“If you love me, you will obey what I command,” (John 14:15)
my thoughts kept coming back to a dear friend of mine. In the Fall of 1992, Wesley was on his deathbed in an Iowa hospital. At the time, I was pastoring a small Michigan congregation and was able to take some time off to go and be with him. I was there for a week, spending my days at the hospital and only leaving his room to sleep for the night. It was my habit to rise about 5:00am and make my way to Wesley’s room where we would spend some quiet unhindered time with each other for a few hours before family members arrived. Wesley was deathly ill and could barely communicate anything above a whisper. Yet, those hours with him were incredible times of spiritual bonding and true Christian friendship.
You see, what was so amazing about my relationship with Wesley is that only a year before, he and I had a strained, difficult, and awkward relationship as he was about as far from God as anyone could be and did not want much to do with a Pastor. Yet, in a matter of a few months, we had become devoted to one another as brothers. Through a series of circumstances that I ascribe as God’s gracious hand, Wesley embraced a spiritual life that was as rich and full as I have ever seen (that is a story for another time). Now, as I sat with him six months later, Wesley was at the edge of his life.
During that week, I watched in the background as day after day, friend after friend, and relative after relative came into Wesley’s room to visit him for the last time. The majority were much like Wesley before he wholeheartedly followed the love of Christ – having made a profession of faith as children, they had long since outgrew their Sunday School belief. With each person, as frail as Wesley was, barely able to lift an arm more than a few inches, he would grab a hold, pull them close and say into their ear: “Look at me! I am dying. Is this how you want to end up?” And then he said to every one of them: “If you are really a Christian and love Jesus, obey him and live your life for him.”
Love and obedience – they go together in Scripture like a hand in a glove. The words of Jesus to love through obedience are part of what we call the Upper Room Discourse, or Farewell Speech. They are the Lord’s final words to his followers before his crucifixion – quite literally being Jesus’ deathbed message to those he loved. These are the words Jesus did not want his followers to forget. The disciples were distressed and troubled over the prospect that Jesus would not be with them, and they needed some focused words to live effectively with encouragement in the days and years ahead.
There are a two truths Jesus said to his disciples (and saying to us) as he was grabbing them and holding them close before his death:
Love is practiced through obedience to Christ’s commands.
Love through obedience is accomplished through the Holy Spirit’s help.
If we are to love Jesus, we will obey him – which begs the question: What are his commands? There are three summaries of Christ’s teaching and commands in the Gospels that encompass loving him through obedience: The Great Commission; The Great Commandment; and, The Beatitudes.
When Jesus first began his teaching and healing ministry, he sat all the people down who were following him and gave them a summary of the Old Testament understanding of God’s righteousness. These are the things, Jesus explained, that characterize a person who loves God:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:12-17, NIV).
Genuine lovers of Jesus are characterized by their: authentic humility; deep concern to the point of tears over sin; gentle and meek spirit toward others; intense desire for personal righteousness and corporate justice; daily life of mercy, purity, and peacemaking; and, willingness to accept adversity for the sake of Jesus. Yes, lovers of Jesus are distinctly and profoundly characterized by grace. To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with their God is the normal everyday default life-setting for lovers of Jesus Christ.
When Jesus wanted to put all the Law and the Prophets (The Old Testament of the Bible) into a summary that would be easy to remember and understand he said:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”(Matthew 22:36-40, NIV)
What Jesus requires is an holistic love for God. Humanity is meant for wholeness, integration, and alignment between head, heart, and gut – with the glue of love. We are designed to have all of life in parity and balance – work, play, family, and church – because Jesus is Lord over it all, not just the church part. In the totality of our lives, in every relationship, and in every activity, Jesus invites us to grab hold of the kind of love that seeks a righteous agenda based in grace and mercy.
What is more, Jesus gave clear instructions of how to occupy our time on this earth while he is away preparing a place for us so that he can take us to be with him. The gracious and pure living of the Beatitudes and the love of the Great Commandment are to be fully utilized with the Great Commission. Jesus stated:
“All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20, NIV)
Making disciples is at the heart of Christ’s commands. Every Christian is to be Christ’s apprentice learning the ways of Jesus in all of life, being spiritually developed so that we can be characterized by the Beatitudes and the Great Commandment. Jesus wants lifelong students in the faith, continually learning to love God through integrated and aligned selves in the church and in the world.
