The Classification of Bible Commands
The Bible contains a variety of literature types. It has, for example, historical narrative. Genesis 1-2 (and related contexts) is the only reliable account of the origin of the universe and of mankind in existence. The Scriptures contain lofty poetry and powerful prophecy.
All of that aside, however, every honest student must also admit that the Bible is a book of law (cf. Isaiah 2:2-4; Jeremiah 31:33; 1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2). It contains commands that are to be obeyed. A consideration of various classifications of biblical commands can be a helpful study.
Moral and Religious Commands
Commands may be classified as either moral or religious. Moral commands have to do with man’s relationship to his fellows, whereas religious laws involve humanity’s reconciliation to the Creator.
Commandments like, “You shall not steal,” and “You shall not commit adultery,” are moral in thrust, and they are designed to create the kind of healthy, happy environment which facilitates man’s service to Jehovah.
Laws such as those which involve the offering of sacrifices (Old Testament) and baptism (New Testament) are religious obligations which are intended to test man’s loyalty to God. Is one willing to do precisely what the Lord says as a demonstration of his trust, i.e. faith, in his Maker?
Positive and Negative Commands
Another classification is that of positive and negative commands. Positive commands enjoin a responsibility, and negative commands prohibit wrong-doing.
When Jesus instituted the Lord’s supper, he said: “This do in remembrance of me” (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:24). This was a positive command. Those who neglect the observance of the communion upon the first day of the week (Acts 20:7) have violated one of the Savior’s positive commands.
When the inspired writer declared, “Lie not one to another” (Colossians 3:9), he gave a negative command. In this day, being negative is disdained in the theories of modern psychology. But perhaps it might be well to remind ourselves that eight of the Ten Commandments were negative. Jehovah’s thoughts do not necessarily harmonize with modern trends (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Generic and Specific Commands
Generic commands enjoin a general obligation, the implementation of which is left to the judgment of the individual. When Jesus said, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15), the imperative, “go,” (a participle used in the imperative sense—cf. Friberg) is generic, thus granting evangelistic options.
One may go personally (by means of plane, automobile, etc.), or he might go indirectly (literature, recordings, support of others, etc.).
Specific commands declare the precise manner of implementing the divine ordinance. On the day of Pentecost, Peter did not command the believing Jews to “make some application of water”; rather, he commanded “be immersed.” The specificity of that injunction contains no authority for either the sprinkling or pouring of “baptismal” water.
Universal and Limited Commands
Not all commands recorded in the Bible were for the whole human race. The command to observe the Passover feast annually (Exodus 12:14) was never an obligation to any but the Hebrew nation. On the other hand, the call to repent of personal sin is a requirement of all men everywhere (Acts 17:30).
Christ once issued this directive: “Tarry ye in the city, until ye be clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). That obligation was certainly not universal, but only to the apostles. However, the responsibility to be immersed in order to receive salvation is as universal as the ability to believe in the Lord (Mark 16:15-16).
One must carefully consider the context of Bible commands to know whether or not the individual injunction is required of him or her.
Temporal and Permanent Commands
Not all commands listed in the Scriptures were intended to last forever. The divine command, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8) was operative only so long as the law of Moses was in effect.
The Mosaic system was a “schoolmaster” to prepare the Jewish nation (and through them the Gentiles as well) for the coming of the Messiah. When Christ had accomplished his holy mission, that law (hence, the sabbath command) expired (Galatians 3:24-25). Those who attempt Sabbath observance today are looking in vain to an obsolete law.
The imperative, “Desire spiritual gifts” (1 Corinthians 14:1), would surely not be applicable in this age, since spiritual gifts have long since passed from the church’s possession (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:8ff).
On the other hand, when Jesus, with reference to marriage, charged, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6), he issued a prohibitive that would be binding throughout the Christian era. New Testament marriage regulations are designed to last as long as the institution itself prevails.
Some have alleged that water baptism was only a temporary requirement which became obsolete by the time the book of Acts had been completed. But Matthew 28:18-20 contains the implication that the ordinance would be an obligation unto the end of the world.
Commands of the Bible must be carefully analyzed. When it is determined that they apply to us, we must humbly submit to them.
- Friberg, Barbara and Timothy. 1981. Analytical Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.