Hearing and Obeying God's Word

Understanding the difference is vital to life-changing transformation.

I love education, and I've dedicated my life to learning. But I must constantly remind myself that learning should never become an end in itself. The goal of all learning is obedience to God's Word, thus giving glory to his name.

The Hebrew word for obey means "to hear." To truly hear God's Words implies obedience, as opposed to simply receiving information. James writes, "Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says" (James 1:22). The Greek phrase for obey literally means to "hear under." The idea of obedience in the New Testament is a hearing that takes place under the authority or influence of the speaker, thus leading to compliance with what is being taught.

Jesus asked that his disciples "hear him" to the point of complying with his requests. Often the disciples didn't understand Christ's words or teaching. They failed to grasp the meaning of Christ's death on the cross (Matthew 16:22), their own place in the kingdom (Mark 9:33–37), and the need for humble service to others (Matthew 20:24). They lacked the finesse and education that characterized the elite of their day.

Yet Jesus must have noticed their humble commitment to trust and obey his teachings once they did understand. That's why he chose them to follow him.

Jesus never exalted knowledge as an end in itself. In fact, he and his disciples bypassed seminary. They failed to meet the educational and ecclesiastical requirements that would have credentialed them to be priests within Judaism. The early Christian movement exploded and developed without regard to any set-apart priesthood or formal standard of education.

The amount of knowledge the disciples possessed was far less important than what they did with that knowledge. It seemed that Jesus worked under this premise: Additional knowledge is given as a result of obedience to present biblical truth.

How can we put this truth into practice in the 21st century? How can we emphasize teaching that leads to biblical obedience rather than just knowledge for its own sake? Let me suggest two action steps.

Combine Teaching Information with Practical Application

This is called the problem solving method of learning. This methodology applies knowledge to areas of immediate need. The sequence for this method is: assign, do, and teach.

First, there is an assignment that requires involvement (e.g., boot-up the computer, open a document, write a letter, save it, and turn off the computer). Then there is feedback, new knowledge, and another assignment. Jesus applied this methodology by often using the following four steps with his disciples:

  • I do; you watch
  • I do; you assist
  • You do; I assist
  • You do; I watch

If you're a cell leader, allow your intern to watch you perform a ministry task. Then explain what you did and why you did it. Next, observe the intern as he or she does the same thing and objectively explain strengths and weaknesses that you observed. You must provide remedial activity to strengthen the weaknesses. More and more, you must turn the task over to the intern, while you withdraw. You must remain a close friend while at the same time treating the intern as your equal.

This sequence is the key to maintaining a teaching that that leads to biblical obedience, rather than just knowledge. When obedience is not required, or when the teaching is not placed into practice, mere information is the result.

Monitor the Practical Application

For one year now, I've been preparing two leaders in my cell group to lead their own groups. In January, Janet and Fabian began receiving personal training from me. At the same time, they took baby steps in leading parts of my cell group—first the icebreaker, then worship, then vision casting, and finally they took turns leading the entire lesson.

They not only received information from me (a training track), but they also applied it. As they were faithful in the little things, I gave them more. In November, both Janet and Fabian started their own new groups. I'm excited and confident that they will successfully lead their own cells because their obedience in the small things has led them to this point.

On the other hand, John (not his real name) seemed like a great guy for me to mentor. He made a point to seek me out, and I felt equally attracted to minister to him. We spent lots of time together, both formally and informally. On various occasions, I invited John to dinner at our home. My children eagerly looked forward to John's visits. Everything seemed to click, until I noticed a fatal flaw.

I discovered that John didn't follow through on commitments. He would say yes to my suggestions in order to please me, but then fail to act. I desired honesty more than blind obedience, but I expected him to keep his word. I noticed that failure to keep his word was a pattern in his life, and eventually I was forced to cut off the mentoring relationship. John continues to wander through life, seeking work here and there with little success.

Paul warns of evil men in the last days who are "always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth" (2 Timothy 3:7). Knowledge without obedience doesn't cut it in the kingdom. Thankfully, Paul could point to Timothy as someone who faithfully applied God's Word. He said, "And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others" (2 Timothy 2:2).

Commitment, faithfulness, and obedience are essential qualifications for discipleship. As we obey God's Word, he'll give us more knowledge and we'll have a greater impact for his glory.

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