“If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15 NIV).
Last Sunday, I listened to a sermon on obedience, which served as a reminder to me of my many shortcomings in this crucial area. However, the final bits of the message also gave me hope as they drew my attention once more to the overwhelming forgiveness of God. How thankful I am that we serve a God who does not treat us as our sins deserve; and indeed, when do we need the grace of God, His forgiveness, His love and most of all His divine attention more than in the hour of failure, when we have stumbled? The elder exhorted us not to give up when we have failed, but to return to God. How encouraging to ones, who like me, struggle so much and fail too often. This brother kindly gave me permission to share my thoughts on his sermon in this blog.
As Christians, we need to be reminded, often, that God sets great store on our obedience, and there are great benefits when we obey. Eve’s disobedience brought endless sorrow to her descendants, but Christ’s obedience translated into great victory for humanity. Just before He went to the cross, Jesus gently reminded His disciples, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me… Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching” (John 15:21, 23 NIV). When we disobey, it proves that we have forgotten His love and forgotten to love Him in return; and so, our disobedience grieves the Beloved.
What sort of obedience does God require from us? Prompt, eager, cheerful and complete. An obedience preceded by a minimum of fuss, reluctance, debate. Obedience that fully sees the cost, and yet counts it a small thing because of the joy it will bring to the Beloved. Remember Mary’s words- “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38 KJV). If only we all learnt to obey like this, what great peace we might have, and what joy we might impart to those in heaven, as well as those on earth. To properly understand the nature of true Christian obedience, we must compare it to its inferior versions, for much of what the world labels obedience, is lacking in one or more of its vital qualities, and therefore rendered fruitless and ineffective. Even great men of God have stumbled at times in this regard, not to mention the more habitually sinful souls; God’s words of rebuke, and the consequences some of them suffered, have been recorded as a warning to us.
Delayed obedience: Remember the foolish Israelites (Numbers 14) who came out of Egypt with Moses? How they grumbled and cried at every obstacle along the way to the Promised Land – despite having witnessed the many miracles of God, His timely deliverance and provision. Where does such behaviour spring from but a heart of rebellion? They laid the final straw on the metaphorical camel’s back, when, upon being informed that there were giants in Canaan, they not only refused to go in but threatened to stone Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who had ‘a different spirit’ from the other ten, and dared to see things from God’s perspective- “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them.”
God would no longer tolerate their conduct, which rose from an attitude of contempt for Him, and they were punished with forty years of wandering in the wilderness until nearly every last one of the older generation had died away. Only two of that generation, Joshua and Caleb, who held steadfastly to God’s promises, would live to enjoy the Promised Land, while the other ten spies died in the plague that afflicted the wanderers. When Moses pronounced God’s sentence on them, they had a seeming, and temporary, change of heart. ‘“When Moses reported this to all the Israelites, they mourned bitterly. Early the next morning they set out for the highest point in the hill country, saying, ‘“Now we are ready to go up to the land the Lord promised. Surely we have sinned! ” But Moses said, “Why are you disobeying the Lord’s command? This will not succeed! Do not go up, because the Lord is not with you. You will be defeated by your enemies…” Nevertheless, in their presumption they went up toward the highest point in the hill country… Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and attacked them and beat them down all the way to Hormah.’ In this example, delayed obedience resulted in defeat rather than victory.
Partial obedience: This is best typified by the actions of King Saul, a man chosen by God to lead His people and endowed with every mark of nobility, except a heart of obedience. He was commanded by the prophet Samuel to inflict God’s judgment on the Amalekites, Israel’s inveterate foe (1 Samuel 15 NIV)- “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys (vs. 3)” At the point of victory, Saul chose not to obey God fully – “Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed” (vs. 9).
When confronted by Samuel about this, this is what Saul had to say- “But I did obey the Lord.. I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”
But Samuel replied:
“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has rejected you as king.”
Sadly, in Saul’s case, what began as a seemingly innocent act of imperfect obedience, gave way to a growing separation from God, many more rebellious actions, including divination and in the end, a terrible death on the battlefield.
Wrong attitude: Moses’ failure (Numbers 20) is a warning, and equally a source of hope, for us. The Israelites had come to a place that came to be named for their quarrelling – Meribah. Here there was no water to drink, and they began to harass Moses – ‘”Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!” Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the tent of meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. The Lord said to Moses, “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water”‘ (vs. 5-7). Moses, furious with his countrymen and frustrated with his lot, instead struck the rock with his staff, and water gushed out. But God was not pleased with his attitude. He said,“Because you did not trust in me enough to honour me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them” (vs. 12). Moses’ apparently innocuous act reflected his deep frustration with God at that point. When faced with the quarrelsome Israelites, he refused to continue in his former reverence towards God, and allowed himself to be carried away by his external circumstances.
All Moses’ sacrifices had apparently come to nothing; yet, for this man of God, his failure was not the end. He picked himself up, and clinging to God, walked again in implicit obedience. He refused to spend his days bemoaning his loss, and chose to invest his energies into equipping the next generation of Israelites to possess the Canaan that he had been forbidden to enter. He continued to seek God’s face, and came to be known as His friend. Moses’ failure was a brief blip on the graph of his walk with God, for he returned to serve God with even greater fervour than before.
Perfect obedience: Finally, we come to the perfect obedience of Jesus, of whom the Father testified from the cloud, in the presence of Moses, Elijah and the three apostles, Peter, James and John- “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5 NIV). So we are commanded to listen to Him, and follow His example. The reason for the Father’s pleasure in the Son was His unswerving obedience to the Father’s will. As He told those who questioned His call as God’s Messiah, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own… for I always do what pleases him” (John 8:28-29 NIV).
The obedience of Jesus was most evident during His passion at Gethsemane. Here, we see His anguish when confronted with the reality of His impending cross, when He would be forsaken by His friends and be separated from the Father- ‘“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death…” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will”…He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done”‘ (Matthew 26:38, 39, 42 NIV). Equally, we see His commitment to obey the Father, as He boldly faced the hour of His betrayal and death, saying to those who followed him, “…the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11 KJV). His obedience resulted in a mighty triumph over the powers of darkness, as He obtained our release from captivity. The impact of His perfect obedience is described in Philippians 1:5-11
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death —
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
The secret behind His success lay not in His being part of the Godhead, but in His humility- He had emptied Himself and worn the mantle of a servant. His attitude was the opposite of Saul’s, in its complete willingness to efface Himself, in obedience to the Father. May God grant each of us the grace to imitate our Lord’s obedience, so that we may also share in His joy.
Father, increase our desire to obey You, and keep us from stumbling. Forgive us for the many times we have disobeyed You in the past. In Jesus’ name.