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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Obedience (2)


i. The Obedience of Christ

1. Christ as a man (see Humanity of Christ) came under the obligations of men, and principal among these was the obligation of obedience. This He Himself recognized explicitly. His parents had Him circumcised (Luke 2:21), and brought Him to Jerusalem according to the custom, to observe the law of the Passover (possibly every year, Luke 2:41-42), which custom He subsequently continued personally (John 2:23; John 5:1; cf. John 7:2; cf. John 7:10, Matthew 26:17 ff. etc.). He felt Himself called upon to join in the great religious movements of His day, though not commanded by the Law (Matthew 3:15), as well as to observe the political customs (Matthew 17:27). It was therefore more than a mere expression as to a definite example when He said: ‘It becometh us [me] to fulfil all righteousness’ (Matthew 3:15).

2. The fact of His obedience.—If we test this by the Ten Commandments as substantially embracing the whole moral law, we find His obedience complete. They are mostly prohibitions, and we do not find Him infringing them. It cannot be said that this silence of the Scriptures as to transgressions does not prove His entire conformity to them, and leaves room for the doubt whether His obedience was perfect; since He was surrounded by watchful enemies who magnified variations that were not disobedience, and would have mentioned any real disobedience with eagerness. The honour which He paid to God was as perfect as His perception of the spiritual nature of His worship was clear (John 4:24). He observed the Sabbath, being found regularly in the synagogue on that day (Luke 4:16 ‘as his custom was’). The fact that He did no work that was contrary to the Sabbath commandment, is shown clearly by the fact that He was repeatedly attacked for immaterial things and for exercising His healing power upon that day, for which He successfully defended Himself (Matthew 12:3; Matthew 12:7; Matthew 12:11-12). To those of another race and time He may seem to have been lacking on one occasion in respect for His mother, viz. at the marriage in Cana of Galilee (John 2:4). But the appellation ‘Woman’ was not disrespectful, for it was used in the tenderest way at the cross (John 19:26); nor was it disrespectful to reprove officious interference; nor was Mary left unsatisfied (John 19:5), but expected His compliance with her hinted request. So much for the negative side of the moral law. On its positive side, as comprehensively stated by Him in the words, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbour as thyself’ (Matthew 22:39), none was ever so zealous of God’s honour, or of preserving His own communion with Him (John 10:30; John 17:11; John 17:21-23; John 17:25), as Jesus. And love of neighbour, as interpreted first fully by Himself (Luke 10:30 ff.), He exemplified in all His contact with suffering and needy humanity. Nor did He fail in that harder sort of obedience which consists in quick response to the personal will of God manifested in providence (Matthew 4:4, Luke 2:49, John 12:27-28). His care for the ceremonial law, besides the cases already cited, may be seen by His recommending the lepers whom He cleansed, on two occasions, to observe the law of Moses provided in their case (Luke 5:14; Luke 17:14).

3. His sinlessness.—We thus see in the life of Jesus no offence against the law of right. There is no evidence of sinfulness. But this would not in itself establish His sinlessness. Many a man gives the impression of a perfect life, is, according to the Scripture phrase, ‘blameless,’ who is not ‘sinless,’ because he sees sin in himself, and charges himself with it. But Jesus claimed sinlessness for Himself. He challenged the Jews to convict Him of sin (John 8:46); and He affirmed of Himself that the ‘prince of this world’ had nothing in Him (John 14:30). True, this sinlessness was first attained through conflict (cf. Matthew 4:11, John 12:27, Mark 15:34), and ‘learned’ (Hebrews 5:8), and Jesus Himself shrank from the application to Him of the word ‘good’ in the absolute sense (Mark 10:18); but it was attained and learned, and this without the experience of failure. Its necessity to the work of redemption gives it its complete dogmatic establishment (cf. Hebrews 9:7; Hebrews 9:14; Hebrews 5:9; Hebrews 4:15); but the proof of its actuality depends, finally, upon the word or Jesus Himself. Were this the testimony of the Jews, who were self-righteous, and thus incapacitated for judging of their true spiritual condition, it would have no value; but it is the testimony of a specially sensitive conscience, one which saw deeper into the meaning of the Law than others, which enjoyed perfect communion with God (John 14:9; John 12:45). As such it stands, and is subject to no diminution from our ability to point out defect in Him. As a challenge, it was not met by His adversaries, evidently because they could not meet it. See, further, art. Sinlessness.

