Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Obedience Is Not A "Four Letter Word"

In my last entry I mentioned Jesus’ total obedience to His Father and the Word. That along with some recent events triggered a deeper-than-ever realization that the Western church at least seems to have lost sight of the absolute importance of obedience. At its core, the joyful journey of following Jesus is one of increasing obedience that grows out of a loving, trusting relationship with God, and we will never enter into what He intends for us apart from a life of increasing obedience. I see in the story of Israel entering the Promised Land a wonderful illustration of the Christian life: the people of God were preparing to enter into new territory in fulfillment of God’s promises to them. Great wonders and miracles are ahead of them. The new territory, however, is unknown to them. They have not passed this way before, so they are told that God must do the leading. Their part was to consecrate themselves (set themselves apart for His purposes).
Allowing God to lead requires obedience. The people of Israel would not have entered the Promised Land without obeying God’s instructions. So although obedience is not a word you hear a lot of in today’s world (Simple Church or otherwise), as you will discover, we cannot enter into the future God has for us apart from our uncompromising obedience to the Holy Spirit’s leading.
Many people today don’t even like the word “obey.” But obedience is not a four letter word! Neither is obedience optional and neither is it “legalism.” Therefore, I offer below some corrections to some common myths about obedience, based on an article I originally wrote for a “church newsletter.”

Myth Number One: Obedience is optional for Christians.
Some Christians seem to think that because we are saved by grace through faith, obedience is optional. But we are saved to obey not from having to obey! The first word of the Gospel is repent (turn control of your life completely over to God!), and the first confession of faith in the early church was “Jesus is Lord.” Our culture doesn’t really understand submission to a ruler, but the early Christians knew very well that when they confessed Jesus as Lord, they were committing themselves to a life of uncompromising obedience. And this is reflected clearly in the New Testament. Consider the following few (of many) scriptures (italics mine):
1 Peter 1:2a who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood: (NRSV)
Matthew 28:18-20 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on 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.”
Romans 1:5 Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. (Note well here the connection between faith and obeying!)
Romans 15:18 I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—
Romans 16:26 but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him.
Romans 6:22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.
I think you get the picture. When you received Jesus as your Savior, you also were submitting to Him as Master of your life from that point on.

Myth Number Two: Obedience means just becoming a nice person!
It is true that we are to stop doing the bad stuff and allow the character of Jesus to be formed in us by His Spirit so that we become kind, gracious, really wonderful people! Christlike character is one very important fruit of obedience. But obedience doesn’t stop there. Stepping out and doing good to others is also obedience. When Jesus spoke of His obedience to the Father, He wasn’t talking about being kind, He was referring to His ministry to destroy the works of the devil by setting people free from sin, sickness and bondage! Don’t you suppose it’s the same for us? Many Christians stop at getting sin under control and then live basically self-indulgent lives then wonder why they are so miserable! They are miserable because they are not fulfilling God’s ultimate purpose. God wants us to get out of ourselves and make a difference in our world by following His leading as Heaven invades earth. And since Jesus went about “doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil,” we believe that doing good includes supernatural stuff for us as well. That’s when obedience becomes downright exciting!

Myth Number Three: Obedience means following a bunch of rules.
It’s really important that we refute this myth! Obedience is not at all about following a bunch of rules, it’s about following a person, and there’s a huge difference. If we view obedience as following a set of rules, it leaves us in control—we are deciding what rules to keep, etc. Not only is it impossible to keep all the rules, approaching obedience as rule keeping misses the point of obedience altogether: obedience grows out of yielding control of our lives to the Lord in partnership with the Holy Spirit.
How much better it is to have obedience flow out of our love relationship with Jesus! Notice how the following passages underscore obedience as focused on the person of Jesus.
John 14:15, 21 NRSV 15“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” These verses make clear the connection between a loving relationship and obedience. I suggest that it is the primary connection.
Think about this. Love is the highest and most powerful of all motivating forces. What parent would not want obedience from his or her children to be based upon love rather than mere fear? God is no different; He longs for us to love Him enough to trust and obey Him. So if you would grow in obedience, seek to fall deeper and deeper in love with Him. And remember that we love Him because He first loved us (see 1 John 4:19). We obey a person, not a rulebook.

Myth Number Four: Consistent obedience is basically impossible.
The devil really wants you to believe this myth because there is great power to destroy him and his work in obedience! The earlier passages from Romans, however, make it clear that Paul knew that consistent obedience was clearly possible. Consider the following provisions from God that enable us to obey Him.
The Holy Spirit has been given to enable us to obey God. The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit is given to enable us to obey. 2 Peter 1:3 says “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” (See also John 14:16-17, 26). The Holy Spirit helps us to obey in at least three ways.
a. As the Spirit of Truth who lives in us, He leads us into truth and away from the deception that is often a part of disobedience. (John 14:16-17).
b. As Counselor (or Strengthener), He comes alongside of us to encourage and empower us in our quest for obedience.
c. As the One who reminds us (John 14:26), He helps us to remember the words of Jesus that we are to obey.
It’s good to remember at this point that everyone in New Testament times was baptized in the Holy Spirit. The "power from on high" gives power to obey.
Faith also helps to enable obedience. Faith and obedience are used almost interchangeably in the New Testament. A great example of this is in Acts 5:32 “We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
Part of the connection between faith and obedience is obvious: if we trust someone, we obey him/her. So obedience grows out of faith as well as love. If we trust God more than ourselves, we will obey Him. If you’re struggling with obedience, you may be struggling with trust. Do you trust Him enough to obey Him?
But there is more. It is faith that energizes and enables obedience. Obedience is not possible in our own strength. Only by faith are we able to release the power of the Holy Spirit which enables obedience as mentioned above (see Galatians 3:2-3).
Let me summarize all of this: First, obedience is not a “four-letter word” for the people of God. There is power and purpose in obeying. Neither is obedience optional! Second, we grow in obedience by falling more and more in love with the One who loves us most and by activating the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit through faith. Do you love Him; do you trust Him? Then you will obey Him with increasing consistency as His power works in you. His example of perfect obedience urges us on! Third, does it cost to obey? Absolutely. Is it worth it? Absolutely! 1 Corinthians 2:9 However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”— (“if you love Me, you will obey my commandments!”).
Hmmm. Well, I could write more about this, of course, but this will have to do for now. Remember, we love because He first loves us--all that I have written about obedience (especially as it flows from love) will be impossible apart from your continuing experience of God's love (see Ephesians 3:14-21).
Stay lost in His love,

