Loving Obedience

In the Bible, the opposite of rules is not “no rules.” It is loving relationship. It is a completely different paradigm.

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Single Sermons. Loving Obedience. John 15:9-12

 9“As the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you. Remain in My love. 10If you keep My commands you will remain in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commands and remain in His love. 11“I have spoken these things to you so that My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. 12This is My command: Love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:9-12, HCSB)

This is a stunning passage of scripture. We could spend weeks finding new and wonderful things in these few verses alone. I don’t have weeks, so let’s see if we can break off a digestible portion of this wonderful part of God’s word.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. It’s easy to drift over this quickly, but just stop for a minute and listen. How does the Father love Jesus? In the first place, he is the heavenly Father. His love has no limit. His love has no flaws. The Father has loved Jesus eternally. Here on earth, our love is hampered by our limited capacities. It is corrupted by our sinful flesh. Sometimes, loving others is a lot of work. At times, we lose patience with those we love; we get irritated with them; we become frustrated, or just plain weary. None of those things are a factor in the way the Father loves Jesus. Therefore, none of those things are a factor in the way Jesus loves us.

In fact, Jesus offers us the same experience of love that He has as a member of the Holy Trinity.

God is a Trinity – that is, He is one God, and yet he exist in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is something here that is beyond the grasp of human imagination (incidentally, the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the best arguments that Christianity is not made up by people – human beings would have come up with something more understandable). Between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit there is a constant flow of love and joy. Jesus tells us “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” He is, amazingly, offering us the kind of daily experience of love and joy and grace that He himself has. His own experience of the Father’s love is deep and abiding. It is not something that goes away, and it is something that sustained Him and influenced Him every weary day of His time on earth. I’m reminded of what Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:14-19, ESV2011)

We need the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, strengthening us, in order to even begin to understand the love that Jesus Christ has for us. It is beyond our ability to know completely, it is abundantly far more than all that we could ask or think. The unfathomable, unlimited love of Jesus for us is the bedrock for everything else in our lives. Particularly, it is the foundation upon which the rest of this text is built. We’re going to talk about what it means to keep the commandments of Jesus. But we cannot begin to understand what this means without the foundation of his all-surpassing love for us.

Abide in my love. “Abide” is not a word that we use very often anymore. Some good synonyms might include: remain, dwell, rest-upon, stay, be, exist-in. We are to dwell in the love of Jesus. We are to rest upon it, to exist continually in it.

Everything in our entire lives ought to be built on one foundational fact: that God loves us. If we get that fact wrong, there will be a host of other things in our lives which we will get wrong, and many things will not make sense. This is not to say that when we truly grasp by faith that God loves us, everything makes sense, and nothing ever goes wrong. But if we build our lives on any other basis than the love God has for us, sooner or later the uselessness and hopelessness of it all will come crashing in.

For many of us, there have been times, perhaps brief periods, when we have truly understood how much God loves us, and those times stand out as high points in our walks of faith. But much of the time, though we know it with our minds, we find it hard to believe that God truly delights in us. On Monday morning at 8:30 when the boss is upset and you’re still smarting from the fight with your spouse, it seems difficult to feel God’s love, and almost impossible that His love should make a difference in your situation.

In John 15, Jesus is inviting us into an abiding experience of His love. He appears to be offering a life wherein most of the time, we will be conscious of God’s love for us, and that love will make a real difference in our daily experiences. Jesus did not simply come down from heaven, hand us a one way ticket redeemable upon our death, and say, “See ya when you get there.” No in His invitation to abide, He is offering a life that is different in quality, right here and now. And the central fact affecting the quality of our lives is meant to be His affection for us.

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. Now we hit the difficulty. Many times when we read this phrase after the other two we think, “Aha! I knew it was too good to be true. Now the other shoe has dropped. Sure, God loves us: but only if we obey his commands, only if we can be good enough to earn his love.”

As we look at these verses, it is important for us to understand the concept of “paradigm.” A paradigm is a way of looking at the world. Paradigms tells us how to interpret our experiences. We all have paradigms, and use them every day. Think about it. The color green does not actually mean “go” and red does not mean “stop.” But in the driving paradigm, we interpret those colors to indicate those things.

