A recent Twitter post quoted a nationally-known pastor saying, “My biggest fear, even now, is that I will hear Jesus’ words and walk away, content to settle for less than radical obedience to Him.”
Is that what believers in Jesus are to fear most? There’s a good discussion to be had on whether there is reason to fear anything at all, once you belong to Jesus. Both sides can be argued reasonably, and their validity rests in part on the definition of “fear.”
A more important point from that quote is which words of Jesus did he himself tell us are the main thrust of obedience? There are a couple passages where he seemed to bring everything under one overarching point.
Loving God and People
One time when Jesus had silenced one group of critics, another group sent a representative to test Jesus:
One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:35-40.)
So when it comes to commandments, these two subsume all others. Any other command is a detail that is fulfilled by loving God and those he puts in your life. If an action does not love God and others, it is not an action in response to a commandment of God.
Radical obedience to Jesus and his words is found in loving God and others.
Believing in Jesus Isn’t Optional
Another time the crowd wanted to pin Jesus down on what it took to do God’s work:
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:28-29.)
No list of tasks to perform. No list of actions to avoid. One thing and one thing only constitutes the sum total of God’s work: believe in the one he has sent. Jesus went on to make it clear he was talking about himself, so according to Jesus the work of God – the radical obedience to him – is believing in Jesus.
Believing and Loving
Much later, John wrote to some friends about the importance of loving God, loving people, and believing in Jesus.
Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist – denying the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also. (1 John 2:22-23.)
Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. (1 John 4:2-3.)
The antichrist? Teaching that Jesus is not the one God sent makes a person the antichrist? That seems extreme, but if anyone should know it would be John. He was with Jesus for three years as a young man, and had been telling people about Jesus for decades by the time he wrote this letter as an old man.
And he also told his friends that the point of believing in Jesus is to follow his commands, which as Jesus said decades earlier meant loving God and people. John reiterated it this way:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. … We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
(1 John 4:7, 19-21.)
In repeated passages replete with affirming that Jesus is the one sent and his command is to love God and others, there’s an interesting conclusion to the letter.
Dear children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:21.)
After a long letter repeatedly encouraging his readers to love God, love people, and believe Jesus is who he said he is, there is a lone reference in the very last line to avoiding idols. How on earth does that conclusion fit the letter’s themes?
Trusting in idols means not trusting Jesus, not “believing in the one God has sent” as John put it in his gospel account of Jesus’ life. Idolatry takes attention away from God and focuses it elsewhere, which interferes with loving God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” as John also recorded. Then, once a person moves away from trusting Jesus and loving God, there is an interference with loving others; God, as John wrote to his friends, is the source of love itself, and we best love others when we focus on Jesus and love God.
Idolatry is not restricted to praying to statues. Modern day commonplace acts count as idolatry, too:
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. … But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” (Colossians 3:5, 8.)
Such idolatry interferes with your ability to love those God has put in your life, like this:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14.)
Which brings me back to identifying how simple radical obedience to Jesus really is: believe in Jesus, love God, and love others. That’s it.
Simple and radical.