Some Bible verses have “timeless truths” that are applicable to Christians today. Other Bible verses are descriptive, which means they describe a specific situation, person, or event that happened more than 2,000 years ago. The descriptive Biblical insights aren’t timeless truths for Christians today — though they are valuable for mediation, reflection, and learning about God. How do you figure out the difference?
I didn’t know the difference between prescriptive and descriptive Bible verses when I wrote What Jesus Says About Divorced Christians and Remarriage. So, I didn’t know how to respond to the reader who said “Jesus said everything we need to know divorce in Matthew 5:32. God does not allow divorce. Period.”
“Really?” I wondered. “Can a single Bible verse written 2,000 years ago — taken out of context, without knowing who Jesus was speaking to, why, when, or where — really be the final word for all Christians struggling with divorce today?” I believe Jesus Christ and the Bible’s timeless truths are deeper, more applicable, and more sensitive than strict religious laws governing behavior for all people, in all times, in all places, and in all situations. I believe there are timeless truths in Bible verses, passages and parables that apply to human relationships today…but we have to learn how to find them.
I write to help you — and me — hear the echoes of Jesus, sense the Holy Spirit, and walk humbly with the Lord our God. It sounds great in theory, but what does it actually mean? How do we actually hear Jesus, sense the Holy Spirit, and walk humbly with God? First, we have to learn how to find the timeless truths in the Bible. Then, we need to apply those timeless truths to our lives.
First things first!
3 Ways to Find Timeless Truths in the Bible
I’m walking and writing through the gospel of Matthew. When I arrived at the Jordan River in Matthew 3, I saw John the Baptist baptize Jesus. I saw the Holy Spirit descend like a dove, and the Father say, “this is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
And then I realized that I don’t know for sure how to apply Jesus’ baptism by John to us today. What if I overstep my bounds, accidentally commit heresy, and mislead you? What if I’m wrong, and God gets mad? I know He is a forgiving Father and the Holy Spirit is here, guiding me…but even so I could easily think and write the wrong thing! That’s when I realized I had to write myself an article about finding timeless truths in the Bible.
1. Define “timeless truth”
“The timeless truth is the underlying principle that is based upon the character of God and the truths of Scripture and can be applied just as readily today as several thousand years ago,” writes Phil Wood in Finding the Timeless Truth. “Sometimes we use terms like the “Big Idea,” the “Proposition,” or the “Textual Thrust” to identify the core idea of the text and, ultimately, the sermon. The timeless truth, however, is actually a further distillation of the core idea into its most basic structure, or the underlying principle that is driving the ancient passage. Its value and wonder for today is in knowing the simple truth also worked for the ancients.”
Finding the timeless truth in a Bible verse or passage is one step in reading, understanding, and applying God’s word to our lives today. It’s not the first step, or even the second step! The first step is learning about the context of the passage. Who wrote this part of the Bible, why, when, where, how, and to who? In this article I’m focusing on finding the timeless truth, not on context or application.
2. See how NOT to make a timeless truth out of Paul’s words
Lee Gugliotto shares a brilliant example of how not to find a timeless truth in the Bible. In The crisis of exegesis he describes how Paul’s instructions for women in churches have been misapplied as a timeless truth for us today. “Does Paul say in 1 Corinthians 14:34 that women should not speak in the church? The answer seems to be yes, but on closer inspection of the context, we discover a theme. Paul has already advised speakers in tongues (verses 27, 28) and long-winded prophets (verses 30-32) to keep silent too. And verse 35 specifies that it is loud conversation with their husbands, not public speaking, that women should refrain from during services. So what is Paul really saying here?”
Finding the timeless truth in Paul’s words involves looking at the full picture, the whole story. This is easier when we apply it to our world today. For example, how would we like it if someone extracted a snippet of one of our emails and said our words are a “timeless truth” that should apply to all people in all circumstances 2,000 years from now? We may not like it at all! Of course, it may depend on what we were writing about, who we were writing to, why, and when. That is context — and it matters so much that it’s the first step in learning how to find timeless truths in the Bible today.
3. Imagine yourself there, in the Bible
Back to Lee’s example of Paul’s “timeless truth” that women shouldn’t speak in churches. In 1 Corinthians 14:34 Paul wasn’t saying women shouldn’t pastor or speak in churches in 2,000 years! Paul was writing to a specific group of people who were dealing with specific problems. He had a higher purpose in mind. If Paul knew his words would be taken as timeless truths in God’s Holy Bible for thousands of years, he would’ve written very differently.
“Second, Paul makes an inspired application of a divine norm to the Corinthian situation, namely, ‘Let all things be done decently and in order’ (verse 40). So Paul’s counsel for women to keep silent is not a timeless standard, but an inspired example of how to apply a divinely ordained norm to real-life situations.” See the difference between a timeless truth and a situation-specific example of spiritual insight and wisdom?
Questions Help You Find Timeless Truths in the Bible
If you don’t have a pastor sitting beside you or a degree in theology, how do you discover what is and isn’t a timeless truth? In Toward an Exegetical Theology Walter Kaiser suggests these tests:
- Is the author describing something, setting a background for an abiding principle, or prescribing something for his or her time and afterward?
- Is the author using an illustration from the culture of the time to impart a theological principle?
- Is there a cultural equivalent today for the same theological principle?
- Does Scripture apply a different form in a later historical situation to the same content?
- Is the ground for the injunction or practice rooted in God’s unchanging nature?
- Is this an instance in which circumstances may alter the application of an unchanging law?
No matter what Bible passage, parable or verse you’re reading — even ones about divorce, sexual orientation, tattoos, drinking, practicing astrology — remember that there is a timeless truth or a situation-specific or descriptive truth. Sometimes both exist at the same time!
How to Read the Bible
In How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart share practical, foolproof ways to find the timeless truth in all parts of the Bible. I bought this book when I started my theology degree at Regent College. It’s one of my favorite books on how to understand and apply the Bible to daily life. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth is easy to read and makes reading Scripture as interesting as going on a treasure hunt.
Learning how to read the Bible – for all its worth! – will change your relationship with Jesus. There is so much life, depth, wisdom, power, healing and freedom in the Bible! Reading it is wonderful, but learning how to truly understand and apply it to your daily life will change how you spend eternity.
Whether or not you refer to Biblical commentary when you spend time in God’s word, take time to pray and think about the verses you read. Remember that God’s word is inspired and holy, but every verse doesn’t apply to us today the exact same way it applied to His people more than 2,000 years ago. Discerning the timeless truth in specific Biblical passages will bring you closer to God through the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
May you hear the echoes of Jesus, sense the Holy Spirit in your life, and walk humbly with God all the way home.
In peace and passion,
P.S. If you struggle to hear God’s voice, read How Do I Communicate With the Holy Spirit?