Google the word obedience and
check the images thrown up. Our culture, on this evidence at least, associates
the word obedience with something
stark, hard, uncompromising, unfeeling –
something from above, that puts us in a passive and inferior position –
something that strips us of individuality, that
allows no dialogue.
Discussions of Christian ethics, from an evangelical position at least,
put a high value on obedience. But
are we being heard aright? Are we even hearing ourselves? If we ask, does the
word obedience appear in the Hebrew and Greek, the answer is of course no. It’s
an English word! The question is, is it the right word to translate the terms
in the original languages?
In Hebrew obey commonly
translates shema; which simply means hear. Shema is often accompanied by the
word kol, voice. Hear my voice in Hebrew is often translated obey. Does obey render that to you; does it capture the direct and
personal (and intimate?) quality of hear my
The meaning is to hearken, to hear and pay attention and do. DBD from
an earlier generation, regards it as equivalent to obey, but thus translated
today, aren’t we losing something –
something personal, rooted in covenant theology? Evangelical faith emphasises
hearing God for ourselves, and knowing and trusting that also God hears us when
we speak to God. Deuteronomy 4:7 The Lord our God is near us whenever we pray.
When the sergeant major barks an order it’s not personal, it’s one way –
it someone in authority system backed by army regulations, requiring us to act
according to the rules, to obey, according to orders received from above. The
Ten Commandments are the expression of the character of God, holy,
compassionate, good - they are from God’s own self. The Torah is not simply a
book of Laws; it is revelatory of God.
Parallel with the word Shema
is another Hebrew word often translated obey
- the word shamar, which meansto keep.
It’s used over 400 times. God says keep my
commandment. Shamar has its origins
in the quite concrete sense of watching over, guarding - Adam
and Eve kept the garden; shepherds kept the flock; the warder kept
the captives; the watchman kept watch
over the city; you can keep food, keep your temper, keep the covenant , keep the
The basic idea is to exercise great
care. It’s a command as a personal trust, a keeping out of personal loyalty or
responsibility. In the marriage service the partners still swear to love, honour
and keep each other. It is the
keeping of the commandments in personal loyal faithfulness that the Old
Testament means by obeying. This connects shamar
closely with shema. Shamar combined
with asah, to do, (thus hear to do) means to do diligently. There is another word natsar which in a small number of cases is used in exactly the same
way eg Psalm 119: 2; blessed are they
that keep his testimonies.
These are some of the First Testament terms. They express a personal
dimension of involvement which our word obey,
as it is heard in our culture, has lost. Yes, it is about obedience – but
obedience nurtured in personal relationship with the God whose steadfast love
endures for ever, and who gives us his commands, not that we should
unquestioningly jump to it in a bare
obedience, but that we should keep
The classic First Testament statement is the the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4 hear o Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is
one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all
your strength. These commandments that I give to you this day are to be upon
your hearts ---
Love here is ahav – pretty
much the all-purpose Hebrew word for love – as in the Song of Solomon; and elsewhere - love
the stranger in giving him food; how long will you love vanity; he loves
righteousness; whoever loves transgression loves strife – take your only son whom you love.
The Shema calls for an exclusive inward devotion to God and
readiness to make sacrifices, even of possessions and life. It’s not mere obedience – it’s
heartfelt obedience, the height of the Old Testament faith.
And Jesus took the call of God to a new depth. He says that joined to
him we are like the branch in the vinestock – Jesus very life and being is in
us, by his Spirit. We are free because we share His freedom. And in this
passage about the vinestock in John 15, Jesus says abidein me. Abide (Greek
meno) has the sense of making a home
with, or settling down permanently with, or keeping on keeping on somewhere or
Jesus says, as the Father
has loved me, so have I loved you; abide
in my love.
And then he says,
And if you keep my commandments you will abide in my love
Here we have keep again; in
New Testament Greek the word is tereo.
Its origins are to keep in custody, or to keep something safe, to watch over or
guard something. Then by transferred sense it means, to give heed, to pay attention. It implies watchful care. It is
characteristic of John’s usage.
So - keep; often translated obey, e.g.
in the original NIV translation.Yes,
but keep implies taking
responsibility for keeping whole these good things, keeping the commandments as
a personal trust from Jesus – so that we bear his fruit. Keep my commandments them so your joy may be full – for they are
life. What we keep is actually the trust from Jesus.
