It is something of an assumed truism that Christians follow the example of Jesus. Of course we do. He is, after all, the founder and pioneer and of our faith. Surely, if anything was obvious, it is that we are supposed to copy Jesus, aren’t we?
Only, for a whole host of reasons, I don’t think that is right. Without doubt, there are things that we do which Jesus established. There are things we do that Jesus clearly did. But the calculation clearly is not so straightforward as saying Jesus did this so we must do this too for a whole host of reasons. Just because Jesus did something does not mean we are to do it.
The obvious examples here are those things that fall under Old Covenant stipulations. Jesus attended the temple, but we are not called to follow his example and attend the temple. Jesus kept kashrut, but he specifically does not ask his followers to do the same (cf. Mark 7:19). These sorts of examples could go on, but you get the point. There are things Jesus did to fulfil the Old Covenant that are not required of his followers in the New Covenant.
But we can go further. There are things Jesus did that were not specific to the Old Covenant that he doesn’t expect us to do either. Notably, Jesus went round forgiving people’s sin, but there is no way in which he expects us to follow his example and attempt to forgive anyone’s sin (cf. Matthew 9:5; Luke 7:48; etc). This was something Jesus did that he does not expect his followers to do after him.
Similarly, Jesus taught with a degree of authority that he does not expect us to do. The Jewish means of establishing truth was to reference their relevant authorities and cite the Talmud. The scribes would cite relevant precedents and determine truth this way. But Jesus did not tend to do that, but landed hard on ‘but I say to you…’ and ‘I tell you the truth…’ He was noted as one who taught on his own authority (cf. Matthew 7:28-29). Jesus does not, however, expect us to teach on our own authority.
Perhaps more controversially, Jesus taught in parables and sometimes actively sought to obscure his message from those listening. When Jesus taught the parable of the sower, for example, he did not explain its meaning to the audience. Away from the crowd, he later explained it to the disciples. He then spoke in parables from that point onwards, usually only explaining their meaning to his disciples. Jesus was clear that he was doing this so that certain people would not understand his message and would wonder about its meaning. Jesus, therefore, sometimes preached to obscure his meaning to some. Again, this is not the pattern for preaching that Jesus has given to the New Covenant church. We are not called to preach the gospel and obscure its meaning, but to be as clear as possible so that people might hear and understand. Again, this is an example of Jesus doing something that his followers are actively NOT called to emulate.
There are other such examples we might give, but these should suffice to make the point. There are things Jesus did that we are not called to do as New Covenant believers. There are some things Jesus did that we are actively called NOT to do as New Covenant believers. All of which is to say, we cannot be so simplistic as to suggest Jesus is our example and we just copy what he does.
All of this is obvious enough when we consider two basic things. First, Jesus lived under an Old Covenant law that God’s people could not keep perfectly in order to fulfil its righteous obligations as the faithful covenant partner we need. Jesus came as a second Adam to do what Adam, and his descendants, could not do; fulfil the righteous requirements of the law. Jesus’ role as saviour is a task that belongs to him alone. Not only do we not need to emulate him in that task, we cannot emulate him in that task.
Second, as the First Baptist Confession of Faith helpfully states, Jesus also has the roles of prophet, priest and king that are uniquely his too. As the 1644 confession puts it in article XIII:
This office to be Mediator, that is, to be Prophet, Priest, and King of the Church of God, is so proper to Christ, as neither in the whole, not in any part thereof, it can be transferred from Him to any other.
The confession expands upon that, but again, the point here is straightforward enough. Jesus holds the roles of prophet, priest and king over the church – which cannot be transferred to any other – and thus he will do things that are neither required nor possible for any of his followers.
