Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Bible Interpretation

The Bible employs many different genres of literature. There is poetry. There are personal letters. There are visions and dreams. There is narrative. Good interpretation of the Bible requires recognizing the genre of the respective passage and applying the appropriate interpretive rules for the genre.

One interpretive decision to make that crosses over genres, but occurs most especially in personal letters and narrative, is whether to understand the passage as descriptive or prescriptive. Let me explain…

Descriptive: Some passages are descriptive. That is, they tell you what was happening. It’s not necessarily telling us whether it is morally right or wrong, just that it is what happened. Example:

He [Solomon] had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart (1 Ki 11:3).

Was it good for Solomon to have 1000 women in his harem? No. Was it right for Solomon to have 1000 women in his harem? No. So this passage is a clear example of a descriptive passage that tells us what was happening, but never infers that it was good or what was should have been happening. The Bible is clear on marriage… one man, one woman, forever.

Prescriptive: Other passages, however, are intended to prescribe moral imperatives upon the reader. Example:

You shall not murder (Ex 20:13).

Murder is wrong. That is clear. This verse (and the 10 Commandments in general) are moral prescriptions of how God’s people are supposed to act (praise God for grace that covers us when we don’t do what we are supposed to do). But the point is that this verse is prescriptive.

In short, when reading the Bible, ask yourself this question: Is this passage describing what should be (prescriptive) or describing what is happening (descriptive)?

Of course, the challenge is, it’s not always as easy as the passages I used as examples above. And sometimes it may even change in the course of a chapter from description to prescription and back again. Let’s look at one more example:

Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him (1 Cor 11:14).

So is this passage descriptive or prescriptive? If prescriptive, that means it is morally wrong for a man to grow long hair. But if it is simply descriptive, is the rest of 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul teaches on the Lord’s Supper? Here are back to back sections on Godly worship in the same chapter. So is this passage descriptive or prescriptive? It’s a big decision…

Deciding whether a passage is descriptive or prescriptive is one of the most important decisions we make in properly interpreting the Bible. And if you are ever not sure, ask a friend…

Interact: What passages of the Bible do you struggle to decide if they are descriptive or prescriptive?

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Heaven, Hell and the End of the World

Heaven, Hell and the End of the World
This world will come to an end. And then what? This course investigates what the Bible actually teaches about heaven (hint: it’s not an eternity long worship service!), the gut-wrenching reality of hell, how it will all come to be… and why it should even matter to us. Special thanks to Kyle Cookerly for his partnership in preparing and teaching this class.

Week Message Title Notes Audio
1 On the Study of Heaven
2 Heaven on Earth
3 What will Heaven be like?
4 What will we be like?
5 Hell and Eternal Judgment
6 Hell and the Character of God
7 This World Will End
8 The Return of the King **
9 Living for the Promised Rewards

*An Amazon List has been created with some of the resources used in this class.
** The audio for week 8 was corrupted.

People & Place: The Central Focus of the Kingdom

The Bible presents two main elements – topics of central focus – of God’s kingdom here on the earth – the place and the people. Let’s preview these now because they become central to the rest of the discussion of the kingdom moving forward.

The Place of the Kingdom

  • God’s kingdom on earth is moving.
  • From the Garden to the whole earth.

The People of the Kingdom

  • From one man (Adam) to “every people, tribe, tongue and nation” (Rev. 5:9).
  • We, humanity, have a big role to play in the kingdom of God here on the earth. We, the people of God, have been tasked with laboring to make the whole world the throne room of God and all the people of the earth his subjects.

Throughout the study of God’s unfolding kingdom here on the earth, we will continually come back to these two main elements because they are so central to understanding God’s kingdom. People and place. Place and people.

Throughout this series, we will investigate the coming of God’s kingdom here on the earth. And then we will be tasked with bringing God’s heavenly kingdom to bear on the earth. That is God’s purpose and our mission: to see God’s kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven: perfect, unopposed and complete. And it starts with the people and the place.

Eden as a Type of the Kingdom

When we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” this is what we are praying for. We are praying for God’s kingdom and rule on the earth to be perfect, unopposed and complete, just like it is in heaven. The Garden of Eden, of which we read in Genesis 1-2, serves as a type – a model or picture – of God’s kingdom here on the earth. It serves as a reference point for us of what could be.

