There are some words that tend to bring about within us an immediate negative or defensive reaction. The word obey is one of these words. A child is often introduced to this word brusquely, accompanied with a wagging index finger in his face from a harsh parent. “You obey me, now!”
The word command may be another, and “I order you to do it!”
One of the first words many children learn is the word no. The child wants to do something or have something, but Mommy and Daddy say no! We learn that we must obey.
Since our first reactions to these words may be largely negative, the words themselves have come to have a negative connotation. In the military, we learn the proper response to an order. Obedience. It is not important in the least if we want to fulfill the order or not, or even whether or not it is a good order. We really have no choice in the matter.
With this backdrop in the formation of our personalities, we then have the danger of having the same frame of mind when we read these words, “You shall therefore obey the LORD your God, and do His commandments and His statutes which I command you today” (Deuteronomy 27:10 NAS).
We think of other stern verses such as this:
If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, “This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21 ESV)
A Tainted Understanding of Obedience
This severe adherence to obedience is the frame of mind that the ancient Hebrews had. It is the same perspective many people still have today—obedience for the sake of obedience only. Obedience because it is the law.
To be fair, this is not an entirely mistaken perspective. There is something to be said for obeying God simply because it is expected of us.
However, Jesus reminds us that there is something additional surrounding the act of obedience that was largely lost to the people of the Old Testament. “If you love Me,” Jesus told his disciples, “You will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). In this statement, Jesus is associating love with obedience, something that the people of the Old Testament were not likely to do.
In truth, if we are able to read the Scriptures without a preconceived notion of obedience that is tainted by experience in this world, I believe we will find something quite different from the normally negative connotation associated with the word. Obedience is to be connected more with love than it is with the law. True obedience is not something that we do simply because of an obligation to a higher authority, but it is to be a natural response to one who is acting in our best interest and because he loves us. This is almost a new concept to us, but nevertheless, one that is important to understand.
It is a lesson that has been missed since the beginning, and we continue to miss it today. Adam and Eve failed to obey because they did not yet understand all that God had in mind for them. Like Adam and Eve, we are often focused so intently on our immediate situation and desires, that we do not see the far-reaching consequences of our actions. We fail to obey because we miss the broad plan of God.
In the same way, a small child may miss the broad plan of his parents. A small child can only see the immediate. However, the parent, if he is a good parent, indeed does see the broader picture. The mother or father does not oblige a child to obey only to maintain authority. The teaching of obedience is done in love. With this teaching, the parents seek to form the child into a better and happier person.
We can see the same concept in a doctor/patient relationship. If the patient is suffering from a serious illness or condition, the doctor may prescribe a treatment that will make the person feel even worse. However, if the patient has faith that the doctor knows what he is doing, and that he is trying to make him better, the patient carefully and willingly follows the doctor’s instructions, in hopes that the treatment will eventually make him well.
A Biblical Understanding of Obedience
When looking at the biblical concept of obedience, if we are able to put aside what may be our preconceived negative notions of obedience to God, we do not see God as an unfeeling, authoritative figure. Rather, we see the Law-Giver as motivated by love. Here is what the Law-Giver said:
You have seen for yourselves what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, you will be My treasured possession out of all the nations—for the whole earth is Mine. And unto Me you shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” (Exodus 19:4-6 BSB)
As I noted in an earlier sermon, God’s eternal intention is that his people would be a treasured possession. In addition to this amazing fact, God intends to make of his people an entire kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
It is true that there was the office of priest in the early Hebrew worship, and in some churches yet today, we still have the office of the priest. However, I must say here that the true meaning of a priest is not what we may usually first think. A priest in the true biblical sense is simply one who has a direct and personal communion with God. The office of priest has only taken on the connotation of an intermediary between God and man because of a general spirit of disobedience among God’s people.
Adam and Eve first had close communion with God in the Garden of Eden. However, with the fall into sin and with the continued rebellion, that communion was lost, at least it was to a large degree. God then chose the Israelites with the purpose of making them a nation of priests. His purpose remains the same for his people today, whether the people are Jewish or of any other race.
It is important to see that the promises that are connected to obedience are great. They have been great from the beginning. It is not obedience for the simple sake of obedience, but obedience for the sake of blessing.
Here is how obedience to God was presented to the Israelites:
Now it shall be, if you will diligently obey the LORD your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.
