What is Real Obedience?

1 Samuel 15:22, 23 “Samuel said, ‘Has the LORD as much 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 divination, And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He has also rejected you from being king.’”

The Lord talks a lot about obedience in His word…

  • (John 3:36) —“He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
  • Matthew 7:21 ““Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.”
  • James 4:17 “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.”

The essence of discipleship and biblical faith is following and obeying the Lord.

The problem is that obedience is hard, that we don’t always want to do what the Lord says. Our desires and wills get in the way. Sometimes what the Lord commands doesn’t make sense to us as human beings. And of course, Satan is always going to be right there beside us whispering in our ears that the Lord doesn’t really have our best interests at heart. These and many more things cause us to resist obedience and seek a “work around”.

When I was in early elementary school, my mom tried to get me to eat a small helping of sliced cooked carrots. Now, I was not a fan of cooked carrots, but mom made the attempt to reason with me (silly woman) by saying, “C’mon Park, they’re good for your eyes.” So, to get her off my case, I countered by picking up two slices of cooked carrot and proudly announced my “obedience” that I would eat only two carrot slices, one for each eye. Mom wasn’t impressed with my version of obedience and promptly informed me that I was going to eat the whole helping (probably 6 or 8 slices), which looked like a mountain to me.

One of the more popular “work arounds” to obedience—especially among, but not restricted to, religious people—is to redefine it, so that we can believe ourselves to be OK with the Lord. By our definition we’re being obedient. The problem is—like with my mom—our definition of obedience doesn’t count; it will be the Lord’s definition that we will be held accountable for. So, I thought that it might be useful to take a quick look at what the Lord’s definition of obedience is…and what it is not.

For example, obedience is more than hearing. One of the inspired leaders of the early church, James, wrote, (James 1:22-25) “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.”  You see, just reading your Bible, just listening to sermons, just reading blogs, and just coming to Bible classes isn’t the same as actually doing what Jesus says.

Truth is more than just something to hear or learn, it is something to do. Jesus said, (John 13:17) “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” And Jesus also told a famous parable about two builders; one built on rock and the other on sand. The one who built on rock, Jesus explained, was the person who both heard His words and obeyed them. The builder who built on the sand, Jesus also said, was the person who heard His words, but didn’t obey them.

As a preacher of the Gospel I appreciate the encouragement I hear as worship is finished, “Nice sermon!” What I cherish even more than that, however, is “I’m going to do that!” Are you obedient?

But obedience is also more than mere agreement. Sometimes we confuse the two and we think of ourselves as obedient, just because we agree with God. We usually agree with God about murder being wrong, about being kind being a good thing, etc. But what happens when Jesus says stuff that we don’t agree with—things like the appropriate grounds of divorce, a cappella worship, male leadership in the church and in the home, homosexuality as a sin, and teachings about forgiveness and revenge. There’s where the proverbial “rubber meets the road”—when we may not agree. But obedience obeys, even when it doesn’t agree.

There are plenty of stories in the Bible about people who disobeyed, because they didn’t agree with God. One of the more famous is Jonah, a prophet of God who was given the job of preaching repentance to the Assyrians (Nineveh); and he tried to run away from God and the job. The rich young ruler of Matt. 19:16-22 was giving Jesus all the right answers, until Jesus told him to sell his possessions, give them to the poor, and follow Him. The story of Balaam, Uzziah, and Jeroboam also illustrate people who were obedient until they disagreed with God. God wasn’t pleased with any of them.

An illustration: A poor farmer scratched out a living on his farm for 60 years. Then he fell ill with a terminal disease. In his last few weeks of life, an oil man came to visit and offered to give him 10 million dollars to put one oil well on a corner of his property. The farmer realizing that he didn’t have much time left called his 3 sons to meet with him and he told them about the beautiful farm he’d always dreamed of having, but never had enough money for. He drew them a map and diagram of where and what kind of new house he wanted built, where and how big a new barn should be built, where the new fences and pastures should go, where a new water well should be drilled, where to plant the corn, where to put the family vegetable garden. All the sons said that they would obey their father’s wishes. The farmer died soon after and the sons got out the diagram and began to build their father’s dream farm, except…

  • One son made a change to the kind of farmhouse built
  • Another son made a change to the location of the barn
  • And the other son decided to grow soybeans rather than corn

Were the sons obedient to their father, or did they just agree on most things with him? The  answer is they only agreed, they weren’t obedient. Obedience hears a command it may not agree with, that may be dangerous, that may run contrary to its desires, that may run contrary to what may be safe or popular or pleasant—but real obedience obeys nevertheless. Are you obedient?

Obedience is more than lip service, too. True obedience is more than merely saying, “OK.” Many claim to be Christians; many sing, “I have decided to follow Jesus…and then live lives of chronic disobedience. Jesus tells the parable of the two sons…

Matthew 21:28-31 “’But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he regretted it and went. The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, ‘I will, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They *said, ‘The first.’ Jesus *said to them, ‘Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you.’”

Are you obedient?

Obedience is more than partial obedience. Remember my cooked carrot slice story? Partial obedience. King Saul found out partial obedience wasn’t good enough, too. God gave him the task of destroying the Amalekites for their terrible sins. Saul went out with Israel’s army and defeated them. As he was returning victoriously, he greeted Samuel the prophet, (1 Samuel 15:13-15)

“…Blessed are you of the LORD! I have carried out the command of the LORD.” But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and oxen, to sacrifice to the LORD your God; but the rest we have utterly destroyed.””

He had mostly obeyed, with only small exceptions; surely it was good enough. But no.

People still do this today. Take salvation for instance, many will believe in Jesus, repent of sins, and even confess His name before men, but fail to be baptized into Christ for forgiveness of sin. Worship is another example. Jesus commanded worship be done in both spirit and in truth (John 4:24); but there are many who’ll worship God in spirit but not in truth with instruments, with dancing, and some with comedians. Others worship in truth but not in spirit by playing with their cell phones in worship, passing notes in worship, or worship on auto-pilot. The command isn’t “in spirit OR in truth”—rather it is “in spirit AND in truth.” Anything else is only “partial obedience” and is not obedience at all. Are you obedient?

Obedience is also more than saying “later”. Delay, procrastination, and temporizing really are a form of rebellion. We recognize it when a child has a vegetable on the plate he/she doesn’t want to eat. Or a teen who has to clean up his bedroom. Or an employee is given a job she doesn’t want. The response always runs something like, “Yeah, I’ll do it tomorrow.” And when the Lord commands us to do something that we’re afraid of or resistant to, we often resort to “tomorrow” or a “more convenient season”.

Governor Felix heard Paul  “…discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, [and] Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you.”” (Acts 24:25). As far as we know, he never became a Christian and lost his soul by delaying obedience. This is why the Hebrew writer said, (Hebrews 3:7, 8) “Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, “TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS AS WHEN THEY PROVOKED ME, AS IN THE DAY OF TRIAL IN THE WILDERNESS,”

The great danger of a delay strategy is that we don’t know when the Lord will return or when our life might end—young or old. And having “good intentions” won’t be enough to save our soul.

Are you obedient?

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About parklinscomb

I'm a minister for the church of Christ in Manchester NH where I've worked since the 1970's. I'm a big fan of my family, archaeology, the Bible, the Lord's church, and Gander Brook Christian Camp.
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2 Responses to What is Real Obedience?

  1. apriltulip says:

    Excellent post, it clarified much for me. There is a difference between being “good” on our terms vs. God’s terms. It is easy to delude ourselves re: our own motives. Thank you.

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