:1). Apply God’s Word, whether warning, exhortation, or encouragement. The goal, regardless of the situation, is that God be pleased and glorified (1 Cor. 10:31).

Getting It Right

Incorrect interpretations and applications of the Bible can steer people off track. Use these simple principles to guide your O.T. study:

  1. How did the N.T. authors apply the O.T.? Although the N.T. does not address every situation, it helps to see when and how the authors applied God’s inspired Word. James uses some good examples. He applies biblical stories about Abraham (2:21), Rahab (2:25), Job (5:11), and Elijah (5:17), as well as biblical directives (cf. 2:8; 4:6; 5:12).
  2. What kind of literature is this? Narratives (stories) are most often used to teach life principles and spiritual lessons. Poetry is used to paint emotional pictures that touch the soul. Be careful not to interpret poetry or prophecy the same way you would narratives or laws.
  3. What did the author mean when he wrote this? The interpreter must consider the whole story in context. Who was the author addressing, and why? What did he mean to communicate? Does my potential application seem to fit the overall context (surrounding passages) of what the author was saying?
  4. What do other students of the Word say? Consult commentaries, or ask a pastor about the text.
  5. How does this passage connect to the gospel? The whole Bible points to the life, teaching, and work of Jesus. In the O.T., the laws, stories, and prophecies all anticipate the coming of the Messiah. Consider how the given passage may be illustrating or leading toward the gospel (Rom. 3:20-26; Gal. 3:24; Luke 24:27; Heb. 8–10). And remember, we emulate the example of Old Testament saints not only by doing what they did but by believing who they believed—the living God!


Copyright © 2009 Revive magazine, Vol. 40, #3 “Bible Boredom,” by Life Action Ministries. Dr. Richard Fisher has served as a professor and regional director with Moody Bible Institute.