By James L. MorrissonHome
Obedience is not a popular word today. For generations we have been taught by secular teachers to avoid such words. One result has been a lack of discipline in our homes and schools which is an important factor in the progressive decline of our students in every objective test of performance.
Scripture, however, makes it very clear that obedience is a necessary and crucially important part of our life as Christians.
The importance of obedience in the Old Testament is well understood. But I believe it is at least as important in the New Testament. There are differences in what we are to obey, and in the motive for our obedience, but the necessity for obedience is just as great. As Paul puts it, we have a choice, we can be "slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness" (Romans 6:16). Will we obey sin, or will we obey righteousness? Whose slave (obedient servant) will we be? (Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the New International Version and any emphasis has been added.)
I believe the key to obedience is submission to God. What matters is, not external adherence to specific rules, but a heart that is submitted to God. If our heart is submitted to God, then we will obey his specific requirements. But it is the heart attitude that is crucial. Perhaps I should have called this paper, "Submission to God", but I felt that for many, today, "Obedience" would be a more challenging word.
What is our motive for this obedience, or submission? At the risk of oversimplification, let me say that I see three basic motives.
(1) Fear. We obey because we fear someone who is more powerful than we are. This does enter into our obedience. Scripture tells us to fear the Lord, and, indeed, he is a God of awesome power. He is capable of great wrath. "It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31). At a minimum, we obey him to avoid his wrath and punishment. But there are better motives for obedience.
(2) Self-interest. God told Joshua, "Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful" (Joshua 1:8). Let me use a simple analogy. When we buy an automobile (or any appliance), we receive an "owner's manual" in which the manufacturer tells us the conditions under which his product must be operated if it is to function well. With an automobile he tells us what kind of fuel and lubricant to use, how highly to inflate the tires, and when we should perform various operations such as changing the oil, checking the fluids and fan belts, rotating the tires, lubricating, etc. If we do not follow these instructions we are apt to have something bad happen to the automobile. I think of the Bible as an "owner's manual" in which our Creator has told us the conditions under which his creation, man, will function best. If we follow the instructions we will prosper; in Biblical terms we will be blessed. If we do not follow the instructions bad things will happen; in Biblical terms we will be cursed. So if we want to prosper and live fruitful lives we will follow our Creator's instructions. It's a simple matter of self-interest.
But God does not want us to submit to him just because of the benefits we hope to get. That was the issue in the book of Job, where God allowed satan to test Job to see if he loved him only because of what God has done for him (see Job chapters 1 and 2). God wants us to love him, and to obey him, for who he is, and not just for what he does for us.
(3) Love. Our relationship with the automobile manufacturer is impersonal; we do not even know him. Our relationship with God is, or should be, highly personal. God loves us, and we love him. When you love someone you want to do what pleases him. "This is love for God, to obey his commands" (1 John 5:3). Jesus said, "Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me" (John 14:21). The primary motive we have for obeying God is that we love him, we want to do what pleases him, and we want, as nearly as we can, to become like him.
While all three of these motives enter into our obedience, I suggest that, particularly since Jesus Christ has come on earth, our primary motive for obedience is and should be our love for God.
I need to make one thing clear at the outset. I, personally, am still quite a long way away from the obedience that I describe in this paper. I doubt that any one, other than Jesus Christ, can be said to have achieved perfect obedience. I know of quite a few whom I consider a good deal closer to it than I am. We are all working towards it, and at various stages in our pursuit of it. From my study of Scripture, I think I have been able to form a fairly clear picture of where we need to be, and I hope that picture will be of value to all of us who are working on this essential aspect of our lives in Christ.
The usual Old Testament word translated "obey" is shama, Strong's #8085. It literally means "to hear". Strong defines it as "to hear intelligently, often with implication of attention, obedience, etc." Unger and White define it "to hear, hearken, listen, obey, publish". (Vine, Unger and White, "Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words", Thomas Nelson, 1984, "Hear"). A related word is shamar, Strong's # 8104, meaning literally to hedge about, hence to protect, guard, observe, as in the sense of observing laws or rules.
The New Testament uses a number of words to convey the idea of obedience. A look at some of them will indicate the range of meanings and implications involved in the concept The principal words used are:
Hupakoe, Strong's #5218, from hupo, "under" and akouo, "to hear". Strong defines it as "attentive hearkening, i.e. by implication, compliance or submission" "It always refers to obedience to God's will in a special sense, of willing subjection to that which, in the sphere of divine intervention, is right." (Spiros Zodhiates, ed. Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, AMG Publisher, 1991, p. 1764).
