When are Examples Binding?

I am not convinced that the answer to this question can be reduced to a formula. I don’t believe it’s the kind of thing that a computer program could be written to answer. Instructive communication in everyday life takes on a range of forms that cannot be comprehended by anything less than the human mind. When a mom says, “How many times have I told you not to chew with your mouth open?” it is not a question with a numerical answer. It is an instruction. The human mind can comprehend it, but a computer probably couldn’t.

It was also an instruction when God said, “Did I speak a word with one of the tribes of Israel...saying, ‘Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?’” And not only did those words inform David that God did not want him to build a temple, they also established a principle for all time: We please God by doing what he asks, not what we think He might like. What hermeneutic formula neatly accounts for this kind of instruction?

I don’t mean to suggest that God’s word is incomprehensible. I mean to suggest it is comprehensible by using the same skills we use in every day life. And I wonder if we overlook the plainness of God’s instructions by seeing “Command, Example, Necessary Inference” as a formula.

I certainly don’t mean to question the authority of God’s word. I believe some who are seeking a “new hermeneutic” are doing just that. Their approach would leave God’s word with less instructive power than the words of a child’s mother. But we need to remember that “Command, Example, Necessary Inference” is merely one way of categorizing what is really intrinsic to human communication. And clearly, God chose the conventions of human communication, a skill which He himself bestowed upon man, as the means by which He would communicate His will to us.

With this in mind, let me make some observations about how we can rightly go about discerning which examples are meant to be followed. It is important for us to distinguish between facts related in scripture which are incidentals, necessary for understanding the narrative but nonetheless incidentals as far as our obedience is concerned, and those things which have significance with respect to our obedience to God's will.


Consider the description of the disciples’ assembly in Acts 20:7-8, noting both the time and the place. The text says,

“And upon on the first day of the week when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul discoursed with them intending to depart on the morrow; and prolonged his speech until midnight. And there were many lights in the upper chamber where we were gathered together.”

Why does the Time have significance while the Place does not?

We suppose the fact that they met on the first day of the week is instructive. Is that a reasonable supposition?

And if so, why isn't the fact that they met in an upper chamber also instructive? After all, the only other occasion in scripture that a place is connected with the Lord’s Supper, it was also an upper room. On the occasion of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus had carefully directed the disciples to go into the city, to meet a man with a pitcher of water whom they were to follow, to inquire of the master of the house to which they would be led, to be shown to a particular room which would be an upper room. There they ate the Passover supper, and there Jesus instructed the twelve concerning the Lord’s Supper. Does this constitute a pattern? Is the upper room part of the example we are to follow?

I have already indicated my skepticism of a formulaic approach to such a study. At the risk of seeming now to suggest a formulaic approach, let me suggest a couple of questions that can be asked. These are not necessarily the two questions that will yield enlightenment in every instance where we seek to determine what is authorized by scripture. But they illustrate how one can reasonably ascertain the purpose of the inclusion of certain facts in the Biblical narrative.

Do the requirements of the narrative provide sufficient reason for the mention of the place?
Is there spiritual significance attached to the place?
In answer to the second question, there is no obvious spiritual significance attached to the place. On the other hand, we can see narrative related reasons for the mention of the specific place.

In Acts 20, the fact that it was an upper chamber is significant in relation to Eutychus' fall and the miracle subsequently performed.

In Mark 14:12-15, the mention of the specific details of the room is in keeping with the mention that the man would have a pitcher of water. The events would unfold as foretold in every detail, thus calling attention to the hand of God in all that transpired. Compare Samuel's instructions to Saul in 1 Samuel 10:2-7. There, it wasn't the three loaves of bread and the jug of wine themselves that were significant, nor the harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre. Rather it was significant that the events unfolded just as Samuel had said they would. So also in Mk. 14:15, it wasn't the place itself that was significant, but the fact that the events unfolded just as Jesus had said they would (Mk. 14:16), including the fact that the two disciples were led to an upper room.

