Christians and Commands

How do followers of Jesus interact with commands from God? This ought to be simple, but I think it becomes complicated by folks from time to time. So, let’s take a brief look at a couple principles that relate to believers and our responsibility toward the commands of God.

Romans 3:20 – For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

2 John 6 – And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it.

3 John 11 – Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.

First, obedience to commandments does not save us. God’s word is clear that none of us can be saved by following any sort of law of God, as Paul tells us in Romans 3:20. This is because the perfect righteousness of God displayed in the law exposes our sin and need for a Savior from outside of ourselves. We have already sinned against God and earned his judgment. We are already guilty from the fall of man. We cannot make up for that with good behavior, even perfect behavior, from now on. No person will be saved by works. Thus, there is no Christian call to obey commands to be saved.

Second, as we see in 2 John 6, to love God is to walk in accord with his commandments. While obedience is not a part of our salvation, obedience to the commands of God is the clear fruit of loving God. Not to obey the word of God is not to love God. The one who loves obeys. Our obedience to the commands of God is not a fulfilling of legal requirements, as those requirements have already been fulfilled in Christ. But our obedience is the way that those who are changed by God display that change.

Third, disobedience is a sign of being lost. As we see in 3 John 11, “whoever does evil has not seen God.” This verse is not saying that a single mistake or fall means a person is lost. But a person who does evil, who lives in it, who refuses to obey the righteous commands of God, that person displays by his actions that he is not part of the family of God. Note that this is not a call to obedience to fulfill legal obligation that impacts one’s status before God. Instead, it is clear that a heart that is set on what opposes God and that does not desire to obey the commands of God for the love of God is a heart not changed by God.

We could draw a neat little circle with these three points. Obedience to the commands of God does not save you. Obedience to the commands of God is required to love God. Lack of love for God, which is displayed in a lack of obedience to God’s commands, shows that you are not saved. Thus, obedience is not required to earn salvation, but obedience is a necessary result of salvation.

With all that said, how do you feel about the commands of God? Do you delight to obey? When God tells you to meet regularly with the local church for worship, teaching, fellowship and the rest, do you love that command and obey it for God’s glory? When you hear God’s command not to lie, not to gossip, not to seek personal revenge, do you delight in obedience out of love? When you hear God’s command to love others as you love self, do you delight in his word? When you hear God forbid sexual immorality in all its forms, do you delight in purity as God defines purity for his honor? When you hear how God wants the family and the church to be structured, do you delight in doing what the culture opposes because you desire to honor the Lord who saved your soul? Do you delight in obedience to the commands of God, not to earn points, but as a display of love?

A Description of God’s Commands

~I think we all know that, from time to time, it can be hard to follow the commands of God. We are sinful people after all. We struggle. Our flesh rebels against our purpose of glorifying the God who made us. And this, of course, is why we are so grateful for grace. We are not saved by being good or doing good.

Sometimes, if we are not careful, we will let ourselves go too far with thoughts about how hard it is to follow the Lord. We confuse what makes following God hard. We mistake our own sinful leanings for harshness in God’s commands. We allow ourselves to think that God really made things tough on us. But this is not and has not been the case.

1 John 5:1-5 – 1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. 4 For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

Notice what is happening in this paragraph in God’s word. WE are clear in this paragraph that salvation comes to us from Christ and is by grace through faith. There is nothing here that indicates that we are supposed to perform to gain salvation. There is also a highlighting of the theme in John of loving fellow Christians as a mark of salvation. But at the heart of the passage, we see that a genuine saving faith leads to people obeying the commands of God.

But look even more closely at the end of verse 3, “And his commandments are not burdensome.” How about that? God is inspiring a perfect word. God’s word is more true than your experience or my feelings. And God is clear that his commands are not burdensome.

Christians, this thought should have a few impacts on our lives today. First, it should cause us to give God thanks for his commands. God could have given us commands that are burdensome, and he did not do so. Take a look at old myths, and you will see burdensome commands. You will see capricious deities commanding the impossible of incapable people. But the God of the Bible commands ordinary obedience from people he has empowered to obey by his Spirit.

