Bridging the Gap Between “Then” & “Now”


Most preaching loses biblical authority in that gap between what the text meant “then” and its significance “now.” In that gap, preachers often (inadvertently) sever the author’s meaning from its contemporary significance. This “bridging the gap” is the subject of John Stott’s classic book, Between Two Worlds. Stott writes that “preaching is not exposition only but also communication, not just the exegesis of a text but the conveying of a God-given message to living people who need to hear it.”[1] 

If the biblical author controls the meaning (and he does), then he also controls the contemporary significance of his meaning. 

Up until now, we’ve focused strictly on the process of hermeneutics: what the text meant “then.” Now, we must start thinking in terms of its relevance today. This launches us into a new process called homiletics. Simply put, homiletics is the art of presenting God’s single meaning in a way. In Nehemiah 8, the children of God returned from captivity, largely ignorant of God’s Word. Nehemiah 8:8 says, “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” Homiletics focuses on the “giving-the-sense-so-that-the-people-understand-it” part. The first step in homiletics is to determine the timeless principle.

Determining The Timeless Principle

If the biblical author’s meaning is fixed (and it is), then the Holy Spirit has placed in every text of Scripture a fixed timeless principle. The timeless principle is that single principle derived from the biblical author’s single intention, which applies to all people of all times. How do we determine that timeless principle? Jay Adams’ excellent little volume, Truth Applied, offers 5 questions to keep us on track.[2]

  1. What is the situation?
    • What is going on?
    • What is addressed?
  2. Who is doing what about the situation?
    • To understand it?
    • To change it?
    • To complicate it?
  3. How does God view the situation?
  4. What response does He require?
  5. What is the Spirit’s purpose?

Study the progression of these questions. They move us from what God said “then” to how that meaning applies “now.”

If the biblical author’s meaning is fixed (and it is), then the Holy Spirit has placed in every text of Scripture a fixed timeless principle.

An OT Example

Adams points to Paul’s example in 1 Corinthians 9:7-11. Paul cites Deuteronomy 25:4 to support his assertion that gospel ministers should be paid for their labors. Deuteronomy 25:4 says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” Adams explains, “Paul saw in the Deuteronomy passage a principle that applied to oxen but also to all sorts of work situations.”[3]

The larger context of Deuteronomy 25:4 addresses laws which encourage fairness and generosity. Paul recognized that God “breathed-out” these laws to His people for a purpose: To promote moral growth in attitudes of fairness and generosity. The “meaning,” then, is limited to Moses’ intent as it relates to oxen (or attitudes of fairness in general): Namely, oxen deserve to be rewarded for their labor. The timeless principle names a relationship between that meaning and the present-day audience: Namely, if the ox is rewarded for his labor, the gospel minister should be rewarded for his labor, too. The examples given by Moses in Deuteronomy were not meant to be an exhaustive listing or even ends in themselves. They were specific examples of how God-honoring people should behave in general. In other words, the application is not so wooden as to suggest the congregation pay their minister in grain and oats (or tomatoes and cucumbers)! Obviously, those “oxen” examples served as illustrations to encourage fairness and generosity not only toward beasts, but also toward His gospel ministers.[4] Just to be thorough and finish-out Paul’s thought here: He argues his right to be paid is based on the timeless principle imbedded in Deuteronomy 25:4. Even though he possesses that right, he himself chose to refrain from exercising it. 

A NT Example

Adams also uses the example of Philippians 2:1-11. Most often, when this passage is expounded, the deity and incarnation of Christ is presented as the central purpose of the passage . . . but is it? 

The deity and incarnation of Christ certainly are in there, but they serve to illustrate Paul’s larger point: Unity within the congregation. Adams explains: 

The Philippian church was split by two quarreling women, Euodious and Syntyche (cf. 4:2-3). Before confronting this division head-on, Paul laid a groundwork for such a discussion by writing about unity and how to attain it. . . . Paul taught that concern for others would bring unity. Then he gives us the prime example of One who did just that: Jesus Christ. . . . Certainly this section, containing some of the highest doctrinal teaching regarding the deity and incarnation of Christ presents truth (doctrine) applied. Paul’s concern is not to teach doctrine as such.  But he does teach it—for a purpose.  He wants believers to adopt the same attitude (“mind”) that Christ had (emphases original).[5]

Jay Adams, Truth Applied

For Example . . .

I prepared a sermon from Romans 3:9-18 recently. I wrote two different sentences at the top of my sermon: (1) the author’s original intent and (2) the timeless principle. 

Author’s intent: Paul proved to Jews, from their OT, that human beings are entirely corrupt.

Timeless principle: Every human being is enslaved under sin’s corruptive power.

Try It

Look at your preaching-text this week. Write-out a “past-tense” sentence (18 words or less) of what the author meant “then” (the author’s original intent). Next, write-out a “present-tense” sentence (18 words or less) of how the author’s original meaning applies today (the timeless principle). That timeless principle, which is grounded in the author’s original intent, will shape and guide the sermon (to which we will turn next). 

[1]John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 137. 

[2] Jay E. Adams, Truth Applied:  Application in Preaching (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1990), 54.

[3] Adams, Truth Applied, 47.

[4] Kaiser, “The Current Crisis in Exegesis and the Apostolic Use of Deuteronomy 25:4 in 1 Corinthians 9:8-10,” JETS 21 (1978):  97-115.

[5] Adams, Truth Applied, 36

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Author Bridge

Chip Thornton

Pastor of FBC Springville, Alabama. Chip is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he earned his Ph.D. in expository preaching. He enjoys spending time with his family, has a passion for discipleship, and is committed to biblical exposition.