Hupotasso, Strong's # 5293, from hupo, "under" and tasso, "to order". "To place in an orderly fashion under" (Zodhiates). Hence, to obey, to be under obedience, to be submitted to.
Peitho, Strong's # 3982 and related words, "to be persuaded, to listen to, to obey" (Vine). It is closely related to pisteuo, to trust, to have faith; Vine says "the difference in meaning is that the former implies the obedience that is produced by the latter."
Phulasso, Strong's #5442, to watch, to guard, hence by implication to observe. One of its meanings is to observe or keep a commandment or law.
Tereo, Strong's #5083 and related words, to keep, to guard, to observe or fulfill a command.
In both the Old and New Testaments the central idea of "obey" is to "hear, to listen to attentively". I think this is significant. It suggests that, when we speak of obedience to God, we are speaking of more than just observing and following the words written in Scripture, important as they are. We are also speaking of hearing and obeying the words God speaks to us today, of seeking and obeying the specific guidance of God in our daily lives. Paul speaks of living a life controlled by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:6) and of having the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). Jesus speaks of doing the will of God (Matthew 7:21, 12:50). I believe this includes hearing and doing God's specific will for each of us today, as well as his general will expressed in Scripture.
III. OBEDIENCE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
I think it can be said that the history of the nation of Israel, as recorded in the Old Testament, revolves around the issue of obedience to God's commands.
The people of Israel
were a covenant people; they had a covenant relationship with their God.
That relationship was stated in various terms at various times, but its
essence is expressed in the following passage, "Obey my voice and
I will be your God, and you shall be my people" (Jeremiah 7:23 NKJV).
If the people of Israel wanted God to guide them, protect them, provide
for them, bless them, and cause them to prosper, they had to obey God's
voice and be his people.
The Israelites rebelled against God several times soon after the Exodus, always with painful results. The result of their disobedient refusal to enter into the land of Canaan was that they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years until a whole generation had died. Near the end of that time God renewed his covenant with his people (Deuteronomy 26:16-19). He set forth before them an impressive series of blessings and curses - blessings if they fully obey God and follow all his commands, and curses if they do not obey (Deuteronomy chapter 28). Then he declared, "This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life." (Deuteronomy 30:19-21).
God gave his people a remarkable series of victories over the land of Canaan, whose inhabitants were more numerous and powerful than the Israelites. Then in the time of the judges there was a pattern of disobedience to God, which resulted in captivity by other nations until God raised up a leader who would obey Him and lead them out of captivity, after which they again fell into disobedience and the cycle repeated itself over and over (Judges chapter 2). David was a man after God's heart and God prospered the nation greatly under his rule and that of Solomon. But Solomon disobeyed God; "his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been... So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord" (1 Kings 11:4,6) The result was that the kingdom of Israel was divided (1 Kings 11:9-13). The northern kingdom started out in rebellion against God (1 Kings 12:28-33) and never came into obedience. The southern kingdom had some kings who obeyed God and others who did not. Eventually, because of his people's continued disobedience, God raised up the Assyrians to conquer the northern kingdom in about 722 BC and their people were scattered throughout the Assyrian empire. Then he raised up the Babylonians to conquer the southern kingdom beginning in about 597 B.C. They were held captive in Babylonia and later Persia for 70 years, and then some returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the city walls and the Temple.
Throughout this time God repeatedly warned his people of the consequences of disobedience, but they refused to listen. "I called but you did not answer, I spoke but you did not listen" (Isaiah 65:12; see 66:4). "The Lord warned Israel and Judah through all his prophets and seers: 'Turn from your evil ways. Observe my commands and decrees, in accordance with the entire law that I commanded your fathers to obey and that I delivered to you through my servants the prophets.' But they would not listen and were as stiff-necked as their fathers who did not trust in the Lord their God. They rejected his decrees and the covenants he had made with their fathers and the warnings he had given them" (2 Kings 17:17-25).
I want to note one thing about this Old Testament record. The emphasis in many of the texts is on keeping God's commands and laws. Do not do what God has told you not to do. But there are quite a few times when it is clear that the obedience called for is to do the affirmative things God has called on you to do. God told Noah to build an ark, and "Noah did all that the Lord commanded him" (Genesis 7:5). God told Abraham to take his family and household on a long journey to a country he did not know, and Abraham obeyed (Genesis 12:1-5). God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, in whom all God's promises rested; Abraham raised the knife and then God spared his son. God said that "because you have obeyed me" (Genesis 22:18), all nations would be blessed through Abraham's offspring. God called Moses, Joshua, the judges and others to specific tasks and they obeyed him. Two of the most serious acts of disobedience in the Old Testament consisted of refusing or failing to do what God told someone to do. God told the Israelites to take the land of Canaan and promised that they would succeed. They refused (Numbers 13-14), and had to wander in the wilderness for forty years. This refusal is referred to in Scripture as an act of unbelief, disobedience, rebellion and contempt for God (Hebrews 3:12-19, 4:6; Numbers 14:11, 23). God told King Saul to destroy the Amelekites totally, but Saul did not fully obey him. Samuel told him, "You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel" (1 Samuel 15:26). Obedience, even in the Old Testament, is more than just obeying rules.
