Principles of Interpretation: Classifying Actions
For the last two weeks, we have been studying some fundamental principles of Bible interpretation. We have stressed the importance of treating the Scriptures as an infallible, authoritative guide.

In the past, we have presented some in-depth feature lessons specifically on Bible authority (cf. 08/06/2005, 08/13/2005, and 08/20/2005 ). The primary points for today's lesson are taken from that series.

The specific principle that we want to ponder is this: We must recognize that there are temporary and permanent aspects to consider regarding biblical authority. In other words, simply because an action was authorized at one time for a certain person or group does not necessarily mean that we have authority for that same action today.

The New Testament is to be our objective standard of religious authority today (cf. Gal. 3:24,25; Heb. 8:13). It authorizes explicitly by direct statements and examples. Examples are recorded accounts of action. However, the New Testament does not authorize by just any account of action we might read. In Matthew 27:5, Judas went out and hung himself because of remorse over his sin of betraying the Christ. Obviously, this is an account of an action, but it is not an approved action; that is, it is not an action that authorizes us to imitate the behavior! Why? Because we can learn elsewhere in the New Testament that God does not approve of suicide (e.g., I Cor. 6:19,20). Therefore, no one can properly use Matthew 27:5 as a verse to authorize suicide today.

If we examine all actions (or examples) found in the New Testament, we will see that there are five different types of actions, but only two of them are authoritative or binding upon us today. Let's look at each of these five classifications briefly and then draw an important conclusion:

  1. The Bible records some actions that are sinful. We've already seen Judas as an example of this.

  2. The Bible records some actions that were TEMPORARY and OPTIONAL. Paul circumcised Timothy "...because of the Jews who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek" (Acts 16:3). This action was temporary in that it would not apply today. There are no circumstances today in which circumcision would be advantageous regarding the spread of the gospel. This action was optional in that it was not required. Paul circumcised Timothy, not because he had to, but because he thought it would make it easier for them to teach effectively among the Jews.

  3. The Bible records some actions that were TEMPORARY and REQUIRED. In I Corinthians 12:31, Paul commanded the brethren to "earnestly desire the greater [spiritual] gifts." They were required to desire the miraculous gifts in the first century. However, the age of miracles did not last much beyond the first century, and, therefore, this obligation was temporary. This obligation is not required of us today because for us to desire the miraculous gifts of prophecy, speaking in tongues, etc., would be foolishness since these miracles are no longer available for our use. God's word has already been confirmed (cf. Mark 16:20; I Cor. 13:8ff).

  4. The Bible records some actions that are PERMANENT and OPTIONAL. In II Corinthians 8:3, Paul writes that the Macedonian brethren gave "beyond their ability." They were not required to give beyond their ability, but they were allowed to do so. Thus, their action here was definitely optional, but we should realize that the principle of going the "second mile" (Matt. 5:41) is a permanent part of Christianity. We today would be wise to give beyond our ability, but such is not demanded of us.

  5. The Bible records some actions that are PERMANENT and REQUIRED. There are many examples in the book of Acts where men and women were required to obey the gospel to have their sins washed away. They heard the good news about the Christ, which made it possible for them to develop faith. Their faith led them to want to repent from their sinful ways and walk in righteousness. They confessed their belief in Christ and submitted to baptism which washed away their sins and put them into Christ. They were required to do this to be saved, and this is a permanent part of Christianity since God's word has been completely revealed (cf. Jude 3). There is nothing in the New Testament that changed the plan of salvation seen time and again in the book of Acts. There are many other New Testament actions that are both permanent and required (e.g., the first-century Christians were required, as we are today, to observe the Lord's Supper; they were also required, as we are today, to give of their means; etc.).

Of these five classifications of actions, only the last two authorize anything for us today. Therefore, when we read of an action in the New Testament that is right within itself and relates to a permanent element of Christianity, we can conclude that we have the authority for imitating that action. Properly classifying actions is crucial if one hopes to correctly understand and apply God's word.