Tom, one of Abba's children

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

How (really) to Make Disciples Part 2

     Last time I promised to write a little on how Jesus actually trained His disciples. Again, I am no expert, but I offer a few observations based on Scripture and my knowledge of the Jewish culture of that time.
     Note that Jesus taught the crowds, but He trained the disciples. This alerts us right up front that there's a difference between being taught and being trained. Being trained certainly includes being taught, but it goes far beyond mere instruction and information. So how did Jesus train His disciples?
     First, He trained them in the context of an almost continuous relationship with Him. Last week we noted that in Mark's Gospel (3:13-15) Jesus called the Twelve to be with Him because life-changing training takes place only in the context of relationship. And that's because modeling is an essential part of training people. People learn best when they want to learn something or feel a need to learn something because they see it in another person. They also have the gaps filled in for them in terms of what the "lesson" looks like. For example, the disciples learned about living in a place of peace by watching Jesus' completely peaceful life (sleeping through a storm comes to mind!). They learned about prayer by watching Jesus pray (see Luke 11). They learned about compassion by seeing it flow from Jesus all the time--you get the picture.
     Second, Jesus trained them via OJT (On the Job Training). We see Him using OJT virtually all the time. They learned how to heal the sick and cast out demons by being given authority and power to do so and being sent out (after watching Him do it a lot)--see Matthew 10:5-15 and Luke 9:1-6, etc. They learned how to announce the presence of the Kingdom of God in the same way. Indeed, all the "doing" parts of being a disciple were learned by doing--isn't that amazing! I wonder what that would look like in today's world? I know--do you?
     Third, Jesus trained His disciples via JIT (Just In Time) training. In other words, He trained the disciples as the opportunity arose. We see Him often using an event to dialog with His followers about what they need to learn. Some more notable instances of this in my mind are Jesus answering questions from the disciples about the parables (see Mark 4:1-20 for one example), Peter learning how to walk on water :-), the disciples learning how to cast out stubborn demons (see Mark 9:14-29), and there are many others. Jesus knew that not only do people learn best what they want to learn, they also learn best when the need to learn something is obvious.
     Fourth, even when Jesus taught the disciples, He did so not in lecture format but in dialog format. Jesus often asked His followers questions to initiate a teaching time. Indeed, the straight lecture-type impartation of information would have been a completely foreign concept to people in Jesus' day. Jesus knew that only an active mind--one that is being stimulated by interaction and by curiosity--really learns something! Hmmm, I wonder how we got so far from this one! (Hint: our western culture is far more heavily influenced by Greek culture than by the Hebraic culture of the Bible!).
     Fifth, Jesus, of course, trained His disciples on the basis of God's word. A careful observer of Jesus' teaching will see that almost everything He said or did clearly derives from Scripture. But it's how Jesus imparted the Word of God that is most important. You see, Jesus taught God's word as the living Voice of God as the Holy Spirit directed Him. Jesus constantly heard His Father's voice as He lived His life and taught others (see John 12:49). Thus Jesus understood Scripture to be the living voice of His Abba. Think about this one, friend. Having that perspective changes everything about how we impart God's word!
     Jesus also taught the Word from a place of perfect obedience to it. Again, think about that one--one reason Jesus could teach and train with complete authority was that He lived in complete obedience to God's word. Hmmm. Living that one out might change how we make disciples a wee bit, eh?
     Finally, Jesus taught God's word from a vast treasure store of God's word in His heart and mind. Like many Jews of His day, Jesus had committed vast amounts of Scripture to memory--it appears likely that He had committed much more than even others of His day. Thus He was truly able to "meditate on it all day long" (Psalm 119:97). Hmmm. What if this an essential part of making disciples? Today we are far more likely to have the Bible in our hand (or computer or PDA or cell phone) than we are in our hearts. But I am convinced that if we are to make disciples, and train people like Jesus did, we will have to change our ways drastically. Psalm 1 says that the blessed man of God meditates on God's word day and night. If that was the expectation under the old covenant, what is the expectation for the far better covenant?
     What if God indeed wants us to train others from the place of personal obedience and true saturation with His Word and dependence upon the Spirit? Something to think about. I am quite sure that He does indeed expect that! And so I pray, "God, help us--we are so very far from this. But we cannot change ourselves! All we can do is submit to you with a totally yielded will and invite you to be ruthless but kind in transforming us!"
     Well, I am quite sure that this is enough for you to ponder this time! My sincere prayer is that you will be challenged as I am to reconsider everything about how we make disciples by taking this honest, if brief, look at how Jesus did.

Stay grace embraced,

Tom, one of Abba's children