IV. OBEDIENCE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
A. THE NEW COVENANT
The central importance of obedience in the New Testament is dramatically shown by Romans 5:19: "Just as through the disobedience of the one man many were made sinners, so through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous." Through Adam's disobedience sin came into the world. With it came sickness and death By it man's dominion over the world was handed over to satan and satan became "the god of this age" (2 Corinthians 4:4). Then through the obedience of Jesus, the Kingdom of God came into the world, man was freed from the burden of sin, and satan's authority was overthrown. Through the obedience of Jesus, God established a "new covenant" (Matthew 26:28 NKJV) with his people which is based on our obedience to Jesus.
Jesus' victory at the Cross was based on his obedience. He said, "I do exactly what my Father has commanded me" (John 14:31). Before the crucifixion he prayed three times to his Father, "Not as I will, but as you will" (Matthew 26:39). Paul tells us that Jesus "humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place" (Philippians 2:8-9). Hebrews says that Jesus "learned obedience from what he suffered, and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" (Hebrews 5:8-9). It was by his obedience that he was able to become the source of eternal salvation for those who obey him. The whole "new covenant" (or "new testament" KJV) is based on Jesus' perfect obedience to his Father.
1. Jesus is Lord.
"If you confess with your mouth 'Jesus is Lord' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9). Jesus is not just our Savior, wonderful as that is. He is our Lord. Unless we make him Lord of our lives, our salvation is not complete. Thus it is that Paul, James, Peter and Jude all called themselves a "servant" (or "slave") of Jesus Christ (or of God). (Romans 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; Jude 1). A servant, or slave (doulos, Strong's #1401) is "one who is in a permanent relation of servitude to another, his will altogether consumed in the will of the other" (Spiros Zodhiates, ed., "Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible", AMG Publishers, 1991, p. 1709).
Jesus is above everything. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him (Matthew 28:17). He is "Far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet" (Ephesians 1:21-22). He has the supremacy "in everything" (Colossians 1:18). "At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Philippians 2:10-11). When Thomas saw the resurrected Jesus he said "My Lord and my God" (John 20:28). When John saw Jesus in his glory he "fell at his feet as though dead" (Revelation 1:17). I am sure that will be the reaction of all believers when we see him as he truly is.
2. Jesus expects us to obey him.
Jesus told his disciples, and hence us, "If you love me, you will obey what I command" (John 14:15). "Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me" (John 14:21). "If anyone loves me he will obey my teaching" (John 14:23). "If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love" (John 15:10). He said, "Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord' and do not do what I say?" (Luke 6:46). He said that when the storms come (when difficulties come), "everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice" will remain standing, while "everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice" will fall with a great crash (Matthew 7:24-27). He wrote the church at Sardis, "Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent" (Revelation 3:3). Revelation speaks of "patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God's commandments and remain faithful to Jesus" (Revelation 14:12).
Paul defined his ministry as that of calling "people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith" (Romans 1:5; see also Romans 15:18, 16:26). Peter tells believers that they have been "chosen according to the foreknowledge of God... for obedience to Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:2).
3. The principle of authority.
Authority is a basic principle in God's Kingdom. Jesus was obedient to God, and thus became the source of salvation to those who obey him (Hebrews 5:8-9). Jesus said to his disciples, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations... teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:18-20). A disciple (mathetes, Strong's # 3101) is a pupil. He is one under discipline, or at least in New Testament days he was. "Mathetes means more in the NT than a mere pupil or learner. It means an adherent who accepts the instruction given to him and makes it his rule of conduct." (Zodhiates, p. 1735.) It was because Jesus had been given all authority that he could authorize and commission his disciples to raise up other disciples who would raise up still others, etc.
It is the power of God working in us that enables us to be effective (Ephesians 1:19, 6:10). Paul said, "I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Philippians 4:13). How do we get this power? Paul had it because he was a servant (or slave) of Jesus Christ. We receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon us (Acts 1:8) and the Holy Spirit is given to those who obey God (Acts 5:32). God empowers those who obey him.
The centurion understood authority. He said "I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me." Because he understood authority he believed that Jesus could heal his servant by a word. Jesus praised him, saying, "I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith" (Matthew 8:8-10).
