Keeping Commands

Devotionals > Keeping Commands

Keeping Commands

January 2, 2015


We are pleased to welcome Dr. Oliver O’Donovan, Professor Emeritus, Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at The University of Edinburgh, as a guest blogger today at God Centered Life. Dr. O’Donovan was Regius Professor of Moral & Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford from 1982 until 2006. Read Dr. O’Donovan’s complete bio here. “If you love me, you will keep my commands” (John 14:15). The future tense – “You will…” –  may grate on us. That kind of hypothetical prediction tends to put us on our guard against moral blackmail.  How many difficult parent-child relations, lovers’ quarrels, arguments between friends turn on the hinge between “if you love me” and “you will do what I say”! But imagine a relation in which “doing what I say” is the only natural expression of love. Think of someone whose commands are exactly what is loveable about him, whose first link with us is the guidance he gives in living our lives. Loving him means “keeping” his instruction – not only “conforming to” and “obeying”, but keeping in mind, thinking about, taking with the seriousness due to something with vast implications for human life. We are speaking about loving a moral teacher, which is how Jesus comes before us in the Gospels. That may seem surprising, for we often hear that point set aside and dismissed: Jesus is no mere moral teacher,  and so on. We must give that pious rhetoric its due: Jesus is proclaimed in the Gospels as the Saviour of the world, the Son of God, the Word who was from the beginning with the Father. If we are to know him, it will be as more than a moral teacher. But “more than” implies “not less than”. Jesus is no less than the teacher who appears in the Gospels. So that is where we must begin. Someone who wants to find out what Christianity means, someone who has already discovered something, and has begun to love him, both need to spend time reading and reflecting on Jesus’ teaching as the evangelists have preserved it for us. It is possible, especially for those of us with intellectual pretensions, to find the popular form of the teaching a barrier:  stories, repartee, proverbial utterances, analogies and illustrations, challenges thrown out apparently at random. It is possible, too, for long familiarity and exposure to be a barrier, making it hard to attend to as though for the first time. It can seem too accessible, and at the same time too inaccessible. But a careful reader will get past these distractions. To expose ourselves to the words on the page, to ask ourselves about them, not closing the questions down too quickly with familiar, well-worn answers, but willing to wonder at them, even be troubled by them, we shall find that they are penetrating enough to get under our skin. Here is a teacher whose subject is how we may live our lives, own our existence in the face of God, confront other people and the great crises of history. Here is a teacher who dares invite us to build our life-project on his teaching, and warns us of total failure if we do not. Moral teachers of this kind are rather unusual – it is probable that we have never met anyone who taught in that way. The teachers we know do not give us commands, or promise that our lives will stand against storms if we build on what they teach. Most people who speak well about morality speak passionately, but also humbly, knowing that they owe anything useful they can say to those who handed their tradition down to them. They are disciples, afire with enthusiasm for their message, knowledgeable about it, keen to explain it – Marxists, perhaps, or Christians. They are the nearest we are likely to come to a moral teacher. The great moral teachers, on the other hand, who have arisen at the critical junctures in the history of civilisation, have opened up new perspectives on human existence, shown truths that had not been grasped before, which then have lived on in people’s minds, shaping the possibilities of thought for later generations. The disciple may be loved, but not obeyed;  the founding teacher is loved to the extent that he is obeyed. Such was Jesus of Nazareth. More than that, but not less. But the great moral teachers bequeath a problem: how to follow them, when the teacher is no longer there. The world changes, throws up new questions; the disciple needs constant proximity, drawing on truth from a source at hand. And when the source is not at hand? The disciple is thrown back on himself, cut off from the one from whom the teaching flows; the disciple is distant from the source, with only the resources of a past age to draw on to face passing time and changing context. These factors weigh with increasing force on every tradition, and the long-term effect is usually scholastic and schismatic: the school breaks up into rival streams, alternative interpretations of the teaching are argued over in ever more specialist detail. You can see this phenomenon in all the great traditions; you can certainly see it in the history of Christianity. Yet there, I believe, you can see something else as well. Jesus addressed the problem in the words that follow directly on those we have quoted:  “…and I will pray the Father and he will give you another Counsellor”. “Counsellor” speaks of someone at our side, not gone away. The truest of moral teachers is necessarily more than a moral teacher. The truest moral teaching lives over the ages, renewing its truth afresh. And that must mean it lives within those who follow it, not given only in words set down in history, but interpreted day after day by one who shares their thinking, “the Spirit of truth”. A teaching alive within us! We speak lightly enough of “internalising” morality, which is supposedly done by the tedious but inevitable process of maturing. We speak lightly enough of our principles, and imagine that if we have those, all we shall have to do is to follow our hearts. But if  living were as easy as that, there would be little  need of a counsellor to call to our side! This is a promise for those who are prepared to wrestle. “Spirit” speaks of life, “truth” of reality. The dynamic correlation of life and reality, and nothing less, is the offer of Jesus’ teaching. And Jesus’ triumph is that he can give us what he instructs us in: a lifegiver who is at our side to bring reality to bear on us: to live for real, really alive.]]>


Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.


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