This is the second part of an article I published a month ago entitled “Is Christianity All About Obeying Commands? Part I.“
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) This is the tender gentle invitation of Christ to the lost. In many ways for the lost and weary it is “an offer he can’t refuse.” It is with this in mind that I would like to continue the discussion on the Bible’s commands from the previous post.
Like any good sermon, I will be making three points in this article. First I will argue that God’s commands are not burdensome. Secondly, I will examine the core commands of scripture so that we don’t “neglect the weightier matters of the law.” Finally, following the Spirit is crucial to obeying God.
I. God’s Commands are Not Burdensome.
I feel like the preacher the night Charles Spurgeon was converted who had little to say, but stuck tenaciously to his text. The first thing to note from the text is that there is a yoke which we must take upon us if we are following Christ. There are also things which must be learned from Christ. Christianity is not about setting someone free from the laborious and heavy yoke of Satan to do whatever they would like. God does command. The invitation to the weary and heavy laden is to take on the yoke of Christ.
However, in willingly taking on the yoke of Christ, we find rest for our souls. Christ promises to be a gentle master who is lowly in heart. This is much different from the slavedriver, Satan, who we served before coming to Christ, and it is contrary to any view of Christ which paints Him as a slavedriver or taskmaster. While we are called to take on a yoke, in some way it is easy and light. In Matthew 23:4 Jesus condemns the Pharisees because they “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders.” It would be inconceivable for God to condemn the Pharisees for laying heavy burdens on people, and promise an easy burden to those same people to turn around and require His children to spend their time finding every command out of every principle they can find in scripture.
The passage makes it clear that God’s yoke is easy. God incarnate uses this as an invitation for people to follow Him. God does not play bait and switch. He fulfills His promises. We however, should be careful that we do not make God’s burden heavier than He intended. To the extent we require more things of Christians than God does, we are loading people looking for rest with a heavy burden. When God’s commands seem to be burdensome, we must ask whether the commands are truly from God or if they are extra biblical commands from religious leaders.
II. What Does God Command?
While there are many individual commands in scripture, it is helpful to look at passages where the Bible identifies the most important commands.
In Micah 6:6-8 the prophet asks “With what shall I come before the Lord?” “Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” These are superlatives of things God commanded and seemingly required elsewhere. The prophet goes on to suggest a much more valuable offering, seemingly pondering maybe God wants what the people around us suggest God wants. “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” The answer is a resounding no to those suggestions, and an oft repeated verse. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Really? Is that it? God only requires three things? Yes fulfilling them takes a lot, but can’t you hear the thankful cry of the person who realizes this truth? What ease is found in only striving to obey a few commands!
Maybe this is a fluke. Surely the commands of God can’t be few. That is just a minor Old Testament prophet. Maybe… Let’s look at the book of Acts and how the apostles dealt with this issue. Acts 15 relates the story of the Jerusalem Council. Following the conversion of many of the Gentiles, men from Judea came around telling the new converts that in order to really be a Christian they must be circumcised. This caused quite the controversy, and Paul and Barnabas returned to Jerusalem to talk to the apostles and elders about this issue. Some belonging to the party of the Pharisees argued that Gentile believers must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. (v.5) Peter however stands up and retells how God used him to begin bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. He then reasons against laying the command on the Gentiles by saying, “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (v.10 and 11) The council listens to him and as a result decides to send a letter to the Gentile churches with four commands: “To abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” Make what you want of the four particular laws, the decision was that the Gentile believers should not be burdened with numerous unkeepable laws and they intentionally decided to keep the yoke of the believers light.
Nothing is more burdensome than numerous laws. Both in Micah and Acts the commands of God are few. When multitudinous laws are written and imposed, the individual is forced to constantly double check whether his actions violate some law. Keeping commands few makes the yoke light. Interestingly as well, Jesus alludes to the importance of the simple commands found in Micah when He refutes the Pharisees. Justice, mercy, and faithfulness are the “weightier matters of the law” Jesus says the Pharisees neglect when crafting their multitudinous unfollowable laws. (Matthew 23:23) God’s commands are intentionally few and simple so that they won’t be burdensome.
III. The Role of the Holy Spirit
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” This is the great promise found in John 16:13 following Christ’s promise he would send a Helper, a Helper it was more advantageous for the disciples to have than Christ Himself. The Bible clearly that the Holy Spirit has a central role in sanctification. (2 Cor. 3:18, 2 Thess. 2:13, 1 Peter 1:2, Romans 8:4+13, etc…) If we believe the Holy Spirit will guide us, and sanctify us, we must leave the Him the ability to convict different individuals in different ways. Martin Luther famously stated at the Diet of Worms “I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen.” As the Spirit guides and convicts He shows us our sin and leads us into truth. This is the distinction of the New Covenant prophesied by Jeremiah and repeated in Hebrews. Arguing that the Holy Spirit tells you to do something contrary to the Bible is absurd. However, if He does not illuminate and convict He has no purpose. This is a work performed individually in the heart of the believer, not a special guidance to a “spiritual leader” who then has the authority to tell others to live as the Spirit may have guided them to live.
My Pastor Colby Garman delivered a very helpful sermon on the relationship of the law and the Spirit in his sermon on Romans 7. In it he argued that while “The Law is good, it cannot achieve growth and personal transformation in righteousness.” This is the crucial role of the Holy Spirit.