That verse should also cause us to stop pretending as though God’s word is a burden. God has made it clear that his word is not a burden. God’s word and obedience to his commands is the way to joy. If we love God, we obey his commands. This is no burden, but a delight. Let us not dishonor God by mischaracterizing his commands as if they are hardships.

If God’s commands are not burdensome, we should also stop making excuses for our disobedience. God does command Christians to obey. We do not obey to be saved, but because we have been forgiven. But none of us has an excuse to ignore the commands of God because we feel like they are hard. Instead, we should see that God is kindly giving us ways that we might express love for our Lord and gratitude for his grace as we seek the joy of honoring him.

Can it be hard to obey God’s commands? Yes, but not because of the commands. What makes obedience hard is what we bring to the table. Let us remember this, turn from sin, and love our Lord in obedience to his word.

Thanks But No Thanks

As the city of Jerusalem was threatened by the invading Babylonian Empire, there was much political intrigue taking place. Some men wanted Jeremiah the prophet dead for speaking the Lord’s judgment on Jerusalem. They thought he was unnecessarily disheartening the men.

After one failed attempt to kill Jeremiah, a servant of the king rescued the prophet. And Jeremiah and King Zedekiah had a chance to have a conversation. Jeremiah told the king that the city would be taken. And Jeremiah told the king that, if he wanted to be spared by the Lord, he needed to surrender himself to the king of Babylon.

Jeremiah 38:17-20 – 17 Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “Thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: If you will surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then your life shall be spared, and this city shall not be burned with fire, and you and your house shall live. 18 But if you do not surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then this city shall be given into the hand of the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it with fire, and you shall not escape from their hand.” 19 King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “I am afraid of the Judeans who have deserted to the Chaldeans, lest I be handed over to them and they deal cruelly with me.” 20 Jeremiah said, “You shall not be given to them. Obey now the voice of the Lord in what I say to you, and it shall be well with you, and your life shall be spared.

Consider that King Zedekiah received the most favorable answer he could have possibly received given the circumstances. There is a simple action that Zedekiah could take, and action commanded directly by the Lord, that would spare his life and keep his city from the torch. This is, in so many ways, a no-brainer.

Want to guess what happened? The king, of course, does not listen. His fears and his understanding of the situation would not allow him to obey the command of God. He was too scared of the unknown. So he tried to escape on his own, and he suffered greatly for it.

Is there a lesson here for us? Of course there is. God’s word is true. God gives us counsel that goes against our this-worldly wisdom. And when God tells us what is right, we need to obey, even when we are afraid to do so. There is nothing to be gained by surviving a few more years in a besieged city only to fall in disobedience to the Lord. And there is nothing to gain by compromising the word of God for things that will eternally pass away.

The king heard the word of God, heard the promise of God, heard that he could be safe. His response was basically, “Thanks but no thanks.” Let’s not respond that way to our Lord.

Immediate Obedience

When you read a command in the word of God, something that perhaps you have not been obeying well in your past, what do you do? What do I do? I think, if we are honest, we often will spend some time squirming and trying to figure out how not to have to obey the command. Or perhaps we think about the command, think about the inconvenience that repentance will cause, and then we determine what to do.

But let me be clear with myself, and with anyone who reads this: To wait to obey is to disobey. When we see the word of God clearly call us to turn from sin and follow him, we need to move right now. WE must be, as believers in the Lord Jesus, yielded to the word of God.

Look at this example from the book of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah 8:13-18 – 13 On the second day the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law. 14 And they found it written in the Law that the Lord had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, 15 and that they should proclaim it and publish it in all their towns and in Jerusalem, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” 16 So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. 17 And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths, for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. 18 And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. They kept the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the rule.

When the people heard Ezra and the other leaders teaching the word of God, they repented as a people. Suddenly, some of them, reading the law of God, saw that God commanded the people to celebrate the Festival of Booths. Part of that feast, as is obvious by the name, is that the people build little branch shelters and camp out for the week as a reminder of the wilderness wanderings of the nation of Israel.