And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you will obey the LORD your God.
Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country.
Blessed shall be the offspring of your body and the produce of your ground and the offspring of your beasts, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock.
Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.
Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.
(Deuteronomy 28:1-6 NAS italics added)
The Role of Obedience as a Mediator between Grace and Justice
But of course, obedience has its antithesis—disobedience. Just as obedience has its rewards, disobedience has its consequences. One of the reasons that the word obedience has a negative connotation to us is because we are often disobedient at least as much as we are obedient.
Isaiah puts it succinctly: “If you consent and obey, you will eat the best of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword. Truly, the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 1:19-20 NAS).
But Isaiah tells us something else that helps us to understand better the heart of God:
“Therefore the LORD longs to be gracious to you, and therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you. For the LORD is a God of justice; how blessed are all those who long for Him” (Isaiah 30:18 NAS).
Do we not see that in all the talk of obedience and rebellion, God is really looking for any reason to bless us? In disobeying God, we remove ourselves from His blessing and protection.
Grace and Justice in Harmony
This last verse is important for two reasons. First, it shows us that God’s deepest desire is to show us grace and compassion. The notion that God is a stern, cosmic authoritarian looking for any pretense to punish defenseless human beings is one that is completely anti-biblical.
The second reason that this verse is important is that it demonstrates harmony between two concepts that we normally think of as being in opposition to one another. Look at the verse again with some of the words emphasized by italics.
“Therefore the LORD longs to be gracious to you, and therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you. For the LORD is a God of justice; how blessed are all those who long for Him.”
The verse has two sentences and two thoughts. The first sentence talks of grace and compassion. The second brings out the concept of justice. We normally think of these two concepts as being in opposition to one another.
It is interesting to me however, that the two thoughts here are linked by the conjunctive word “for.” If we were to write this verse, we may be inclined to link the two thoughts by the word “but,” such as in the following example:
A judge, sitting at his bench with a convicted criminal before him, may desire to be gracious and compassionate, but because he must judge with justice, he is obligated to condemn the criminal to a just punishment.
The compassion that the judge feels must be countered and overshadowed by his obligation to justice. Justice restricts his freedom to exercise grace.
However, Isaiah tells us that our heavenly Judge does not act with the same restrictions. God’s justice is not in opposition to his grace. He does not have to choose between one or the other. For our heavenly Judge, the two concepts of justice and grace are complimentary.
To refer again to the above analogy, we all are convicted criminals standing before the Judge of the entire universe. Were our judge an earthly judge, we would stand condemned. That is why we depend on the grace of God. In truth, absolute justice would send us all to eternal hell.
However, our heavenly Judge does not act with the same restrictions as an earthly judge. We do not have to hope our Judge will choose grace instead of justice. We do not have to hope for grace only, because God is able to rule in justice but at the same time also demonstrate grace and compassion.
How is God able to do that? How is he able to make the two opposing concepts complimentary? It is by the eternal and mysterious truth of the cross of Jesus Christ. There at the cross on the hill of Calvary, God has already meted out his justice. He meted it out against himself when God came in the person of Jesus Christ to receive the punishment for all wrongdoing, for all rebellion, and for all sin.
We Are Foolish to Demand Justice When What We Need Is Grace
In a human court, if a man is innocent, he does not need grace. All that he requires is justice. If this man is able to establish his innocence before the court, a righteous judge will give him justice and give him freedom.
However, if the man is indeed guilty, he does not want justice. Justice would give him condemnation. This man instead wants grace. If the judge, in this case, had been given some special judicial power to grant the criminal freedom, in spite of the fact that he is guilty, would not the man be foolish not to accept this freedom? Would the lawbreaker not be foolish to stubbornly continue to plead his innocence, although he himself knew that he was guilty, and that indeed his guilt had been established in the court? By hanging on to his false claim of innocence, the wrongdoer negates the possibility of pardon. The judge may long to show compassion, but the man is too obstinate to accept it.
We have all been tried and convicted before the eternal court. We have been part of the great rebellion against the Creator of all that there is. There is no denying it. We know it to be true. However, we have a judge who longs to be gracious and compassionate toward us. Are we not that same foolish, convicted man if we continue to assert our own innocence, although we ourselves know that we are guilty?