We ought also to note that the coincidence that both the Passover supper on the eve of Jesus' crucifixion and the gathering of the Troas disciples to break bread were in upper rooms is not surprising. There is evidence that the upper rooms of a house were the most desirable, especially in the warmer months, and that such were especially reserved for guests.

So we have every reason to suppose the elevation of the room was what would be expected by convention, and no reason to suppose the elevation had any spiritual significance. On both occasions, we have every reason to suppose the elevation was mentioned for our comprehension of the narrative, and no reason to suppose the elevation of the room was mentioned as precedent for us.

Now let’s turn our attention to the mention of the time.

Do the requirements of the narrative provide sufficient reason for the mention of the time?
Is there spiritual significance attached to the time?
Taking the first question first, the narrative in Acts 20 hardly requires mention of the day of the week in verse 7. Luke is telling us about Paul's third journey. As Luke relates the events of Paul's various journeys, he carefully indicated where Paul went, sometimes explaining in detail the route followed, certainly making clear the chronology. A number of significant events are described. On several occasions, Luke did note that it was the Sabbath day, but the significance of the day was that it was the occasion Paul could expect to find Jews assembled at the synagogue. Aside from those references to the Sabbath day, not once in the book of Acts does Luke ever feel the need to indicate on which day of the week something occurred other than in Acts 20:7. And in that passage, knowledge of the day of the week in no way helps us to understand anything else in the passage, unless it be the nature of the meal the disciples came together to eat. And then knowledge of the day of the week only helps in our understanding if indeed it can be supposed it has spiritual significance.

Therefore let us consider the second question: Is there spiritual significance attached to the time?

Note first of all that Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week and that this fact is mentioned in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Jesus' first appearance to the twelve (less Judas and Thomas, but with the addition of Cleopas and his companion) was on the very day of his resurrection, the first day of the week (Lk. 24:13-43, Jn. 20:19ff). It was on the next first day of the week that Jesus again appeared to them, this time with Thomas present (Jn. 20:26). Then six weeks later, the evidence suggests it was on the first day of the week that the gospel was publicly proclaimed for the first time after Jesus' resurrection. We conclude this primarily because the day of Pentecost was to be observed on the day after the seventh Sabbath after Passover (Lev. 23:15-16).

The first day of the week was the Lord's day of victory over death, a victory which was of preeminent importance. By that victory he was declared to be the son of God (Rom. 1:4). By that victory God gave assurance that he would judge the world in righteousness by Jesus (Acts 17:31). By that victory, Jesus brought to nought him that had the power of death, that is, the devil (Heb. 2:14). Hence when John refers to a particular day in which he was in the Spirit as the Lord's Day (Rev. 1:10), it is only reasonable to understand he spoke of the first day of the week.

Moreover, we know that the church at Corinth, and apparently also the churches of Galatia, regularly assembled on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:1-2), the Lord's Day. And finally, we know that supper in which the saints commemorated the Lord's death was known as the "Lord's Supper" (1 Cor. 11:20), a term which quite naturally connects it with the "Lord's Day," which, as noted above, must have been the first day of the week.

When we come to Acts 20:7 and see Luke noting that it was on the first day of the week that the disciples came together to break bread, we readily conclude the breaking of the bread was the observance of the Lord's Supper. But we come to that conclusion because we have first of all discerned the significance of the first day of the week. That was a day that had great spiritual significance.

Having established the spiritual significance of the day, and having found no reason for the mention of the day apart from its spiritual significance, we can be confident that the example is instructive. It is not merely a fact told to us to enable our comprehension of the narrative. It is something God intends for us to do.


Much of what we have said here is intuitive. We don’t always have to methodically analyze a passage to recognize what the instruction in a particular passage is. Our habits of communication enable us to intuitively comprehend the point.

But from time to time, it is helpful to rigorously analyze why one example should rightly be understood to be instructive while another is not. The exercise will protect us from concluding that we can't expect to find instruction in examples. And it may even equip us to recognize some overlooked instructions in New Testament examples.

By Jeff Smelser

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