I sat across the table with one of my closest friends and mentors, lamenting to him, “Since when did discipleship become only about Bible study?” Later that day, I read this: “You are hungry for knowledge; you thirstily drink up biblical ideas; you long to be Christlike; yet all of that knowledge doesn’t seem to translate into a way of life. It seems we can’t think our way to holiness.”* You’re good, God…
“Would you disciple this person?” I remember asking a mature Christian of a new Christian. “Sure, but I don’t have a lesson plan or a bunch of studies ready,” was the reply. It was a reasonable response, after all, as part of my schooling I was tasked to write a 12-month discipling study; it’s little wonder that many people don’t have that lying around…
“Let’s form a teaching schedule from real-life principles that our teens face, with every lesson geared towards reinforcing that one principle a quarter,” came the cry at the educational curriculum meeting. “But, how do we make sure we teach all of Scripture?” came the earnest, if expected, critique…
“What’d you think of the lesson?” I asked of someone visiting a class taught by one of my favorite in-house Bible teachers. “Fine,” she replied, “but he didn’t use very many verses…”
For 4 months the fly fishing rod produced no fish but much suffering, yet here in my hand it was again. I had only just learned the (still too thick) line and (way too big) bug to tie on, and so I cast with hope. With barely any knowledge of how or why it would, a hooked trout shook my rod for the first time, and a passion for the sport, nurtured in suffering, was born that continues today.
In a tradition that emphasizes Bible study as the goal of assembly, a contrast strikes me. Is there value in knowledge and study? Absolutely. But to what end? Often, this leads to assumptions that the more we know, the more God-like we are. Personal experience has taught me that’s vehemently false as a rule. This also assumes humans are mainly thinking beings, and that learning can and will change habits. This is how services and Bible classes are geared, and we lament when those raised to know everything from Scripture fall away. Except we don’t apply this logic to other disciplines such as exercise, or on-the-job training, or nutrition, or even fly-fishing.
Jesus didn’t ask Peter what he knew about Himself in John 21:15, Jesus asked if Peter loved him. Jesus didn’t say in John 14:15 that if you know more about Me you’ll keep My commands, but if you love Me. This isn’t a false dichotomy – what we love is what drives us, motivates us, and orients our life, far more than knowledge alone. We know this because we can know the benefits of exercise all we want, and never do it. We can know that cake is bad for us, and still eat it. And we can know about Jesus without ever truly loving Him.
What if discipleship was less about learning about Jesus, and more about loving Jesus more? What if church services were less about information and more about transformation? What if our goal was less about making sure the whole Bible is covered and more about covering our whole selves with the love of God seen in Jesus? What if our goal was less a habit of church attendance and more about attending the habits of the church that lead us to be more, or less, like Jesus? What if we spent less time learning about being a Christian, and more time living like Jesus?
Bible study is essential, no doubt. Should the whole Bible be taught and preached? Absolutely. But knowledge alone isn’t the thing which will keep Christians faithful. Simply knowing about your spouse isn’t what keeps you married. Love: what you love, whom you love, and why you love, is what God is after – that you desire Him above all else, and orient your life to keep Him oriented as your goal. We’re not to know as Christ knew, are to love as Christ loved.
Four months of habitual fishless fly-fishing that finally produced one fish lead to a passion, one that then produced a love to learn more, fish more, and do what was needed to transform into a better fly-fisher. If a tiny little trout could produce that much life-change in the hobbies of a man, where could truly discipling, not just teaching, someone to where they catch the smallest glimmer of true Christ-likeness in themselves lead? Perhaps, just perhaps, it could lead to truly becoming what we love. In one case, an able fly-fisher. I’ll take Christ over a trout every day.
Thomas Pruett is a disciple of Jesus, a husband to Amy, a father of four Ms, who prefers to be outside when possible and with coffee when indoors. He currently serves the Northern Hills Church of Christ in western South Dakota and will transition to serve the Circle Church of Christ in Corvallis, Oregon starting in February 2019. He rambles usually every week at www.northernhillscofc.org/blog.
The instruction “Walk in the way of the LORD” sounds like some solid Christian advice. This past Sunday I recommended it to our 2016 high school and college grad’s. However, I suspect that a quick survey of what it means to walk in the way of the LORD would produce a broad array of answers.
- The Way of the LORD leads through the cross.