B. THE NEW LIFE
Jesus' victory at the cross has "given us new birth into a living hope" (1 Peter 1:3). We have been saved from eternal death and from the power of sin, and we have been given a new life. We have become a "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15). We can "'put off your old self" and "put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:22-24; Colossians 3:9-10). We can be "transformed by the renewing of your minds" (Romans 12:2). (See my paper on "Be Transformed".) Let us look at the part obedience plays in this process of transformation.
Hebrews 5:9 says that Jesus "became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him." You may say, "Wait a minute, I thought we were saved by faith and only by faith." We are saved by faith. That is what Ephesians 2:8-9 and many other Scriptures say. But Scripture does not contradict itself, and so we need to take a harder look at the meaning of that word "faith". We cannot simply dismiss Hebrews 5:9 because it does not conform to our preconceived ideas.
Faith, pistis (Strong's # 4102), means much more than intellectual assent. We believe with our heart and not just our mind (Romans 10:10). Strong defines faith as "persuasion, i.e. credence, moral conviction... especially reliance on Christ for salvation." He says that the related verb pisteuo means "to entrust (especially one's spiritual well-being to Christ)." (I have written out Strong's abbreviations). In the King James Version pisteuo is translated "believe, commit to trust, put in trust with." Vine says that pisteuo signifies "reliance upon, not mere credence." J. I. Packer says, "True faith is an exclusive, whole-hearted trust, a complete going out of oneself to put one's entire confidence in God's mercy" (J. I .Packer, "God's Words", Intervarsity Press, 1981, p. 133). Biblical faith is not just believing in a set of doctrines or principles. It is believing in, relying on, and putting one's whole trust in, the person of Jesus Christ. "Whoever believes in him" is saved (John 3:16). Paul wrote, "I know whom I have believed" (2 Timothy 1:12). "Whom" (a person) rather than "what" (a set of doctrines). Donald G. Bloesch defines faith as "a radical commitment of the whole man to the living Christ, a commitment that entails knowledge, trust and obedience" ("Essentials of Evangelical Theology", Harper & Row, paperback ed. 1982, Vol 1, p. 224). I believe Bloesch has put it exactly right. Faith, in the New Testament sense, includes obedience. Vine puts it this way: "Faith is of the heart, invisible to men; obedience is of the conduct and may be observed. When a man obeys God he gives the only possible evidence that in his heart he believes God." Obedience is the evidence of faith.
Jesus told the rich young man that if he wanted to enter into eternal life he should "obey the commandments" (Matthew 19:17). He made it clear that a "faith" which does not result in obedience is not enough. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21). James makes the same point, "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says" (James 1:22). If we don't obey God's word our faith is meaningless and we deceive ourselves. John declares, "This is love for God: to obey his commands" (1 John 5:3.) If we do not obey God we do not love him, and we have violated the "first and greatest commandment" (Matthew 22:38).
Paul insisted that, while our salvation freed us from obedience to sin, it is not a license to do what we please. Consider this passage carefully:
What Paul is saying, as I understand it, is that our salvation has freed us from the power of sin because we have placed ourselves under the greater power of God. We no longer have to obey sin because we now obey God.
Paul expressed much the same thought in Colossians 1:13. "For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." Because of our salvation, our obedience is now given to Jesus Christ rather than to satan. We are freed from bondage to satan by becoming part of the kingdom of Jesus Christ and accepting his authority over us.
James says much the
same thing. "Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil and
he will flee from you" (James 4:7). To submit, hupotasso, is to put
yourself under. If we are to resist the power of the enemy we need the
power of God (see Ephesians 6:10), and we can get that power only if we
put ourselves under God and obey him.
2. Receiving the Holy Spirit.
A crucial part of the new life is that we receive the Holy Spirit and allow him to take up residence inside us. The fact that God, by his Holy Spirit, actually lives in each believer is almost as astonishing as the fact that God, by the incarnation of Jesus Christ, came to live among men for a time. It is the Holy Spirit living in us who teaches us and guides us (John 14:16-17, 26, 16:7-15). It is the Holy Spirit living in us who gives us power (Acts 1:8; Ephesians 3:20; Colossians 1:29). It is the Holy Spirit living in us who enables us to prevail over our spiritual enemy (1 John 4:4). It is by the "sanctifying work of the Spirit" that we are cleansed and can become holy (2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2). It is the Holy Spirit, living within us, who enables us to live the new life (Galatians 5:16-25; Romans 8:4-17; see my paper on "The Fruit of the Spirit"). Having the Holy Spirit live in us makes all the difference. And he comes to live in those who obey God.
Peter refers to "the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him" (Acts 5:32). Jesus told his disciples, "If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father and he shall give you" the Holy Spirit (John 14:15-16 KJV). God gives the Holy Spirit to those who keep Jesus' commandments, to those who obey God. If we want the Holy Spirit to live within us, guide us, teach us and empower us, we need to obey God. As John said, "Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: we know it by the Spirit he gave us" (1 John 3:24).
3. "Live by the Spirit"
The key to the new life that we have been promised is that we should "live by the Spirit" (Galatians 5:16; see my paper on "The Fruit of the Holy Spirit".) Paul says, "Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit" (Galatians 5:25). "The one who sows to please the Spirit from the Spirit will reap eternal life" (Galatians 6:8). In Romans he tells us to "live... according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:4), be "led by the Spirit of God" (Romans 8:14), be "controlled by the Spirit" (literally, "have the mind of the Spirit") (Romans 8:6, 9). Reading this together with Romans 6:15-16 we can say that in the new life we are no longer slaves of sin but we become slaves of righteousness through our obedience to the Holy Spirit who lives within us. The new life is a life that is lived in submission to the Holy Spirit who is within us.
Note that what Paul is talking about is not an obedience that is imposed on us by force. It arises because we have chosen to offer ourselves to God and to obey him. It is a willing obedience.
Jesus said that "If any one would come after me he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23). To live by the Spirit means that we sow "to please the Spirit" (Galatians 6:8). It means that we "put to death, therefore, what belongs to your earthly nature" (Colossians 3:5). It means that our "old self", our earthly self, has been "crucified with him " (Romans 6:6). It means that we have set aside all that is of the flesh, of the world, and have "the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16), the mind of the Spirit (Romans 8:6). Ideally it means that we can say, with Paul, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). It means that we cease to be self-centered and become God-centered. It means total surrender to God.
4. Knowing God.
"This is eternal life that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (John 17:3). Paul prayed that God "may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better" (Ephesians 1:17); see Colossians 1:10). God "has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness" (2 Peter 1:3). Knowing God - not just head knowledge but heart knowledge - is essential to the new life. But we cannot know God unless we are willing to obey him. John writes,
Jesus told his disciples, "If you hold to my teaching ("continue in my word" KJV), you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31-32). As we continue or dwell in Jesus' word, and hold fast to his teachings, we become his disciples, his mathetes, his followers. And it is this commitment to his word, this obedience to his word, that sets us free. Obedience to Jesus, far from being a burden, is something that frees us.
Colossians 1:13 says that "he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves" We have been freed from satan's power by accepting the greater power and authority of Jesus Christ (see also Romans 6:15-18).
Paul constantly emphasizes the power which we receive when we are submitted to God, "his incomparably great power for us who believe" (Ephesians 1:19), "his energy, which so powerfully works in me" (Colossians 1:29; see also Ephesians 3:20, 6:10). The source of this power is the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8), "whom God has given to those who obey him" (Acts 5:32). Paul was a servant or slave of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1). His submission was so complete that he could say, "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). And because of that complete submission he could say, "I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Philippians 4:13). It is in the context of obedience that John says that "everyone born of God overcomes the world" (1 John 5:4; see Romans 8:37).
Jesus taught us to pray "your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 7:10). He gave us the example in Gethsemane, when he asked that he not have to endure the Crucifixion, but then, in agony, prayed, "not as I will, but as you will" (Matthew 26:39). I believe this is at the heart of all true prayer. In prayer we seek to know God's will, and then unite ourselves to his will to pray that his will shall be done.
There are passages, such as Mark 11:24, which seem to say that whatever we pray for, and believe we will receive, will be given us. These statements were made to his disciples, who had given up all to follow him, who had been with him for several years, and in whose obedience he could trust. In John 14:14 he said "You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it." "In my name" means in accordance with his will. He had just finished saying that any one who has faith in him will do what he had been doing, and greater things. One of the things he had been doing was to obey his Father perfectly. John's epistle makes the point even more clear. He said, "we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him" (1 John 3:21-22)."This is the confidence we have in approaching God; that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us - whatever we ask - we know that we have what we asked of him" (1 John 5:14-15).
An essential part of the new life is to worship God. We worship him "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:23-24). To worship (proskuneo, Strong's # 4352) is to prostrate oneself before in homage, to do reverence to, to adore. It is, among other things, an act of submission.
Our worship is not just an act we do at certain specified times and places. It is, or should be, a continuous state of submission. As Samuel told King Saul, "To obey is better than sacrifice" (1 Samuel 15:22). True worship is giving God the priority in our life. It is seeking first God's kingdom and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33). It is fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), and setting our hearts and minds "on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God" (Colossians 3:1-2; see 2 Corinthians 4:18).
Paul defines worship in these terms, "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship" (Romans 12:1). To worship is to surrender our lives totally to God. It is to die to self and live for God.
9. Spiritual warfare.
Obedience to God is crucial to defeating our spiritual enemy. It is "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High" whom God protects from harm (Psalm 91:1, 9). It is only when we submit ourselves to God that the devil will flee from us (James 4:7). We can stand against the enemy only if we are "strong in the Lord and in his mighty power" (Ephesians 6:10), and we cannot have the power of the Lord unless we have submitted ourselves to him and obey him. Every element of our spiritual armor involves submission to God. We are protected by God's truth, God's righteousness, God's gospel, God's faith, God's salvation, and "the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God" (Ephesians 6:14-17).
One of the essential weapons of our spiritual armor is to "Pray in the Spirit on all occasions" (Ephesians 6:18). To pray in the Spirit is to pray under the direction of the Holy Spirit.
God has given us weapons of warfare that have "divine power" to demolish strongholds. They demolish "every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God" and "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Our spiritual warfare is waged primarily in our mind, and the key to it is to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. As we commit ourselves to obey Christ, as our "obedience is complete" (2 Corinthians 10:6), the enemy can find no foothold to corrupt our thoughts.
10. Doing the will of God.
"The primary concern in Christian living is doing the will of God" (J. Rodman Williams, "Renewal Theology", Zondervan, 1990, Volume 2, p. 411). This was Jesus' purpose. "My food... is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work" (John 4:34). "I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me" (John 5:30 RSV). "I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me" (John 6:38). In the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed three times, "not as I will, but as you will" (Matthew 26:39).
If we are to be imitators of Jesus, if we are to do the things he was doing, should we not seek to do the will of God in everything? That is exactly what Scripture says. Jesus taught us to pray, "Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). He said, "Who is my mother and who are my brothers?... Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother" (Matthew 12:49-50). He said, "Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21). Paul prayed that God would "fill you with the knowledge of his will... in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way" (Colossians 1:9-10; see also Ephesians 6:6). The author of Hebrews prayed, "May the God of peace... equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him" (Hebrews 13:20-21). John wrote, "The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever" (1 John 2:17).
Doing the will of God is much more than obeying a set of external rules. God has a purpose for the life of each one of us. "We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Ephesians 2:10). "'I know the plans I have for you' declares the Lord 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future" (Jeremiah 29:11). He wants to be able to say to each one of us, "Well done, good and faithful servant!" (Matthew 25:21). To say "yes" to the things God is calling you to do may often be even more important than to say "No" to the things God has told you not to do.
Doing the will of God involves seeking and then obeying God's will in the decisions of our life. "Is this the person you want me to marry?" "Is this the church you want me in?" "Is this the job or the career you want me in?" "Is this where you want me to live?" "Is this the message you want me to teach or preach?" Etc. Doing God's will involves seeking his will (see my paper on "Hearing from God") and then deciding to follow his will and not your own.
There are three things that try to keep us from doing the will of God: the world, the flesh and the devil.
(1) The world. "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will" (Romans 12:2). If we would know what God's will is for us, we must not conform to the pattern of this world. We must "fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen" (2 Corinthians 4:18). We must "Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things" (Colossians 3:2).
Not conforming to the pattern of this world means that we should seek to please God and not people. John's gospel speaks of those "who loved praise from men more than praise from God" (John 12:43). Isaiah 51:12-13 warns, "Who are you that you fear mortal men, the sons of men, who are but grass, that you forget the Lord your Maker?" Jesus even warned, "Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets" (Luke 6:26). I believe one of the greatest blocks in this nation, today, to our doing the will of God is our desire to please people and our fear of their disapproval or ridicule.
A major weakness in the body of Christ today is that we are too much conformed to the pattern of this world. Many who profess to believe in Christ live lives that are almost indistinguishable from those of non-believers. (See my paper on "Be Transformed".) Many churches have conformed in great measure to the pattern of this world. Some have adopted theologies that are not based on the word of God and even deny much that Scripture teaches; some have gotten into New Age philosophy and practices. Many have adopted for themselves worldly standards of emphasis on material success and pursuit of human agendas.
The flesh. "Live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires
of the sinful nature."
(3) The devil. The devil and his evil spirits come "to steal and kill and destroy" (John 10: 10). He tries to exalt himself against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:5). Whenever we give in to the world or the flesh, whenever we focus on ourselves rather than on God, we invite the devil to attack us. We need to be alert to his schemes. We need, at every turn, to submit ourselves to God and resist the devil.
11. Summing up.
I think much of what is involved in obeying God, and much of what I have tried to say in the preceding pages, is expressed in Romans 12:1-2:
God's mercy. The primary motive for our obedience is God's mercy and our response to it, the love God has for us and we for him. "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:10).
Sacrifices. True obedience means that we offer ourselves to him completely and without reservation. It is an act of total surrender.
Worship. Obedience is an act of worship and worship is a form of obedience.
Do not conform. If we are to seek and do the will of God, we should seek to please him only and to do only what he would have us do.
Be transformed. To live by the Spirit requires that we be completely transformed into God's likeness.
God's will. Our goal is to seek and do God's "good, pleasing and perfect will".
C. HOW IS IT THAT WE SHOULD OBEY?
In this section I can only sketch out what I believe to be the basic approach that is called for in this matter of obedience.
Under the Old Testament, the emphasis tended to be on outward obedience to a prescribed set of detailed rules - the laws and commands which God gave through Moses, as recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and the words God gave the writing prophets. There are exceptions to this. Deuteronomy 10:16 speaks of circumcising the heart. 1 Samuel 16:7 tells us that "Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." Indeed, David remained "a man after God's heart" (1 Samuel 18:14) even though he committed serious sins. But I think the primary emphasis is on outward observance. "If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands" you will be blessed (Deuteronomy 28:1). "Carefully follow all his commands and decrees" (Deuteronomy 28:15). "Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or the left" (Joshua 1:7). Walk "the way of obedience to the Lord's commands" (Judges 2:17). This got to the point that the apostle James could say, "Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it" (James 2:10).
Jesus changed this emphasis. Twice in the Sermon on the Mount he took a command that related to outward actions and extended it to a condition of the heart. "Do not murder" became "do not be angry". "Do not commit adultery" became "do not look at a woman lustfully" (Matthew 5:21-30). When the Pharisees spoke to him about outward ceremony he said that it is the things that come from the heart that make a man unclean, and not outward observances (Matthew 15:16-21). I believe that in New Testament obedience the primary emphasis is on a totally submitted heart, rather than on detailed adherence to a mass of regulations.
Paul made it clear that the Mosaic law was powerless to free us from sin because no one could obey it completely. "What the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sin nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering" (Romans 8:3). We are not justified by observing the law, but by belief in Jesus Christ. We are no longer under bondage to the law (Galatians chapter 1-5). "We have an obligation", but it is to be led and controlled by the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:13-26; Romans 8:4-17).
Paul makes it very clear that in the moral realm believers are not free to do as they choose. "Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature" (Galatians 5:13; see also Romans 6:1, 15). Scripture commands us to "be holy in all that you do" (1 Peter 1:15). "Without holiness no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14). Jesus has given many specific commands in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere in the Gospels. Paul has listed "acts of the sinful nature" which we must avoid (Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 4:29-31, 5:3-7; Colossians 3:5-9). The epistles contain many other specific indications of God's will for us.
But over and above these specifics are some general commands. We are to be imitators of Christ, be like Christ, have the mind of Christ. We are to fix our eyes on Christ, fix our minds on things above. We are to live by the Holy Spirit, be led and controlled by the Holy Spirit. This means, I believe, that we need to be listening all the time to what the Holy Spirit is saying to us, and to follow whatever guidance he gives us. (See my paper on "Hearing from God".)
As I see it New Testament obedience is not so much a matter of adhering to specific rules and regulations as it is a matter of attitude, of desiring to please God, to be like Jesus Christ, to be controlled by the Holy Spirit. Where there are specific rules we follow them as the clearest evidence of what God would have us do. But in all things we need to have an attitude of submission to his will. Perhaps the clearest expression of this is the following:
Where the Old Testament called for obedience to a host of specific requirements, the New Testament calls for such a total submission to God that Paul could say, "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me."
D. THE MOTIVE FOR OBEDIENCE.
Under the Old Testament, as I read it, the primary emphasis was on the consequences of obedience and disobedience, respectively. God set before his people blessings if they obeyed and curses if they disobeyed and told them to choose. A typical statement is, "Carefully follow the terms of this covenant, so that you may prosper in everything you do" (Deuteronomy 29:9). If they obeyed everything God had commanded they would prosper, they would succeed in what they undertook to do, they would be victorious over their enemies, etc. These blessings can be seen as the natural consequences of their acts, the application of the law of sowing and reaping, but they are also ways in which God fulfills his covenant to be their God. The curses are dreadful: failure in everything they do, being conquered and subjected by their enemies, being afflicted with dreadful diseases, etc. These also can be seen as the result of sowing and reaping, and losing the protection of God, but they are most often spoken of as punishments visited by God on a stiff-necked and rebellious people. Self-interest is given as the primary motive for obedience. Love for God does enter in also, but in a somewhat secondary way.