When it comes to obeying God, and keeping his commands, it is common to find two different and extreme views,. The first view says, “Jesus died to forgive us [this is true]. His death took away the power of the law to condemn us [also true]. Therefore, once I’ve prayed the sinner’s prayer and ‘gotten saved’ I can go off and live my life however I please [this is not true].”

The second view goes like this: “Even the New Testament – after Jesus’ death and resurrection – tells us we need to obey God [true]. It says we should be holy and righteous people [true, but we need to understand this in the proper way]. Therefore not only should we try to live sinless lives, we actually can do so [not true]. Therefore, if we sin, we may not be true Christians [really not true].”

The underlying problem with both of these approaches is the paradigm. They both view our faith as set of rules. One way thinks we have to follow them; the other way thinks we are free from them. But the paradigm in both cases is about following rules. Both ways of understanding the scripture are legalistic, because they view obedience to Jesus as something to do with the law.

However, in the Bible, the opposite of rules is not “no rules.” It is relationship. It is a completely different paradigm.

In the book of John, Jesus relentlessly pushes the idea that real life only found in a daily faith relationship with Him. In fact, that is the central message of the entire New Testament. What Jesus says here in John 15:10 about keeping his commands can be properly understood only in the context of relationship with him. And in fact, that is true of any verse about obedience in the entire Bible. The paradigm is not rules and laws, but rather, relationship.

Marriage (the way God intends it to be) is supposed to be the strongest and most enduring voluntary relationship we have with another person. That is why the Bible often uses marriage as an illustration of our relationship with the Lord (Ephesians 5:25; Isaiah 54:5, 62:4-5; Jeremiah 3:15, 31:32; Hosea 1:2, 2:19-20; Revelation 19:7-9). That’s also why I often use it as a sermon illustration. It is applicable once again here.

What brings a husband and wife together? Does the man sign up to follow rules laid down by the woman, then, if he follows those rules correctly, they get married? Of course not. They are brought together by love. But what about after the marriage? Do they say, “I know love brought us together, but we are married now, and from here on our marriage will based on fulfilling the rules we have for each other.” Ridiculous.

So, if marriage is not based on rules, does that mean that I am free to go have an affair if I want? Also ridiculous. Why? Because there are certain things that destroy love, and destroy relationships, and having an affair is one of those things.

I think one of the biggest problems we have in marriage is that we fail to see how our actions affect the love between us. We don’t realize (or we pretend not to) how our actions have the potential to either help or harm the relationship. So when a wife wants her husband to quit going out to bars with his buddies, it isn’t that she’s trying to base their relationship on rules. What she’s really trying to say is “when you do that, it injures the love we have between us. It hurts me and it hurts our relationship.” When the husband says, “I’m looking for more from you in our physical relationship,” he isn’t trying to say that he only loves her because of what happens in the bedroom. He’s saying, “This helps to build my love for you, and therefore it helps our relationship.” These aren’t rules. They are relationship builders (or relationship busters). Because I am married, my behavior conforms to certain standards. These are not rules I follow – I live this way because I love my wife.

It will put tremendous pressure on a marriage if one or both spouses start looking at behavior toward each other as rules, instead of actions that affect the quality of love.

Jesus is telling us today, it’s the same with him. He uses the language of “commands” and “obedience” because there is supposed to be submission on our part to the Lord. But what it is all about is relationship. Listen clearly: “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love….You are my friends if you do what I command you.” He’s saying, “this is all about our relationship. If you love me, your behavior will reflect that. If you know that I love you, your behavior will show that also.” John writes about this more in his letters:

For this is what love for God is: to keep his commands. Now His commands are not a burden, because whatever has born of God conquers the world. This is the victory that has conquered the world: our faith. (1 John 5:3-4)

And this is love: that we walk according to his commands. This is the command as you have heard it from the beginning: you must walk in love. (2 John 6).