- The Way of the LORD is narrow.
- The Way of the LORD refers to the church.
- The Way of the LORD means obeying His commands.
- The Way of the LORD requires following the Shepherd.
- The Way of the LORD is easy and light.
- The Way of the LORD demands sacrifice.
In various measures these are all correct.
Most Christians are probably unaware that God himself provides a definition of this term.
In Genesis 18:19 Yahweh describes why he chose Abraham: “I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice.” (NRSV)
How can Abraham (and us) keep “the way of the LORD”?
“By doing righteousness and justice.”
I’ve never heard it defined that way. Okay, so I’ve never been asked to define “the way of the Lord”. It’s not a concept that all Christians know. Consider some of the other guiding principles Christians regularly recite:
- The Golden Rule – Do unto others as you’d like them to do to you.
- The Greatest Command – Love the Lord your God with your whole being.
- The Second Command – Love your neighbor as yourself.
- The Fruit of the Spirit – Love, joy peace, patience, kindness….
- John 3:16 – God so loved the world…
- The Beatitudes
- The Lord’s Prayer
Perhaps you have other personal favorites, but “The Way of the LORD” isn’t on any list that I know.
Most churches I know also use a variety of items to measure the spiritual health of their members:
- Volunteering / ministry involvement
- Bible knowledge
- Friendship with leaders
- Absence of glaring sins and problems
I’ve never heard a church leader (including myself) describe someone as spiritually mature because they embody righteousness and justice.
I know many people have more detailed and accurate definitions of what God means by “righteousness and justice”, but here’s my working definition to start the conversation:
If we want to keep the Way of the Lord we’ll care for the vulnerable around us. We’ll look for the oppressed. We’ll care for those who are bit different from everyone else. We’ll reach out to those who struggle with life. We’ll stand up for those who aren’t treated fairly and aren’t given the opportunities they deserve. Righteousness isn’t limited to our personal innocence or purity. It means doing the right thing, the just thing, for others.
Who are the vulnerable and oppressed in your community? How is your life involved with theirs? Are you living righteousness and justice? Are you walking in the Way of the LORD?
Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” John 14:23
It often seems that when God wants to tell humanity what He wants from them He gives them laws. Think of the 10 Commandments. Consider that the first five books of the Bible are called the Books of Law. Ponder the Sermon on the Mount. Reflect on the imperatives of 1 Timothy 5. Law and requisite obedience loom heavy as we endeavour to live in a manner that honors God.
Surprisingly, the Hebrew prophets who mostly rail against Judah and Israel for their disobedience and rejection of God, also point us to values closer to God’s heart than obedience.
In Jeremiah 9:13 the prophet writes, “The Lord said, “It is because they have forsaken my law, which I set before them; they have not obeyed me or followed my law.” The consequence of this disobedience is described in v16 “ I will scatter them among nations that neither they nor their ancestors have known, and I will pursue them with the sword until I have made an end of them.”
Despite this focus upon Judah’s faithfulness to God’s law we find an important insight in verse 23-24.
Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.
In these verses God discounts wisdom, power, and wealth. I’m not sure if the parallel is intended but these three traits match up closely to the way God blessed Solomon in 1 Kings 3:10-15. In other settings God grants these attributes as blessings. However, Jeremiah’s context the blessings had become the objects of admiration, rather than the One who gave the blessings.
God then calls upon Judah to “know me“. He longs for his people to know Him, and he goes on to facilitate such knowing by describing Himself. God “acts with steadfast love (hesed), justice, and righteousness.” As a stand alone statement it’s good to know that these positive traits contribute to God’s motivation when He acts. This is particularly true in light of the earlier words of the chapter.
God’s final words in v24 give these 3 characteristics even greater significance. Steadfast love, justice, and righteousness are not just motivating traits, they’re virtues that God delights in! These are values close to God’s heart that make Him smile.
While God may bless us with wisdom, power and wealth, we must ensure we don’t idolise the gift rather than worshiping the Giver.
While God desires for us to keep His law, our relationship with Him is not founded upon obedience. I equate obedience with a parent telling a child to clean her bedroom or take out the trash. The chores build character, discipline and responsibility. There’ll be consequences if the chores aren’t done. But if children really want to make their parents smile, they’ll buy flowers, write a card, sing a song, or give a gift their parents value. It’s these latter actions that mean more to a parent’s heart.