Now, here is what is cool to me. When they saw this law, and when they saw they had not obeyed this law, the people just moved. All at once, as a people, they went out, got branches, and camped out. They stopped what they were doing, obeyed the word of God, and followed his commands as best they could. This was the first time in a long time that the people had obeyed this command, and I am sure it was inconvenient and a little weird, but they did what they were told.

Obviously, some commands require that we interpret them and understand them. Some are hard, and they take us some time to get to the point. But the real point is that, if you know that the word of God is telling you to do a certain thing, do it now. If you know that the word of God is telling you to stop a certain thing, stop it now. If obedience to the command of God is going to inconvenience you or embarrass you, obey anyway. People of God love the Lord and love his word. And obedience to the Lord should be as immediate as we can make it.

Blessed more than Mary

When we think of people in the history of Christianity, there are some folks who stand out. Peter and Paul, Daniel and Isaiah, Abraham and Moses, Ruth and Esther. We know that these people experienced God in some great ways and served him well.

Of course, Mary, the mother of Jesus, has to be included in that list of significant Christian historical figures. She was humble. She willingly served the Lord when it cost her greatly. She was favored by God in a special way, an experience that no other person will ever receive. And we should honor her just as we honor any saints of the past who faithfully served the Lord.

But should we reverence Mary in a way that is above other human beings? Should we consider Mary something just this side of deity? Should we think of her more highly than any other character in Scripture who faithfully served the Lord? Should we treat her differently than we treat faithful saints of today?

What would you say if I told you that the Bible speaks of someone, not Jesus, who is more blessed than Mary? Who would you guess it would be? Would you think of Paul or Peter? Would it be a spiritual giant?

Look at this exchange between Jesus and a woman as he taught.

Luke 11:27-28 – 27 As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” 28 But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

As Jesus spoke with great wisdom and spiritual authority, a woman in the crowd clearly intended to declare his mother a blessed woman. one would think that, if Mary holds a special and sacred office, Jesus would say, “Yes, she surely is.” Had this woman said, Blessed be God,” I can only imagine that Jesus would have responded with, “Amen.”

But here, Jesus offered an alternative. If this lady in the crowd wants to declare somebody truly blessed of God, Jesus wants to give an alternative. There is another person who is blessed that Jesus feels is more important to mention. Who? Jesus said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

Who is more blessed than Mary? Jesus says that all who hear and obey the word of God, who hear and keep it, are blessed. Jesus is not putting Mary down in any way. But Jesus is saying that, if we want to think of the blessed, we should not single her out. Instead, we should understand that the one who is truly blessed of God is the one who hears and obeys Scripture.

That means, dear friends, that you and I can be the blessed people in this account. We have been given the word of God. We have the commands of God in clear and understandable language. For the most part, we know exactly what the Lord wants of us. He wants us to turn from sin and trust in Jesus. He wants us to live to the glory of God. He wants us to put away unrighteousness and shine like a city on a hill. He wants us to be about the task of making disciples. He wants us to love one another in the church. And he says that people who do things like that are blessed more than any individual who played any other role in Christian history.

No dispensation for Disobedience

“I know this is wrong, but…” “I know the Bible says, but in my case…” “I know that Scripture says not to, but I’ve been praying about it, and…”

WE love to look for ways to get around clear commands of God. In general, we are pro-Scripture. But what do we do when those verses call us to sacrifice? What do we do when those verses show us that the thing we want to do, the thing we desire, is wrong? How often do we look for a loophole? How often do we try to find a way to excuse what we want, in our circumstances?

I can think of a woman, a believer, who was in a marriage that had become frustrating. She was not abused. Her husband had not committed adultery. She just was not getting all she wanted out of the marriage. The wife let others around her know that, she had prayed about the situation, and God had given her a peace about divorcing her husband to marry another man she thought would satisfy her more. She claimed that the Lord had told her, in prayer, that his commands about marriage, divorce, and remarriage simply did not apply, and he was giving her special permission to do something else.

In many cases, we want such a dispensation for disobedience. We want to be able to go our own way and have God tell us, “Oh, it’s OK for you.”

