A Question of Obedience
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 voice?
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 means to 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 commandments.
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 them.
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 abide in me. Abide (Greek meno) has the sense of making a home with, or settling down permanently with, or keeping on keeping on somewhere or with someone.
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 Hebrew.
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 vocabulary[i].
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 (Ephesians 6:5).
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.
Keep my 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 commandments?
love your 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 word obedience works 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 reference.
What Jesus commands us must be done from the heart; this is inherent in evangelical obedience.
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 heart
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.