From the dawn of time, a loving God has only asked one thing of man, His supreme creation, and that one thing is obedience. Not because He desires a servile, craven humanity, languishing under a Nebuchadnezzar-style autocracy, but because He is righteous, pure, and merciful. He alone knows what is best for mankind and desires that His will is sought and obeyed in order that He can justly pour out His blessings on a people in harmony with His plan and His purpose.
In Eden’s garden everything was designed and prepared for the enjoyment and blessing of Adam and Eve, with just one caveat in respect of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Because God desired an intelligent and willing subjection to His revealed will, He did not form man with a robotic mind. Rather, He endowed him with an amazing intellect, an ability to weigh up alternatives, form opinions and make decisions based on certain standards. We know that Adam exercised his will in disobedience to the commandment of God, leaving the Almighty no alternative but to act in righteous judgement. Not, however, before revealing His great plan, conceived in the eternal mind, to bring mankind into ultimate blessing, founded not on effort, reason or logic, but on simple obedience to His word.
The familiar catalogue of faith in Hebrews chapter 11 is, in essence, a record of obedience seen in the lives of Old Testament believers. Abel’s obedience in bringing an approved sacrificial offering may have cost him his life, but it earned him the accolade of heaven. Enoch’s obedience resulted in a walk with God, a life that pleased God and a premature entrance into heaven. We would never have heard of Noah if he had disobeyed God’s instruction to build an ark; he, with his family, would have perished in the flood. And faithful Abraham, ‘when he was called … obeyed’, v. 8, even though he had no idea where he was going!
And Moses, taught by his own mother though in Pharaoh’s palace, cast in his lot with the enslaved Hebrew nation. Not because they were his own natural kin, but because they were ‘the people of God’, v. 25. He considered and weighed the choice before him, then ‘forsook Egypt’, v. 27, because the obedience of faith always looks forward, and Moses ‘had respect unto the recompense of the reward’. Joshua is not mentioned by name, but, in verse 30, the results of his obedience are seen. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God’s ways and thoughts are inestimably higher than ours, Isa. 55. 8, 9. They may not always seem logical, understandable, or even reasonable to our puny minds, but obedience to them always results in blessing.
Think, for a moment, of the instructions given to Joshua as he viewed the mighty, impregnable fortress of Jericho. All the Israelite men of war were to walk round the city followed by seven priests with the ark and trumpets; one circuit for each of the first six days, then seven times on the seventh. A huge cacophony of sound was to follow, and Joshua was assured that the walls would fall down flat. Think about it; does it sound rational, plausible, or even sensible? Not really, but because God had said it, that was sufficient for Joshua. He simply obeyed and seven days later Israel’s armies marched into a Jericho reduced to rubble!</p
The remaining verses of Hebrews chapter 11 tell the same story, about men and women who gained victories, who triumphed in seemingly impossible circumstances, because they followed the word of God. Others, prepared to endure trials, faced hardship and even death, rather than be disobedient to the will of God as revealed to them.
But someone may be asking, quite understandably, what possible relevance does all this Old Testament history have to do with my church life in the present time? Well, first, we have adequate evidence in the New Testament to assure us that we cannot afford to ignore the Old. In Hebrews chapter 12, the faithful ones of chapter 11 are seen as a ‘cloud of witnesses’, not observers of us but examples to us as we run our race through life. In Romans chapter 15 verse 4, we learn that the things ‘written aforetime were written for our learning’. Again, in 1 Corinthians chapter 10 verse 11, referring to the experiences of the Israelites in the wilderness, ‘all these things happened unto them for ensamples [as types]: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come’. The local church or assembly is essentially a New Testament revelation, but, because our God is immutable, there are pictures and principles in the Old Testament which help us in our understanding of His purposes for us.
The Lord Jesus said, in Matthew chapter 16 verse 18, ‘I will build my church’. That work has been continuing for almost 2000 years, with the Spirit of God actively engaged in calling both Jews and Gentiles to salvation in order to form the church. This is explained and portrayed pictorially in the Epistles, as a body, a building and a bride, with the Lord Jesus as the Head, the Chief Corner Stone and the Bridegroom.
In the early years of the first century, as the gospel was preached and many souls were saved, it soon became evident that it was impossible and impractical for the entire church to meet together in one place. So, groups of Christians in a particular town or area would meet together, often in homes, as a representation of the whole church within a locality.
But though separated geographically and culturally, each group of Christians was indwelt and taught by the Spirit of God and by the apostles and teachers gifted to explain and give instruction for the correct and orderly conduct expected of those who professed discipleship of the Lord Jesus. The principles and practice, taught and imbibed, was passed on to the following generations as instructed by Paul to Timothy, 2 Tim. 2. 2.
The Lord Jesus had told His disciples that, after His return to heaven, the Holy Spirit would undertake the work of the teacher. ‘He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you’, John 14. 26, so providing the foundation for the gospel records. Furthermore, in chapter 16, verse 13, promise was given that, ‘he will guide you into all truth … and he will shew you things to come’, truth recorded in the apostolic writings and in the book of Revelation. By the time the apostles passed off the scene, their writing and teaching had become established and in this way the groups of believers in each locality could be sure that, together with Old Testament writings, they had an inspired manual of truth and instruction as a foundation of their faith and upon which they could base their manner of life.
Words spoken by the Lord Jesus, just before He was taken back into heaven come ringing down the centuries, inspiring, challenging and as relevant as the day in which they were spoken, ‘Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them … teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you’, Matt. 28. 19, 20. A good soldier obeys the last instruction given by his superior. Today, we are engaged in a warfare and the instruction has not changed!
Throughout the world, groups of believers meet together with no ecclesiastical hierarchy, no ordained clergy, owning the Bible, the inspired word of God, as handbook, guide and final authority in all matters of doctrine and practice. The phrase ‘all things whatsoever I have commanded you’, quoted above, is not limited to the teaching and instructions given by the Lord Jesus during His earthly ministry. True it is that He made clear to His disciples their responsibility toward one another, as He spoke of love and forgiveness. But writing later to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul made it clear that ‘the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord’, 1 Cor. 14. 37, a phrase which embraces all the apostolic writings and leaves no room for any, individually or collectively, to pick and choose their own agenda.
Perhaps it would be appropriate to acknowledge that, even with the best of intention and endeavour, no individual or company of believers can claim full obedience in every detail and at all times. Such an attitude would be at best presumptuous and at worst arrogant. However, within the context and structure of a New Testament assembly, every effort should be made to obey the revealed word of God and to manifest this in a practical way.
In the matter of the gospel we preach, salvation is through obedience. Paul, in Acts chapter 17, made it clear that ‘God … now commandeth all men everywhere to repent’. To the Thessalonians he wrote of dire consequences falling on those that ‘know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ’,
2 Thess. 1. 8. Subsequent to salvation the Lord expects obedience in baptism, and the scriptural manner clearly taught is by immersion, signifying death, burial and resurrection with Christ.
One of the greatest privileges enjoyed by a Christian assembly is to obey the Lord’s request, made in the upper room with His own, by partaking of bread and wine; simple emblems, and only emblems, of His body and blood. To hear His words, ‘This do in remembrance of me’ is a constant reminder of just how much we owe to Him and it should draw out worship from our hearts.
The different roles and responsibilities of men and women within the assembly are also clearly taught in scripture and obedience to these principles and the practical expression of them is honouring and pleasing to the Lord.
One of the last requests which the Lord Jesus made to His disciples, just a few short hours before He went to Calvary, is found in John chapter 14 verse 15, ‘If ye love me, [ye will] keep my commandments’. John, writing later, will say, ‘For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous’, 1 John 5. 3.