“He that honoureth his father shall have a long life; and he that is obedient unto the Lord shall be a comfort to his mother.” – Ecclesiasticus 3:6
“Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” – John H. Sammis
Obedience is a character trait which does not come easily to human beings. As children we have to be trained to obey our parents, our teachers, and other authority figures, and we resist that training every step of the way. We have a strong inclination to rebel against authority and break the rules. This inclination is what theologians call “Original Sin”. The Holy Scriptures just call it “sin” and St. John defines it as lawlessness, i.e., the rejection of all authority and law over oneself.
The institutions of traditional society stressed the importance of obedience. In the family, children were to obey parents, in the classroom they were to obey their teachers. All members of society were expected to obey the laws of the land as enforced by the Queen’s police. Most importantly, the Church taught obedience to the commandments of God Himself.
Today, however, these institutions are finding it more and more difficult to instill obedience to traditional authorities. Indeed, various popular educational and psychological theories seem designed to discourage parents and teachers from even attempting to do so. Child protection agencies and governments seem determined to strip parents of their authority and their right to back that authority up with discipline.
Behind all of this there is a philosophy which has gradually permeated Western societies over the last few centuries. This philosophy asserts that people as individuals own their own selves and that therefore the only legitimate authority over them is that which they have voluntarily consented to. The name of this philosophy is liberalism.
Where traditional social institutions sought to contain the ill effects of that human condition known as sin and to cultivate the obedience to lawful authority necessary for human societies to thrive, liberalism encourages the sinful attitude of rebellion and undermines traditional authority. While liberalism, as a social and political philosophy, is only a few centuries old, the attitude behind it is much older. Indeed, Samuel Johnson, the 18th Century lexicographer and moralist, correctly identified the source of that attitude when he said “The first Whig was the devil”. The devil rebelled against God, in his pride asserting his own will against that of his Creator and Sovereign.
Sadly, the devil’s liberal attitude has permeated even the Church of Jesus Christ. It is now common, even in Churches which profess doctrinal orthodoxy, for people to respond to a Scriptural command by saying “Yes, but I think…”
This is the exact opposite of the attitude the Holy Scriptures enjoin upon us. A search of the Scriptures for the words “obey” and “obedience” reveals that God expects and requires obedience from all people, but especially from the people He has identified as His own and called by His name. This was true under the Old Covenant and it is true under the New Covenant, although there is a major difference in how God commands obedience in the two Covenants.
The New Testament also commands Christians to obey all the traditional social authorities. Children are told to obey their parents (Eph. 6:1, Col. 3:20), servants are told to obey their masters wholeheartedly out of fear of God (Eph. 6:5-6,Col. 3:22), wives are told to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-23, 1 Peter 3:1), and all believers are told in several places to obey the civil authorities who are identified as God’s ministers (Rom. 13:1-7, Titus 3:1, Hebrews 13:17). Submission to and obedience to these authorities is treated consistently, in the New Testament, as part of the obedience we owe God. There is not the slightest sympathy with Whiggish thought anywhere in the Apostolic writings. Of course there are also commands to those entrusted with authority not to abuse it – fathers are told not to provoke their children (Eph. 6:4), Husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loves His Church (Eph. 5:25-28), masters are reminded that they too have a Master and are told not to threaten their servants (Eph. 6:9).
The Whig concept of self-ownership was thought out by John Locke in the 18th Century. It was the foundation of his theory of natural rights. Locke conceived of rights as claims or title deeds to property, with the right to one’s own property as the basis of all other rights. Property ownership, however, is not universal and Locke was looking for universal natural rights which belong to each person. Thus, he argued, individuals who have no other property, have at least their own selves as their own, their lives and their liberty.
The Holy Scriptures declare, however, that the earth and everything in it, belongs to God. The Psalmist says “The earth is the LORD's, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1) “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine”, God declares, in Ezekiel 18:4. He then goes on to say “the soul that sinneth, it shall die”, an assertion of His right as the owners of all souls to punish the soul that disobeys.
Rather than belonging to ourselves, therefore, we belong to God. This is true of all human beings by virtue of the fact that He is the Creator and Ruler of all things. It is true of Christian believers in a special way, however. In addition to being His by right of Creation we are also His by right of purchase, for He purchased us with the price of the blood of His Son Jesus Christ (Acts 20:28, 1 Cor. 6:19-20, 1 Pet. 1:18-19, Rev. 5:9). All people, as God’s creation, subjects, and property owe Him our obedience. He is entitled to our obedience, He has a right to it, and we do not have a right to withhold it. As Christians we owe Him our obedience because He has purchased us, redeemed us from the slave-market of sin, and brought us into servitude to His Son, which servitude is true freedom (Rom. 6:17-18).
Under the Old Covenant, God’s people Israel owed God obedience because He had redeemed them out of their slavery in the land of Egypt. After bringing them out of Egypt He made His covenant with them at Mt. Sinai. The terms of the Covenant were that He would give them the land He had promised to their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would be their God, and they would be His people. They were to obey the commandments He would give them, which terms they agreed to in the sacrifice that sealed the Covenant. They would be blessed in the land if they did so obey, they would be punished and even driven from the land if they disobeyed (Exod. 19:3-8, Deut. 11:27-28). When driven from the land, they were to remember their God, return to Him, and obey His commandments and He would restore them (Deut. 30:1-5).