This matters because, as came up in a recent discussion on twitter, we cannot simply transfer what Jesus did to the church and insist we simply copy him. If we look at Jesus’ baptism, for instance, he was baptised by John. But we see in Acts 19:1-6, others who had the baptism of John were expected to be baptised again in the name of Jesus. Or, if you like, the baptism of John was not exactly Christian baptism so they needed to actually be baptised. But the baptism of John was, interestingly, the only one Jesus had. Similarly, Jesus clearly instituted the Lord’s Supper, but it is notable he only had it once. Yet, by the time we get to Acts 2, we see it instituted as a regular ordinance for the church. We don’t have any example of Jesus doing this repeatedly. Notably, in Acts 2:42, we see the church devote themselves to the Apostles teaching. Of course, the Apostles were passing on the teaching of Jesus, but they were also interpreting and then applying it to the church as well.
The reason this all matters is because it is significant so far as what the church is about and what the church is expected to do is concerned. It is very easy to say Jesus did X so the church should do X too (as many Christians are wont to do). But that position comes unstuck when we all recognise Jesus did lots of things we either aren’t expected to emulate, can’t emulate or are told explicitly not to emulate. We need a more consistent approach.
The end of the Old Covenant and the establishment of the New Covenant in Jesus’ blood happened at the cross with the death of Christ. Within 40 days of this happening, we see the church form and a shift from the Old Covenant law to the New Covenant teaching of the Apostles (to which the early church devoted themselves). It is, therefore, to the teaching of the Apostles – passing on the relevant teaching of Jesus’ for his church and the interpretation and expansion of that teaching as guided by the Holy Spirit in their foundational role as Apostles – that we look for understanding what it is the church is called to do, how it is to organise and how it is to operate. As Brian Rosner outlines at length in his book Paul And The Law, the Old Covenant Law of Moses gives way to apostolic instruction in the New Covenant. The book of Acts itself outlines how the church formed and grew with Jesus continuing his ministry through the church, by his Spirit, according to the Apostles teaching.
I hold to some form of the regulative principle – that God authorises what we can and can’t do through his Word – and that same regulative principle governs all of life. But that inevitably means we have to ask what has God authorised us to do? As Jonathan Leeman helpfully notes in this article:
It’s strange to me that people will point to what Paul does in Acts as an apostle and then immediately assume a normative lesson transmits to Christians or churches today. Well, hold on. Yes, Paul was given a job or an office: apostle. But why would we assume his job responsibilities and office authorities are ours? Maybe there is overlap. But the first question I as a church member or an elder need to ask is, What job assignment does God give me? What did he authorize me (as church member; as elder) to do? If I see the president of my company or the company attorney doing something, I wouldn’t assume that I as a middle-manager am authorized to do the same things, would I? Of course not. So why would I assume I’m authorized to do everything that Paul does?
The same, it seems to me, applies to Jesus and then some.
In that same post, Leeman notes ‘as the storyline of redemptive history progresses, God authorizes different groups of people differently with each covenantal administration: Israel one way; the new covenant community another.’ He goes on to state that we, therefore, do not assume that what is stated under one covenant necessarily applies in another. We must first understand how things apply in Christ and then to us in him. In the end, we have to let Jesus by way of the teaching of the Apostles be our guide as to what continues and what does not. He concludes, ‘I don’t assume any OT polity or practice binds me, or doesn’t bind me, until Jesus or the apostles tell me it binds me. I read the OT through their lenses.’
Which is to say, the we cannot determine the purposes and functions of the church apart from the establishment of the church under the New Covenant and the authoritative teaching of those telling us what the purposes and functions of the church actually are. Which is to say, we cannot just look at Jesus life and example – lived under the Old Covenant Law – and immediately assume everything he did and said should be applied directly to the church as the church. Jesus was authorised to do different things, given his different office, under a different covenant, for different purposes. The church exists with different people, with different functions, some in different offices, for different purposes.
All of that means, any discussion on what the church ought or ought not to do needs to centre on the teaching of those who actually authorise the church to do anything. Our understanding of what the church is meant to do and how it is to do it needs to rest not only simply copying Jesus and more on understand what the Apostles – whose foundational teaching role Jesus authorised – authorise it to do under the New Covenant Jesus established in his blood. All of that is to say, we can’t just point at Jesus and say, ‘copy that’.