“Do as I say, not as I do.” How many of you have ever heard, or even said that? Even when we are the ones that say it, do we actually think there is any truth to it? Of course not! But why? Because we understand that one of the ways we learn is by watching.
Three weeks ago I gave birth to a perfect, beautiful baby boy. One of my favorite things to do is sit and hold him and talk to him. Already, even at only three weeks old, when I talk to him he stares at me and works his mouth. Why? What is he trying to do? He’s already watching the way I move my mouth so that as he gets bigger he can follow my example, and learn to talk.
Just as I expect my baby boy to follow my example and learn how to talk, and eventually how to walk, God gave us the Bible so that we may learn from the example of those who came before us. John 20:30-31 reads, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” This passage tells us that the entire book of John was given to us so that we may learn from Jesus’ example, and that His actions, His example, prove that He is the Son of God. If we are to learn from the example of Christ found in the book of John, would it not also follow that we are to learn from the examples found elsewhere in the Bible?
While all of this makes sense, and really is not difficult, there are many things we need to keep in consideration when we see an example in Scripture. Some of these things are: whether or not the example was approved by God, is it permanent or temporary, was it restricted to a specific place?
First and foremost, when we see an example in Scripture, we need to use the context (the example’s place within its book) to determine whether or not God approved of it. For instance, we could go to the extreme and say that God approves of suicide because we have an example of Judas committing suicide (Matthew 27:5). However we know from numerous other passages that God condemns murder so this would not be an approved example because it contradicts other Scriptures.
In addition to God’s approval, before we decide an example should be followed today, we need to ask ourselves if the example was permanent or temporary. We have many examples of people in the Old Testament offering sacrifices. Is that an example that we need to follow? No, because the offering of sacrifices was temporary. It was limited to the time before Christ (Hebrews 9:11-14). So no examples of offering animal sacrifices are bound on us today.
A final question to ask yourself before deciding if an example is authoritative or not is whether or not the example is of spiritual or of cultural importance. An excellent example of this is foot washing. John 13:1-20 is a beautiful passage about Jesus washing His disciples’ feet. In John 13:15, Jesus even states that it was done as an example. However, what is the significance of the foot washing? No spiritual significance can be found in the Bible, nor does the act continue to be practiced in the rest of the New Testament. This tells us the example is culturally significant, but not authoritative; it was merely one way of obeying Jesus’ command to serve one another. Knowledge of the customs of their day add insight into the meaning of the act. In Jesus’ time, foot-washing was only done by the lowest of the servants. When people walked on dusty roads in sandals, their feet would get very dirty, so it was customary for the head of the house to have servants present to wash the feet of his guests. This is no longer the case in modern society. In today’s society it could be compared to cleaning their bathrooms. So are we commanded to wash each other’s feet today? No. However the principle taught by the example—that of service to each other—is still as applicable today as it was then.
If all of these questions can be answered, if the example that you are looking at is approved by God, and if it is not limited to a specific time or place, then it is every bit as authoritative as a direct command from God, and if we choose not to follow that example we will be held responsible for violating God’s laws.
For instance, John 22:14-23 is the institution of the Lord’s supper. Without paying close attention to example, it would be impossible to correctly fulfill Christ’s command of “do this in remembrance of me.” For instance, how do we know that we are to use unleavened bread? The passage does not specifically dictate, so would toast be acceptable? No, because of what we learn from the example. Christ started the Lord’s supper during the Passover feast. We know from studying Exodus 12 & 13 that during the Passover, the people were not allowed to have any yeast in their homes. Therefore, Christ’s example teaches us that when we partake of the Lord’s supper it is to be done with unleavened bread.
When should we partake of the Lord’s Supper? On Christmas and Easter? Once a month? On special occasions? The passage does not say. Once again, the only way to fully understand the application of this passage is by example. Acts 20:7 reads, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.” In this example, what was the entire reason that the church was together on the first day of the week? It wasn’t to hear a sermon, it wasn’t to give of their means, it was for the purpose of breaking bread. This was clearly done with the apostle Paul’s approval, which means God’s approval, and there are no stated or contextual limitations on the example, so we can see that by example, we are commanded to gather together on the first day of the week to partake of the Lord’s Supper.
In our study of God’s Word, one of the hardest things to understand is the examples that we find there. It can be very hard to tell which ones are binding on us today, and which ones are not. But if we are willing to put in the time to study, and to ask ourselves whether or not God approved of the example and whether or not the example was limited to a specific time or place, it becomes much easier!
Just as we expect our children to learn from our example, God expects us to learn from the examples He has given us in His Word. Our children cannot learn to talk or to walk without an example of walking and speech to follow. In the same way, we cannot fully understand how to live the Christian life if we refuse to follow the examples that God has given us. May we each strive to follow ever closer to those examples every day of our lives.