When the Bible teaches directly, most people agree that they are obligated to believe and obey the teaching. We sometimes express this by saying: "Commands constitute binding authority." So direct teaching reveals God's will, and people who do not obey are in error. For instance:
Matthew 22:37-39 - Love God and love your neighbor are the greatest two commands.
Acts 10:48 - Water baptism is a command.
1 Corinthians 11:23-25 - Jesus directly said to remember Him in the Lord's Supper.
[1 Corinthians 14:37; John 14:15,21-24; 15:14; 1 John 2:3,4; 5:3; Matthew 28:18-20]
These methods include examples and Scriptural reasoning (also called "logical conclusions" or "necessary inferences").
Some folks deny that examples and reasoning to conclusions are binding ways to determine God's will for us. They may say that only commands are binding: while we may learn from examples and inferences, they say we are not obligated to follow them, and we especially should not say that other people are wrong if they do not follow them.
Some teach a "new hermeneutic" in which they criticize those who say we must obey commands, examples, and necessary inferences. They say this approach to determining God's will is a man-made creed or a human tradition. They may even compare it to the Pharisees, who bound what God does not bind (as when they condemned Jesus for healing on the Sabbath).
Besides revealing His will by direct commands or statements, does God sometimes teach us by revealing an example of someone doing a thing, then He expresses His approval or His disapproval of what they did? Does He then require us to learn from these examples and do as they did (if He approved of their act) or refuse to do as they did (if He disapproved)?
Examples are an extremely common method of teaching in everyday life. Good teachers do not just directly state how to do things. Often they will also show the student what to do by doing it and letting the student observe the example. Then the teacher says, "Now, you do what I just did." Or if someone did something wrong, we tell the student not to do it that way.
A father may show his son how to work on a car, a mother may show a daughter how to bake a cake, or a teacher may show a student how to do a math problem. Instances surround us daily.
So common and so effective is this teaching method, that we would be amazed if God did not use it in the Bible. Let us see if He does.
Frequently the New Testament directly tells us that Bible characters were setting examples for us, and we are commanded to imitate them. If we believe in obeying direct Bible commands, then let us obey what the Bible says about the following examples:
Matthew 16:24 - Jesus said, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" - i.e., imitate Jesus' example. To deny that examples are binding is to deny that we must be like Jesus!
Luke 6:40 - A disciple who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher. What does it mean to be a disciple? A disciple patterns his life after Jesus' example. He seeks to be like His master. To deny that examples are binding is to deny the very meaning of discipleship!
Romans 8:29 - We are predestined to be conformed to the image of God's Son. Copies made on a copier must conform to the image of the original. So Jesus is the original, the model, and we are to conform to His image.
Philippians 2:5 - Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus. We should follow, not only what Jesus did, but also how He thought. This will then reflect itself in our conduct, as the context shows.
1 Peter 2:21-23 - For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps. Note: we are called to follow Jesus' steps. To deny that we are required to follow examples is to deny our very calling!
1 John 2:6 - He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked. So if someone says we do not need to follow Bible examples, does that person abide in Jesus?
So the Bible commands us to follow the example of Jesus. But what about the examples set by apostles and other inspired men?
1 Corinthians 4:16 - Therefore I urge you, imitate me (or be followers of me). This refers to following the example, not of Jesus, but of the inspired apostle Paul. By inspiration Paul commands us to imitate his example. He was like the father who shows his son how to fix the car, then says, "Now you do it like I did it."
1 Corinthians 11:1 - Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. We sometimes talk about "approved" examples. That simply means we should follow Biblical actions that God approves - not the ones He disapproves, nor ones that just people approve. Paul said to follow Him as His life revealed the same kind of life Jesus lived. [2 Tim. 2:15 - approved of God]
Philippians 3:17 - Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. Again, Paul set the example and we are directly commanded to follow that example. We are then commanded to follow others who walk (live) as he did. They are all a pattern - a model or example - for us.
Note the chain: Jesus set the perfect example. Paul lived by the rules Jesus taught. Then others walk or live like Paul did. Then we follow or imitate all of them.
Philippians 4:9 - The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.
Are we required to do the things we learn and hear from the inspired apostles? If so, then we are equally required to do what we see in their lives! What we see in them is binding on us just as surely as is what we hear from them. [Note that we neither see nor hear personally from Paul, as though he were living in our presence. We both see and hear from him by means of the written word.]
1 Thessalonians 1:5,6 - You became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word. Paul and his companions had lived a way of life. The Thessalonian Christians had observed that way of life and had become followers of them and of Jesus.
Are we obligated to follow Jesus? Then we are likewise obligated to follow inspired teachers to the extent they lived by the same principles Jesus followed.
1 Timothy 1:16 - Paul obtained mercy "for this reason": that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. Paul's conversion was a pattern or example showing how God will save us. Even if we have been deeply rebellious as Paul was, God will save us if we repent and submit to Him as Paul did.