It is almost as if, in our example of an earthly judge, after the judge handed down his decision of condemnation to the guilty man standing before him, that the judge then stepped down from behind the bench, went to stand beside the convicted criminal, and declared that he, the judge, would serve the sentence instead of the one guilty.
This is what God has done for us.
Longing for the God of Justice
Our verse in Isaiah finishes, “For the LORD is a God of justice; how blessed are all those who long for Him.”
It is true; we will only know God’s blessing if we long for him. We understand that he is a God of justice, but that he is also able to show us grace. Because of this, unlike a guilty man standing before an earthly judge, we do not need to fear justice when we stand before the heavenly Judge.
That is, we do not need to fear if we also plead the blood of Christ. We do not plead our own innocence, because we cannot. We cannot say that we have not sinned, because we all are guilty. However, although we are guilty, we can long for justice and receive grace because of what Jesus did for us.
It is this same combination of thought that is characterized by a longing and a looking for the Righteous Judge that is expressed by the Apostle Paul.
In the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. (2 Timothy 4:8 NAS italics added)
We can long for a righteous judge, because we know that the Judge will demonstrate toward us not what we deserve, but he will instead give us grace.
What It Means to Long for Someone
When we were in Spanish Language School in Costa Rica many years ago, our oldest son, Jesse, was in Venezuela attending his junior year of high school. It was the first time any of our sons had been away from the family, and he seemed very far away. We had no phone, and this was before the days of easy internet communication. We could not call or contact him easily. Every single day of his absence, I wondered many times how he was doing.
At Christmas time, he was to fly up to Costa Rica to be with us. We could hardly wait! We were at the airport long before his flight was to arrive. We watched the airline monitor to see the status of his flight and to make sure it was on time. We looked at the clock and counted the minutes.
Finally, in the distance, we thought we saw his plane. I felt tears coming to my eyes as I saw the plane land and taxi toward the terminal. As the passengers started to come down the steps of the plane, we craned our necks to see if we could see the head of our son. Why could he not have been the first one?
We longed for Jesse. Finally, we saw him step out of the door of the plane onto to the top of the stairs. Our son had arrived! We watched him as he walked toward the terminal, waited as he passed through customs, and came through the doors. We could no longer contain ourselves. We were together again! Normally weighty issues such as obedience and justice seem almost trivial at times like this. The important thing was simply being together.
Such is the concept of obedience in our relationship to God. We become so preoccupied with what seems fair to us and what does not seem fair. We look for excuses for our actions. We deny what we know to be true about ourselves, that is, about our own guilt. Sometimes we are so lost in our discussions of obedience that we forget that the important thing is simply being together again.
But Isaiah said, “Blessed are those who long for Him.” Paul speaks of “loving His appearing.”
And it is not one-sided. God longs to be together with us. Just as I could barely wait for the moment when I could give my son a hug, so it is with God. Don’t we see that he waits with the same anticipation?
The Longing of a Father
Jesus once told of a son who took his portion of his father’s wealth and squandered it in a distant country, before finally becoming destitute and deciding to return home. In this story, we see the son coming home timidly—almost afraid of the reaction that he might face from his father.
But we also see the father, who had been daily looking for the return of his son. When the father saw him still a long way off, he ran to his son and embraced him and kissed him. The father’s first reaction was not to say to his son that he hoped that the boy had learned his lesson. He did not punish his son for his wrongdoing. The father did not try to secure a promise of future obedience from his son.
The father’s first reaction was to embrace his son and to kiss him, and then to prepare a feast to celebrate (Luke 15:11-24). They were together again! That is what was important. We may long for God, but he also longs for us.
The Lord is a righteous Judge, Paul says. We will see righteousness. We will see justice. Nevertheless, as important as these things are, they seem almost insignificant when placed alongside what is of ultimate importance. If our hearts long for him, we will see grace, and we will see blessing. It is true that obedience is important, but if our focus is rather on loving the appearance of God, the obedience factor becomes almost an assumption.
The heart of the matter is that God loves us and longs for us. Why would we not obey his words to us?
This is the true meaning of obedience. Can we not see that, rather than looking for any pretense to punish us, God is looking for any possible way to bless us? Obedience cannot be a negative word for us, for obedience provides God the opportunity to demonstrate grace to us.
Obedience is the pathway to blessing.