This all came to mind in my reading through 1 Kings 13. There is a really odd little passage here about an unnamed prophet who went from the southern to the northern kingdom to prophesy against Jeroboam. God gave that prophet a clear command not to eat or drink within the borders of the northern kingdom. But then along came another man who said he had heard something different.

1 Kings 13:15-18 –

15 Then he said to him, “Come home with me and eat bread.” 16 And he said, “I may not return with you, or go in with you, neither will I eat bread nor drink water with you in this place, 17 for it was said to me by the word of the Lord, ‘You shall neither eat bread nor drink water there, nor return by the way that you came.’ ” 18 And he said to him, “I also am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the Lord, saying, ‘Bring him back with you into your house that he may eat bread and drink water.’ ” But he lied to him.

The unnamed man of God knew he was not allowed to eat while on this mission. The other prophet flat lied. The unnamed man of God knew what his marching orders were. But he decided that he would rather have his restrictions lifted. So he chose to believe a lie.

What happened next? The unnamed man of God was killed by a lion as a result of his disobedience. And we all feel it was not fair. But we have to learn that God is showing us all that his actual commands are binding. His word is our command. And we do not get a special dispensation from him to disobey him when we find it convenient.

Thankfully, we live in the era of a closed canon of Scripture. That means that God is never, no not ever, going to speak to a Christian a command that contradicts anything that he has already commanded in his word. During the days of the unnamed man of God, new revelations were still forthcoming. It would have been tremendously hard to know if someone might have a new word from God. But, thanks be to God, we are not getting new words from God today. His perfect, completed, inspired words have already been written. Our job is to know, love, and obey those written words of Scripture, and not let anybody throw us off by claiming that God has given them permission to disobey the word.

But It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

What is God more interested in: your actions or your motives? This is a trick question. So many of us assume that, if we had good motives, our actions are not a big deal. But the Lord is clear in his word that both our actions and our motives matter a great deal.

Consider Saul, the king. He knew he needed to go into a battle. He knew that he had not sought the Lord’s favor by offering a sacrifice. But Saul was not authorized by God to make that sacrifice. Surely, if he broke the rule on who is allowed to make the offering, God would not mind. Surely God would not be so strict on those restrictions.

1 Samuel 13:8-14 – 8 He waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattering from him. 9 So Saul said, “Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the peace offerings.” And he offered the burnt offering. 10 As soon as he had finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came. And Saul went out to meet him and greet him. 11 Samuel said, “What have you done?” And Saul said, “When I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines had mustered at Michmash, 12 I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the favor of the Lord.’ So I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.” 13 And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the Lord your God, with which he commanded you. For then the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.”

OK, it turns out that God was just as concerned about Saul’s obedience as he was about the offering. This move on the part of the king did not please the Lord. and this move on Saul’s part, along with a mess he makes in chapter 15, results in his family’s loss of the throne of Israel.

Consider how applicable this all is to our lives as Christians. What things are Christians compromising right now? What are we willing to think God will be OK with so long as our motives are pure and the results of our actions successful? Where do we decide that a pragmatic victory is worth more than obedience?

I see this in the way that many compromise worship for the sake of supposedly reaching out to the lost. Some churches shape what they do on Sundays entirely around those who are not part of the family of God. But the Lord is clear that worship is about him, not about those who are turned against him.

Or what about the way that many churches and individuals compromise on hot-button social issues for the sake of being received by the world? Should we not be more interested in pleasing the Lord than in gaining a reputation in our community through compromise?

I bet, if you think about it, you can think of several ways that you are personally tempted to cut corners on the things of God for the sake of what you think is a good end. We do not want to be naturally offensive people. We do not want to seem weird to the world. We do not want to look like our standards or our thoughts are several centuries out-of-date.

But the truth is, dear Christian friends, our thoughts and standards are not going to be with the times. They cannot be so and still please the Lord. Our actions have to be based on obedience to the word of God, and not on any sort of pragmatic focus on supposed life or ministry success. God wants us to submit to him, to love him, and to keep his word. Let us remember that doing so is very important, even if we think that we have good motivation to turn to our own ideas.