Word Study #88 — Obedience / Obey

(See also word studies 27, 39, and 55 for more on this subject.)

“Why do you all keep calling me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and you don’t do what I say?” (Lk.6:46)
If you all love me, you will follow my instructions [keep my commands]”. (Jn.14:15)

A perfectly reasonable question, and a perfectly reasonable statement, from the Lord Jesus himself.
Yet rare is the assembly of “believers”, seduced, as so many are, by the popular “unconditional” rhetoric, where serious attention is paid to those words.
You may notice, in the second quote, that I have violated my own rule about not using multiple translations for the same word. This is deliberate – although I do offer the alternative – because of the popular application of negative connotations which associate “commands” with threats: “You’ll be in big trouble if you don’t …..”, whereas “instructions” imply “Wonderful things can happen if you do…”or simply, “this is how it works.”
Entole, classically “a command or order”, but also “an authorization, prescription (medical), recipe, or power of attorney”, may signify either of these understandings. The difference, the interpretation, is entirely dependent upon the relationship between the people giving or receiving the commands / instructions.

The concept of obedience (v. hupakouo, n. hupakoe) in the New Testament is likewise colored by the relationship. The gospel writers marvel that the forces of nature (Mt.8:27, Mk.4:41, Lk.8:25), and even evil spirits (Mk.1:27) have no choice but to obey Jesus’ orders. Yet “obedience to the gospel” on the part of some of the priests (Ac.6:7), and others who chose loyalty to Jesus’ Kingdom (Rom.6:17, 16:19; II Cor.7:15, Phil.2:12, Heb.5:9), is in every case voluntary, and a cause for celebration, not compulsion! As Paul expressed it quite matter-of-factly, (Rom.6:16), “You all are slaves to whomever you obey,” whether for good or ill. Everybody chooses to obey someone or something.

This becomes clear if one lists the words used as objects of huupakouo: servants/slaves to masters (Eph.6:5, Col.3:22), the desires of the mortal body (Rom.6:12), “the teaching you were given” (Rom.6:17, Phil.2:12), “the gospel” (Rom.10:16, I Thes.1:8), children to parents (Eph.6:1, Col.3:20), Jesus himself (Heb.5:9), Abraham to his calling (Heb.11:8), “to the faith / faithfulness” (Rom.1:5), “the truth” (I Pet.1:22), “righteousness / justice” (Rom.6:16), and others where the object is not specified but is clearly intended to be the Lord Jesus and his Kingdom.
Classical uses of hupakouo are “to hearken, pay attention, to answer, listen, heed, or regard; to accept an invitation, to submit, comply, obey; to yield to a remedy (medical), to conform to a theory or principle (in grammar, science, or philosophy), or “to answer” as in the task of a doorkeeper.” You will note that most of these are more an indication of a general attitude than any specific details.

This is also the case with the lesser-used term, peitharcheo, “to obey a ruler or superior”. This has only four uses, of which there are two referring to God (Ac.5:29 and 5:32), and two to people: (Tit.3:1) magistrates, and Ac.27:21, where Paul is telling the ship’s captain , “You should have listened to me!”

A related, also less frequent word, peitho, more commonly rendered “persuade” (21x) or “trust” (8x), and only 7x “obey, (Ac.5:36, 37; Rom.2:8, Gal.3:1,5:7; Heb.13:17; Jas.3:3), as well as its negative apeitheo which, like the corresponding noun form apeitheia, is rendered equally “disobedience” and “unbelief”, illustrates vividly that those are not two concepts, but one – highlighting the appropriateness of the two statements of Jesus with which we began. One does not “believe” if he does not “obey!”

Interestingly, “obey” in any of its forms never occurs with “commands” as its object! Obedience, whether to a person, to the Lord, or to the principles of his Kingdom (or of another kingdom!), is a much broader concept, referring more to an orientation of one’s life than to any specific behavior. Perhaps the concept of “allegiance” is more to the point. In fact, even commands/instructions (entole), in the New Testament, are not provided as a “check-list” as they had been in the past (and still are, by some groups!) They are to be “kept” (tereo), rather than “obeyed” (hupotasso). Quite a variety of objects occur with tereo, (classically “to watch, guard, or maintain, to test by observation of trial, to keep an engagement”). These include “the commandments (of the Law) – Mt.19:17, Ac.15:5,24; Jas.2:10; “your own tradition” (Mk.7:9), “the good wine” (Jn.2:10), “my (Jesus’) sayings” (Jn.8:5,52,55), the Sabbath (Jn.9:16), “my (Jesus’) commandments” (Jn.14:15,21,23,24,15:10), “Thy word” (Jn.17:6); the disciples (Jn.17:11,12,15); “the unity of the Spirit” (Eph.4:3), and many more.

It is instructive that the “commandments / instructions” that Jesus himself speaks of “keeping”, primarily in Jn.14 and 15, uniformly concern the love that he directs and teaches his disciples to have among one another. Period.  All the rest is commentary.
Paul gets more specific on occasion, I Cor.14:31, Eph.6:2, Col.4:10. But even he spends more time detailing the failures of the “commandments of the Law” (Rom.7:8-13, I Cor.7:19, Eph.2:15, Tit.1:14) – as does the writer to the Hebrews (7:5, 16, 18; 9:19) – than he does instituting replacements.
Of course the whole New Testament is, from one perspective, a “blueprint” or “instruction manual” for the building of the Kingdom. Many admonitions, in both gospels and epistles, are cast in the imperative mood, and compliance is expected. Kingdom living is described in detail, but most of its specifics are not labeled “commands”. Hence, again, the quotation with which we began.

The prime example of obedience is described in Phil.2:6-8, where Paul notes Jesus’ deliberate renunciation of his well-deserved, privileged position, in favor of meticulous – one might even say “extreme”  — obedience. This is the attitude (v.5) that his people are urged to emulate – II Cor. 10:5 – “subjugating every mind [thought] for obedience to [of] Christ” [i.e. , modeled after his!]

We all have a lot to learn!

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