In writing to the Corinthian church, the apostle Paul taught, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1; ESV),” and with this command, the inspired apostle gave the weight of divine authority to the concept of the approved example.
God teaches and guides men in His Word through the use of direct commands. “Do not steal,” “do not lie,” and “do not commit adultery,” are all obvious examples of such commands. “Love your neighbor,” “pray without ceasing,” and “repent,” are others. Though men may not be obedient to the commands of God, and may even argue against the propriety of this command or that, the commands of God, as a rule, are easy to understand in our study of the Word.
But, as Paul’s statement illustrates, God also uses examples as an instrument by which He guides and teaches His people. And these examples can be a little trickier at times to understand than the more obvious direct commands.
The importance of examples as a method of learning is stressed throughout the Gospel. Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians that they “became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia (1 Thessalonians 1:7; ESV),” and later tells them that Paul and his companions had themselves, while with the Thessalonians, set forth to be an example worthy of imitation (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:9). Timothy, as a preacher of the Gospel, was taught to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity (1 Timothy 4:12; ESV).” The elders and pastors of the church are likewise encouraged, as leaders, to be “examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3).” James reminds his readers that they can learn from the faith of the Old Testament prophets, saying, “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord (James 5:10; ESV).”
Jesus Himself stressed the importance of His own example. After taking the time to wash His disciples feet, He told them, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. (John 13:14-17; ESV)”
Elsewhere, relative to the suffering Christians would experience, we read, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21; ESV).”
However, not all examples are of a positive sort. There are negative examples in the Scriptures, written as warnings against certain behavior. After detailing a list of events from the Old Testament account, the apostle Paul stated, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come (1 Corinthians 10:11; ESV).” Peter and Jude likewise talked about the examples of Judgment found on the wicked men of Sodom and Gomorrah (cf. 2 Peter 2:6; Jude vs. 7). The Bible is filled with such negative examples: Judas betraying Jesus, the Israelites grumbling against God, Pilate washing his hands of the death of Christ, etc.
The challenge with examples, especially when there is no immediate commentary provided in the text, is in trying to discern whether a given illustration is meant to be a positive or a negative example. This is especially challenging when the individual providing the example is of a generally upright nature, such as David, or the apostle Paul. For instance, what are we to make of Paul, incorrectly as it turns out, refusing to take John Mark with him on his second missionary journey (cf. Acts 15:36-40)? Discerning the answer to such questions requires not only analyzing the outcome, but being able to compare the behavior with the commands and principles of God. We cannot understand the propriety of an example if we do not have a solid benchmark to compare it to.
Returning to Paul’s statement quoted at the beginning of this discussion, “, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” we see that Paul provides that solid point of comparison by which to judge his own behavior. In and so far as Paul was being like Christ, he was worthy of emulation. If and when, like all men, Paul fell short of that example, he was not worthy of imitation.
All of which is to say, that the examples of Scriptures are powerful teaching tools to guide us and remind us, but to best use them, we must be diligent students of the Word. There is no short-cut to enlightenment here: we cannot understand the examples of the Scriptures if we do not first study and understand the commands of God. We cannot properly discern how good an example a man is providing if we do not first have our eyes fixed on the perfect example of Jesus Christ.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.