4. His superiority to the Law.—His obedience may be conceived, on the one side, as His perfect subjection to the Law. But, on the other side, He was superior to the Law. In respect to infringements of the law of the Sabbath with which He was charged, He did not simply defend Himself by saying that He alone rightly interpreted the law, but He proclaimed His superiority to it. ‘The Son of Man is Lord even of the sabbath’ (Mark 2:28). He set aside certain of the provisions of the Law (Matthew 5:38); but He did a more significant thing in deepening the meaning of others (Matthew 5:27 ff.). He revealed the true meaning of the Law when He brought it back to its foundation in the all-embracing law of love. The element of the Law which He modified was, therefore, the external, the scaffolding or clothing of the legal principle, not the fundamental meaning of the Law. He came also to ‘fulfil’ the Law (Matthew 5:17); and this meant to fill out (πληρόω), and hence to set it aside as completed and its design accomplished. In the later form of the Apostolic doctrine Jesus was called the ‘end of the law’ (Romans 10:4), in the sense that He provided a new way of salvation, which had formerly had to be attained through the observance of the Law. This was particularly through the sacrifice of Himself (Hebrews 10:8-14) by which He brought the whole OT system to an end, and for ever cancelled the ceremonial law. When the same idea appears in St. John’s Gospel (John 3:14; John 3:16; John 6:51; John 10:17), it may be thought to belong to the same stratum of later teaching; but it is reflected in the earliest form of the Gospel (Mark 10:45), it appears in the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:28), and is accordingly to be regarded as the primal and unvarying substance of the Gospel. The Law, then, is abrogated because its object has been attained, and its definite and peculiar prescriptions may give way to more general and spiritual forms of precept. The emphasis is hereafter to be laid not upon the letter, but upon the spirit (2 Corinthians 3:6). See Law, Law of God.

5. The capital article of His obediencethe Death upon the Cross.—The later strata of the Gospel history lay emphasis upon the fact that the death of Christ was a subject of the Divine command. Thus Jesus says, according to St. John, ‘This commandment [viz. to lay down my life] I received from the Father’ (John 10:18). In John 12:27, shrinking from the foreseen suffering of the cross, He says, ‘For this cause [viz. to suffer the death of the cross, cf. John 12:32] came I unto this hour.’ The same idea, that His death upon the cross was the essential part of His work which He came into the world to do, and which was laid upon Him by the Father, appears in many other texts in this Gospel, implied where not explicitly stated (cf. John 3:14, John 6:38; John 6:50-51; John 6:58, John 8:21, John 10:11, John 14:30-31, John 17:13, John 19:30). The same conception is fully developed in the other portions of the NT which belong to the same period of development with this Gospel, particularly in Philippians (Philippians 2:8) and the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 5:7-8; Hebrews 10:10). Hut it is also indicated in the earliest strata. In Mark 10:45 Jesus Himself says that He has come, ‘not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ The whole Gospel story is displayed, as it were, upon the black background of the darkness and sufferings of Calvary. Prophecies by Jesus Himself of His own death begin to appear at an early period by intimation (Matthew 10:38; cf. Matthew 16:24), and at a period still long before the final Passion in more explicit and frequent utterance (Matthew 16:21-28 ||; Matthew 17:3 ff. according to || Luke 9:31; Luke 17:22-23 ||;Luke 20:17-19 ||). There is evidence in these passages, taken as a whole, and regarded as containing the concurrent and consistent Evangelical idea of the death of Christ, that to Christ the burden of death consisted partly in its physical pain, from which One shrank who possessed the instinct of life among other human qualities (see Humanity of Christ), but still more as something unbecoming to the pure and holy Son of God, associated, as it was in human history, with the idea of sin and condemnation. Or, as St. Paul expresses it (Galatians 3:13), it was a curse which He did not lightly take upon Himself. Two things result from this method of considering the death of Christ: (1) that it measures the highest degree of devotion to the salvation of men; and (2) that it was effective because it lay in the will of God, to which Christ was obedient, not assuming it Himself, as a desperate and uncertain remedy, but accepting it as the God-designed path of propitiation and redemption.