This is a big job. In fact, the task is so huge that Jesus left us with the means of accomplishing it – he has given us another “Counselor” to be with us forever (John 14:16). “Counselor” (NIV) is translated in various ways in versions of the New Testament because the Greek term “Paraclete” is a rich word that is hard to encompass with a single English word. Other translations include: “Advocate,” “Comforter,” and “Helper.” They are all accurate words to describe the Holy Spirit. I think the best term to portray who the Holy Spirit is for God’s people is “True Friend.”
A true friend is the kind of person who you can call in the middle of the night and they will answer and listen; will drop everything to come and be with you in a time of need; will say hard things to you in love so that you can be a better person and have a better relationship with them; and, maintains a committed and consistent relationship with you. A true friend is simply a person you enjoy and are deeply thankful for having them in your life.
That is what the Holy Spirit is – the Spirit helps us when we need help; encourages us when we are down; comes immediately to our side when we are in need; and, gives us a good loving kick in the backside when appropriate. The Holy Spirit is our True Friend in the world. The Spirit continually speaks truth to us and leads us into truth. The Spirit will come alongside and apprentice us in the faith and guide us in grateful obedience to Jesus.
Because of God the Father’s love in sending the Son; the Son’s sacrificial love through the cross; the Spirit’s consistent loving presence; and, the triune God’s insistence on living a life of love, Christianity is both duty and delight – and they go together in perfect harmony.
Wesley miraculously lived through his deathbed experience. God was not quite finished with him yet. Wesley’s Christian life displayed that loving assurance and trust in Jesus leads to a no-holds-barred obedience which is grateful and joyous despite the most awful of circumstances.
In the summer of 1993, at 29 years of age, Wesley went to be with his Lord. Not in my lifetime have I personally seen such a complete turn-around of a person so far away from God to a person whose every thought and word reflected the Beatitudes, the Great Commandment, and the Great Commission. And I enjoyed a relationship that was totally changed from one of animosity to one that could be characterized as “true friend.” Because of his love for God, Wesley now sees Jesus.
There is only one level of commitment to Christ – the high charge and privilege of duty and delight. A true disciple, a genuine follower of Jesus, loves him and lives an obedient life to the Lord in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we have our lives so planned and pre-determined that when the Holy Spirit shows up to take us to a place of obedience to Jesus, we struggle to realize what’s happening. And we miss what God is doing in this world. At other times we observe the commands of Scripture and feel the gentle nudging of God’s Spirit, yet we either cannot or will not respond out of fear, busyness, or even grief. And then there are times when we are attentive to God’s Word and God’s Spirit and seek to obey Jesus – only to mess up so that we are left wondering if God could ever really do anything in us.
The truth is this: Love conquers all. Grace overcomes everything. Mercy never fails. We are here on this earth because of our True Friend. Even though we walk with Jesus in a three-steps-forward-two-steps-backward kind of way, the Spirit accommodates to our weakness. To be a disciple, an apprentice, means we keep learning the ways of Jesus under the tutelage of God’s Spirit who patiently and powerfully works within us so that God’s kingdom breaks into this world and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
Abraham named that place “The Lord Will Provide.” And even now people say, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
The biblical character of Abraham is synonymous with faith. And for good reason. God had told Abraham that he would have a son with his wife Sarah. This wouldn’t be unusual except for the facts that the couple were well advanced in age, and Sarah was incapable of having children. Infertility isn’t just a modern problem; it has always existed. But Abraham believed God. Years later and with a mix of patience and impatience from the would-be parents, the promise from God was realized. Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac.
“The child of the promise.” This was Isaac’s moniker – which makes the command coming from God so perplexing: Take your son, the child of the promise, and go to the mountain and sacrifice him there. Huh? What the…! But it only seems strange and super-weird to us. We get no reaction from Abraham, no questioning, no talk back. He just goes about the business of saddling up the donkey, chopping some wood for the sacrifice, and takes his only son with him on the journey to the mountain.
