By Mark Kreitzer
Faculty, College of theology
What does it mean to obey the Lord?
This is a practical and much misunderstood question. The root meaning of “obey” actually means “to listen” in both Hebrew and Greek. This helps to explain what some have termed a contradiction between Genesis 15:6 and 22:18.
In the first passage, Moses describes Abram’s crucial step of regenerating and justifying faith: “Abram put his trust in the Lord, and it was accounted to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). In the second passage, the Lord told Abraham immediately after he was willing to sacrifice Isaac: “In your seed shall all the peoples of the earth be blessed, because you have listened to My voice” (Genesis 22:18). The Hebrew words “listened to” are rendered “obey” in many versions, setting up the dilemma. So then, was the blessing given to and implemented in Abraham’s life because he “obeyed” or because he ”listened to” Yahweh?
The paradox is further deepened when we take into account what the Angel of the Lord promised Isaac in order to “confirm the oath I swore” to Abraham. He told Isaac that through his seed “all the nations on earth will be blessed because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws” (Genesis 26:4-5).
Paul solves this dilemma in Galatians 3. First, it is interesting that the word for “obey” in Genesis 26:4-5 is again “listen to.” Paul states that “listening to” is a synonym for “trust in” and “rely upon,” but not “obey.” To “listen to” the word of promise means to “put one’s trust” in God’s Word and strength. It does not mean to strive in one’s own strength to obey God. In other words, those who listen to and trust in the Lord have been justified and grow in grace. That growth only comes by keeping in step with the regenerating Spirit by listening to, trusting and following Him (Colossians 2:6-7). How then was Abraham regenerated and justified? How did he subsequently live? Paul answers:
Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the strength of the flesh? So then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? Just as Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness, then understand that those who have faith are Abraham’s sons. Now the Scripture saw in advance, saying, All the nations will be blessed through you. So those who have faith are blessed with Abraham, who had faith. For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse (Galatians 3:1b-10).
It was not by obedience to God in his own strength but by listening to and trusting the Lord, which always results in following His instructions.
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