God’s reign in the Garden was: Perfect*

  • At creation, God’s kingdom on earth was perfect. There was no sin or death.

God’s reign in the Garden was: Unopposed*

  • At creation, God’s kingdom on earth was without enemies. His rule was unopposed.

God’s reign in the Garden was: Not Complete

  • Even at creation, God’s kingdom on earth was not complete. From the beginning, God’s plan included sending Christ. God had a plan for history that was not complete.

So, to answer the question of what will the kingdom of God look like, look at the Garden. There, his kingdom was perfect and unopposed. But it was still not enough because it was not complete. We must go beyond Eden.


*Yes, I know the serpent opposed God and the Fall (end of perfect) came in the Garden. Go farther back. There was a time before the serpent slithered his way in front of Adam and Eve that the Garden was perfect and unopposed. We’ll see, soon enough in this series, the implications of the Fall.

God’s Kingdom in Heaven

“This, then, is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom reign and will would be done on earth just like it is in heaven. So what, then, is God’s reign like in heaven? Let me pose three core features of God’s reign in heaven that form the heart of the prayer that God’s kingdom would come on the earth like it is in heaven.

God’s heavenly reign is: Perfect

  • Everything in heaven is just as it should be. There is no sin and there is no death. God’s heavenly kingdom is perfect.

God’s heavenly reign is: Unopposed

  • In heaven, God has no enemies. He has cast all who would oppose him from his presence. God’s heavenly kingdom is unopposed.

God’s heavenly reign is: Complete

  • Heaven cannot ever be more God’s kingdom than it is today. There is no sense of developing. In heaven, God is on his throne and is all in all. God’s heavenly kingdom is complete.

So the next time you say that Lord’s prayer, this is what you are asking for. You are asking that, just like God’s reign and will in heaven are perfect, unopposed and complete, God’s reign and will would be perfect, unopposed and complete here on the earth.

Interact: Has this world (earth) ever demonstrated one or more of these core features of God’s heavenly reign?

What the Kingdom is Not, Part 3

The kingdom of God is not just that of law fulfillment and conquering a la the Pharisees (Post 1) nor is it this false dichotomy of more Christians versus a social welfare gospel (Post 2). It is also not an earthly kingdom… yet.

Psalm 2 declares, “I have installed my king on Zion” (Ps 2:6). The Jews were waiting for Jerusalem to be restored as the royal throne room. And one day, the Great King will reign in the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:2).

But until that day, God’s kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. Listen to Jesus’ words when he was on trial, just before his death. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36).

More on this to come later in this series, but we need to get this point. God’s kingdom is not an earthly kingdom… yet. The danger here is making the not yet, already. That is to say, at the end of history, God’s kingdom will be an earthly kingdom. But not yet.

 

What the Kingdom is Not, Part 2

The kingdom of God is coming. But it won’t, as I outline in the previous post, be the kingdom the Pharisees had envisioned. It will also not be the kingdom that we typically envision either. While the Pharisees anticipated a kingdom of law fulfillment and conquering king, we, today, often have a very different perspective. And it starts with a false either/or dichotomy.

The kingdom of God is either…

Just more Christians

There are some who think evangelism is the only thing that Christians should concern themselves with. Our job is the kingdom is only to make more Christians through the preaching and sharing of the gospel. The danger here is that the kingdom is overly spiritualized and missed the call to care for the hurting and the oppressed.

or

Social Gospel

Some take the opposite perspective that social welfare is the only thing that Christians should concern themselves with. Our job in the kingdom is only to give people food, care for the poor, etc.

Both of these positions are flawed. It’s a false either/or dichotomy. The kingdom comes both in the preaching of the gospel and in the meeting of the needs of the hurting. Consider the example of Jesus. He fed the hungry and he called himself the bread of life (John 6). He healed the blind man and called himself the light of the world (John 9). He healed a man of his paralysis and he forgave him of his sins (Mark 2). The kingdom task is about multiplying the image of God through new Christians and caring for the outcasts, outsiders, sick and hurting people around us.

Summary: The kingdom of God is evangelistic and it is caring for the needy and hurting. It’s both/and, not either or. A true understanding of the Kingdom shows us that is both word and deed – proclamation and action – so that as we talk our walk, sharing how Christ is king of what we do and what we say.