In other words, “keeping his commands” is all about that faith-relationship of love we have with Jesus. You should be able to tell I love Kari, not only because of the ring around my finger, but also because of how I behave with regard to her. You should be able to tell I love Jesus, not just because of a cross around my neck, but because of the way I behave with regard to Jesus.

Let me suggest one more thing. I don’t always feel like listening when Kari wants to talk. I don’t always feel like being kind or encouraging. I don’t always feel like helping her with things or doing her favors. But sometimes I do those things even if don’t feel like it, because the more I do, the closer we become; and the closer we become the more I actually want to do those things. Also, of course, the closer we are, the more I enjoy and treasure our relationship.

What I’m saying is, I choose to behave in such a way that I become closer to my wife. In the same way, obedience is a pathway to intimacy with God. The more we live as he asks us to, the easier it is to continue to make choices that increase our closeness to him. The more we obey, the more we learn to love Him, and our satisfaction and fulfillment – and our joy – grows.

When we remember that Jesus said this about keeping his commands in the context of abiding in Him it is impossible to doubt that he is talking about how we are behave in relationship with him. Basically, he is saying, “this is how to grow in my love and stay living in me. This is how you and I get closer.”

So what are the commands that Jesus wants us to keep? What are these things that help us grow closer to Jesus? In John chapter 6, some came to Jesus, wondering about this.

“What can we do to perform the works of God?” they asked.

Jesus replied, “this is the work of God: that you believe in the One he has sent” (John 6:29)

Another time, some experts on Jewish law came along and asked, “What’s the most important commandment to obey?” Jesus summed it all up when 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.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

In other words, to obey is to act in love. This exactly what we have been learning. Love for God and neighbor is obedience, and obedience to these commands (which really sum up all of the commandments) demonstrates love for God and neighbor. If I love my neighbor, I will not steal from Him. If I love God, I will listen to Him and His will for my life. If I love God I won’t sin, because that hurts him. If I love my neighbor, I won’t sin, because that hurts her.

Now, in reality, I don’t always love perfectly in action. From the way I talked about marriage, you might think I’m the perfect husband. Not even close. Sometimes, not only do I not feel loving, but I don’t act in a loving way either. That’s true in my relationship with the Lord, and with others also.

But we need to realize this: through dying on the cross, rising again and sending the Holy Spirit, Jesus has made it possible for anyone to keep his commands. There are people who believe we can attain perfect behavior in this life. They are mistaken, and they take a very poor approach to understanding the Bible. But the power of Jesus’ death on the cross is such that when we fail, forgiveness is available to us, and we can continue as if we never failed to obey Him. While we don’t reach perfect behavior, through Jesus, our Spirits are counted as perfect by God. Because we are in relationship, not under law, we repent, receive the love and grace and forgiveness God has made available to us, and so continue on in obedience. Through Jesus’ work, it possible for us to be in, and to stay in, right relationship with Him.

When I hurt Kari, or vice versa, it doesn’t mean divorce. Instead, we come to each other honestly, talk it over, ask for, give and receive forgiveness, and then move on. Remember, marriage is supposed to be a reflection of God’s relationship with us, and that is exactly how it works with the Lord.

Spend a few minutes now, reflecting on what the Lord is saying to you.


What does it mean to obey God? Do we have to?

1 Samuel #13. The Obedience of Faith



(and what the heck does this picture have to do with it?)

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The Old Testament has a lot of value for us in many ways. We can learn from examples, both positive and negative. We can see how God deals with people who live by faith, and with those who don’t. We can receive comfort in God’s promises to his people (and if we trust Jesus, we are his people, those promises are for us). We can learn about God’s standard for holiness.

But we must never forget that the Old Testament is first and foremost about Jesus. The Life, death and resurrection of Jesus are the central concern not only of the New Testament, but also of the Old Testament. Luke describes how Jesus helped his disciples to understand this.

25 He said to them, “How unwise and slow you are to believe in your hearts all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into His glory? ” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. Luke 24:44-45 (ESV)

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures

The Jews divided the Old Testament into two parts: “the Law” or “the book of Moses” which are the first five books of Bible. The second part was called “the Prophets” and it included not only the books which we call “prophetic” but in fact, all of the other books of the Old Testament. So when the New Testament says “the Law and the Prophets” or “Moses and the Prophets” it means “the entire Old Testament.”