Much of the Old Testament consists of the history of the Israelites under this covenant, their disobedience, their judgement, their repentance, and their restoration. Towards the end of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, when the Assyrians and Babylonians would take God’s people captive and remove them from the Promised Land, God sent prophets who prophesied the great judgement God was about to send upon His people, but promised that God would one day break this cycle, would send them a Savior, and make a new and better Covenant, in which He would write His laws upon the hearts of His people rather than upon tablets of stone (Jer. 31:31-34). That New Covenant was established by the blood of Jesus Christ, shed on the cross (Matt. 26:28, Mk. 14:24, Luke 22:20).
There are similarities and differences between the two Covenants. The Old Covenant was made with a particular nation, the entire world was to be invited to enter the New Covenant through the proclamation of the Gospel, and under the New Covenant the people of God are those who accept that invitation by believing in Jesus Christ. The Book of Hebrews tells us that the Old Covenant was a shadow image of the New Covenant. Just as a picture is inferior to the real thing it represents, so the Old Covenant was an inferior representation of the New. The Aaronic High Priesthood was an image of the High Priesthood of Christ. The Tabernacle and later the Temple, were pictures of the Tabernacle of God in heaven. The sacrifices of the Old Covenant, repeatedly offered on the altars of Israel for the sins of the people, could never take away those sins, but they pointed to the one sacrifice of Christ. That sacrifice, was Christ’s death on the Cross, and the Book of Hebrews tells us how that one sacrifice, the blood of which, Christ as High Priest brought into the heavenly Holy of Holies, once and for all effectively took away the sins of the world.
The New Covenant is also superior to the Old Covenant in the way it calls God’s people to obedience. The Old Covenant, was based upon the principle of Law – do and be blessed and live, do not and be cursed and die. Law demands obedience, but it cannot change the hearts of fallen people, whose sinful natures rebel against the Law. The Law, therefore, can only condemn and is a curse to those who are under it (2 Cor. 3:7-9, Gal. 3:10) The New Covenant, offers the blessings of God freely, as a gift to be received by faith, and calls upon believers to respond to God in obedience out of love. “If ye love Me”, Jesus said “Keep My commandments” (Jn. 14:15). With the everlasting life, pardon for sin, and justification, offered freely in the Gospel to believers on the basis of Christ’s effective sacrifice, God also promises the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, to provide the power for believers to overcome sin and obey Christ’s commandments.
That the New Covenant promises the indwelling Holy Spirit and His power to help us obey Christ’s commandments is all the more important because the standard Christ calls us to is higher than that found in the Law. There are 613 commandments in the Mosaic Law. The best known of these are the Ten Commandments, which are the Law's basic commandments of which the others are largely just applications of the principles contained in the Ten to particular situations. Jesus, however, when asked which commandment was most important, condensed the entire Law even further into two commandments, Deuteronomy 6:5’s “And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might”, and Leviticus 19:8’s “thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself”. “On these two commandments” Jesus said “hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:40). Note that Jesus did not say that His message was contained in those two commandments, which is how these verses are often misread. He said that the Law and Prophets – the Old Testament – was summarized in these two commandments. Shortly before His crucifixion, Jesus gave His Church a new commandment, which is similar to these two in that it uses the verb love. It is found in the 13th chapter of St. John’s Gospel:
A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. (34)
As with all other aspects of the New Covenant, this new commandment is superior to the two which Jesus said summarize the Old. The phrase “as I have loved you” has a double meaning here. The first meaning is “in the manner in which I loved you”. Later that same night, the night of the Last Supper, Jesus repeated the new commandment and immediately after said “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). This is what Jesus was about to do for the world and especially for His believers and disciples. Jesus therefore, in giving this new commandment, was calling His disciples to a higher love than that demanded by the Law. Earlier, Jesus had challenged His followers by saying “Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mk. 8:34).
The cross mentioned in that verse does not mean, as it is often interpreted as meaning today, any sort of burden a believer may have to bear. No one hearing Jesus speak would have understood Him that way. To “take up the cross” was to do what Jesus Himself did, when He bore His literal cross of wood down the Via Dolorosa to Calvary. In calling upon prospective disciples to take up their cross, Jesus was literally telling them they needed to be ready to die for Him.
The new commandment is a restatement of this call, which again displays how the New Covenant is superior to the Old. In the call to take up the cross, Jesus was speaking to people under the Old Covenant, under the Law, and the call is stated in terms of an absolute demand, a price that the prospective disciple must pay for the privilege of following Christ. In the new commandment, given on the eve of His crucifixion, it is restated in terms of grace, rather than law. The other meaning of “as I have loved you” is “because I have loved you”. Under the New Covenant, we are called to take up our cross, and be prepared to love each other the way Christ loved us, by laying down our lives for each other, not as a cost to be paid for discipleship, but as an expression of our love for Christ in response to His love for us.
This then, is the standard Christ calls us to, to love each other, with the same kind of love He showed for us when He died on the cross, a love that includes a willingness to lay down our own lives for each other. This is the commandment we are called to obey, a commandment which expresses a standard higher than all the commandments contained in the Law and the Prophets. We are to obey this commandment, not in order to obtain God’s blessing which is given to us freely by grace, but as an expression of our love for God in response to His love for us (1 Jn 4:19). In this life, in which we still have our sinful natures, we will not obey it perfectly, and by grace our standing before God does not depend upon our obedience, but in Christ we are given the power to obey, which the Law could never give to those who were under it.
Let us seek to avail ourselves of that power so as to give to God, out of love for Him, the obedience to which He is entitled.
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