Why Does Obedience Matter?

This is an edited sermon manuscript from a message I delivered on July 11, 2021. It was the second part of a 5-part series that acted in conjunction with my church’s Vacation Bible School titled “Building on the Rock.”

If you would prefer to listen to this sermon, click on this link here.

We are going to be continuing on with our sermon series that acts in conjunction with our Building on The Rock vacation Bible school happening downstairs.

And this, of course, is intentional.

We want you all, but especially those of you with kids or grandkids, to have the opportunity for further conversation on the subjects being taught. We are a church that recognizes and leans in to the importance of discipleship at home, because it really is parents who have the primary responsibility to teach their children about Christ. So, we hope these sermons serve as a resource for you as you continue to teach your kids or grandkids about the gospel of grace and peace.

And just as a brief refresh, here’s what’s been going on the last two weeks.   

We kicked things off with an overview of this year’s theme and key passage: Matthew 7:21-29. And within that sermon, we talked about the Parable of the Builders found at the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and explained that the two builders within that story both received the same message. Both of these builders also experienced the same storm. However, only the wise builder whose house was built on the rock endured. But the one who build on the sand was washed away. So, if we want to be people who are able to endure life’s storms, we need to imitate the wise builder in Jesus’ story. And this means that we first need to actually know the Rock, or know Jesus. We then need to obey him, remain faithful to him, and learn how to rely on him when times get rough.

Last Sunday, we then talked about the Rock, Jesus, and what it means to have an intimate communion with him as Savior and Lord. And this week, we’re building things up with the next theme in that list: obedience.

But obedience is kind of a dirty word today, right? Especially in the context of church.

Obedience is the name of the class that we take our dogs to when they’re young puppies so that they learn how to walk better on a leash. But most people I know don’t really like to follow rules if they aren’t forced to. And aren’t humans’ “masters of their own fate” and “captains of their own souls” like the famous poem Invictus by William Henley states?

More than this, though, as believers worshipping in a Protestant setting, isn’t obedience kind of tricky? Aren’t we saved by grace alone through faith alone and not by our works or actions? And if that’s the case, why does God even care what we do after we accept Jesus as Lord? Why does it matter if we’re obedient if we’ve already received our ticket into eternal life?

These are important, foundational questions. And I’d like all of us to explore them together just as our children’s ministry is doing this morning too.

Building on the Rock: Obedience

If there’s any passage of scripture in our Bibles that relates well to both obedience and the necessity of raising our children up in the Lord, it’s Deuteronomy 6.

Deuteronomy chapter 6 contains the Shema, a very famous and often repeated daily prayer for our Jewish brothers and sisters. It also contains a section of Moses’ farewell speech to Israel right before his death and their entrance into the Promised Land of Canaan. And in many ways, this chapter served as a mission’ statement for the people of Israel. It explained their existence, purpose, and calling as a people loved by God.

In fact, this chapter answered, for Israel at least, the questions I posed at the beginning of this message. It talks about both the “how” and the “why” of obedience. 

But before we think that this is just some irrelevant Old Testament thing, when Jesus was asked what the most important commandment in all of scripture was, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:4-5. This is a principal section of our Bibles; one we’d do well to familiarize ourselves with today. 

So, let’s do just that.

1. Hearing and obeying are synonyms. (Deuteronomy 6:4)

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

That is one short sentence, but it’s pregnant with meaning.

In fact, a few years back, one of the podcasts that I listen to regularly called The Bible Project did an entire extended series on this sentence in which they took all of the major words within it and talked about them individually for a good amount of time. Their first episode was just on the word “hear,” and that by itself was well over thirty minutes long. So, I did some quick math. In the translation of the Bible that I’m using, if you start from the word “hear” in Deuteronomy 6:4 and count until the word “righteousness” in 6:25, that’s 521 words. That means, if we expound on each word for a decent amount of time like The Bible Project did, we should be able to wrap this sermon up in just under 650 days. Sound good? I hope you packed a meal or two.

In all seriousness, though, there is a lot of heavy theological content packed into this short sentence, more than we will be able to adequately discuss today. But I do want to tease out a few things that are very relevant to the topic at hand. 

First, the word “hear.”

