In the following edited excerpt from his book, Touching Others with Your Words, Chuck Swindoll teaches how to formulate principles that can be applied in any era by anyone.
In the process of digging, we analyzed the section of Scripture to discover its meaning. Contrary to the teaching of some, there can be only one interpretation. It doesn’t mean different things to different people. The discipline of interpretation is not subjective; if you read the passage and do not arrive at the meaning originally intended by the human author, you are wrong, plain and simple. You have misinterpreted his writing.
People often say, “Every time I read a passage, I get something new out of it,” but they aren’t describing interpretation; they are referring to application. They have discovered new principles from the passage and begin to see new ways to apply them. That’s because a section of Scripture can yield several timeless principles leading to many practical applications.
The process of digging should answer the question “What did the passage mean to the original audience?” You should be able to express the basic idea in a couple of sentences. Furthermore, the original human author wrote instructions to the original audience expecting them to apply it to their circumstances. Those specific instructions contain within them one or more timeless principles—truths that apply to all people throughout all time regardless of culture.
For example: Moses wrote to the Hebrews entering the land of Canaan, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing” (Deuteronomy 25:4). The instructions were easy for them to interpret: “While you’re using an ox to power your grain-threshing operation, leave the muzzle off its mouth so it can eat while it’s working.” Beneath that simple interpretation, however, lies a timeless principle: “Don’t deny something (or someone) any needed sustenance while it’s helping you accomplish your objectives.” That’s a rule of conduct that anyone can apply whether or not he has an ox.
Like the interpretation, you should be able to express each timeless principle in a sentence—two at most. “Application” then is the process of giving specific instructions to your contemporary audience based on the timeless principle. Paul the apostle took the interpretation of Deuteronomy 25:4 and derived a timeless principle, which he expressed as, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” He then applied this timeless principle to his day and time, instructing churches to compensate those who diligently serve their needs as pastors, elders, and teachers (1 Corinthians 9:9; 1 Timothy 5:18).
To review: Interpretation answers the question “What did the passage mean to the original audience?” The answer should be expressed in a sentence or two. From this meaning, we derive one or more timeless principles. Application then examines the circumstances surrounding the present-day audience—their needs, their challenges, their moral dilemmas—and offers specific instructions accordingly. An application is the biblical instruction [expressed in the timeless principles] modified to fit the contemporary culture.