We can wonder what might be going through Abraham’s mind through all of this. While you and I might try and figure out if we really heard God or not, Abraham had a history of talking with God. He knew God’s voice as well as he knew his own. Abraham was well down the road of relationship with the God he served. We get an insight from the author of Hebrews into Abraham’s thought process, a line of thinking that is consistent with a person who has a regular habit of talking with God:
“Abraham had been promised that Isaac, his only son, would continue his family. But when Abraham was tested, he had faith and was willing to sacrifice Isaac, because he was sure that God could raise people to life. This was just like getting Isaac back from death.” (Hebrews 11:17-18, CEV)
Abraham didn’t try and figure out God’s mind. He didn’t get into a debate with God about the contradiction of ethics he was being asked to do. He simply obeyed. He reasoned that it didn’t matter if Isaac were killed because God could raise him from death. This, of course, is not what happened. It was all a test of faith. Abraham knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is the Lord who provides.
You and I don’t always know why we are facing the circumstances we’re enduring. We don’t always know what in the world God is thinking. Yet, like Abraham, if we have a spiritual history of walking with God and hearing his voice, we don’t hesitate to respond. We are convinced that God will provide. Obedience for the follower of Christ is not a burden; it’s a privilege, even when we are being tested beyond our seeming emotional ability to do it.
Sovereign Lord, your ways are sometimes strange. Yet, I know that everything you do is always right, just, and good. It is to your gracious and merciful character that I know you will provide. My allegiance is to you; in the Name of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Does the LORD really want sacrifices and offerings? No! He doesn’t want your sacrifices. He wants you to obey him” (verse 22), so said Samuel to King Saul.
God had given Saul explicit instructions on how to handle a group of people called the Amalekites. Saul obeyed… some of the instructions, but not all of them. He rationalized his behavior as worship. But God would have none of it. The Lord rejected Saul as king; He wanted no monkey business when it comes to obedience.
I’d like to think I’m not like Saul. But I sat a bit with this verse, and realized I sometimes do the same thing:
· Whenever I say I’ll do something and then get busy and not do it, I sometimes rationalize my lack of follow through by explaining what good things I was doing with my time instead.
· I sometimes justify a purchase of something I don’t really need but want with the excuse to God that I put a lot of money in the offering plate for Him.
· Occasionally slandering another person, even though it is forbidden by God, with the knucklehead notion that I’m protecting and helping others from that person’s evil ways.
· I sometimes keep quiet in the face of a bad situation when I should be speaking up, and dismiss the lack of engagement and involvement with the fact that I need to save my energy for people who want it….
I got too convicted to keep thinking about it anymore, but I could have kept going. *Sigh*
Before we get too uppity about saying we are not like Saul and would never be like him, perhaps we ought to sit with this story and this verse of Holy Scripture for awhile and allow a mindfulness of any unacknowledged disobedience.
Rationalization is the way of sinners. Repentance is the path of saints. Which road will you choose today?
Holy God, you expect obedience to clear instructions. I’m sorry for all those times I’ve found creative ways to circumvent your teaching. Help me not to avoid your good commands, but to own them with vigor and vitality through Jesus Christ my Lord in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22, ESV).
“Obey God’s message! Don’t fool yourselves by just listening to it” (CEV).
The Word of God has not been truly received until it is put into practice. This is a consistent theme in the New Testament. Paul warned the church in Rome: For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but those who obey the law who will be declared righteous (Romans 2:13). Our Lord Jesus himself stated the same truth: Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it (Luke 11:28).
The person who only hears is like a Mr. Potato Head that is only ears. He can’t stand because he has no feet. He cannot do anything because he has no hands. Mr. Potato Head needs some feet so that he can follow Jesus wherever he goes. And he needs hands so he can do God’s will.
Listening to the Word without obedience is just that – it is mere hearing. Profession of faith in Jesus means nothing without a practice of that faith; learning the Bible is useless without living it; and acceptance of the Word is nothing more than a mental exercise without action to back it up. Profession, knowledge, and acceptance alone does not satisfy God’s plan for our lives.
The danger is that we have the potential to deceive ourselves into thinking we are okay just because we know the right things and believe the right things. Christianity is a vital love relationship with Jesus, and, so, is not merely a matter of hearing and affirming orthodoxy; it also involves orthopraxy, that is, having right practice, the doing of truth.
True hearing leads to true response. When my firstborn daughter was still in the womb, I constantly talked to her. I was in seminary at the time, and I would come home and read her fairy tales in Hebrew. I spoke to her when I got up in the morning and when I went to bed. I told her all about how God was going to bless her and do great things through her. I told her of Jesus and his love for her. I practiced my sermons and Sunday School lessons on her – all before she was born.
