There are a lot of important questions to ask yourself when reading the Bible and one of the most important is:
“Is this passage descriptive or prescriptive?”
Descriptive simply means, “describing something that happened” (like me telling you I broke my collarbone falling off a bike).
Prescriptive simply means, “telling me to do something” (like the doctor giving me a prescription for pain meds because of my broken collarbone).
These two categories are related but vastly different. Confusing the two could lead to the theological equivalent of saying, “well, since Noel said he broke his collarbone while biking, I guess I have to go buy a bike and crash it into something until my collarbone breaks.” It could also lead to you taking pain meds for a broken bone you don’t have because the doctor told me to take pain meds.
See why this is so important?
Now, it’s important to note that all of the Bible doesn’t fit neatly into one of these two categories (and a lot of it falls into neither) but we can easily get tripped up if we don’t ask this question, especially when studying a book like Acts.
In Acts, Dr. Luke (who also wrote The Gospel of Luke) undertakes the historical study of the first three or so decades of the early church so his friend Theophilus would have confidence in the truthfulness (and therefore accuracy) of what he had heard about the early church (Acts 1:1-2; Luke 1:1-4). That simple statement of purpose helps us to understand that most of the book is “descriptive.” He’s telling his friend what happened.
Why is this important?
Because it would be easy to take this verse…
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. – Acts 1:8
…and assume we have to have the same strategy in our church. Or what about this one?
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. – Acts 2:44–47
Does that mean every Christian must…
- Sell our possessions and belongings and give away the proceeds to all as they have need?
- Attend the temple together every day?
- Break bread (eat a meal with other Christians) in our homes every day?
These are descriptive passages that describe what was happening in the early church, they are not prescriptive passages telling us what to do. So should we just say, “nice story” and shut our Bibles and go on with our days?
We are told that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). That includes the descriptive passages. So how can we use them in a profitable way? Here are a couple questions you can ask yourself when reading passages like these ones:
How does this descriptive passage echo the big story around it?
In other words, how does this relate to the book of Acts and the whole Bible? In these passages, we see that the Gospel of Jesus turned the disciples inside out and propelled them on mission. No longer did they think of themselves, but of others. As they carried the message of Jesus from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and even to the end of the earth (which is really a summary of the book of Acts), people were turned inside out as well. They, too, thought more of others than themselves. That’s what happens when Jesus gets ahold of someone’s life. We see them turn from being inwardly focused to outwardly focused. This is the story of Acts and the whole Bible.
How does this descriptive passage illustrate another prescriptive passage?
Just before returning to Heaven, Jesus said to his disciples:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. – Matthew 28:18–20
This command was given to the disciples and they were told to teach others to do what? Obey all of his commands, which would naturally include that one. This command to make disciples is one we are all to obey and we see this command being obeyed in the descriptive passages in the book of Acts.
Image Credit: WAPSTER