Obeying Jesus’ Commandments


I paused for a good while when I came to one of the comments on my answer to the On Faith question last week. In his response, Danny (PILOTER101) references Jesus’ farewell discourse to the disciples before his arrest: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

I agree completely that we are required, as Christians, to obey Christ and to keep His commandments. The sticking point is what His commandments are.

Faithful people have disagreed about God’s rules since Scripture was written down and probably even far before that. It is reflected in the first stories of Genesis where Abel’s offering is accepted by God while Cain’s is not (though God is kind to Cain in the end, Genesis 4:1-16). And much of the writing of the prophets concerns disagreements over what obedience to God means.

Micah sets out the problem with this question, “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” In his time, sacrifice in the temple made scrupulously according to the rules was thought by many to be the way to be obedient to God, to obey the commandments. Micah challenged those beliefs with another question: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Paul, too, had to help the first churches find a way to live with disagreement over how to obey Jesus’ commandments. Paul saw with his own eyes the Holy Spirit falling upon Gentiles who were an abomination to his faith. Yet Paul knew there were fellow believers in Christ who adhered to Jewish law and expected that of others. So did one have to follow Jewish law to follow Jesus?

On the whole, Paul counseled a “live and let live” resolution, acknowledging that there are many paths to God through Christ. He was most severe with those who were adamant in their teaching that theirs was the one and only way to be faithful. For Paul, the test of one’s living is the fruit of the Holy Spirit — which echoes Micah’s justice, kindness and humility (Galatians 5:22-23).

Like Christians in all times and places, Danny and I agree that obeying Jesus’ commands is our duty. And like the faithful always have, we disagree over how that is to be done. I see Jesus’ commandments reflected in the eternal lesson from Micah: that we are to embody kindness and justice — what Jesus calls “loving my neighbor.” Our job is to do that as best we can, trusting that Jesus will sort it out in due time, and that God’s kingdom has room for us all.


Reverend Janet

11 Responses
  • JohnBoy on August 13, 2010

    Maybe this is the easy way out, but I find this question answered later in John:
    15:12 My commandment is this – to love one another just as I have loved you.
    15:17 This I command you – to love one another.

    Similarly He crystallising His Jewish tradition as the greatest commandment, and the one like it, which is to love your neighbour as yourself.

    This transcends the legalism and rules which so many seem to like to hide behind and follow contrary to the commandments to love.

  • Janet Edwards on August 13, 2010

    Dear JohnBoy,

    Thanks for such a thoughtful addition to this conversation!!

    Far from being an easy way out, Jesus’ commandment to love is, for me as well, the heart of Christian faithfulness. And, as you say, our love for God and for neighbor are tightly bound together.

    My love of God includes a humble recognition that God is the One who judges each of us, as Jesus teaches so clearly in the Sermon on the Mount. My love for my neighbor includes seeing each person I meet as a child of God for whom Jesus gave His life, and with whom He stands before the Judgment Seat. Neither of these is easy; I need to work at these each day.

    And I see the church being as imperfect at living out Jesus’ teachings as I am which fuels my effort to bring the rules of the church into harmony with Jesus’ commandment to love.

    I am eager for your further comment, JohnBoy, or for others to weigh in. Peace, Janet

  • JohnBoy on August 13, 2010

    Hi Janet,

    I meant that the answer was easy to find, and I agree that the commandment to love is less easy to follow. It’s advantage is that it is not easy to make it prescriptive. That is also a challenge as it is harder to determine when it is being followed.

    I think that rules, like the Sabbath, are made for people; and not people for rules. I am sure you understand this in making changes to your rules.

    The following I present as an illustration, though you may see it as a tangent.

    I see from your blog heading that GLBT matters are an important concern of yours.
    I find myself to be right at the hetero end of the spectrum and have been so disconcerted by the attitudes I frequently find to extend Paul’s pronouncement to:

    There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, there is neither straight nor gay – for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

    I think that in our society the commandment to love allows us to introduce a confronting contrast to the norm, just as Paul may have been countering a contemporary view found in The Eighteen Benedictions which in a contrasting parallel says:

    Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast not made me a heathen.
    Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast not made me a bondman.
    Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast not made me a woman.

  • Janet Edwards on August 14, 2010

    Dear JohnBoy,

    I see your parallel between Paul in Galatians 3:38 and these traditional Jewish Benedictions. Wow. Thanks for that idea!

    And I really like your phrase, “a confronting contrast to the norm.” This is certainly what Paul was doing in his mission to the Gentiles. Much of what Jesus does that infuriates the Pharisees could be understood in that way.

    I continue to be challenged, though, by Jesus’ comment in the Sermon on the Mount that he came “not to abolish but to fulfill.” I can say that I will fulfill a “higher” law of love even as I may violate a rule on the books but that is not really satisfactory to me. How do you understand Jesus at that point in the Sermon on the Mount, JohnBoy?

    Or others may want to join in the conversation, too! Peace be with you all, Janet

  • JohnBoy on August 14, 2010

    Hi Janet,

    Coming from a legalistic tradition I have also struggled with this and have wondered how to deal with it.

    My proof-texting literalistic tradition would have said that this means that we must obey all the OT commands, and as a child I wrote a “c” against every verse in the bible that I could see was a commandment, until it seemed like a never-ending task. In any case, my church obviously ignored many of the OT rules with some sort of explanation like Jesus’ work on the cross meant they were no longer necessary, though some of the ones they liked were still held up to be valid, especially if they pertained to morality.