2 Timothy 3:10 - But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance. Are we bound to follow Paul's doctrine? Then we are likewise bound to follow his manner of life.
Hebrews 6:12 - Do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. Again, not just Jesus and Paul, but all who live so as to inherit the promises become an example to us. Note that this involves following even uninspired people, but we follow them only to the extent that the Lord "approves" of their example - those things that lead to eternal life.
Note that, if we are obligated to follow Bible commands, then we are obligated to follow examples, because the commands tell us to follow the examples!
Do you believe we are obligated to follow direct commands? Then you must believe we are also obligated to follow Bible examples. If you believe we are not obligated to follow examples, then you are also disobeying the commands, because the commands say to follow the examples! You cannot have one without the other.
We may compare it to a person who says: "I believe people must obey God's authority, but I don't believe citizens must obey civil rulers, wives must obey husbands, or children must obey parents, etc." But God's commands tell us to obey the authority of these humans. To disobey the humans, then, is to disobey God, because He says to obey these other humans. Likewise, to disobey inspired examples is to disobey God's commands, because the commands say to follow the examples.
We have studied passages that teach us to follow Bible examples. But besides telling us to follow examples, Bible writers sometimes specifically taught people what God wanted them to do (or not do) by using the examples set by others. The way Bible teachers used examples can show us how we should use examples in our teaching.
Let us notice a few of these cases and consider whether or not the examples were "binding" - i.e., were people obligated to follow the lesson taught by those examples? Were they wrong if they didn't follow them?
These are "disapproved" examples or "bad examples."
Luke 11:47-51; Acts 7:35-53 - People were rebuked for being like their ancestors who rejected God's prophets ("as your fathers did, so do you" - Acts 7:51).
Luke 17:32 - Remember Lot's wife. Here is an example of one who disobeyed God, because she had too strong attachment to this world. We are instructed to "remember" her, obviously implying we should not do as she did.
1 Corinthians 10:1-12 - The Israelites give a number of bad examples. These are our examples written for our admonition (vv 6,11). They teach us to avoid lust, idolatry, fornication, tempting Christ, and murmuring. Again, these examples teach us what we should not do. [Hebrews 4:11; Acts 7:38-43]
2 Corinthians 11:3 - Paul feared lest the Corinthians be corrupted like Eve who was deceived by Satan.
Hebrews 12:16 - Esau profaned His birthright. We should take care that no such person is among us (v15).
2 Peter 2:4-9 - Sodom and Gomorrah and the people of the flood are examples showing God punishes evil people and spares the righteous. [2 Peter 3:3-7; Matthew 11:23f]
2 Peter 2:15 - Do not be like Balaam, who is cited as a false teacher because, for the sake of money, he put a stumbling block before Israel. [Jude 11; Revelation 2:14]
1 John 3:12 - We should not be murderers like Cain.
Bible writers used all these cases to show us examples of how we should not act. They directly stated or clearly implied that people would be condemned by God if they acted like the people in the examples. In other words, the examples were "binding." But if examples are not binding, may we conclude that God would not condemn us if we act like these people?
Note how, in each of these instances, inspired teachers taught people to imitate examples that God approved. In fact we will see that Jesus and inspired men used these examples in exactly the way that some people tell us we today should not use them!
Jesus said the Queen of Sheeba valued true wisdom (Solomon's). Her example condemned the people of Jesus' day, because they did not appreciate His wisdom, which was greater than Solomon's.
Note: Jesus Himself said people are condemned when they do not follow Bible examples! Where does that leave folks today who say people don't have to follow Bible examples?
[The queen herself was uninspired, but her act is recorded by inspiration, obviously for the purpose of teaching Bible readers. So the fact the Bible writers recorded her conduct with approval means it should serve as an example for us to follow.]
To come after Jesus, we must follow Him. Specifically, we must be willing to give our lives for God as He did. What if we are not willing to follow His example? Then we will lose our lives eternally!
Note: Jesus' example is so binding that, if we don't follow it, we will be eternally lost. [1 John 3:15-18]
Jesus used the good Samaritan as an example of love, because he personally helped a needy man. Jesus said to go and do likewise.
Note: Jesus described the example, showed that God approved it, then He bound it on others! This is exactly how we ought to teach.
[Again, the Samaritan was not inspired. But when the inspired teacher (Jesus) showed that God approved the example and used it to instruct His disciples, we should learn that such examples become binding on us.]
Nineveh repented at Jonah's preaching. Jesus described this example, then bound it on the people. He said they were condemned because they would not repent at His preaching like the Ninevites had at Jonah's preaching [Matthew 21:28-32].
Note again: Jesus said that people who don't follow approved Bible examples are condemned!
[And again, the Ninevites were uninspired. But the inspired record of their conduct was written for our instruction.]