The purpose of the entire Bible is to help us to know Jesus better and walk with him in faith. So even as we read these Old Testament scriptures, we should be asking, “Lord, show us Jesus in this part of scripture.”

I think this is particularly important when we come to a section like 1 Samuel 15. We talked about the concerns of Holy War last time, but now we get to a part that is very easy to apply wrongly.

Saul disregarded the Lord’s command to utterly destroy the Amalekites. He spared the life of the Amalekite king. Quite possibly he did this because, out of fear for his own head, he wanted his followers as well as foreign armies, to differentiate between royalty and ordinary people. In any case, he disobeyed God’s command in this respect. He also allowed his followers to keep the best livestock alive. Once again, this may have been from insecurity. His warriors may have been grumbling about pointlessly killing good animals. Even if they weren’t, he may have wanted to appear gracious and become popular by rewarding those who fought with him. There may not be anything wrong with that, except that the Lord clearly commanded otherwise.

When Samuel confronts Saul about what he has done (or, failed to do) Saul claims that he has saved all the animals for sacrificing to the Lord. Frankly, I think he was lying. I think he got caught, and he decided in that moment to make up for his failure to obey by making a sacrifice with the captured animals.

Samuel says something very significant:

Then Samuel said: Does the LORD take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? Look: to obey is better than sacrifice, to pay attention is better than the fat of rams. (1Sam 15:22)

This is theme repeated throughout both the Old and New Testaments. The Psalms reference this exact concept several times. So does Isaiah, and Hosea. Jesus mentioned the idea a few times in the New Testament. Even so, we need to be careful as we apply this to our own lives. It is very easy to say, “That’s right. I just need to obey God. We just need to do the right thing. What’s the point of saying we follow God if we don’t obey him?” I understand this attitude, but I think it tends to lead us away from the true meaning of this passage.

First, I think it comes back again to the fact that Saul was religious, but had no relationship with God. What he did seemed good. Saving the animals to sacrifice later was a religious thing. After all, sacrifices were part of Jewish religion. But Saul used his religion to keep from actually interacting with God, actually listening to him and responding in faith to what God said. Jesus said the Pharisees were religious like Saul too, and he hated it. Instead of listening to what the Lord actually said, they practiced religion. So this is a warning to us, to not let religion get in the way of faith. Religion keeps track of rules and regulations to follow, instead of living in a real, faith-relationship. In all sincerity, I try not to be religious. But living in faith is very important to me. Sometimes “sacrifice” is obedience. But we don’t live by rules, rather by relationship.

Second, we must understand that Jesus fulfilled this passage on our behalf. The writer of Hebrews quotes Psalm 40, and says that it is fulfilled in Jesus:

6 ​​​​​​​​In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, ​​​​​​​but you have given me an open ear. ​​​​​​​Burnt offering and sin offering ​​​​​​​you have not required. ​​​ 7 ​​​​​​​​Then I said, “Behold, I have come; ​​​​​​​in the scroll of the book it is written of me: ​​​ 8 ​​​​​​​​I delight to do your will, O my God; ​​​​​​​your law is within my heart.” ​​​ Ps 40:6-8 (ESV)

Jesus delighted in God’s will. He didn’t live according to religious rules – the law of God was within his heart and during his time on earth he lived out that law through dependence upon the Father. He obeyed God perfectly. We cannot obey perfectly. So Jesus did it on our behalf. The obedience we owe God is complete and perfect in Jesus Christ, and only in Him. So when you think, “Oh, I have to obey God, because to obey is better than sacrifice” actually what you should hear is “I need to trust Jesus even more. Trusting him is my obedience, because has already done the obedience for me. Rather than act more religious, I need to trust more.” This is living by faith.

One reason we sometimes get confused is because obedience and trust can sometimes look the same. When you live by faith, it does result in certain actions. It does eliminate other actions. The bible does use the term “obedience.” But we must remember, it is the obedience of faith – not the self-effort of religion. Let me give you a little analogy to help us understand this.