    In my twenties I came to understand that the Bible contains a mixture of literature types and genres and moved on from the “read any passage as literal if at all possible” to understanding the style of writing, its context and the needs of its intended audience to try and understand what message the writer is trying to convey. I also read it from Jesus as the centre back to the prophets and the Torah, and forward to Acts and the letters to the churches and their theological reflections. I think this is a Baptist approach.

    So we come to Matthew who appears to be writing a Gospel (and not a biography or history) to Jewish Christians who still attend synagogues and are devout in their adherence to the law. Matthew takes the stories about Jesus that come to him (some from Mark) and sets out a Gospel message of Jesus the Messianic Redeemer of Israel who completes the law and the prophets. Though even in the (none too holy) genealogy he shows that the gentiles have a part..

    In the sermon on the mount Matthew has Jesus first saying what the life of disciples will be like, and how they are to be salt and light in the world, and then saying the disciples must keep a higher standard than that of the religious leaders. From Matt 5:21 to the end of Matt 7 he then teaches about what is expected of his disciples.

    This, in a nutshell, is what I understand to be the fulfilment of the law so that nothing is taken away from it.

    This is how I can best understand it and maintain my integrity. People with different views on the inspiration of the Bible may not like it or agree with it, or may put more emphasis different parts.

    As a Pastor with PhD you have probably come across this before.

  • Donna on August 15, 2010

    Hi Janet,

    In answer to your question put to all about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount…

    I guess I have always understood Jesus as fulfilling the heart of the law (the ten commandments), by living it and teaching it, even if doing so broke other ritual laws, which we know He did over and over and over again. For instance, He is accused of healing on the sabbath, and I understand in His answer to the Pharisees that His work is not about ritual or manual labor but about love and compassion, salvation. In this way, by placing priority on the commandments to love God and neighbor, which are timeless, ritual law is superceded, but not necessarily abolished. In another instance, he is challenged by the Pharisees for picking and eating grain on the Sabbath, and he responds by citing scripture and comparable historical examples indicating the same: that rules generally apply, but, in light of God’s will for us to show each other mercy, the law is superceded.

    There is a ritual law that says shellfish are not to be eaten, but of what consequence is that to loving God and neighbor? And there is a ritual, a commandment, that says to keep the Sabbath holy, but Jesus shows how blanket application of that rule could actually hinder God’s will for a man’s healing and salvation from occurring. In this way, to me, Jesus provides a way to discern God’s will by considering and prioritizing principle and ritual.


  • Janet Edwards on August 15, 2010

    Dear JohnBoy and Donna,

    JohnBoy, you are right that what you lay out here is familiar to me, but I have rarely seen this perspective in the area of hermeneutics so clearly and succinctly articulated–THANKS! I now read what follows Matthew 5:17-19 with much greater understanding.

    And, Donna, your observations about how Jesus put ritual law at a lower priority than the law of love for one’s neighbor is a more excellent way of saying what I was trying to say–THANKS! My guess is that you would find Jesus and Micah to be coming from the same page.

    I think what we three share is an understanding that interpretation of Scripture is inescapable. There is just no complete certainty for a Christian. We live by faith, every one of us. To claim otherwise is a misunderstanding of life in Christ. And yet, this does not stop us from standing tall for what we see because Jesus pushes us to tell the world what we believe. And to do it with honesty, humility, purity of motive and love. I see that as true for each of you.

    I look forward to your response. Peace be with you all, Janet

  • Donna on August 15, 2010

    Dear Janet:

    I learn a lot here and so I’m grateful for the site. I don’t have formal education as yet into some of the things that are discussed (like much of this conversation) and so my comments are limited, if not simplistic. Thank you for being so welcoming to all contributors and providing an educational site.


  • Janet Edwards on August 18, 2010

    Dear Donna,

    You are very welcome! That you learn a lot here makes my heart sing. I so hope others do too.

    And I am very grateful for your comments when you share your reflections and ideas here. They are far from limited or simplistic as they come from your devout Christian experience. They help us all be more faithful to God in Christ.

    May others feel welcome to contribute as you do. Peace, Janet

  • pennyjane hanson on March 28, 2011

    i guess this is kind of an old conversation, but i wanted to chime in right behind donna.

    i think i viserally agree that what Jesus meant was that He lived out all the laws on our behalf…since, as lawbreakers it was impossible for any of us to do for ourselves. Jesus said that not even one letter of the law would be ignored and in His perfection, He fulfilled that promise.

    so, the laws were not abolished, they were fulfilled in Him.

    i think that…and my education probably is very much in line with yours donna, that before Christ, the Holy Spirit was not available to all of us, it was very selectively given to but a few. but, in Christ’s fulfillment of the law it became our responsiblity as followers of Him, to discern in harmony with the Holy Spirit that He sent to live in us. a default position might be to follow the laws, but when the written law comes into conflict with the spiritual law we now have the spiritual authority to discern…what better represents the ministry of Jesus ?

    what is more loving, He asks us…to obey the letter of the law concerning the sabbath or to go out in the field and retrieve your neighbor’s donkey who is stuck there? the Holy Spirit isn’t advising us to be lawbreakers, but to be discerner’s of love.

    i find that very comforting, as well as challenging.

    much love and hope. pj

  • Janet Edwards on March 29, 2011

    Dear pj,

    Your thoughts here strike me as completely congruent with Paul as he struggles in Romans to explain the connection between law and grace. Jesus fulfills the law on our behalf and our lives thereafter are to be dedicated to the law of love, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Have I understood you here?

    Thanks for weighing in! Peace, Janet

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