When it comes to the application of scripture, it’s important to determine whether a passage is descriptive or prescriptive. In the previous blog post, we looked at the principles of interpreting the scriptures correctly. And what came up is that Bible interpretation should be aimed at determining the author’s intended meaning

One of the principles that stood out was identifying the genre. Since the Bible has a wide range of literary genres, recognizing the genre of a given passage and using the right interpretative guidelines for that genre is necessary for effective Bible application. One of these guidelines is determining whether a text is descriptive or prescriptive.

Descriptive vs Prescriptive Passages: How to differentiate between the two

Descriptive Passages

Also known as Biblical narratives, these are passages that provide a window into historical events in the Bible. They simply describe what took place. Descriptive passages are commonly found in the historical books of the Bible e.g. 1 & 2 Chronicles, 1 & 2 Samuel, Acts of the Apostles, and so on. 

Examples of descriptive passages include Joseph being sold as a slave by his brothers, the fall of the walls of Jericho, David slaying Goliath, the shadow of Peter healing the sick, etc.

It’s crucial to approach these narratives with a discerning mindset, recognizing their descriptive nature. For example, in the book of Acts, there are several passages where the Holy Spirit would come upon new believers and they would speak in tongues (Acts 2:4; 10:44-46; 19:6). It was a sign that they were filled with the Holy Spirit. 

Some use these descriptive texts as proof that all believers who are filled with the Holy Spirit should speak in tongues as evidence. However, it’s important to exercise caution in extrapolating a universal rule from these specific instances in the book of Acts.

The apostle Paul addresses this in 1 Corinthians 12:30 highlighting the diversity of spiritual gifts within the body of believers. He asks, “Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” 

He rhetorically poses these questions, assuming a negative response which is a No because God equips believers with different gifts of the Holy Spirit as He wills. Therefore, interpreting and applying these passages as if they are instructions for all believers to speak in tongues is incorrect.

Let’s consider a more obvious illustration. Take the story of Elijah and the Prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. The prophet Elijah confronted King Ahab’s Idolatry by challenging his Baal prophets to a spiritual contest to prove that Baal was a false god. Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal serves as a historical account illustrating the folly of idolatry and the power of the one true God.

However, if we interpret it literally, then we risk making the error of challenging false prophets to spiritual contests everywhere which is a misunderstanding of its intended meaning and application. 

So, does this mean that descriptive passages cannot be applied in our lives? No, they can, but not in their literal sense.

In most cases, descriptive passages are a source of moral, ethical, or spiritual lessons that provide guidance and edification rather than setting a precedent for copying what a person did in that passage. In the case of Elijah, a lesson we can draw from it is the fact that only one true God is deserving of worship; Yahweh.

While the Bible narrates these events for our understanding of the knowledge of God, it doesn’t necessarily mandate us to replicate the exact actions or scenarios. You see, just because someone did something in the Bible doesn’t imply that we should copy them. For example, just because Gideon put God to the test doesn’t mean that we should do the same when we’re unsure of God’s will (Judges 6:36-40).

Similarly, just because supernatural events took place in some passages of Scripture e.g. the shadow of Peter healing the sick (Acts 5:15-15), doesn’t mean that they should be reenacted by the church today. 

Remember that the Bible only describes events that took place in descriptive texts. It doesn’t instruct us to treat them as Biblical commands.

Prescriptive Passages

Also known as Biblical commands, these are passages that instruct a reader on what to do and what not to do. Prescriptive texts are found in genres such as the law, gospels, and, epistles. A perfect example of prescriptive texts is the Ten Commandments (Exo 20:2-17). Compared to descriptive passages, these are much simpler to apply to our lives because they are clear and direct.

However, things are not always black and white as there are certain prescriptive passages in the scriptures that are not intended for you and me. For example, in 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul says, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.”

The book of 1st Timothy is full of clear instructions which apply to us but this is not one of them. While there are Christians who cite this verse in support of taking alcohol, this instruction was intended for Timothy, not us. 

This is where other principles of Bible interpretation such as context should be considered for correct interpretation. Once you consider the overall context of a prescriptive passage, then it becomes easy for you to tell whether an instruction is meant for the church or only a specific group or person, the book was written to.

In this case, the context makes it clear that this verse is not a recommendation for Christians to take wine or other alcoholic beverages. It was meant to help Timothy with his frequent stomach ailments, not for pleasure.

Another area where prescriptive texts can get blurry is where the Old Testament Laws are concerned.

A quote by Emilio Ramos on descriptive vs prescriptive passages in the Bibe

Related: Context is King: How to Study the Bible in Context.

How to interpret the Old Testament Law

The OT law is prescriptive. However, to interpret it correctly, we must first make a distinction between the laws that have been fulfilled in Christ and those that still apply to the church. To make this easier, the law was broken down into three categories by the Westminster Confession of Faith: moral(ethical), ceremonial(religious), and civil (social). 

The civil laws prescribed how the Israelites were supposed to behave in relation to one another. They also prescribed the punishment to be given if any of these laws were broken. These laws do not apply to us because we are neither Jews nor are we part of Israel’s ancient theocracy. 

Animal sacrifices, feasts, circumcision, and laws pertaining to food were part of the ceremonial laws. Ceremonial laws were types and shadows of Jesus Christ. (Heb. 10:1–18; 4:14–16). Because they find their fulfilment in Christ, the New Testament asserts that Christians are not obligated to follow the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Colossians 2:16-17 ESV
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, Galatians 3:23-25 ESV

The moral laws, on the other hand, were guidelines for behavior. They are based on the holy and unchanging character of God. And while disagreements exist as to whether the moral law applies to the church today, many agree that the Ten Commandments which are a part of the moral law still apply.

For example, Paul explicitly cites some of the laws in the Ten Commandments in Romans 13:9 as instructions for the Roman Church to follow. Also, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus emphasized the moral requirements found in the Ten Commandments. 

Moreover, He summarized the 10 commandments into two by saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt 22:37-39).  

In both the OT and the NT, God demands the holiness of His people because He is holy (Lev 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15–16). However, in light of the new covenant, it is important to keep in mind that we obey God’s moral law out of love rather than obligation (John 14:21).


Recognizing the distinction between events described in Scripture and what is required of believers is crucial. Events described in Scripture as having happened to others don’t necessarily mean that they should happen to us. Yet, we should appropriate what is promised to us and obey what is required of us. 

A great principle to go by is interpreting descriptive texts in light of prescriptive ones. We are not obligated to duplicate historical events detailed in the Bible, but we can interpret them based on what has clearly been commanded.

This means that we should draw instructions from clear commands rather than the historical events the Bible describes. And use these clear commands to draw lessons that we can apply from its historical events. 

For instance, aspiring to endure crucifixion for the sins of the world like Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels, is not required of us (Luke 23:33; Matt 27:38). Recognizing our inherent sinfulness, we can however, glean from Christ’s example and demonstrate sacrificial love by laying down our lives for one another (John 15:13; 1 John 3:16).

Please note that even with these tools, it’s important to approach the Scriptures with humility while relying on the Holy Spirit for guidance. Ultimately, the goal for correct Bible interpretation is to have a deep fellowship and knowledge of God through His word.



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