When the day came that God graced us with her birth, the nurses took her and she cried and cried. She cried so much and so hard that I finally said to them, “Let me hold her.” The minute I held her, I began speaking to her, and what happened next got the attention of everyone in the room: little baby Sarah immediately got quiet. It was like that the entire time she was in the hospital. The only time she was happy was when I was speaking to her. It would be no surprise for you to know that Sarah has always been a Daddy’s girl.
We respond to God’s voice when we recognize it. If we are not in the habit of responding to God’s Holy Word, it is likely that we do not know his voice. Baby Sarah did not need a lesson on how to respond to me; she knew exactly who I was: her father. Do we know our heavenly Father? Can we distinguish his voice? The greatest need that we all have is to be servants of God who hear his voice and respond to it, and not soakers who just sit and hear without any response at all.
Whenever we refuse to love the unbelievers around us, we are not hearing God and doing his will. When we listen to the gospel, but then have no intention of sharing that same gospel with others, we are being disobedient. When we hear about how God forgives us in Jesus’ name, but then we insist on not forgiving another person, we are not being doers of the Word. When we read the Holy Scriptures as an end in itself without the expressed intent of doing whatever we find in it, then we merely hearing.
The Bible is only boring and irrelevant when we read it with no intention of doing what it says. This is why whenever we read it we need to write out what action we are going to do after having read it. This is also why the church needs to corporately and collectively covenant together to act on what they hear from God’s Word as they examine it together. Without this, we are only a random collection of individuals listening to a talking-head preacher. We go home and forget what we just heard. Instead, let us act in unity and purpose to do what we find in Holy Scripture. Can you imagine even just one church who devotes themselves to such a sacred task, and what impact it would have in the world?
Over thirty years ago, Chuck Colson wrote a timely and influential book entitled Loving God. In it, he presented a simple yet biblical premise concerning the life of every believer in Jesus: The way to love God is to obey God, period. Everything turns on our listening to God and doing what he says to do. Jesus himself communicated to the church at Philadelphia (not Pennsylvania, but Asia Minor) and affirmed how they obeyed the message. Because of their faithful and steadfast obedience, the Philadelphian believers would be protected and loved by Jesus.
The church at Philadelphia did much more than offer a confession of loving God – they affirmed that confession by obeying Jesus. In my Christian circles, we call this “living into our baptisms.” That is, it is one thing to experience the sign of baptism as being set apart by the Holy Spirit for a relationship with God through the person and finished work of Jesus. It is quite another thing to “live into” this reality by knowing God’s Word and obeying it.
There is much complexity to humanity and its psychology, sociology, and history. But there is at least one simple straightforward Scriptural truth that we all can live into: To love God is to obey God. Therefore, it is quite necessary for us to spend extended times reading our Bibles in order to know them well so that we can obey what it says.
Gracious God, thank you for the message of good news that in Jesus Christ I have forgiveness of sins. Help me to hold onto this gospel through all of the vicissitudes of life so that obedience springs from my heart in all things by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
God has boundaries. That is, he does not just flit about doing whatever seems alright for the moment because he is firmly secure in who he is and what exactly he wants. God is not okay with his creatures, us, having no boundaries. Since we are people created in his image, we are to reflect him in all things, including having the established boundary of taking charge of our own spiritual lives and obeying him in all things.
God has opened the way of redemption to his people, first in the incredible event of the exodus from Egypt, then in the culmination of our freedom through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Therefore, God expects us to live into this opportunity without acting like all our problems are his fault. Just because God stands up to people and does not cave into their demands and their whining does not make him mean or unjust – it simply means he doesn’t need people to give him props. God is secure enough to not be dependent on humans.
God is quite clear on what he wants, and where the boundary lines fall: “You shall therefore love the LORD your God and keep his charge, his statutes, his rules, and his commandments always.” There is no fudge factor to that statement, scratching our heads wondering what we ought to be doing. If we will obey God, we will experience life as it ought to be lived – free from all the machinations of sinful brokenness and insecurity, yet, securely confined within godly boundaries. God can tell his people to be strong and take the land because he has made it possible for them to do so. He has acted in history, and expects us to respond in obedience to the boundary lines he has established that will allow us to flourish and grow as people in a new land.
Great God Almighty, I choose today to obey you in all things out of the grace given to me because of Jesus Christ. I want to please you in all I say and do, so that you will be seen as the glorious and exalted king of the universe. Help me to live up to my standing in Christ in the power of the Spirit as I step into your world with the keys of the kingdom. Amen.