In asking this question I mean true, genuine obedience – the kind of obedience God is looking for from people who love and worship Him.
Some might answer that genuine obedience is doing exactly what God commands in the way He commands it. There is certainly much to commend this view from a human standpoint and even from a biblical point of view also. I certainly have nothing against doing what God commands. In fact, I am all for it. But I believe there is more involved than just strict adherence to a set formula for worship or for any other thing.
There are people who take a narrow view of obedience as if the precise thing commanded is all they see. They are strict in their interpretation and consistent in their application of it. Everything must be done and must be done right or one is doomed to everlasting destruction. There is little beyond their interpretation of what God requires they are interested in. These are usually labeled as “conservative” in terms of their religion. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were strict-constructionist conservatives.
Others take the view that it doesn’t matter so much what you do as long as one means well in what one does. People who take this view are much more relaxed in their attitude. As far as they are concerned, it doesn’t so much matter what you do or how you do it, just as long as you do something and are sincere about it. Of course, these people are labeled as being “liberal” in their spiritual outlook. The Sadducees in New Testament times were the liberals of that day.
But it really doesn’t matter how people look at the question of what obedience to God consists of. What matters is how does God look at it! And He certainly has said enough about what He expects of man so that we might know exactly what He does expect of us. Does God only look at the strictness of our obedience or is there something beyond merely the doing of certain acts – things that the acts themselves point to and prepare us for that are necessary for proper obedience?
Take for example the Jewish nation in the days of Isaiah:
“Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Give ear to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
“When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?
Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.” (Isaiah 1:10-14).
In these verses, God refers to the rulers of His people as rulers of Sodom and Gomorrah. That is, though those wicked cities had long been destroyed, the spirit which had characterized them lived on among these people who should have been doing far better than they were.
Hadn’t God commanded sacrifices and offerings? New moons and Sabbaths? Solemn assemblies and convocations? These people would have argued that they were doing exactly what God commanded them to do. There are many today who would say that these people were doing exactly what God wanted. Yet God says that He did not delight in their sacrifices, that their incense offerings were an abomination to him and that their solemn observances He hated – they had become a burden He was weary of bearing.
What was there about the religious activities of these people that had so offended God? First, they had no real reverence for Him. He said that when they came into the temple courts they were just trampling about, wearing out the floor. They were there, not because they loved God or really desired to honor Him, but were simply “doing their duty.” They would have contended that they were obeying God, but God said they were far from doing what He really wanted of them.
Secondly, they did not have the right attitude toward their fellow man. This was one of the egregious sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. God, through the prophet Ezekiel, says that the sins of Sodom were… “…pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy…” (Ezekiel 16:49).
In the verses that follow, God not only tells the Jews that He knew what their lives were like, but because they were doing what they were doing toward their fellow man He would not accept their worship.
“When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.” (Isaiah 1:15)
Were all of these people murderers? That hardly seems possible. Maybe they knew of murders taking place and had not called for justice. More likely it was simply a matter of them not loving their fellow human beings. In the New Testament John tells us; “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 John 3:15). In biblical language, hate can simply be the absence of concern for the welfare of another. Such an absence of concern would lead to them taking unfair advantage of those who could not defend themselves or at least being indifferent when someone else was doing it to someone. This is exactly what the rich and powerful among them were doing.
“Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not bring justice to the fatherless,
and the widow’s cause does not come to them.” (Isaiah 1:23).
Whatever it was, it canceled their “obedience” and brought the wrath of God down upon them.
What did God really want of these people? Was it any different from what He wants of us? Here is what He told them…
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:16-17).
What God really wanted from them was that they get rid of the sin – the wrong attitudes and wrong actions. Their lives were filthy with wickedness. He wanted them to clean up their act. They had to quit their evil ways. They had to get their lives right before Him.
Then He wanted them to start acting responsibly toward their fellow man. Instead of being indifferent to the plight of the weak and helpless who were being preyed upon by unscrupulous oppressors, they were to stand up beside the weak and defend them. They were to seek redress for wrongs done to others. They were to do good – to help, to provide, to support and strengthen those whom they had the power to help.
How is it then that today faithfulness to God is determined (in the minds of some) by the precision of our performance of “worship” practices? Or by the correctness of the form of the church? Or by the “orthodoxy” of our doctrine? Or by a thousand and one other things? Why is it that there is so little emphasis given to the things God really wants of His people?
In a passage very similar to Isaiah 1, the prophet Amos records the words of God as to what God really wants…
“But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21).
The prophet Micah told the people the same thing…
“He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
In the New Testament that is expressed in one word – LOVE.
“For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:9-10).
Just not committing adultery or not murdering, stealing or coveting was not obedience to the commandments of God. This is what the Jews in Jesus’ day thought was obedience. They thought that as long as they adhered to the letter of the law that they were approved by God. They did not see that the object of the law was not just rote performance, but transformation of the heart into the likeness of God.
Not doing something is passive and while it may not result in harm to anyone, neither does it do anyone any good. The obedience God requires of us is to love. Love cannot be passive. The very word demands action. Love is “active” good will toward our fellow man. If you want to see what obedience looks like, find someone whose life is filled with deeds of loving-kindness toward their fellow man. That is the kind of obedience God is interested in.