6. The relation of Christ’s obedience to the salvation of men.—The relation of the sacrifice, which was the main article of His obedience, to the salvation of men is considered elsewhere (see Atonement, Propitiation, Sacrifice, etc.). No text of the Gospels presents the obedience of Christ, strictly considered, as having a connexion with our salvation, except as His moral perfection was among the qualifications for the office of Saviour. The inference which has been made, that the obedience of Christ itself formed a part of His saving work, has been drawn from such texts as Romans 5:19 (‘through the obedience of the one shall the many be made righteous’). But this idea receives no support from the Gospels, and none from the text cited itself, when carefully interpreted. The thought of the Apostle is unfolded here in a series of parallel expressions, in which, on the one side, Adam’s ‘trespass,’ ‘sin,’ ‘disobedience,’ and, on the other side, Christ’s ‘grace,‘ ‘gift by grace,’ ‘free gift,’ ‘righteousness,’ ‘act of righteousness,’ ‘obedience,’ are mentioned as equal to one another, and as contrasted, the one side with the other. The obedience of Christ here considered is, therefore, His act of obedience, or His atoning death. The act of obedience saves, not as obedience, but as atonement.

7. The significance of Christ’s obedience for religion arises from the exaltation which it affords of the Person of Christ. As the victorious contestant and the perfect character, He calls out the veneration and enthusiastic loyalty of His followers, incites them to greater efforts, and fills them with loftier courage than any imperfect prophet could do, however excellent otherwise, and thus becomes the true ‘exemplar and leader’ (ἀρχηγός, Hebrews 12:2) of our faith.

Literature.—Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , art. ‘Obedience’; Ullmann, Sinlessness of Jesus; Forrest, Christ of Hist. and Exper. 17 ff.; R. Mackintosh, Christ and the Jewish Law; Dale, Atonement, Lect. ix.

ii. Our obedience.—Christ came not only as a Teacher and Redeemer, but also as an Example. It might be said of all His life, as He said when He washed the disciples’ feet, ‘I have given you an example, that ye also should do as I have done to you’ (John 13:15). As the object of all His work was to reveal the Father, and he that had ‘seen him had seen the Father’ (John 14:9), so he who did as Jesus did obeyed the will of the Father, which was perfectly exemplified in Him (John 8:29). Indeed, this was the necessary consequence of His teaching office, for He always said in fact if not by word, ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me’ (Matthew 11:29). It was His purpose in the world to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37), and to do this not merely by word, but by right deed. Hence the obedience of Christ is the standard of our obedience. We are to be ‘perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48), and that perfection is the perfection which is manifested in the Son. At the same time, as performance falls far short of ideal in other human things, so here. There is no example given us in the Gospels of the attainment by a disciple of such perfection as was in the Master. Peter who denied Him, Thomas who could not believe His resurrection, John and James who were fired by an unholy ambition, were the chief among the Twelve, and doubtless as successful as the others. Even after Pentecost, Paul and Barnabas had a sharp contention. All had ‘the treasure in earthen vessels.’