In Hebrew, the original language that Deuteronomy was written in, the word hear is pronounced shema. That’s where the title of that popular Jewish prayer finds its origins. But we also need to realize that language in the ancient Near East worked slightly differently than language does today in the West. For instance, it’s often the case that Hebrew verbs denote both mental activity and physical outcome at the same time. That is, words like hearing, knowing, remembering, walking, and so on are often meant to be understood in far broader terms than just their basic definition. When it says that Adam knew his wife in Genesis 4:1, the Bible isn’t just talking about Adam learning what Eve’s favorite food or flowers were. When it says that God remembered Noah, that also means that God acted in rescue on Noah’s behalf.

It’s similar with the word “hear” in Deuteronomy 6:4. Hear doesn’t just mean listening. It also means doing. It means obeying.

And there is, sort of, some overlap with how we use language in English too, right? For example, if you are married, I am sure that your husband or wife doesn’t just want you to listen to the words that they are speaking to you, but actually put them into practice. If your wife asks you to take the garbage out to the road and you hear her but don’t do so, you’re in trouble. And if you’ve ever had to gently scold your kids with an “are you listening!,” you probably weren’t just asking a question about their mental activity but instead about the desired physical outcome you expected.

Hearing and obeying are synonyms.

The word “hear,” in Deuteronomy 6:4 called ancient Israel to not only listen to the words being spoken by God through Moses, but also to obey them. These were the instructions of the one-God, and it would do them well to listen and obey the Creator and sustainer of life. But, of course, this isn’t just an Old Testament thing either. The link between hearing and obeying is found all throughout scripture. Consider two such instances:  

James 1:22-25 – “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.”

1 John 2:3-6 – “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”

If we were to attempt to summarize those two New Testament verses into one succinct sentence, we might say something like this:

“Obedience is the litmus test of genuine faith.”

James explained that anybody who only listens to God but doesn’t do what the Lord says isn’t being true to the faith. Mental assent alone isn’t good enough. Superficial surface-level agreement void of action is worthless. God’s word has to be put into practice. Similarly, John tells us that those who know Jesus keep his commands. Those who don’t keep his commands but claim they know him are merely lying because actual disciples of Christ strive to act like Jesus did. And this doesn’t mean that we have to perfectly obey the commands of God in order to gain salvation in Christ. That’s backwards. When we have genuine faith in Jesus, we are then so compelled to obey his commands.

In other words, obedience is the litmus test of genuine faith. That was true for ancient Israel. That was true for the early believers. And it’s still true today. So, if you are hearing the one-God but not obeying God, you really need to do some serious self-reflection. Hearing and doing are synonyms.

That gets us closer to answering the how of obedience to Jesus. But let’s continue on in Deuteronomy so that we can get an even fuller picture.

2. God asks for complete obedience in every part of our lives. (Deuteronomy 6:5-9)

I know that some of you reading this have had the opportunity to travel to Israel for study tours or for vacation. Some of you may have even visited the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, in Jerusalem. If so, you almost assuredly saw observers of Orthodox Judaism wearing some rather strange-looking clothing at least from our point of view.

That’s because many modern Jews take this passage in Deuteronomy 6, as well as a few others in Deuteronomy 11 and Exodus 13, literally. Phylacteries, also known as tefillin, are small animal-hide boxes that are fixed to the heads and forearms of Orthodox Jews. And inside these boxes are small chunks of the Old Testament. Or, relatedly, if you’ve ever had a Jewish neighbor, you might have noticed that they have what looks like a fancy capsule attached to the outside of their home. If you were to go and inspect that capsule, you’d again find a piece of parchment with a portion of Deuteronomy written on it.

But again, these mezuzahs exist because many observers of Judaism today read the passage we looked at a moment ago in its most literal sense. And if you are someone who has seen an Orthodox Jew in this attire, or if you have been made aware of a mezuzah fixed onto the entrance of a Jewish household, it might be hard for you to read Deuteronomy 6 and not think about that very rigid literal interpretation, too. You might even be tempted to discredit any sort of application from this chapter of Deuteronomy past verse 5.

