In this article, we will begin to study various aspects of obedience as we grow in our understanding of this highly important subject. As we progress, you will begin to see the provision that God has made to enable us to be obedient.
Obedience Requires God’s Help
When we go on to look at the benefits of obedience, there is a temptation to decide that we are going to do this whatever it takes and make the mistake that we can do it on our own. We need God’s help in this. Even if we make the decision to pursue obedience, God is the one who enables us.
In 1 Kings 8:57-58, again we read of Solomon’s blessing the assembly following the completion of the temple:
May the LORD our God be with us, as He was with our fathers. May He not leave us nor forsake us, that He may incline our hearts to Himself, to walk in all His ways, and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, which He commanded our fathers.
Solomon recognised that of ourselves we are unable to walk in all God’s ways and that we desperately need God to incline our hearts to Himself.
Obedience as a Test in Rest
As is often the case when things are difficult in life, we tend to cry out to the Lord and do what He says in order to prevail through trials. It is when things are comfortable and we aren’t being severely challenged that we are more in danger of deceit. Evidence of this is seen in many parts of the developed world where comfort and convenience are the order of the day. This condition is not new and God has warned us about it in the Scripture:
And now the LORD your God has given rest to your brethren, as He promised them; now therefore, return and go to your tents and to the land of your possession, which Moses the servant of the LORD gave you on the other side of the Jordan. But take careful heed to do the commandment and the law which Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, to love the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways, to keep His commandments, to hold fast to Him, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul.” – Joshua 22:4-5
Do you see those words in the middle: “But take careful heed”? Obedience is a test for us in times of peace, rest and prosperity. (See also Deuteronomy 8:12-18 which gives us the same warning.)
Obedience is Better than Sacrifice
In one of the more well-known Bible passages about obedience, we meet Saul who has been given a specific instruction about the Amalekites. 1 Samuel 15 records it like this:
Samuel also said to Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint you king over His people, over Israel. Now therefore, heed the voice of the words of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he ambushed him on the way when he came up from Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”
In verse 9, we are told:
But Saul and the people spared [king] Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were unwilling to utterly destroy them. But everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed.
When Samuel came to Saul following the victory over the Amalekites, he was very displeased with him for not carrying out the whole word that the Lord had given and for sparing the king and the best of the livestock. Notice those words “unwilling to utterly destroy them” when God had expressly said, “utterly destroy all that they have”.
Saul protested that he had done what he was told but had kept some animals as a sacrifice to the Lord to which Samuel replies those well-known words in verses 22 and 23:
So Samuel said:
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He also has rejected you from being king.”
This has some very important lessons for each of us personally. The first is that God is not saying that He despises sacrifices, rather He is saying that sacrifices are not equal to obedience. We must be very careful to do what He tells us and no less (example of Saul) and no more (example of Abraham and Ishmael).
Then there are three very revealing statements: The first is that rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft. Oftentimes Christians seek to justify their rebellion by giving it different names, but when we go against God’s revealed Word, we are rebels. God says that rebels and witches are in the same league – both have the same source of power.
The second statement is that stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. We put up with a lot more stubbornness in our homes, churches and workplaces than we should. If we see this truth that stubbornness is sin because it dethrones God and enthrones us, then we begin to see the sin and idolatry that God speaks of.
The third statement is clear from God’s judgement on Saul – when we reject God’s Word, then God rejects us. This is a very solemn warning – disobedience comes at an extremely high price. Are we truly willing to pay it? Let us consider our ways carefully before being seduced down the path of disobedience.
Obedience is a Requirement for Righteousness
In Romans 6, Paul shows us the choice that we have concerning whom we obey. Starting in verse 15, he writes:
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not! Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?
Those are the two choices: death or righteousness. Note that the choice is not whether we are slaves or not – that is a foregone conclusion. What we need to determine is whether we will obey sin which leads to death or obedience that leads to righteousness.
As Christians we know what we should choose, but are not always mindful of the end point of our decisions – death or righteousness.
Obedience Shows Respect
We have seen before that obedience comes, in part, as a result of our reverent fear of the Lord. To a lesser degree, but still of great importance is our respect for those whom the Lord has placed in authority over us. Whether the authority is in the church, government or family structure, we need to respect it because to disregard it or to show disdain ultimately shows disrespect for the Lord who established those lines of authority.
It is true that authority figures sometimes demand something wrong from us in which case we can follow Peter’s response to the priestly council, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) We need to be careful that we don’t use this as an excuse, though, and ensure that we really are obeying God rather than our sinful rebellious nature.
There are many examples in the Bible of obedient respect of authority. Let’s start with Israel’s response to Joshua when he took over the leadership from Moses:
Just as we heeded Moses in all things, so we will heed you. Only the LORD your God be with you, as He was with Moses. Joshua 1:17
I find it interesting that they add in an important prayer – “Only the Lord your God be with you…” – because if God isn’t with a leader, then being under their leadership is that much more difficult.
Next, let us turn to the scenario where Solomon has taken over the throne of David and again, the people show the right response to this new king:
Then Solomon sat on the throne of the LORD as king instead of David his father, and prospered; and all Israel obeyed him. 1 Chronicles 29:23
Jesus reminds us that if people truly obey God, then they will also obey the leaders whom He puts over His people:
Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. John 15:20
The following couple of verses are directed to children:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Eph 6:1
Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord. Colossians 3:20
Then Paul reminds us in 1 Timothy that there are two sides to this story – that as a father, an overseer (elder/bishop) needs to rule his own house well:
one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?) 1 Timothy 3:4-5
Both sides need to work at these relationships of authority and submission for them to work as God intended.
Obedience Serves as a Witness
When a non-believer wants to know if Christianity is worth considering, they may approach it from different angles. They may ask questions, go on a course or even try and read the Bible for themselves. Whatever their approach, their view is likely to be influenced by the Christians they meet. Do these people have integrity? Are they honest? Do they love one another?
If we are being obedient to the Word of God, then we are all these things and more. Each one of us is an advertising board for our faith whether we recognise it or not! Whether we are attractive or not depends both on our obedience and whether the observer is being saved or perishing (see 2 Corinthians 2:15-16 for a parallel metaphor).
In 2 Corinthians 9:12-15, Paul uses a beautiful expression: “they glorify God for the obedience of your confession to the gospel of Christ”. These words depict exactly what should happen – God should get the glory for our obedience. As we confess the gospel of Christ, we serve as witness to our faith.
An Integral Part of Discipleship
In Part One of this series on Obedience, we covered the fact that Jesus had to learn obedience and so must we. It follows that if we are to learn obedience, those in authority need to teach obedience. This is seen in families and schools, workplaces and churches though probably not as much as it should be.
Right at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ closing words include a mandate that his disciples should teach new converts to observe (obey) all things that He had taught them:
And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen. Matthew 28:18-20
This is a perpetual process which was initiated by Jesus and should continue through the church until Jesus returns. It is a key to rediscovering who we are as the church, as we are both taught by those in authority and as we teach those in our care to obey all things that Jesus commanded us.
LORD, I recognise my need for your help in this whole area of obedience. Please incline my heart towards You.
May I never prioritise sacrifice over obedience and keep reminding me that my obedience serves as a witness to Your greatness and Your glory.
I choose respect for those in authority over me and I seek both to learn obedience from them and to teach obedience to those you have put in my charge.
In Your name I pray. Amen
- Peter Lindop