Obeying Jesus: The Challenge of Disagreement and the Test of Obedience

Obeying Jesus

There is a danger greater than ignoring or rejecting Jesus. The greater danger is embracing Jesus by painlessly fitting him into my existing ways of thinking. And yet people do this all the time.

In a pivotal chapter in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 8, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” (v27-28)

The people of that time believed that God sent prophets and so believed that Jesus was simply another prophet. It was a reasonable hypothesis. And wrong.

This is because Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, Israel’s rescuer and the ruler of God’s kingdom. As Mark introduces his gospel, Jesus is not only Messiah but also the Son of God. This means Jesus is unique and supreme. There is none like him. By people categorising Jesus as a prophet, they domesticated Jesus into their existing belief system and undermined who he actually is.

Unfortunately, this is not unique to those in first-century Israel.

Hinduism makes Jesus another one of many gods and/or another avatar.

Islam makes Jesus another prophet or messenger.

Buddhism makes Jesus another enlightened one.

Humanism makes Jesus another one of the world’s great teachers.

Spiritual mysticism makes Jesus another spiritual guide who has achieved a higher plane of consciousness.

In many of these cases, the desire behind this categorisation is to genuinely honour Jesus. And yet, from a biblical perspective, it does not honour Jesus because each belief system claims the right to define Jesus on its own terms. All of these beliefs make Jesus a member of a wider class or group. Doing this domesticates Jesus and undermines who he actually is.

Jesus won’t fit into any group. He is not one member of a broader category. He is Messiah. He is the Son of God. He is sui generis­ (Latin for “of its own kind”) – there is no one like him.

Many years ago, I studied at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. A bunch of my friends went to St Andrews as well. What happened? We showed up, moved into the halls of residence and got on with university life. We fitted into the university system.

Toward the end of my third year, we heard that a famous individual was coming to St Andrews the following year. He was coming to study art history. I then heard that the art history department went through a big refurbishment. Lots and lots of money was spent upgrading and improving the functionality and aesthetics of that department. The incoming student was so important that they felt they had to remodel and upgrade their building to make it fit around him, the future King, Prince William.

The following year Prince William did arrive at St Andrews to study art history. Then a funny thing happened. Prince William found art history exceedingly boring and he changed his degree to geography. He said: “I had to give it up – I kept falling asleep in lectures. It was terrible. We did a lot of Renaissance, which was amazing. But then once we got into modern art, I started to get a bit dozy.”

Jesus will not fit into a person’s pre-existing beliefs. He doesn’t fit into our world; we fit into his.

If I go to central Brisbane, I go there. I see the sights. I have a nice time. But if a world leader comes to central Brisbane, roads will be closed, traffic will be diverted, enormous security will be employed. Why?

The more important the person, the less they fit into the system, and the more the system gets redesigned to fit around them.

Jesus is the eternal Son of God. He is the one through whom all things were made. The one for whom all things were made, the one in whom all of God dwells bodily. Jesus is the exact representation of God’s being. Like Prince William’s moving to St Andrews, what effect would Jesus have on moving into history?

One secular historian said the life of Jesus affected history like a monumental earthquake, and 2000 years later, we are still feeling the ripple effects. Historian Tom Holland fleshes this out in detail in his book Dominion.

Before the Son of God entered history, history was history. After the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, history was defined as before him and after him. All of history was redesigned around him.

When it comes to understanding who Jesus is, Jesus will not fit into a person’s pre-existing beliefs. He doesn’t fit into our world; we fit into his.

Rather than fit Jesus into their existing belief system, the disciples had to allow Jesus to reconfigure their thinking.

Peter, probably on behalf of the other disciples, struggled with this. Peter grasps that Jesus is Messiah in a momentous turning point in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus then proceeds to explain that being Messiah involves suffering and death. This does not fit into Peter’s pre-existing understanding of Messiah.

Peter appears to be afflicted with an early version of what we would call the prosperity gospel. Swirling around some church circles, this teaching espouses that if we follow God, then life will go well for us. Spiritual faithfulness is measured by a person’s health and wealth. Suffering is a sign of unfaithfulness.

And so, Peter does what anybody would do – he tries to fit Jesus back into his box of understanding. He does this by reprimanding Jesus. Jesus in turn reprimands him with the stinging words, “Get behind me Satan.” (Matthew 16:23)

Rather than fit Jesus into their existing belief system, the disciples had to allow Jesus to reconfigure their thinking.

There is a challenge here, and it is not only for those of other faiths or followers of the prosperity gospel. The challenge is for all Christians. Peter reprimanded Jesus because what Jesus said didn’t fit into his box of understanding. In short, Jesus said something Peter disagreed with.

What do you do when Jesus says something that you don’t like or don’t agree with? When you read the Bible – and you are interpreting it well – what do you do when you read something you don’t like or don’t agree with?

The test of obedience is when you do what Jesus teaches, even when you don’t agree with or understand it.

Recently I heard pastor and author John Mark Comer say obedience is not chiefly doing what you want to do, and Jesus happens to agree with you. The test of obedience is when you do what Jesus teaches, even when you don’t agree with or understand it. “Love your enemy. Personally pour your life into others by making disciples. The greatest among you is your servant. No one can serve two masters … You cannot serve God and wealth. Seek first the kingdom of God.”

The test of obeying Jesus is when you don’t understand or agree with him. As God’s creatures with limited understanding, it is natural for us to try to fit Jesus into our existing understanding. But Jesus is unique and supreme, so he doesn’t fit.

Thankfully, Jesus gives us the remedy for this all-too-human problem. When Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan”, the word translated ‘behind’ is opisō. Jesus was doing more than telling him off. In the following verse Jesus says to the surrounding crowd, “If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). The word translated ‘after’ is opisō.

Peter, in seeking to squeeze Jesus into his understanding, had moved into the leadership role in their relationship. Jesus is saying to Peter, “Get back behind me, as my follower, and follow. Listen to my teaching and act on it. I will mould and reshape your being and your doing and your thinking.”

Rev Dr Adam Dodds is a Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the Brisbane Campus of Alphacrucis University College. He is also Teaching Pastor at Nexus Church, Brisbane. Find out more about him here.