Coffee Break: Love, Freedom and Obedience?

Pete BardwellCoffee Break

Pete Bardwell holding a coffee mug

Through these recent blog posts I have shared some thoughts around God’s love for us; his making his home with us, sonship and the Father’s heart, grace and forgiveness. I love these highly relational themes, they have brought life to me and reminded me of my unbroken union with the Trinity and just how loved and accepted I am. I hope as you’ve given time to engage with them you have had a similar experience.


With this next blog I’d like to navigate what some may consider more treacherous terrain! How would you like to go on a short but important journey into the theme of ‘obedience’?

“Oh goody” I hear you whoop!

Now now.

Obedience is the beautiful non-negotiable, guaranteed, sure fire way to discover the REAL you! It’s the topsy-turvy way of the Kingdom which makes no sense in a secular world: It’s the narrow gate of Matthew 7:13; it’s as counter cultural as it gets; it’s as Jesus himself said “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” Matt 10:39); it’s Psalm 23, the stunning realisation of one submitted to Jesus:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul…” Psalm 23:1–2 (ESV)

At those still waters we get the restoration that only he gives as we see our true selves reflected in him. And we only get there through obedience. By saying ‘yes’, by accepting the invitation, which if I remember rightly was to…


Ok then, what does the word ‘obey’ conjure up in your mind?

An online dictionary defines ‘obey’ as: “submit to the authority of (someone) or comply with (a law)”.  It suggests the following example: “I always obey my father”. Or similarly to “carry out (a command or instruction)”. The example being “the officer was convicted for refusing to obey orders”.

Certainly, and given these definitions I can understand why for me anyway, the word conjures up thoughts of “doing what I’m told”, “following orders” and “sticking to the rules”.

“Ours is not to reason why, ours but to do and die”, the famous quote from Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the light brigade’ poem is perhaps a little strong but certainly our English meaning for the word ‘obey’ doesn’t suggest that the person being told has a choice. It feels positional more than relational. Admittedly, the word will mean more to some, having a fuller definition or application, but for the purposes of this blog I’ve sought to be more general.

All of that to say that we find the word ‘obey’ or ‘obedience’ in numerous places in the bible. I grew up reading the NIV, and every so often I would read verses like this one:

“Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23 NIV)

Or this one…

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19–20)

Or even this one…

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” (Eph 6:1)

The thought which I have considered over the years is this: How do we build relationships rooted in love and freedom (both our relationship with him and our relationships with each other) with our English definition of obedience?

Could it be that our understanding of biblical ‘obedience’ needs to be seen afresh?

Could be!!!

Romans 12:2 encourages us to be transformed by renewing our minds, so it’s only right that as the Spirit leads us we will have to rethink things we thought we knew.

Feel very free to look into this in greater depth for yourselves, but for the sake of not losing you (well done if you’ve made it this far!) I’m going to keep this as brief as I can.

In just the NIV translation there are 44 references to ‘obey’. The ESV has 32, The NKJV has 26 and the NASB has 25. The variation alone illustrates that this word ‘obey’ is not a straightforward word to translate into English. (There are also many references to obedience but the root words are the same and your coffee will be stone cold if we look in that much detail!)

Sticking with the NIV, of those 44 references using the single word ‘obey’ there are actually six different Greek words, all with quite varied meanings.

Six different words for our one word ‘obey’.

22 times, so half of the references, are translations of the Greek word “hupakouó” meaning to listen, attend to, to harken to.

More than our English “just do what you’re told”, the emphasis here carries with it a sense of active listening, having a value for the one speaking, giving them full attention and then responding appropriately.

Proverbs 22:17 says “Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply your heart to my knowledge.” Isaiah 55:3 begins “Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live”.

“Hupakouó” is the word used in Ephesians 6:1: “Children, obey your parents”. What Paul (the writer of Ephesians) expects is for family relationships to be based on cultures of love and honour rather than command and control. Of the 22 remaining references, a further eight references also place the emphasis on listening; being persuaded, or dissuaded and hearing. The point is that ‘obedience’ in the right culture is formative, wise and life giving rather than restrictive. What a brilliant sentence, I might repeat that again later so it really sinks in!!

12 more references are equally interesting to us which brings us back to our examples and Jesus’ words in John 14:23: “Anyone who loves me obeys my teaching…”

The word used here and a further eight times is “téreó”: to keep, watch over, guard, keep intact. Similar to “phulassó”, (used three times) these words place the emphasis on valuing that which is being passed on. In this case, as with the great commission (Matthew 28:20) it’s Jesus’ teaching and instruction we are to keep watch over, preserve and pass on. Our love for him motivates us to keep watch over and share the gospel to the next generation. His love for us and constant presence with us gives us full confidence that his motives are always good.

For those of you who are counting, that leaves two references based on poieó (to do, make and construct) but both assume hearing has preceded the instruction, also found in the hearers and doers verse of James 1:22.

SO WHAT!!! I hear you shout!

My point is that this word ‘obedience’ is soooooooo much more than just being told to jump! That is a legalistic, command and control mindset. The culture of the Kingdom is very different: Our ‘obedience’ to Jesus is because I’m close to him, I’m leaning in, inclining my ear, I’m learning to be like John with Jesus in John 13—so close as to feel his breath, sense his movements and even his heart rate. Our ‘obedience’ is to value the one asking above all things and therefore my appropriate response is to say ‘yes’ wholeheartedly. Our ‘obedience’ looks like treasuring all that we’ve seen and learned like Mary did in Luke 2 and seeking to impart it to our children. Our ‘obedience’ is seeking more Shama (hebrew word for obedience) than shouting: hearing and responding, not from a sense of duty but from overflowing gratitude. The culture of our King is one of love and freedom and honour: It’s less ‘we have to’ and more ‘we get to’. Obedience and submission to him, our friend (John 15:15) and his ways isn’t restrictive, it is formative, wise and life giving. (There, I said I’d repeat it!)

Come on, Let’s model kingdom obedience, let’s be a little more John and lean in, incline our ears and expectantly respond!