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True Obedience

Jim Thompson - 4/16/2023


Scripture: 1 Samuel 15

What comes into your mind when you think about obedience? For many of us, parenting might come to mind. Not just having to obey our parents, but, if you have kids, how you want them to obey you. And getting kids to obey can be rough. Sometimes it feels as though they can’t hear you. Sometimes it’s like they only do enough of what you asked so that you won’t be upset. And God only knows where motives are in the obedience journey. But this issue of obedience extends far beyond parenting. It actually applies everywhere, especially when it comes to our relationship with God.

When it comes to obedience and spirituality, there’s additional baggage. So many people grew up in a religious space that constantly spouted rules on top of rules, and never allowed people to ask questions. And your worth and value in those spaces were solely related to how much you obeyed the rules, regardless of whether or not they were biblical. But there are also others who start by loving and praising the grace of God so much, which is great! But they slowly presume on grace to the point that “grace” becomes an excuse to dodge obedience. For some, it becomes a license to do whatever you please. And these tensions and others demand a thoughtful and biblical definition of obedience. But obedience is an abstract idea. It has legs. We have to know how it works and acts and breathes. Simply, how does true obedience function? 


1 Samuel 15 will help us answer our question. In this bizarre story, King Saul directly disobeys the voice of the Lord, and the consequences are monumental. It leads to God and Samuel finally rejecting Saul as Israel’s king. And in order to answer the above question, we can see the following in and from this passage: 

Three Things Obedience Doesn’t Include:

  1. Complete understanding isn’t a prerequisite for true obedience.
    • The violence of this passage can be confounding to the modern reader.. Even though the Amalekites were Ancient Near Eastern land pirates and terrorists, their destruction can feel more like bloodthirstiness than justice. Beyond this, twice in the passage, it says that, because of Saul’s disobedience, “God regretted that he made Saul king” (15:11, 15:35). But in the middle of the passage it says that “God is not like man. He can’t regret” (15:29). These verses combine to give us a unique perspective. However, a complete understanding of who God is or all of his motives is not required before we obey him. In fact, we can never fully understand God’s ways, they are higher than ours. Your eight-year-old might be smart, but they can’t fully understand that behind the obedience you’re asking for lies layers of motives – motives about protection, perseverance, and character. 
    • How much more so is this the case for God our Father? And when we lack understanding, that’s probably the time in which we most need to step out in faith and action. Bringing our honest questions and curiosities to God isn’t wrong. But it is beyond foolish to demand that he completely explain himself to us before we obey.
  2. Blaming others isn’t a part of true obedience.
    • When Saul is approached by Samuel as to why he didn’t fully obey, Saul blamed it on the people: “THEY have brought them from the Amalekites to sacrifice to Yahweh your God” (15.15). In psychology, this is called distancing language. He’s trying to evade responsibility. But blame over-promises and under-delivers. It can’t lead to life change. It can’t cultivate happiness or peace. It can’t encourage faith and obedience. In terms of responding to God, faithfulness is health and strength, but blame is like undiagnosed cancer. It will undo you from the inside. 
  3. Partial obedience is actually disobedience.
    • In 15.19, Samuel says, “Why then did you NOT OBEY the voice of Yahweh?” And Saul replies in 15.20, “I have obeyed the voice of Yahweh!” Notice, Saul’s blame is making him reinterpret what is actually true. He actually did like 95% of the job, and that’s gotta be close enough, right? Like when your kid cleans their room by shoving everything under the bed, that’s clean, right? And not only does blame convince us of self-justification, but percentage obedience does the same thing. We do enough to feel good about ourselves, and then carry on. And Samuel here says that that’s actually disobedience. In chapter 13, we asked, “Do you ever find yourself ignoring what God clearly says and simultaneously asking God for help?” Chapter 15’s version of that is: “Do you ever find yourself obeying part of what God clearly says and simultaneously thinking you’re helping God out? Again, partial obedience is actually disobedience.

Two Things Obedience Must Include:

  1. Biblical obedience begins with hearing the voice of the Lord.
    • In 15.22, Samuel says, “Has Yahweh as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying his voice?” And hearing God’s voice is not about getting an audible phone call from him every Sunday. It’s about listening to him speak in creation, in other godly people, in corporate worship, in art, in solitude, in prayer, and ultimately, it’s about hearing and knowing God’s voice as he speaks to us in Holy Scripture. In his word, he has spoken with crystal clarity, so much so that the pinnacle point of the Written Word of God is the Incarnate Word of God – Jesus himself, who has come to rescue us. He is God’s voice with skin on. And when we pay close attention to Jesus, we hear God’s voice with zero static.
    • Also, the Hebrew word for “obey” in 1 Samuel 15 is the word “shema,” which is also the word for “hear.” It’s the first word in the morning and evening prayer of every Jew, “Hear, O Israel, Yahweh your God, he is the One God!” (Deuteronomy 6:4). This further means that we shouldn’t listen to and obey other voices above God’s like Saul did in 15:24. Rather, real obedience begins with listening for God’s voice, his truth, and his standard(s), especially in how he has revealed himself in Scripture.
  2. True obedience moves from a listening, trusting heart to faithful, sacrificial action.
    • Saul’s sacrifices were not made from a hearing, trusting heart, so they weren’t real obedience after all. Samuel knew that true obedience will cost you something and that there will be sacrifice involved. But it has to be “faithful,” meaning, it has to be consistent with a heart that trusts God and hears what he’s asking. This is not just cleaning the floor, or even cleaning under the bed too. It’s knowing that your Father asked you to do so for good purposes. And you obey because you love him, not to avoid his possible frustration. The kind of obedience the Bible invites us into is not a demanding, threatening legalism. Because it’s supposed to begin with a listening and trusting posture, biblical obedience can be what French philosopher Simone Weil called “the infinite sweetness of obedience.” That’s Scripture’s invitation, into intimacy with God and his people and his purposes.
One Foundation from Which We Obey:

  1. Jesus’ obedience is not only our supreme example but also the sure foundation from which we obey. We obey because we have been perfectly loved, not in order to be perfectly loved.
    • Saul is rejected as king, and the final days of his kingship are spent trying to take down other people with him. And this story simultaneously reminds us that we mess up just like Saul AND that we need a king from God who won’t, who’s not like Saul. Enter King Jesus.
    • Jesus is the King who obeys his Father perfectly. Hebrews 5 says that “even though Jesus was a son, he learned obedience through the things that he suffered, and became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him.” Romans 5 teaches that through Adam’s disobedience, Royalty unraveled. But now Jesus is the Second Adam, who, because of his obedience, can forgive us and heal us and declare us righteous before the Father. Philippians 2 says that “Jesus became obedient to the point of Death, even death on a cross.” His obedience cost him something. It was sacrificial, self-giving love. And in it, he loved us perfectly. On my own, I can’t live up to God’s standards. Left to ourselves, we measure up as much as Saul did. If it’s up to us, we’re deserving of judgment and separation from God. But King Jesus stepped in and obeyed in our place, taking the death that should be ours. And now our obedience isn’t a chore, trying to get God’s attention to love us and bless us. Instead, because he has unconditionally loved us in Jesus, and in him, we have every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1), now we obey as a response to God’s love, not in order to bend God’s arm to love us. Now obedience is freedom. Now Jesus is the rock-solid foundation on which we stand.

*We are a church located in Greenville, South Carolina. Our vision is to see God transform us into a community of grace passionately pursuing life and mission with Jesus.