Now Playing: The Uncomfortable Pastor
Obedience is not a popular topic these days. There may be a particular resistance to it in that our first parents chose to disobey the only command God gave them. One might think that in Christian circles it would receive greater interest, but even there it is largely abandoned. I am going to be generous here and assume, for the sake of this article, that the circumstance may result from a lack of information or from casual adoption of misinformation or acquiescence to twisted doctrine.
We easily think of obedience being an Old Testament topic. After all, the Old Testament is a book of laws, especially the portion that Moses wrote. And the Old Testament is legalistic. Some think there is no, or at least almost no, grace in the Old Testament. Everything is related to laws and obedience. And when we transition to the New Testament, we are relieved to find all that left behind! All is now of grace--obedience is only a dusty memory.
But if that is so, the New Testament writers did not all receive the message. Note the following:
Colossians 3:22 “Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (NASB throughout).
Ephesians 6:1 “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”
Hebrews 13:17 “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”
2 Thessalonians 3:14 “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame.”
Philippians 2:12-13 “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
As you progress through those, you might say that what is addressed to slaves is definitely obsolete, so we can ignore that one. We probably should not be so quick with that, but we’ll let it go for now. Then the children: I’m an adult, a senior in my case, so that doesn’t apply either.
But what about obeying leaders? Church leaders are in view. It really sounds as though that is addressed directly to all Christians. We may as well note here that though some folks beg to differ, God views Christians as being part of the Body of Christ which is expressed through local assemblies. So it’s difficult to get rid of that one.
Then the 2 Thessalonians passage is directed at least to the original readers of that letter. When you examine it closely, it is quite difficult to say it is limited to them. And you really should take note, because there is a consequence. The rest of the church is to disassociate from a person who does not take note, and that should be shameful.
Finally the two verses from Philippians. This is the most difficult passage to avoid. It really is directed to anyone who claims to be a saved individual. If you look closely, you will see that obeying is the substance of working out your salvation. You flesh it out by obeying what God has said. Faith lives by the promises of God but also by the instructions of God. So, even without boring any deeper, we really should admit that obedience is not obsolete, even in our time, regardless of claims made to the contrary.
(Right now as I write I am not sure when I will consider this article complete. What I have written so far is supposed to serve as an introduction, yet it may be as long as all the rest combined. Oh well, sometimes a proper introduction can be important; hopefully it sets the stage upon which the rest of the document makes the intended point.)
You may have heard that the Israelites were given 613 laws in the books of Moses. That seems like a lot, maybe even overdoing it. It is surely a large amount to learn and observe. If there really are that many, we can see why someone might have tired of them and violated at least some of them.
So I thought we should take a look at the New Testament. Are any laws written there? Any rules? Maybe something you would have to call a command? Well, guess what I found.
I did a search with my trusty Accordance program, and it gave me 1207 verses in the New Testament which contain imperatives. You may not be familiar with the expression ‘imperative,’ but it is the form of a verb which commands. It is telling you to do something, and the only proper response is then known as, you guessed it, ‘obedience!’, in other words, doing what was ordered.
To be fair, not all those imperatives could be categorized as commands addressed to today’s Christian. So I took time to look more closely. I am not claiming absolute accuracy in this project--even an estimate will do for our purposes. I tried to cull those examples which would be irrelevant to us today. For example, Jesus in places used an imperative in prayer to His Heavenly Father, and those would not pertain to us; again a human being gave a command to another human being, while we are interested in the instructions God gave to us. When I was done with the culling process, I counted the results, and, again, I could be off here a few one way or the other, but I’m sure the final number is quite close to accurate. Are you ready? What I had left was 925 instances of imperatives, commands in the New Testament addressed to the people who make up the Church, namely Christians, even those living today. Each one of those calls forth from us a response of obedience.
No doubt some of you are curious about the statistics. How these appear book by book and how many appear in each book is not very significant for us in that no two books of the New Testament are the same length. But just to open this subject a bit: Luke has the most with 155, Philemon contains one (questionable, but could be applied today), and all the rest had occurrences in between. Every New Testament book has them. So you thought 613 was bad; what do you think of 925? (Of course you could find other imperatives in the Old Testament than just those in the Mosaic Law, too, but we’d really have to give them a close look to determine whether they are directed to us.)
The purpose of this article is not to harmonize imperatives with the idea of grace (we’ll leave that to the theologians) but just to point out that grammatically the New Testament calls for our obedience.
There is something clean and refreshing about imperatives in the Bible as Psalm 19:9 says: “The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.” Instead of floundering in a wilderness, behaviorally speaking, when we meet a biblical command we know quite well what is expected of us. And when we act in obedience to that command, we know that the pleasure of God rests upon us. So to say to someone, ‘Now that you have believed in Christ, you should try to find His will for your life’ is somewhat ingenuous if we are suggesting that person ignore the commands that have been written in the Bible. (I have been blessed by a few individuals who may not have always understood correctly and yet who were ready to obey! I believe God honors their readiness.)
What we find when we examine the commands that are given is that they do not address specifically those personal issues in life such as where should I attend college, what should my major be, whom should I marry, what church should I join, what career should I pursue, where should I settle down, how many cups of coffee per day should I drink, what make and color car should I drive. If we are concerned about doing the will of God in the 925 imperatives, likely some of these others will easily fall into place.
