Like many kids who were brought up attending a non-institutional church in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I heard a lot of sermons about strictly obeying God’s word. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that it was the favorite topic for a sermon or a Bible class. The elders back then were men who had been through the big brotherhood blowups in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and they came away from that saying “Never again.” As it should, the preaching reflected the elders’ concerns.
Those elders and preachers were good men to whom I owe a debt, but there was one thing that always bothered me about those sermons. They were very clear about what we should do, but they were less clear about why we should do it. When they did provide reasons, they provided reasons like, “Because it’s what the Bible says,” or “Because God will blast us if we don’t.”
Now, I think those things are true, but they also provide a woefully incomplete picture of the Scriptural witness on the subject. Why should we care about measuring our work here by the standard of the Scriptures? Why should it be important to us to do all things in the name or the Lord? Let’s answer these questions by taking a look at the why of obedience.
I think our path to understanding the subject begins with UNDERSTANDING THE KINGDOM. Here, let’s look at Luke 17:20-21. Another one of those things that I heard growing up all the time was that in Scripture, the kingdom was the church, and vice versa. It was only when I became an adult that I realized that things were more complicated, and this was the key text that helped me get there. There are other texts where equating “kingdom” with “church” works pretty well, and the two concepts are definitely related, but it simply doesn’t work here.
Here’s the problem. Jesus tells us, among other things, that the kingdom does not come with signs to be observed. However, on the day of Pentecost, the church was established to the sound of a mighty wind, to the sight of tongues of fire, and to uneducated men proclaiming Jesus in languages they’d never studied. In other words, the church did come with signs to be observed. This is not a passage where connecting “kingdom” with “church” makes any sense at all.
It serves, then, as a useful gateway to a more expansive view of “kingdom”. Scripturally speaking, the kingdom actually is the personal sovereignty or dominion of God. This is why in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come” is followed by “Your will be done.” Those two phrases are parallel. They mean the same thing. When we acknowledge God as King by doing His will, we show that we belong to His kingdom. The more people obey Him, the more His kingdom, the sphere of His personal sovereignty, will grow.
Now, in all of this, I’ve used the word “personal” a couple of times, and it’s because those of us who are in God’s kingdom have A COVENANT RELATIONSHIP with Him. We see what this means in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18. Notice the contrast that Paul is making here. He’s telling the Corinthians that they must not be joined in a spiritual relationship with unbelievers. Instead, they are supposed to seek out a relationship with God. God wants to dwell with them and walk among them, so that He can be their God and they can be His people. However, if that’s the relationship that they want with Him, the only way they can get there is through separation from the world.
Some of you are probably listening to this and wondering what in the world having a relationship with God has to do with obedience. The truth is, friends, that unless we come at obedience to God from a relationship perspective, we are going to misunderstand it.
In our society, we are under a lot of entities that don’t have a relationship with us. For instance, I am certainly under the oversight of the IRS, but I don’t have any kind of personal relationship with them. My wife and I send them a check four times a year and hope not to hear from them otherwise.
That’s not how God’s oversight over us is. Instead, it’s very personal. He has committed Himself to us as our God, and we have committed ourselves to Him as His people. We belong to each other now. It’s true that God is our superior and we are His inferiors, but that does not diminish the depth of our relationship with Him or its emotional underpinnings.
This is why, for instance, God takes PERSONAL JOY in our obedience to Him. To pick one example of probably hundreds in the Bible, look at Hebrews 13:15-16. Here is an awe-inspiring thought. God is infinitely greater than we are, yet rather than regarding us as beneath His contempt, it actually makes Him happy when we offer Him our wildly inadequate songs of praise and pitifully incomplete acts of obedience. Why? Because God is concerned not so much with what we have done, but with who has done it. Because we are specially and uniquely His.
It’s like this. Like most children do, my kids bring me the art that they make and the little things that they write, and like most parents do, I make a big deal over those things and appreciate them. If you go to my Facebook page right now, you’ll see that my background photo is a piece of paper on which, when Zoë was about 5, she wrote “Precept + promise + law + love = Bible.”