I love spy/suspense shows like the Bourne Identity. Not everything in these shows is entirely righteous, but living in faith, we can find good things in them. Sometimes in shows like this, one of the characters may encounter a time-bomb. Picture a scene like this, where a lady has just a few seconds to defuse a bomb. She doesn’t know how to do it. But she gets on the phone with her friend who does. He tells her, “cut the blue wire, but be sure not to cut the red one.” So she carefully cuts the blue wire, but not the red one.

Now what is going on here? Is she obeying her friend, or trusting him?

Well, both, of course. But you see, her actions of obedience proceed from her trust of her friend. She trusts that he knows how to save her. She trusts that if she does what he says, she will be safe. And so, because of that trust, she acts according to what he says. She isn’t just doing what her bomb-expert friend says because it is the right thing to do. She isn’t doing it from a sense of moral obligation. She is “obeying” him because she trusts that he wants to save her life, and has the power (in this case knowledge) to do so.

You could call it obedience. But I would call it primarily trust. The obedience is a result of the trust.

I want to pursue this analogy a little bit further. In order to get this kind of trust-obedience, you need several factors. First, you have to believe that your life is really in danger. If the lady didn’t believe the bomb was real, chances are, she wouldn’t have called her friend anyway. She would not have been seeking the help she needed, because she wouldn’t have believed she needed it. Second, she had to believe that her friend had the knowledge that could save her. Third, she had to believe that her friend wanted to save her.

Peter expressed this attitude of faith. A lot of people had turned away from following God and Jesus was left with just the twelve apostles.

66 f After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to g the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have h the words of eternal life, 69 and i we have believed, and have come to know, that j you are k the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66)

When we encounter problems with obeying God in our own lives, I think it is usually a combination of these factors at play. Maybe we believe that the situation isn’t really very serious. Although we think obeying God is the right thing, when it comes down to it, we think we’ll be OK even if we don’t. We don’t see his words as life and salvation. So we don’t obey because we don’t believe our problem is that big.

Second, maybe we doubt whether God really has the answers we need. Perhaps we don’t obey him because we aren’t sure that what he is saying to us is relevant and helpful to us in our own situation. I think this was one of Saul’s major issues. He seemed to feel that God was fine for religious things, but in everyday life, you had to take care of yourself and use your common sense. Saul didn’t seem to think the command for Holy War was really right or had any value in his situation.

Third, we sometimes don’t obey because we aren’t sure we can trust God. Maybe we aren’t sure if he really has our best interests at heart.

Do you see the solution to the obedience problem – no matter what causes it? Faith. In each case, we need to change what we believe. We need to make a leap of trust. We need to trust that our situation is in fact serious, and we really do need the Lord to make it through life. We need to trust that the Lord really does have what it takes to save us, that his words are life; we need to trust that He is relevant in every moment of our lives. And we need to trust that he really has our best interests in his heart.

The devil likes to trick us into religion. Do the right thing because it is the right thing. And something in us responds to that. After all, it is the right thing. But is the wrong path, the wrong way to go about it. We can do the right thing with our own effort – for a while. But we fail eventually because it based upon our efforts, not the obedience that Jesus has already done on our behalf.

Then the devil likes to beat us up: You just aren’t obedient enough. You just don’t try hard enough. But the problem isn’t effort. The real solution lies in trusting more. Jesus has obeyed perfectly. His righteous obedience has become ours (2 Corinthians 5:21). Our part is to trust. If we do truly trust, then our lives will reflect the kind of actions the Lord desires. But it doesn’t start with our action, it starts with our trust.

So let me put it to you today. Do you trust that your situation is serious? Do you remember that no one gets out of this world without dying? Do you recognize that you are in a desperate place, the bomb is about to go off and you can only get help from one place?

Do you trust that the Lord has the right, relevant Word for you? Do you accept that he knows better than you, that he will save you if you trust him to?

And do you know that he wants to save you? Do you trust his goodness?

Take a moment right now to let the Lord into your thoughts and prayers as you consider these things.