But bear with me. Because, besides the fact that archeological evidence shows us that the Israelites did not actually read this text literally until the 2nd century B.C., or 1300 years after the time of Moses.[1] And besides the fact that Christians are not bound to Israelite boundary laws because of Christ’s sacrifice, I really do think that there is a lot we can learn about obedience to Jesus even here.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

This passage of scripture paints a portrait of complete devotion to God from the very depths of our being.

And like it was the case with the word “hear” in the verse before, there’s a lot more going on within this than can be captured in English. For example, the heart, in Old Testament times, wasn’t just thought of as the organ that pumps blood but the seat of human intellect. There is no ancient Hebrew word for “brain.” To ancient Israelites, the heart was the organ responsible for thinking and feeling. Something similar can be said about the word “soul” in this passage too. Many people think about souls from a western point of view that relies a lot more on the writings of Plato than the sayings of Moses or Jesus. But the word “soul” in the Old Testament, nephesh, is not talking about a ghost that lives inside your body which contains your conscience and will be released at death. Instead, a soul to an ancient Israelite was something that was thought to be found in your blood. It was your life-force. And it represented your whole person, your physical body, your thoughts, your internal conscience, all of it.[2]

And that verse ends with the command to love God, using your heart and soul, with as much strength as you can muster. That is to say, God requires that we love Him with our complete selves completely.

Our intellect, our emotions, and our bodies should be used in full obedience to Him.

But before we think that obedience to God is only a personal individualized pursuit, we need to again consider the rest of verses 5-9. We also need to realize that the phrase “these commands” in verse 6 isn’t referring just to the above two verses, but to the entirety of the law given to Israel through Moses. And it’s that wider grouping of commands, the law, that ancient Israel was to keep within their hearts, metaphorically attach to their heads and hands, and figuratively write on the outsides of their houses.

This is because those are the avenues in which God requires our obedience.

He wants us to be obedient within our hearts. He wants us to obediently use our hands for His good. And He wants us to remain obedient to Him within our homes and other social circles. We’re not only to have “no other gods before Him” as the first commandment states, but we’re also to not commit adultery or steal like the sixth and seventh commandments explain. Israel was not only to love God with their minds, but they were also to love God by abundantly caring for the poor as Deuteronomy 15:7-8 states, by making sure that justice wasn’t perverted through bribes or one-sided legal counsel like Deuteronomy 16:18-20 states, and by intentionally leaving some of their harvest out in the field so that foreigners and widows might have something to eat as Deuteronomy 24:19-22 tells us.

God requires that we love Him with our complete selves completely. However, obedience to Him is to be understood not just individually but also communally. The Lord requires obedience within every facet of our lives.

So, is there somewhere in your life where you are not being obedient to God? Is there somewhere where you are not fully devoting yourself to the Lord? Is it your prayer life that needs work? Is it your time studying God’s word? Or is it your witness at your place of employment? Is it your care for the marginalized and your commitment to learn how to love others who have been deemed unlovable? Is it your time on social media or on the internet?

And maybe the point has already been sufficiently made, but I feel like I need to stress again that obedience isn’t just an individualistic act that happens between our internal-self and God alone. That is part of it, of course, but it’s only half of the picture.

Christianity isn’t only about believing the right things but also about doing the right things, too.

3. By God’s grace we have been both freed from our slavery and commissioned to represent our new master. (Deuteronomy 6:10-25)

So this far, we’ve only attempted to answer the question of how we should be obedient to God. That is, we’ve seen that the Lord expects us to not only hear Him but to actually do what He tells us. And our allegiance to God isn’t just some personal individualistic piety but something that should encompass all aspects of our life.

But now that we’ve talked about the how, let’s move our attention to the why. Because it is a bit murky, right? We as Christians are saved by grace alone through faith alone. And if we’ve already accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, why does God care what we do? Why does it matter that we’re obedient if we’ve already received our ticket into eternal life?

I think that the rest of Deuteronomy 6 can help us find that answer. That’s because the remaining portion of this chapter describes for us a shifting of allegiances. It outlines Israel’s move from their slavery in Egypt into their freedom under Yahweh God.

The book of Exodus records the story of how God saved his people from Pharoah through a series of ten plagues and a literal splitting of the sea. God heard the cries of His oppressed people and brough about His justice and their salvation by His mighty arm. And this wasn’t because Israel deserved to be saved, or that they were some powerful nation, but only because the Lord loved and treasured them as Deuteronomy 7 explains. It was by His grace and mercy that He freed the people of Israel from the systems of bondage in the land of Egypt.