The origin of our English word obey is the Latin ob toward and audire, to listen – to listen toward, to give ear, -
originally then, hearing, as in
It makes its appearance in English in the late 13c from French, with a
sense of to obey or do ones duty. So
it does mean obey as we mean it now? Yes and no. You have to contextualise it.
In feudal times the duty you owed was not to an abstraction – it was to your
lord who in return owed to you protection. Obeying related to a personal
relationship, or at least a feudal relationship with a particular person, sworn
before God. So it’s not hugely removed from the concept of covenant in the OT.
In the New Testament, another word in the keep/guard group is phulasso, to guard or watch – all these things I have kept from my youth.
Other words signifying obedience are from the acouo stem – to hear. You would be hard put to find many words in
New Testament Greek with the sense of obey outside the hearing/keeping
Having said this, there is the term, hupacouo - to hearken submissively, to obey, and its associated forms
translated obedience, obedient. Hupo means under.
Hupacouo, to obey under. Many of
these uses are however concerned with situations of social hierarchy, servants
obeying masters (Col 3:22), children obeying parents (Ephesians 6:1); it is
also used of the winds and waves obeying Christ (Mark 4:41), or the unclean
spirits obeying him(Mark 1:27).
Sometimes humble submission and
acceptance better captures the sense of hupacouo – he learned obedience by the things that he suffered (Hebrews
5:8).Philippians 2:8, he humbled himself and became obedient unto
death. But even for servants the obedience given, as Christians, to masters
is to be wholehearted, fearing the Lord (Col
3:22), in singleness of heart
So to answer the question I posed at the beginning, is the word
obey/obedience found in the original languages – no, at least not with the
rather abstract feel of our English word – rather with the concrete senses of hear, hearken to, and keep and carry out.
The Oxford Concise Dictionary defines obedience in current usage as compliance with an order or law or
submission to another’s authority. We
measure obedience by the fact of the act, and of our will to do the act, not on
the from the heart quality, the wholeness
of the relationship which gives meaning and power to God’s call to keep.
commandments so your joy may be full.
So what we keep is actually the trust or charge from Jesus, and we keep
it in the grace of the Holy Spirit. This is evangelical obedience – quite
different from legalistic obedience which may simply outward compliance. It’s
the embracing of God’s purpose and being.
In John 15:14 - 17 Jesus says
As my father
has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love
if you keep
my command you will abide in my love; my command is this; love each other as I
have loved you
You are my
friends if you do what I command; this is my command – love one another
There is a dialectical movement here; love and command are paradoxically
defined in terms of each other;
Our problem is partly that we tend to hear the word command as a
negative, addressed simply to the will. This is because of the inherent
rebelliousness of the heart
But Jesus is saying – keep my
commandments –my commandments – and
we know how Jesus turns things upside down. His commandments are not
burdensome. His commandments are tremendously positive.
So what are some of Jesus
enemies; forgive; give; ask; pray and do not lose heart; be peacemakers; hunger
and thirst for righteousness; be merciful; let your light shine; do to others
as you would have them do to you; turn the other cheek.
Of course here and elsewhere Jesus sets a high standard; but what is true
of these commandments is true of all his commandments, they are commandments of
freedom; commands to the heart.
Therefore think positive when
you think commandments
And think loyalty to Jesus
when you think commandments
Is obedience importance – yes – it’s keeping with Jesus and letting his
life flow in us. Ii is critically important to really do in God’s way all God
has for us, desires for us. To serve him is perfect freedom. I do not think “obedience”
is optional – but I do not think the wordobedienceworks very
well nowadays. Perhaps this is why, in The Message paraphrase, Eugene
Petersen used very sparingly.
Now why doesn’t it work?
In a famous analysis of modern society Peter Berger (in The Homeless
Mind, Penguin 1974) says that the lived experience of modern society is
dominated by two major factors – the dominance of technology and the dominance
of bureaucracy. We live in a world today of mass existence; we live in a
system. What do teachers and social
workers and police complain of?– that they have to fill in so many forms. We
are having to comply all the time; and when we come up against authority we
have to obey it or go through highly structures complaints procedures to
challenge it. Moreover our work is dominated by standard operating procedures;
work routines have been standardised along rational scientific lines. This
experience shapes our responses below our conscious awareness.