So God tells his people what means the most to Him: steadfast love, justice and righteousness. When we integrate these values into our daily lives, God delights and smiles at us.
God smiles when we persist at loving the people in our lives who make it difficult.
God smiles when we stand with those who are disadvantaged, neglected and abused.
God smiles when we make choices to do the right thing treating others with respect and equality.
Yes, we can put a smile on God’s face when we build our lives around the virtues that delight Him.
Sadly, churches have too often given the impression that obedience is the value at the core of God’s being and the only thing He delights in. Jeremiah emphasises obedience, but gives greater priority to knowing God and His steadfast love, justice, and righteousness.
As I conclude my series from Exodus, I have a couple of goals:
- To demonstrate the continuity between the Old & New Testaments, and the continuing relevance of the Old to the church today.
- Emphasise the relationship between loving God, and obeying His rules.
Both of these points rely on reading Exodus 19 & 20 together, as I discussed in my previous post. The covenant of chapter 19 represents the culmination of God ‘courting’ the nation of Israel and here ‘marrying’ them. Israel unreservedly commits to the God who has rescued, protected, and provided for them in the preceding months. But now they are are ‘married’ God shares how Israel can express her love: how the nation can adopt the same values as Yahweh already has. So the relationship begins with love and only then moves to law.
A close examination of the Ten Words (Commandments) reveals that the first four relate to the nation’s relationship with God, while the last six establish standards for horizontal, or interpersonal, relationships. This division follows the identification of the Two Greatest Commandments identified three times by Jesus in the NT (Mt. 22:34-40; Mk. 12:28-31; & Lk. 10:25-28.) Love God. Love Neighbours.
The chart above illustrates that Jesus didn’t develop these Two Greatest Commands on his own. (start at the bottom left and read it clockwise) He adopted them from Jewish teachers who identified them in the OT. In Mark 12, Jesus teaches, “Love God. Love Neighbour.” But in Luke 10 we see that the Jews were already familiar with this summary. A quick survey of basic Bible reference tools quickly identifies both of these commands as simply quotes from the Pentateuch.
So these commands that Christians through the centuries have rightly quoted as divine summaries of Christian obligations, are in fact divine summaries of the Jewish Old Covenant given at Sinai. This is why in Matt. 22:40 Jesus says that All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. This doesn’t mean that the church should discard these commands as vestiges of the old covenant, but that we should reconsider the degree of continuity between the two covenants.
Having reached the top of the second column and understanding that the rest of the Law hangs on The Two Greatest Commands we see that dividing the Ten Words into vertical and horizontal commands is consistent with Jesus’ teaching. It’s also important to recognize that the Ten Words also provide context for the detailed instructions that follow in the rest of Exodus as well as Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy.
All of these laws derive from two: Love God. Love Neighbour. And all of the laws relating to loving our neighbours derive from the Greatest Commandment: Love God. This is the sequence found in chapters 19 & 20, first relationship, then law. It’s also the sequence found within the Ten Words themselves, first love God, then love neighbours.
The apostle John in His writings explicitly makes this connection. If you love me, keep my commands. John 14:15 see also Jn 14:21, 31; 15:9-15; 1 Jn 5:2-3; and 2 Jn 1:6. I believe this is another succinct summary of Exodus 19 & 20.
The relationship God intends between Himself and His people begins with God demonstrating His love for humanity. People then have the opportunity to respond to His love and commit to Him. As a consequence of that commitment, we also commit to adopt his values and to express our love in ways He finds meaningful. So we commit to keep His laws. When we try to either love God while ignoring His laws, or observe His commands with out understanding His love, we step outside of the full relationships God intends for us.
- I recently reviewed the Bible class subjects that have been taught at Lawson Road between 2004 & 2009. During those 5 years only 5 OT books had been studied compared to 16 NT books (some twice!) and numerous other topics. Are Churches of Christ the only ones who have difficulty finding value in the OT? What do you think are our barriers?
- Do you agree that it can be difficult at times to appreciate the connection between loving God and keeping His commandments? Have you seen examples of people over-emphasising one or the other?
- I’ve often heard people say, “You can’t love others unless you love yourself”, but I think these passages teach that, “You can’t love others unless you love God”. What do you think?
PS. A friend just blogged on a similar topic here.