When it comes to the application of a message, there are many options. One is to ignore it completely and leave it up to the Holy Spirit (not a good option since it’s part of our job as preachers . . . by this logic why do we preach at all?) Another is to be vague and ethereal in application, positing plain platitudes (not a good option since people will affirm any attempt at application, but that doesn’t mean it made any difference in their lives). Another approach, popular in some circles, is to always give a very specific action step in every message (again, this is open to question since some texts don’t lend themselves to facile or purely practical action steps, and listeners can grow burdened by the pressure of ever growing action lists).
So how do we make sure application is specific, without making the grandeur of God’s Word look puny by pathetic pedantry? I would suggest that we make sure we are really understanding a passage as intended by the author, in all it’s beauty and power, before we start trying to come up with applications. We have a tendency to leap to applications and then somehow make every passage into a “witness more” or “live better” kind of passage. Once you’ve come to a decent level of grasping the meaning of the passage, then you have a hope of good application.
It is always worth starting with the original recipients. What was the author trying to do in them by this act of communication? If we can grasp that, then we are halfway to applying it today. If the original intent was to motivate a specific action step, then ours might well follow suit. If the original intent was to convince of a theological truth, then perhaps we should aim for the same.
Still, how do we earth the message in the lives of today’s listener? How do we apply, whether it is to the heart, to the mind, and/or to the actions of the listener? Remember that vague application will float around nicely in the vaulted roof, but it won’t change lives. Think about yourself. What is this passage specifically doing to me as I study it? Think about specific individuals in the church. What is the message of this passage looking to do in the life of Sarah the tired young mother? What is it straining to do in the life of Harry, the retired retailer with financial worries? What will it do if let loose in the life of Josh the recent graduate with no employment but a fiancee to make the future look bright? For specific and helpful application, earth it in the lives of specific people.