Searching for the Original Meaning

Why is it important to search for the original meaning of biblical passages?

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Knowing the original meaning of a biblical passage helps us to apply it to our own lives because we recognize that a key component to its original meaning is understanding its original purpose, that is, the change that God designed that text to accomplish in its first audience, in its first readers, in the light of their situation, in the light of their frame of reference, how much of Scripture they knew at that point or had access to, in the light of the trials, the temptations that they were facing. That was God's application to them. The meaning really was serving the purpose of effecting his Holy Spirit's sanctifying purpose in their lives. Well, the Spirit's purpose in their lives is in continuity with the Holy Spirit's purpose in our lives. So the more we can understand their situation, their need, and therefore the purpose for which God gave that text in the original setting and to the original audience, that sets a trajectory for how the Spirit intends to apply that text in our life, in our situation. And that should be our guide as pastors, preachers, teachers in the way we apply the text. We ask how did God intend it to make a change, to make a difference in their lives then and then how does that carry over into the Holy Spirit's purpose in conforming us more and more to the image of Christ today?

Answer by Dr. Dennis E. Johnson

Dr. Dennis Johnson is professor emeritus of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California, where he taught from 1982 to 2018. He previously pastored Orthodox Presbyterian churches in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and East Los Angeles, California. Dr. Johnson was Associate Pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Escondido. He served as moderator of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church General Assembly and Presbytery of Southern California, moderator of the South Coast Presbytery in the Presbyterian Church in America, member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Committee on Christian Education, and Trustee of Covenant College.