But God not only freed them from something but for something.

Israel no longer had to participate in the subjugation and slavery of their former lives. They no longer needed to follow Pharoah as their master or bow down to the gods of the Nile. Instead, they were invited to bow down to the one-God, the Creator and sustainer of the universe. They were invited to enjoy His good rule and His life-giving law. They were leaving a culture of death and were being welcomed into a new culture of love, peace, and mutuality.

Sometimes we mistakenly think about the Old Testament law as a subjugation in and of itself, right? But the original intent of it, however, was anything but. The demands of the law of God were put in place to bring about the flourishing of Israel. They were also implemented to become a vehicle by which the nation could put on display the righteousness and justice of God. If the people of Israel obeyed the Lord by obediently loving Him through individual and communal action, they would become a picture of God’s love on earth. If they practiced justice in the way the Lord asked them to, they would become a little representation of God’s cosmic universal justice. And this wasn’t just good for their nation. It was good for the entire world. Israel was meant to act as a blessing to the peoples around them, and through their obedient action, direct others toward the only God who could truly save.

So, this means that being obedient to God was the best thing an Israelite could do.

“Obedience” wasn’t a dirty word to them. In fact, obedience pointed in the right direction was freeing, liberating, and life-giving.

But of course, as humans, we all have the tendency to want to slip back into the bad habits and the sinful patterns we once participated in. No matter how bad things were, disorientation and temptation is real. And God understands this. In fact, He warned His people Israel against it. If they were to go backwards, things would go bad for them. If they were to continue to act like the Egyptians, they wouldn’t be properly representing God’s reign and rule. They would break the covenant they had made with the Lord. They would fail. And that meant that they would have to suffer the consequences of their actions and their failures.

However, that’s the difference between God’s people in the Old Testament and us today.

We all have failed. We all have sinned and have participated in patterns of wickedness. But Jesus came and took the consequence of our failure for us. He died so that all who put their trust in Him might live abundantly. Through his life, Jesus fulfilled the law. And through His death, he freed us from the penalty of breaking it.

But just like it was the case for Israel’s freedom from their slavery in Egypt, Jesus not only freed us from something, but he also freed us for something too.

As Paul explains it in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 –

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

In other words, while we were still sinners, Jesus came and died for us. He made a way for us have a right relationship with God the Father, and he formed us into a new people characterized by His peace and love. And as God’s new people, we’re to act as His ambassadors. Because of our freedom, we’re to obediently represent Christ and his coming kingdom here and now.

Or, and to use a few more modern metaphors, think of it like this:

Christians are meant to act like a delicious appetizer for the full course meal that’s still being prepared in the kitchen. Our fragrance and our taste is meant to serve as a teaser to the even better thing coming in just a few moments. Or maybe we’re like a good movie trailer that appropriately brings excitement to the crowd of people watching it. We show a glimpse of the action, humor, and cinematography, and we sufficiently get customers pre-ordering their tickets in anticipation of the film’s full release.

But all in all, being obedient to Jesus is the best thing a Christian can do. Not only does obedience allow us to fully enjoy the way of life that God has deemed good, but obedience also enables us to adequately point others toward the only One who is truly able to save. 

Scripture tells us that hearing and doing are synonyms.

This means that if you know God’s word, you’ve got to follow God’s word.

And if you know God’s word, you’ll also know that the Lord demands obedience in all facets of our life. He doesn’t just want us to believe the right things about Him, but He asks that we do the right things in His name as well.

Being a good person alone won’t save you. But having the desire to obediently conform yourself to the good standard that God describes might be a good indicator that you already are. Said in a different way: obedience is the litmus test of genuine faith.

Obedience isn’t a dirty word. And it is still something that matters especially after we’ve accepted Christ as Lord.

In fact, being obedient to Jesus is the best thing a Christian can do.

[1] See: J. Taylor Freidman’s “Wearing the Bible: A Social and Material History of Tefillin,” Masters Thesis, (McGill University, Montreal; 2016).

[2] https://bibleproject.com/podcast/you-are-soul/

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