So we are immersed in a world experience of obedience to bureaucracy and
compliance with standard procedures – a world essentially impersonal. That
is, what obedience means now, for us, is different to what it meant in 1611.
There, obedience to the law or to command took place in a small scale society
where you had a definite relationship with those you obeyed. The law was the
Queens law – and people’s personal feeling about Elizabeth the First was quite
different to our feeling about Elizabeth the Second[ii].
I’d suggest then that obedience no longer adequately translates what the
Bible means by hearing and doing, because the word obedience has shifted its
What Jesus commands us must be done from the heart; this is inherent in
Is doing Christ’s command easy? -
no precisely because it challenges our
very heart, our deepest attitudes, all those remnants of sin in us. Whether it’s
our fundamental selfishness, or pride, or laziness, or unforgiveness – our doing is always very imperfect.
And if we are under temptation – then obedience can be appallingly
difficult – this is where thou shalt not
really bites. Obedience in matters touching the depths of the soul demands a
profound act – an act finally not of the will but of faith; for only as Christ
delivers us from our hardness of heart so that can we do his will from the
Commandments – yes - faithfully kept.
We only hear the word in our context in terms of compliance to a
hierarchical authority or bureaucratic or scientific operating procedures.
But what is commanded by Christ is commanded in love and is delivered to us bound
up in Christ’s promise; our keeping his command must never be divorced from
promise of grace on God’s side and loyalty on ours, lived from the new life of
Christ in us.
[i] There is a word peitho never used of obedience to God or Christ,
but rather to alien authorities
[ii]The Civil War of the
1640s and 50s shows how far and how quickly the bonds of society loosened and
the modern world came in; the King’s head was cut off!
The Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia (ACANZP) is on a journey of understanding in respect of Scripture and human sexuality. In August 2007 it held the first of three Hermeneutical Hui. It was an introduction to hermeneutics. The second was held in May 2009. It's topic was Scripture and Church. The third is likely to be held in 2010. It's topic will be Scripture and Human Sexuality.
During the second hui a point was made in a discussion between some evangelical Anglicans: we have not done work ourselves on how we understand the Bible in relation to homosexuality ... or marriage and divorce ... or, for that matter, the ordination of women.
We may organise some hui ourselves. In the meantime this blog may be of service in developing an evangelical hermeneutic 'Down Under' (Australians welcome too!).
Why a specifically 'evangelical' blog? Well, it's possible another site may be developed which will be a kind of 'whole of ACANZP' site. On such a site presumably everything will be up for discussion, and all perspectives will contribute. On this site I hope we will not have to debate matters on which evangelicals generally have a common understanding. Comments from other perspectives are very welcome - but posts from other perspectives will be directed towards this other proposed site. Out of the deliberations here I hope some good ideas will feed on to the larger site.
There will be no posts/comments accepted which are not in accordance with respecting 'the other person', whoever that may be, as one made in the image of God; similarly for posts/comments which make presumptions about the sins and failings of 'the other side'.
I will keep under review Anonymous comments. My preference is for commenters here to name themselves when simply discussing issues. Those wishing to talk about their experiences may have understandable reasons for remaining Anonymous.
If you wish to submit something to be posted, please let me know in a comment or email to: email@example.com
Finally, a last word from our sponsor, Soren Kierkegaard,
"The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament."
We are guided by traditional interpretation: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (what is believed everywhere, always, by all) - Vincent of Lerins, d. 450.
We are wary of 'private judgement': it is more likely that the judgement of many scholars is correct than our own judgement as individuals.
We seek what the text meant when written and when incorporated into the canon of Scripture, and seek its meaning for today -both how we understand the text and how we might apply it.
We explore the world behind the text (the historical context in which the text was composed), the world within the text (the narrative world created by the text itself), and the world before the text (the world in which we as readers belong) in order to understand the text from multiple perspectives.
We read any text against the background of the whole of Scripture, seeking an understanding which is not contradictory of the remainder of Scripture; and seeking the light of Scripture as a whole to illuminate the understanding of its parts.
We acknowledge the role of our own cultural context affecting the way we read Scripture: like fish in water we may not be aware that other contexts for life exist in which there may be more light!