The father rejoiced when the prodigal son repented, but the brother did not rejoice. The whole point of the story is that people should imitate the father but not the brother.
People who act like the older son are wrong. And people who do not act like the father are wrong. The example is binding. This is the way Jesus taught!
We should love one another as Jesus loved us. Is that a binding example? Note that Jesus commanded us to follow His example of love. He set the example; then His command showed that the example is binding. [1 John 4:16; Ephesians 5:2]
Disagreement arose among Christians about whether circumcision is binding today. A conclusion was reached based on the following evidence:
(1) Peter, Paul, and Barnabas cited examples in which Gentiles were converted without being circumcised, and God gave His approval by means of miracles.
(2) James quoted an Old Testament passage which said the Gentiles could be saved, but did not require circumcision. The inference was that circumcision is not binding.
This conclusion, drawn from examples and inferences, was then bound - i.e., those who taught otherwise were in error.
Paul's conversion was a pattern or example demonstrating God's mercy to those who believe for everlasting life. We often use His conversion to teach sinners how to be saved.
Examples in the book of Acts are one of the primary methods the Bible uses to show us how to be saved. If examples are not binding, why must anyone do what was done in Bible examples of conversion? But if we are not wrong in using these examples to teach people how to be saved, then why shouldn't we likewise use Bible examples to teach other Bible principles of conduct?
Hebrews chapter 11 with 12:1-4 - This entire chapter contains Old Testament examples of people who possessed the kind of faith we need in order to be saved.
Clearly the kind of faith illustrated by these examples is bound on us as necessary to salvation. If examples are not binding, what is the purpose of these examples? [Galatians 3:6,7; Hebrews 6:12]
James 2:20-26 - Examples of Abraham and Rahab are cited to prove that the faith that God approves is a faith that works. These examples are approved and bound.
We ought to take the prophets as an example of suffering and patience. Specifically, Job demonstrates that, if we suffer patiently, the Lord will be compassionate and merciful. [1 Peter 2:21-23; Hebrews 6:12]
Elijah's prayer is an example to us of the power of prayer.
[Other examples: 2 Timothy 3:10,11; 1 Peter 3:5,6; Acts 20:33-35; 2 Thessalonians 3:7,9; Philippians 2:5-9; Hebrews 13:2; Luke 4:24-29; John 13:15; Matthew 10:25; 1 Thessalonians 2:14]
It is therefore proper for us to use Bible examples as Bible teachers used them, and to conclude that people who do not properly imitate those examples are in error.
Remember that the examples just listed are not the only examples we can use. They simply illustrate the proper way to use Bible examples. The inspired men did not just use examples as a teaching method, they said that they themselves set examples. We ought to use their lives as examples, just as they used these others examples to teach God's will.
Someone may ask, if the Bible shows people doing a thing with God's approval, is that the only way we can do that thing? However, our purpose in this study is to show that examples are binding. It is not our purpose to solve all the questions about whether or not any particular example is the only ("exclusive") way to do a thing.
But to answer such questions we must use the same means that we use to understand any other form of Bible teaching. Specifically, we must consider context and other passages, etc.
To illustrate, Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:7). Does this prove donkeys are the only way we can travel to preach? No, because Mark 16:15 gives the general instruction to go into all the world but requires no specific mode of transportation. And other passages show various other means of transportation being used. Any means of "going" would fit the Bible teaching.
Likewise, we should study and apply Bible examples in the light of other Bible teaching - commands, examples and necessary conclusions.
We have proved by numerous Scriptures that God intends for us to use Bible examples as a means of determining His will for our lives. Even if it could be proved that we fail to properly follow some particular example, that would not disprove the evidence that examples are binding authority. It would only prove that we need to do a better job of following them.
The same is true for following Bible commands. Do you believe in following commands? Suppose someone could prove there is a command in the Bible you are not properly following. Would that prove commands are not valid ways of determining God's will? Of course not. It would only prove we should do a better job of understanding and following the commands. The same applies to examples and necessary inferences.
Sometimes Bible examples are easy to understand and apply, just like some Bible commands are easy. Other Bible examples are more difficult to understand and apply, just like some Bible commands are more difficult. There is milk and there is meat (Heb. 5:12-6:1; 2 Peter 3:15,16).
What we have shown in this study is that God does use examples to teach and bind His will for us. And not only are such examples used occasionally, but they are a common, frequently used means of Bible teaching. Our responsibility is to learn to handle God's word rightly to understand all His will.
Copyright 1989 & 2006, David E. Pratte
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How to Study the Bible
Divine Authority vs. Human Authority in Religion
Necessary Inference/Conclusions as Authority
Why So Much Religious Confusion and Disagreement?
The Importance of Bible Knowledge
The Preservation of the Bible
The Bible vs. Denominational Creeds
Must We Keep the Law of Moses Today?
The Inspiration of the Bible
Can We Understand the Bible?
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.