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The Bible is conspicuous in its many graphic depictions of the responses of men to the words and will of God. Responses that are avowedly favorable to such a degree that one is persuaded to act are called “hearing,” “believing,” or more simply “obeying.” Other responses that are apathetic or disregard God’s Word are characterized as “rebellion,” “unbelief,” or “disobedience.”

Studies of obedience situations have tended to emphasize either the external and more formal aspects of the response or the inner nature of the respondent and the spiritual aspects of his attitude. Justice should be done to both of these elements.


שָׁמַע, H9048, to hear, to listen reverently, πείθω, G4275, to obey, to put one’s trust in, ὑπακοή, G5633, hearkening submissively, ὑπακούω, G5634, to listen to, to obey, to follow

In its simpler Old Testament meaning the word signifies "to hear," "to listen." It carries with it, however, the ethical significance of hearing with reverence and obedient assent. In the New Testament a different origin is suggestive of "hearing under" or of subordinating one’s self to the person or thing heard, hence, "to obey." There is another New Testament usage, however, indicating persuasion from, peithomai.

The relation expressed is twofold: first, human, as between master and servant, and particularly between parents and children. "If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that, will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and, though they chasten him, will not hearken unto them; then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place" (De 21:18,19; compare Pr 15:20); or between sovereign and subjects, "The foreigners shall submit themselves unto me: as soon as they hear of me, they shall obey me" (2Sa 22:45; 1Ch 29:23).

Obedience in the Bible

The Bible, by exhortation and commandment, requires submission and obedience to six principal authorities:

  • Parents (Eph.6.1; Col.3.20; 1Tim.3.4)

  • Teachers (Prov.5.12-Prov.5.13)

  • Husbands (Eph.5.21-Eph.5.22, Eph.5.24; Col.3.18; Titus.2.5; 1Pet.3.1, 1Pet.3.5, 1Pet.3.6)

  • Masters—today, employers—(Eph.6.4; Col.3.22; Titus.2.9; 1Pet.2.18)

  • