Great Themes of the Bible (#11 - Obedience)

"The man who says, ‘I know him,' but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. . . . This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome . . ."

Before proceeding with today's sermon, I must warn you that it has been given an "R-rating" for language that will be offensive to some. In this case, I am more worried about adults than children or adolescents. The word that may offend some as it occurs again and again in the lesson is obey, that's o-b-e-y.

Strange as it may sound to those who are offended by this term, Jesus used both the concept and the very word throughout his teaching career. So that any doubters out there will know that I am not misrepresenting him on this matter, I will quote him only as he is cited by his dear friend John. First, the concept from his lips: "My food," said Jesus, "is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work" (John 4:34). To do the will of someone else is obedience by anyone's definition. It is surrendering oneself to another as a slave in Jesus' culture would have been required to do to his master. Second, not merely the ideology of obedience but the very four-letter word in question came from his lips in statements like this one: "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching" (John 14:23). As if it were not enough that Jesus practiced obedience in his own life, he enjoined it on all who would claim to love and follow him. Because he was able to surrender his will to God, he did not think it unfair to ask those who were going to call themselves his disciples to adopt the same manner of life.

What radical thinking, both for his own time and for ours! But it is particularly offensive to our time, I suspect, in view of the fact that we have created a sort of pick-and-choose Christianity that permits would-be disciples alternately to select or to opt out of the demands of discipleship. The word definitely belongs in the vocabulary of someone who has committed himself to be Jesus' disciple on his terms. I warned you: The language of today's sermon may offend some.

Obedience: A Disciple's "One Thing"

We don't have the experience of slavery to explain how discipleship entails submission, apprenticeship, and obedience. But our culture does have a few relationships left that epitomize how discipleship and obedience go hand in hand. The true devotee of — let's say — some great musician or painter yields his master a wholehearted submission. In practicing scales or mixing colors, he knows it is wisdom simply to watch, do as told, and learn the techniques of his mentor. It is no different with a medical student interning under her professor, a trainee working with the company's best salesman, or an athlete under a great coach. In one's wholehearted surrender to the tutelage of his maestro, professor, or coach, he or she is being discipled to a vocation and career.

It is fundamentally the same in spiritual things. This much is certain: One does not have the right to call himself a "disciple" so long as he is still charting his own course. A disciple is a pupil, a novice in spiritual things who looks constantly to a tutor and coach. Thus Christ's disciples come to him and ask to learn the lost art of obeying God as he did. And the only way of learning faithfulness from him is to give up your will to him and to make the doing of his will the one passion and delight of your heart.

Did you happen to see the movie City Slickers? Billy Crystal is Mitch, one of several guys who set out to resolve their mid-life crises by going to a dude ranch and helping with a cattle drive. The boss of the drive is a crusty old cowboy named Curly, played by Jack Palance. In a contemplative scene in that otherwise comedic film, Mitch asks Curly to tell him the secret of life. Holding up a single gloved finger, Curly responds, "One thing. Figure out that ‘one thing' and nothing else matters."

Do you know your "one thing"? Have you figured out the meaning of life? For Jesus, the meaning of life — his "food" he called it — was his Father's will. For his disciples, it is to live as he lived and to learn how to obey his Father's will in the fulness of joy.

Ralph Barton was one of the original cartoonists for The New Yorker magazine. When he was found dead by his own hand on May 20, 1931, he had left a detailed suicide note. He wrote, in part: "I have had few difficulties, many friends, great successes; I have gone from wife to wife, and from house to house, visited great countries of the world, but I am fed up with inventing devices for getting through twenty-four hours a day." Barton never found his "one thing." Many others who don't commit suicide never find theirs either, and they have this awful sense of enduring a pointless existence. They want it to end, but they fear death as much or more as they hate life.

There is only one thing worthy of being the single defining commitment for your life. And it isn't career, fame, or money. It isn't even being a good citizen and having a family to love and by whom to be loved. It is the duplication of Jesus' life of single- minded devotion to God, pouring out your life in obedience to him.

The Barrier to Obedience

The single greatest barrier to such a life is not the frustrating impossibility of pleasing God but the rebellion of our sinful nature. It is human ego, which Ken Blanchard defines as Edging God Out, that resists the divine will. God is easy to please, in fact, for he counts the genuine intent of a disciple's heart as full obedience. Honest! It doesn't take a lot to please God, but it does take more than most of us can give. It takes whole-hearted surrender, whole-hearted denial of self for his sake.

I can't obey God in every detail of my life, for I am flawed and fallen in my humanity. And when I speak of being Christ's disciple and obeying God, I am not talking about my performance but my commitment. I do not think for one moment that I am saved because of what I have done but solely on account of God's grace to me through the blood of Jesus. On account of my relationship with him through that blood, I am counted holy, obedient, and flawless so long as I continually acknowledge my unholiness, disobedience, and flawedness. Isn't that astounding! Isn't it flabbergasting! Isn't it too staggering for you to believe on my word for it!

Because I wouldn't dare ask you to take my word for this, I'm going to return to the bosom friend of Jesus who wrote extensively both about Jesus' obedience to the Father and ours to Jesus. John wrote the Fourth Gospel, the Book of Revelation, and three short epistles. With the exception of Revelation, a major burden of his writings is to respond to an early form of the heresy called Gnosticism. It was a dangerous false teaching that threatened the church of God for the first two centuries of its life.

In the form John addressed, Gnosticism held that spirit is wholly good and matter is wholly evil. On a Gnostic view, salvation consisted of the spirit's escape from its material prison. This "escape" was not offered through faith in Christ but via special knowledge — the Greek term for "knowledge" is gnosis, thus the terms Gnostics and Gnosticism. Since matter was hopelessly evil and incapable of redemption, whatever one did with his or her body that otherwise might be considered immoral didn't really matter. The spirit was being saved, and the flesh could indulge itself without harm.

John recoiled from this false doctrine in holy horror. In both his Gospel and epistles, he rejected the Gnostic reinterpretation of Jesus, redemption, and Christian lifestyle. Christians must be obedient to God and pursue holiness with all the passion of their hearts. Yet John did not teach obedience in terms of works righteousness, legalism, or self-righteousness. First John gives this Spirit-led counsel:

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense — Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, "I know him," but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God's love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did (1 John 1:5-2:6).
Follow his argument closely . . .

1. Is it true that Christians can "walk in the darkness" of immorality and disobedience to the commands of God? Absolutely not, for God himself is "light" and those who are Christ's disciples "walk in the light" with him; walking in the light with him, Jesus' blood keeps us clean from the guilt of sin (1:5-7).

2. Does this mean that Christians claim to be "above" sin or that we no longer fall short of the divine ideal of holiness? To the contrary, we continually acknowledge the failure of our performance (i.e., our dis-obedience) in the understanding that Christ is our go- between with the Father and keeps us clean on the merit of his atoning death (1:8-2:2).

3. So what is the point of our obedience, if it is not the basis of our salvation and hope? It is the daily proof of your discipleship that allows the love of God to be "truly made complete" in your experience. You must do more than claim to be Jesus' disciple, you must walk the talk in obedience (2:2-6).

Did you follow the development of his thought? We aren't saved because we are initiates with special insights. We're saved because we have a relationship with God through Jesus, and Jesus' blood is our only hope. Yet we do not interpret that "privileged position" arrogantly and presume on grace. Because we owe him everything, we obey him. Because he is Master and we are pupils, we model all we do around him and seek to obey him in all things. Yet we are neither self-righteous nor neurotic in our obedience, for we acknowledge our failures and trust wholly and completely in the power of his blood to keep us secure in the Father's loving heart. That very spirit of contrite penitence in our disobedience is itself the act of obedience that best characterizes true faith in him! In such faith we are kept secure by his power.


Now do you understand why John would get near the end of this same epistle and write: "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God"? (1 John 5:1-5).

Why, it makes perfectly good sense. Looked at from the outside by unbelievers or false teachers, the commands of God appear "burdensome" (i.e., heavy, oppressive, hard), for they are thinking of those commandments as rungs on a ladder one climbs to heaven. That is how screened-through-human-understanding religions always offer their commandments. From the point of view of an insider to orthodox Christianity, though, the commands of the Lord Jesus Christ are anything but oppressive. They are the friendly criteria of living as his disciple. They are not hurdles, barriers, or rungs on a ladder for us to climb. They are his gracious provisions for all those seeking to be mentored as obedient children to the Father in Heaven.

When our children were infants and toddlers, there were no laws on the books about child safety seats. We were fortunate they were not killed in some of the sudden stops or in one of the two or three accidents were had with them in the car. Michelle's favorite riding spot was standing on the front seat with her arm around my neck — singing! I shudder to think about it now. (Not the singing, but the danger to her safety in that position.) Tragically, many young children did die in those days.

Today there are laws that forbid parents to drive without securing their children in properly installed safety seats in their vehicles. Believe me, we have those safety seats in place when one or more of our grandchildren ride with us today. Even the newest mother has to have a seat installed in whatever vehicle she is riding in to take her baby home from the hospital. We could even say: A parent's love is truly made complete in obeying the safety-restraint law (cf. 1 John 2:5b).

Do you think parents of my generation didn't love our children as much as you young parents love yours now? But love isn't always enough. We weren't doing what was best for our babies and needed a protective law to ensure that parental love did what was best for the children who were at risk. And for all the nuisance and expense involved in car seats, is there anyone here who thinks they are "burdensome" or who wants to repeal the law that requires them?

God knows that even the people who love him and other people need guidance. Our feelings aren't enough. Our desire to do right needs specific education and commandments. Our love for God and others needs direction. God's commandments constitute the healthy boundaries within which we love him and other people authentically and positively. When we obey them, God's love is "truly made complete" in us (1 John 2:5b). How good he has been to give them. And how wise we are to receive them joyously unto our salvation.


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