How to Obey God Without Obeying God

Are you obeying God without obeying God? That’s what the Ephesian church was doing when Christ addressed its members in Revelation 2. He says, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary” (Revelation 2:2–3).

Jesus acknowledges the way the Ephesian church, now forty years old, has “remained faithful to the word and to the Lord.”1 They have heeded Scripture (Paul’s letter of Ephesians). Christ says that they have . . .

  • patient endurance: “Take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13).
  • not [borne] with those who are evil:“Do not become partners with [the sons of disobedience]” (Ephesians 5:7).
  • tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and have found them to be false: “Let no one deceive you with empty words. . . . Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:6, 11).
  • [borne] up for [his] name’s sake: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus” (Ephesians 1:15). 

In a word, they have “not grown weary” of good works (Revelation 2:3). Can you imagine the heights to which a believing heart would soar, to be so commended by Christ?

But then Revelation 2 twists — drastically. Though Christ seems happy with the Ephesian church at first, he is not. He warns, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:4). 

Christians do not just do. We do not just patiently endure. We do not just heed seasoned believers, rather than people of the world. We do not just test things said, to see whether they accord with the truth. We do not just stamp Bible verses onto our social media. 

At the most foundational level, Christians love. We love one Object worthy of endless observance, one Person worthyof oaken affection. We love Christ. “To be a Christian is to love the Lord Jesus Christ.”2 

Though faithful to carry out Christian toil, the Ephesians sapped it of purpose when the works no longer sprung from a love for Jesus. “Their doctrinal and moral purity, their undiminished zeal for the truth, and their disciplined service were no substitute for the love for Christ they had forsaken.”2 They could not — and we cannot! — truly obey God without acting out of a love for God. And so Jesus commands them, “Repent and do the works you did at first” (Revelation 2:5).

We do not know if the Ephesians repented. If they did, onlookers probably took little notice. Their actions would have remained much the same.

However, their hearts — those God would have remodeled. He would have installed floor-to-ceiling windows, facing the Son. Knowledge of who Christ is, what he has done, kickstarts limp hearts. When we see the Son rightly, our hearts cannot help but lurch with love for the Father. As John Newton says, “If obedience be the thing in question, looking unto Jesus is the object that melts the soul into love and gratitude, and those who greatly love, and are greatly obliged, find obedience easy.”3 Love for God is the sheetrock foundation for a life of obedience to all his other commands. If you want to love (and thereby obey) God in this way, gaze at Jesus.

1 The MacArthur Study Bible, English Standard Version (ESV). Crossway, 2010. 
2 Ibid.
3 Reinke, Tony. Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ. Crossway, 2015.

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