Obedience is not a popular topic today. As strange as it may sound, a great many people who call themselves followers and disciples of Jesus recoil at the suggestion that careful daily obedience either matters to God or ought to concern them. Yet according to Jesus himself, discipleship at its core involves listening to him and doing as he instructs. This is clearly seen throughout the Gospel of Matthew, which scholars believe was originally written as a manual or handbook for early disciple communities. (The vision of a community of disciples is also obscured today by the almost-exclusive use of the term “church” — a word which in much modern usage hides the individual within the group, replaces interdependent relationships with static membership in an institution and loses much of the sense of personal commitment, allegiance and responsiveness to Jesus himself as master and teacher.)
Discipleship begins with the simple command of Jesus: “Follow me.” The first disciples did just that — immediately and at considerable financial cost (Matt. 4:18-20). Like many since, they could have replied: “Yes, sir!” and then done nothing. But had they done that, they would not have been disciples at all (21:28-32). In his parting commission to the original disciples, Jesus charges them to make and baptize disciples worldwide, then to teach them also to do everything that Jesus himself has commanded (28:18-20). Words alone are cheap and hollow. Merely saying “Lord, Lord!” does not guarantee entrance into God’s kingdom in the Age to Come. Those who enter there will have done the will of the Father in heaven (7:21). This includes such things as feeding the hungry and thirsty, caring for the stranger, clothing the naked and ministering to the sick and the imprisoned (25:31-46). These are not meritorious deeds that earn salvation; they are evidence of spiritual life which God has graciously given.
Obedient discipleship enables us to fulfill God’s purpose here and now. This corrupt world needs salt and light. To this end Jesus calls his disciples to engage in good works. Although such deeds are not performed ostentatiously or for human approval (6:1-18), the world takes note of them and praises God as a result (5:13-16). Obedience builds a life that is solidly grounded and that will endure the storms of life. A life without such obedience is foolish and sure to collapse (7:24-27). To do God’s will is to enjoy kinship with Jesus closer than his own physical family (12:50). The person who receives Jesus’ teaching and allows it to bear fruit in his or her life has God’s commendation and will never be sorry (13:23).
In this day when some confuse obedience with legalism and suppose that grace removes any need for good works, we need to hear the words of Jesus himself. He did not come to abolish God’s laws, he said, but to give them full meaning. To be great in God’s eyes involves keeping God’s commandments as God intended them to be kept (5:17-19). That means observing the spirit as well as the letter of the law — sincerely, from the heart (5:20-6:18). Whether good or bad, inward character eventually reveals itself in outward deeds (7:15-20). This is not works-righteousness. It is not salvation by merit. It is a transformed life. It is a changed character. It is genuine commitment. It is obedient discipleship. It is freedom and joy and peace.