The “Why” and “How” of Teaching Obedience to God

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6)

We all know and believe that obedience to God is important. We see that God’s law is not only for our earthly good, but that our obedience serves as a light and a witness to those apart from God. God does not make His blessings and salvation to the Israelites contingent upon their obedience. God has given them the Promised Land. Now they in response are to show obedience to Him, thereby glorifying His name to those apart from the covenant community and drawing them unto Him.

Of course the Israelites would not follow God in perfect obedience. If they had, what need would there have been for the promise of Jesus, the Savior? But the obedience that they did have – where did it come from? I think verse 7 holds the answer: “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray?”

You see, God did not draw close to the Israelites because of their perfect obedience. You don’t have to read much of their history to understand how true this is. Rather, the obedience that they showed to God was a response to His having drawn near to them, loving them, and redeeming them from oppression and slavery.

We are not redeemed because of our obedience. Obedience follows redemption. This was, is, and always will be the proper order. “Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees” (Psalm 119:134-135). God does not love the writer of this psalm because of his obedience. Rather, the psalm writer obeys God and gladly learns His decrees because he loves God. Why does he love God? Because God has first loved him saved him.

Teaching obedience is important. We want our children to have peaceful, happy, orderly lives. We want them to be lights and witnesses to the Lord our God. We want to equip them with the full armor of God, so that they may be able to take their stand against the devil’s schemes (Eph. 6). We want them to be able to quell the wickedness that comes from their own human hearts (Mark 7:20-23).

So where do we start? We start by helping them to realize that they don’t always obey God’s law. Sometimes their lives will not be peaceful and orderly, and they will not be content. Sometimes they will fall victim to the traps and snares that Satan sets for them. Sometimes the wickedness of their own hearts will rise up and spill forth in their thoughts, words, and actions.

But then comes the best part: showing them that Jesus Christ came to earth for them, lived the life of perfect obedience that we could never achieve, and finally died and rose again so that we might also enter the Promised Land by His grace. Redemption.

We do not begin teaching our children obedience to God by telling them to obey. We begin by teaching them love for God through the story of our redemption in Holy Scripture. As they grow to understand and appreciate just how much God has done for them, we see the beautiful and natural response in their lives: obedience. And when this obedience inevitably fails, they will know it. Then it is our joy once again to point them back to God’s Word, to the cross, to the waters of their baptism, to their redemption through God’s love and grace.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, help me to teach others love for You through sharing the Gospel of what you have done for them.  Guard my heart from doubt and disbelief when I fail to obey Your Law.  Send Your Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament to bolster my faith, through Jesus Christ my Lord.  Amen.

Titus – Training Tomorrow’s Warriors

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.  It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.  These, then, are the things you should teach.” (Titus 2:11-15)

Like Timothy, Titus was faced with a monumental task.  Paul had left him with the people of Crete, and while the Holy Spirit had begun to work in their hearts, it was evident that the “raw material” was, well…it needed some work.

However, Paul was confident that the people of Crete were in good hands.  Oh, Titus was certainly a very capable leader.  He was entrusted with several important missions in the New Testament, and Paul had a great deal of faith in his abilities.  But it wasn’t Titus that Paul was trusting to shape the hearts and lives of these new converts, it was the Potter Himself – the Lord God Almighty.

Titus was working with men and women, young and old, who were used to a rather ungodly way of life.  The darkness of the society from which they were coming made the road of sanctification long and arduous.  And yet, this very darkness would allow the light of the Gospel to shine forth from each of them all the more brightly by contrast as they were changed and renewed by the grace of God.

The reason Paul was able to have such confidence in “drill sergeant” Titus was that he knew that Titus understood the crux and impetus of the Lord’s training regimen.  Titus was there for two purposes: 1) to share the Word of God so that those who heard it might be redeemed by the power of the Holy Spirit, and 2) to train these “new recruits” in righteousness and godliness so that they could be effective witnesses to those around them who remained yet in darkness.  Thankfully, Titus knew the importance of putting “the horse before the cart” so to speak – he understood that any change or purification was a result of God’s free grace, unlike those who were still preaching that God’s favor was gained by first amending our outward lives.

Why was this spiritual training program so important for these poor Cretans?  After all, if they were saved by grace through faith and not by their own works, why did it matter if they underwent such “purification” at all?  First of all, this change in their hearts and lives would be a natural response as a result of receiving God’s mercy.  It’s sort of like when you turn a four-year-old loose at the playground and tell her to “Have fun!” as if you could really stop her from having fun it that situation.  In the same way, when God freely bestows His grace upon us and we see all of our sin and wretchedness being washed away, the new man cannot be restrained, but breaks forth and serves the Lord in gladness.