Under the New Testament, I believe, the primary motive for obedience is love for God, and the desire to be so transformed as to be like Jesus Christ and have the mind of Christ. If that is not sufficient, the New Testament also contains strong warnings about the results of disobedience. As one Christian leader put it, "When God asks you to do something the answer should be 'Yes, beloved'. But if that doesn't work, then it should be 'Yes, sir.'"
1. Love for God.
Scripture calls on us to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Mark 12:30). We love God because he first loved us, and sent his only son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10, 19). We show our love by our obedience.
This, then, is our primary motive for obedience - the love of God and the desire to please the one we love. The greatest joy that can come to a Christian is to have his Lord say "Well done, good and faithful servant!" (Matthew 25:21, 23)
2. Imitation of Jesus
Part of the new life is that we are called to become like God in character. We "are being transformed into his likeness, with ever-increasing glory" (2 Corinthians 3:18). We are to "put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:24; see Colossians 3:10). We are to "have the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16). We can "participate in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). Jesus is "the exact representation of [God's] being" (Hebrews 1:3; see John 14:9), and so we are called to imitate Jesus, to "walk as Jesus did" (1 John 2:6). Thus Paul tells us, "follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1). Be "imitators of us and of the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 1:6). "Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us" (Ephesians 5:1).
Jesus, as I have already noted, was perfect in his obedience to God. If we desire to imitate Jesus, then we need to obey God. The Father and the Son have told us how we should live. If we want to imitate them, if we want to become like them in character, then we will live as they have told us to live. If we want to live the new life that God has promised us, we must be obedient to all that God has told us to do.
3. Consequences of disobedience.
Scripture has also made very clear what the consequences of disobedience are. "If you live according to the sinful nature you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God" (Romans 8:13). Paul gives us exactly the same choice as God did through Moses: "I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19). Obedience leads to life; disobedience to death. Paul repeats this theme in a number of ways.
Paul tells us that in the end times Jesus will be "revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord" (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9).
He tells us, "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life" (Galatians 6:7-8).
He tells us that "No immoral, impure or greedy person... has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient" (Ephesians 5:5-6; see Colossians 3:6).
The choice is made very clear. Disobedience leads to God's wrath, to exclusion from the kingdom of God, to eternal destruction and to spiritual death. Obedience leads to eternal life.
If love of God, and the desire to imitate Jesus, are not sufficient to motivate us to obedience, consideration of the awful consequences of disobedience may have to serve.
V. OBEDIENCE TODAY
Some years ago Aleksandr Solzhenytsin, in a speech at Harvard University, said that in the Soviet Union they had rejected God and in the West we had forgotten God. Of the two, he thought what the West had done was the more dangerous.
There are many things in our nation today that are spiritually wrong. One could mention abortion, the "sexual revolution", the high divorce rate, the high rate of children born out of wedlock, high crime rates, drug addiction and the drug traffic, and the like. One could mention business and government corruption. More basic, I believe, are such things as a preoccupation with material concerns, a basic selfishness ("what's in it for me?"), a prevalent philosophy that there are no objective moral laws and no such thing as objective truth, an objection to every form of discipline, and a constant blame-shifting which denies one's personal responsibility. There is a prevalent pride that says "look at all we have accomplished by our own abilities" and fails to give thanks to God. Underlying all of this is, I believe, the fact that for many, perhaps most, Americans, God and God's will are simply not seen as significant elements in our decisions and actions. (For another, much more detailed, assessment of some of the things spiritually wrong with our nation today, see Dutch Sheets, "Praying for America", Regal Books, 2001, Chapter One.)
There has been considerable outright rejection of God. But I believe Solzhenytsin is right that the major problem has been that we have forgotten God.
I believe that our nation, like Israel, has been favored by God for several centuries, but that we are now close to a point where God will have to judge us. And I believe that he will first judge his church, especially those who profess to believe in him but have gotten to the point where he no longer has much, if any, importance in their lives.
God still wants to give us an opportunity to come back to him. I believe he is saying to us, as he did to the people of Israel almost 3,000 years ago, "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land" (2 Chronicles 7:14; see also Jeremiah 18:7-10). This humbling process must start with "my people", those who profess to believe in him. Then it can extend to the rest of the nation.
God still wants to
be able to say that we are his people and he is our God. But for him to
do this, we must submit ourselves to him, first individually and then
as a nation. I believe that a fuller understanding of what it means to
obey God, to submit to him, can help bring us to the point where we can
indeed return to God and serve him, and he can heal our land.
2002 by James