But in addition, we should note that God did create each of us with a brain which can supposedly research, evaluate, and decide. So in areas that are not explicitly spelled out, we can decide with the best knowledge we have. And even here God helps us. In the New Testament (James 1:5) we are told He will give us wisdom if we ask for it. And in the Old Testament (Prov. 3:6) we are promised that if we acknowledge Him in all areas of life, He will guide us. That pretty much covers all the bases. The only question is: Do we believe Him?
Living via obedience simplifies. Today seminars and study groups abound chasing down insight on how to live as a married couple, how to rear children, how to live as a blended family, how to handle money, how to be a real man or woman, etc. If we obeyed Scripture, most of those groups likely would be unnecessary. But it’s not very exciting to say, I live by the Bible. Tell me, Madam, what secrets to being financially sound have you discovered through your scholarly studies and surveys? Tell me, Sir, how we can raise our children successfully through sharing with me the funny stories of your life? It sounds a lot more clever than perusing the Bible to see what I might obey. And having such a study produced by a famous person has a bigger draw than anything simply inspired by the Holy Spirit.
The Lord blessed my wife and me with four strong-willed children. I have to say this, because people looked at us and thought that we had easy children. Not so. Our children were born with (gasp!) sin natures and preferred to do wrong. But the wisdom of Proverbs (Old Testament book expressing wisdom for living) was sufficient. We give credit to God for steering us in that direction, because without that we would have been deficient for sure. Every season in our children’s lives was delightful in spite of the battles. But God’s wisdom won the day, and we are happy with the outcome. We are well satisfied with trusting God’s wisdom. Whatever else it is, it is practical.
So let’s look at some areas where God does command us. I’ll only suggest some samples. But when you look around, you can easily conclude that most folks are ignoring what God has said, and that is especially reprehensible for people who claim to be Christians.
If one is focusing on marriage, we can go to Matthew 9:6 (“What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”) and Ephesians 5:33 (“Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.”).
If the issue is your relationship to government, we can go to Matthew 22:21 (“Then He said to them, ‘Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.’”), Romans 13:1 (“Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.”), and Titus 3:1-2 (“Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.”).
If we are seeking help for the functioning of the local church, we can go to 1 Timothy 4:13 (“Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching.”) and Galatians 6:2 (“Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.”).
If we are concerned about finances, we can go to Luke 16:9 (“And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings.”) and Philippians 4:6 (“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”).
If sin is bothering us, we can go to Revelation 3:3 (“So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.”) and Romans 6:11-13 (“Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.”).
And so on. Whatever the issue is, see what God commands on that subject and do it! It’s not very complicated. I really do not think that God sent us His message so that we might evaluate it and then do something different. What a waste that would be!
I can imagine readers generating numerous kinds of rebuttals at this point. I admit that obeying is challenging enough without creating a formal proof against it. But Romans 8:11 suggests that it is possible to obey the commands of God. “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” If you have genuinely trusted Jesus, the Holy Spirit does indwell you. He comes to you with resurrection power. If that is not adequate to obey the commands of God, then all is hopeless.
Ephesians 1:18-21 concurs: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” Notice the promise of resurrection power directed toward you.
There is a difference between merely hearing and hearing-and-doing. I suppose all professing Christians could be in the ‘hearing’ group. I wonder how many are genuine children of God--fortunately God knows. Below are more passages that address hearing and doing. It would be good of each of us to examine how these describe our lives.
Luke 6:47-49 “Everyone who comes to Me and hears My words and acts on them, I will show you whom he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock; and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who has heard and has not acted accordingly, is like a man who built a house on the ground without any foundation; and the torrent burst against it and immediately it collapsed, and the ruin of that house was great.”
Luke 8:21 “But He answered and said to them, ‘My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it.’”
Luke 11:28 “But He said, ‘On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.’”
1John 1:6 “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.”
John 12:47-49 “If anyone hears My sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day. For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak.”
James 2:18-26 “But someone may well say, ‘You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’ You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”
Someone who looks closely at the details might object by recognizing that these verses usually do not use the actual term ‘obey’ but rather terms like ‘act,’ ‘do,’ and ‘observe.’ But I did research those words, and a word like ‘observe’ or ‘keep’ has a broad range of meaning which does include the idea of obedience. This does affect what we believe and how we behave.
I wish to comment on the statement found in Luke 11:28. The preceding verse gives the context: “While Jesus was saying these things, one of the women in the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore You and the breasts at which You nursed.’” A person might call that woman’s pronouncement significant. Mary, the mother of Jesus, did surely have a unique role in the coming of Jesus, a role unmatched in all of history. But dwelling too much on a truth such as that can mislead us. So Jesus redirected the audience to the ever important issue, that of obedience.
Mary, as the mother of Jesus, held a close familial relationship because of the physical process of giving birth. And the rest of us are really kept outside that blessing, surely from the physical perspective. As a result we might put Mary on the wrong pedestal. But what Jesus said includes us in His family. As Luke recorded in the words of Jesus three chapters earlier, anyone who hears and does the word of God is part of Jesus’ family. I’m overwhelmed by the fact that I belong to Him and His family! I can’t think of any higher privilege. And I suspect that it is logical in that family to act according to the family name.
My conclusion is that the New Testament calls on us who live in the Church Age, the Age of Grace, to obey, just as the imperatives of God to people always have. God is the authority over this universe, and, if we are willing to submit to anyone, it should certainly be to Him. Christians should recognize this by obeying the Lord. The Bible informs us to that end.