And yet, Titus is instructed to remind these men and women of Crete what might be riding on the example of their good works and godly lives.  Again and again, Paul reminds Titus that the reputation of Jesus’ Gospel is at stake in the model of Christian life: “…so that no one will malign the word of God” (2:5); “…so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us” (2:8); “…so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (2:10); “These things are excellent and profitable to everyone” (3:8).

So no, we do not perform good deeds, speak in kindness and compassion, and serve in humility for the sake of our salvation.  We do these things for the sake of the Gospel message and the salvation of those around us, that through our example their hearts may be softened and plowed, ready to receive the miraculous seed of God’s Word and produce a harvest of saving faith.  That is both the reason and goal of our spiritual training here on Earth – may this training enable us to be always ready for service to the glory of our Lord and Savior.

“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.  He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, grant that all new warriors of Your faith may be trained and equipped for service and evangelism, inspired to serve You solely out of love and thanksgiving for Your great gift to us.  Help us to be Your faithful ambassadors here on Earth, that we may prepare the hearts of men for the Gospel which we sow; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord.  Amen.

Timothy – Being a One-Man Army

“But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.  Fight the good fight of the faith.  Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (1 Timothy 6:11-12)

If you’ve ever felt like the expectations placed on you are too great, just consider Paul’s young friend Timothy.  Here we find a young warrior left with little ammunition in a battlefield surrounded by enemies.  Paul’s advice?  Fight hard!

First of all, Timothy was facing fearsome adversaries on every side.  All around him were men teaching false doctrines, promoting “godless myths” and sowing dissention and discord among the believers.  Paul commissioned Timothy as the last line of defense between God’s people and these heretics and blasphemers.

As if the spiritual threats of false teachers and hypocrites weren’t enough, Timothy must also face the many worldly assaults that are so prevalent in Ephesus: lies, murder, gossip, slander, sexual immorality, and all manner of illicit and illegal activity.  While combatting the lies and enticements of the heretics, Timothy was also supposed to stand firmly against the evils of his own secular society.

But that isn’t all.  For the sake of the Gospel and the reputation of the Church, Paul also instructs Timothy to carefully monitor and regulate the worship practices of the church in Ephesus.  He was to guide the lives of God’s people there, instructing everyone from the laity to the overseers and deacons on how to live and being accountable for their behavior and actions.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed yet?  Well, too bad.  Because we haven’t even mentioned the fact that in the middle of this battle zone, Timothy will have to grapple with his greatest enemy all the while.  The Devil will use Timothy’s own sinful nature against him, throwing every temptation at him to try and topple this young Church leader from the holy hill whereon he is making his desperate stand against the forces of darkness.  And it won’t be enough to simply avoid falling into sin and shame; Timothy will have to be a model citizen, a pillar of righteousness and worthiness.

Oh yes, and one more thing: there are a host of other social issues that need tending to in your spare time – everything from the treatment of widows to the attitudes of the wealthy in your church and community.  See to it that you take care of these problems for me, will you Tim?  That’s a good boy.

I don’t know about you, but thinking about all this makes me want to sit down and weep while banging my head against the wall.  How is one person expected to manage all this?  Despite the fact that Timothy must have known he couldn’t do all this perfectly, and most certainly didn’t, it still must have been a tremendous amount of pressure – truly, one man against the world.

The scary part is that you and I are called to exactly the same desperate scenario as young Timothy.  We are hard pressed on all sides by false teachings, worldly enticements, and our own sinful desires.  The responsibilities laid upon God’s warriors can be staggering at times as we constantly encounter those in need of spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional help.  There are certainly many times when it feels like “me against the world,” and this couldn’t be more true.  But as we look to the cross of Jesus Christ for strength to fight on and for forgiveness for our failures, we can be encouraged by this excellent promise from our Lord Himself and find peace in His Word:

“In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You for the triumph of Your Son over all the adversity I face in this life!  Grant that I may face whatever struggles I am called to confront not only with strength and courage, but also with the joy that comes from knowing You are by my side as I serve You; though Jesus Christ, my Lord.  Amen.

Ezra – Building Up God’s Temple

“He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem.” (Ezra 9:9)

Ezra played an important role in the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.  While the building itself was essentially completed by the time he arrived, there was an important task still to be done.  Ezra came as a teacher and reformer, to instruct the children of God in His ways and His will and help them to mend their spiritual errors.