I don’t have it up there because pulling that out of the hymn is so insightful, though I still think it’s pretty good for a 5-year-old. I certainly don’t have it up there because Zoë’s 5-year-old penmanship was so calligraphically wonderful. Instead, fundamentally, I have that because my daughter wrote it and she’s my daughter.
It’s the same with us. In comparison to the vastness of the universe, none of us will ever do anything that matters. However, it matters to God, and it matters because we are His sons and His daughters. His relationship with us allows us to please Him.
Of course, the flip side of the coin is that God takes PERSONAL OFFENSE at our sin. Once again, there are lots of passages to choose from, but this certainly appears in Jeremiah 2:20. This is hard to read, brethren, and it’s hard to read because of the passionate blend of anger and hurt and love that leads God to describe the sin of His people in such graphic, ugly language.
The IRS doesn’t do that. If we don’t pay our taxes and the IRS figures it out, we don’t get a passionate letter from them in which they describe our online shopping spree as committing financial adultery with Amazon. All the IRS wants is its money, and once it gets its money from us, along with the accompanying penalties and fines, it will go right back to being indifferent.
God, though, doesn’t want anything external to us. He wants us. As James puts it, He yearns jealously over the spirit that He has made to dwell in us. We promised to give ourselves exclusively to Him, body and soul and everything, and when we don’t, God reacts to that like we betrayed Him, because it is a betrayal. When we try to reduce our relationship to Him down to IRS terms, to asking how little we can give Him, how we can meet that minimum requirement, we are completely missing the point.
Instead, we should make it OUR AIM TO PLEASE HIM. This idea comes from 2 Corinthians 5:6-9. Here, I think we’re hitting on a truth that extends beyond our relationship with God. It is this: whenever we want to make somebody happy, we make our decisions with what we know about them in mind.
Let me illustrate. As my wife will tell you—well, maybe she won’t tell you, but it’s true—I am the world’s worst gift-giver. Whatever it is in most people’s brains that makes them care about giving and receiving gifts, that part in my brain is broken.
However, even though I’m stuck way at the bottom of the remedial gift-giving class, I know this much. I know that when I’m buying a gift for Lauren, I need to buy something according to what she likes, not according to what I like. There should not be any science-fiction novels inside that gift bag. There should not be any computer games. There should not be any yearly passes to national parks. If any of those things do show up, then she is going to accuse me, and rightfully so, of thinking more about myself than about her.
Doesn’t the same thing hold true of our service to God? If we’re really thinking about Him and not ourselves, aren’t we going to give Him the things that we know He likes too? This, then, is why we search the Scriptures. We’re not desperately trying to perfect our eternal fire-insurance policy. We’re desperately trying to figure out everything that will make God happy, because we love Him so much. If we consult ourselves instead of the word, so that we end up giving God the spiritual equivalent of science-fiction novels, that says something about our love too, but it doesn’t say that we love Him.
In fact, let’s wrap things up this morning by considering THE CONTROL OF LOVE. Here, look just a few verses down, at 2 Corinthians 5:14-15. This, friends, is the only logical way that we can react to the dying love of Christ. Because He died for us, for Him, we die to ourselves. Once we acknowledge what He has done, we are controlled forever after by His love.
If indeed we are controlled by the love of Christ, both individually and as a church, it will dramatically alter our behavior. It means that we won’t do what we want. It means that we will do what He wants.
Let me give you an example. A few years ago, my dad bought Marky a remote-controlled car. It didn’t last real long, but it was fun while it lasted! I knew the end was coming for it when it started going off in the middle of the night. Nobody would be touching the controls, nobody would even be downstairs, but you could hear the wheels start turning randomly. A remote-controlled car that starts operating without directions is a broken car.
In the same way, brethren, a church that acts without direction from God is a broken church. It is no longer under His control. It’s no longer working as it should. Sure, the wheels might be spinning, but it’s not going where He wants. If we ever reach that point as a church, we will no longer be able to say that we are living for Him. All we will be doing is living for ourselves and lying to ourselves.