The obedience which Christ asks of us is an obedience of the spirit rather than of the letter. He says in one place, ‘If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love’ (John 15:10); but when we ask what the commandments of Jesus are, we find few which, in the form in which they are given, have direct application to the conditions of modern life. He refers to the Ten Commandments when the young man asks what he shall do to inherit eternal life (Matthew 19:16); but when the young man is not satisfied, He gives him a test which was not in any of the Commandments nor of any general application to men, ‘Go, sell, and give to the poor’ (Matthew 19:21). His own observance of the Sabbath was not according to the customs of the Jews (Matthew 12:8). He went beneath the letter of the Law to its spirit, and this was His demand of men, that they should obey the spirit of the Law. Hence He reduces the Law to its essential and comprehensive element of love (Matthew 22:37-39), which, if a man observe, will constitute the fulfilling of the Law (cf. Romans 13:8). And thus the attitude of one who is evangelically obedient is not that of an anxious inquirer as to every specific commandment and consequent duty, but that of one who freely wills to do the will of God, is animated by the spirit of love, and out of its abounding fulness, by the indwelling Spirit (Romans 8:4, cf. John 16:13; John 17:17), does what is well-pleasing to God. Such a person might conceivably err as to duty in some specific case, because of lack of enlightenment, but if he has the spirit of obedience, he has substantially obeyed. The spirit will bring him into eventual accord with the objective demands of reason and conscience.

At the same time, none of the specific commands of the Decalogue are set aside. Even the Sabbath was observed by Jesus Himself and by His disciples after Him. The ethical results of the Jewish development were, therefore, conserved by Jesus, who added to them the more spiritual interpretation of the facts of history and experience, and to this extent made them richer and more comprehensive. Not merely judicial false witness (Exodus 20:16 עֵר שֶׁקֶר), but every form of lying (ψεῦδος, as the absence of all ἀλήθεια, John 8:44), come under His disapproval (as already in Proverbs 26:28).

The great standard and guide of our obedience therefore becomes the will of God as manifested both in His written word and in His providence. It is not so much the general will of God that we are to seek to learn. This is generally easy to understand and recognize. It is His specific will, as manifested in the course of events, in the unfoldings of our personal history, that we are to learn how to understand and fulfil. Thus obedience rests upon the study of history both general and individual to ourselves (Matthew 26:39, cf. John 4:34; John 5:30), and consists fundamentally in submission to the Divine will.

Sin is therefore not to be conceived of as merely disobedience to specific precepts of the Law. It is this; but it has its secret in the failure to adjust oneself to the will of God as such. Obedience is not profession empty of definite good works (Matthew 7:21); it is not even always to be found with those who ‘prophesy’ and perform miracles (Matthew 7:22). The emphasis in the Gospels is laid upon ‘faith’ in Jesus Christ as fully as it is in the Epistles. This granted, as the important and controlling element of the religious life, obedience follows from it as a matter of course. Such obedience, however defective in form, is genuine obedience, acceptable in God’s sight. This is because God wants the man, not his acts; his heart, and not any material gift. With the heart will naturally be given to God every other desirable service.

Hence the penalty of disobedience, since this is essentially difference with God, is first of all separation from Him. It is ‘darkness’ because men refuse the ‘light’ (John 1:11; John 3:18-21). The sinner is in his ‘own place’ (Acts 1:25), the place fit for him because he is what he is. The penalty involves pain (Matthew 13:50, cf. Revelation 14:11), is judicial (Matthew 25:31 etc.), and involves the personal disapproval of God (Matthew 25:41); but it is, in a high sense, natural and inevitable. The wicked man, being what he is, cannot meet with any other lot than what he has. Obedience, on the other hand, leads to reward. This is not ‘deserved,’ and so given as a matter of justice. Sinners will always ‘deserve’ punishment. But God freely rewards the forgiven sinner whose heart is right with Him, because of His own goodness, that He may express His favour. Thus the lot of the saved man is the reverse of the sinner’s, and is a state of blessedness in the presence of God.

Literature.—Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , art. ‘Obedience’; Martensen, Christ. Ethics, i. 293; F. W. Robertson, Sermons, ii. 94; W. A. Butler, Sermons, ii. 164; Channing, The Perfect Life, xi; Dale, Evangel. Revival, 104 ff., 125 ff., Laws of Christ for Common Life, 273.

Frank Hugh Foster.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Obedience (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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