As important as a sturdy church building may be for any congregation, we must recognize that the Church exists in a much grander form than any temple or cathedral we could ever construct.  This is the Church, as C.S. Lewis puts it in The Screwtape Letters, “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.”  While the physical structure of the temple had been successfully erected in Ezra’s time, there was still much work to be done in building up the “Church” in Jerusalem.  As Ezra taught the people about God’s Law, precepts, and love, he was repairing a foundation upon which human bricks would be built up into the great spiritual structure that God continues adding onto today.

Like Ezra, we are all called to be builders.  As we preserve God’s pure doctrine, we maintain the structural integrity of a lofty spiritual dwelling.  As we bring others to the Word and Sacrament whereby they may receive the gift of faith, we see God adding new additions to this grand eternal building.  Whatever we do, we must always be sure that our construction is taking place on the firm foundation of God’s promise that goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden – the promise of a Messiah who would suffer and die for our sins.

Whatever kind of building you worship in, whether it be a Gothic cathedral or a school gymnasium, you are a part of the eternal, invisible Church that reaches all around the world.  Perhaps you have a role in maintaining your local church building as a trustee, a volunteer, or simply by donating your financial resources for its care and upkeep.   While it is important to provide the necessary means for God’s people to have a place of worship, it is even more vital to the universal Church that we continue to maintain and build up the body of Christ through prayer, service, and evangelism.

Remember this the next time you are at a church voters’ meeting or discussing repairs and maintenance that need to be done on your local church.  Don’t forget to discuss how you are also building up The Church by keeping God’s Word first and foremost in all that you do as a congregation.  Don’t let disagreements over the upkeep of a physical church building tear apart the unity we have in God’s Church.  If we keep our feet on the foundation of Christ and labor in His Word, we are sure to build a magnificent temple that will outlast the earth itself!

“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.  In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.  And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:19-22)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, grant Your Church true unity in Word and Spirit.  Give us the mortar to repair the cracks of division and strife through the diligent study of Holy Scripture.  Bind us together as bricks in an everlasting building, that we may stand firmly bonded through every storm and strife of this world.  Heal our division and forgive our discord, through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord.  Amen.

Jehoiada – Teaching the Way of the Lord

“Joash did what was right in the eyes of the Lord all the years Jehoiada the priest instructed him.” (2 Kings 12:2)

Teaching and guiding the next generation of believers is a duty of profound importance that falls upon all of God’s warriors of the faith.  The little children of today will soon become the leaders of tomorrow.  If we do not equip them with God’s Word and teach them to walk in His ways, we are handing the future over to the powers of darkness, sin, and suffering.  We must provide our youth with Christian guides and mentors who will teach them God’s Law and Gospel on a personal level.

These guides – parents, teachers, pastors, sponsors, and others – are vital faith heroes.  Jehoiada the priest is an excellent example of the kind of difference a Christian guide can make in the life of one young person, and by extension, hundreds or thousands of others as well.

Jehoiada takes the young Prince Joash into his care and protection in order to preserve the house of David and the Messianic line.  For six years, Jehoiada secretly teaches Judah’s future king how to rule in a just and God-pleasing manner.  When young Joash finally ascends the throne, Jehoiada continues to serve as his spiritual leader and example: “Jehoiada then made a covenant between the Lord and the king and people that they would be the Lord’s people” (2 Kings 11:17).

As long as young King Joash has his faithful spiritual leader Jehoiada around to teach and train him in God’s will, Joash prospers by doing what is good and right in the eyes of the Lord.  Sadly, after the death of Jehoiada, Joash is left without a God-fearing instructor and quickly abandons God’s Word as his foolish love for himself takes over.

Joash’s fate is a grim prediction of what will happen when the next generation fails to receive continual guidance and spiritual support from their elders.  Godly instruction must not end after Sunday School, or with one’s Confirmation, or graduation, or any other “milestone” in their lifetime.  Scriptural guidance remains necessary throughout one’s entire lifetime.  We need to not only seek out and cling to our own guides, but also to reach out to the younger generation, teaching them God’s Word and modeling the kind of life He would have us live.

The seed of faith is planted in rich soil when we daily minister to our youth with God’s perfect Law and His redeeming Gospel.  It will grow and flourish when fed and watered consistently with Scripture.  When this is done faithfully, that seed will eventually ripen and produce a bountiful harvest of faith in God’s grace, good works by the Spirit, and zeal to pass on God’s promises to yet another generation of believers.  May God grant this miracle to each generation until He comes again in glory!

“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank you for the faithful generations who have come before me and passed Your Gospel Light on to us.  Help me to diligently and persistently teach Your Word to those who will come after me, through Jesus Christ, Your Son.  Amen.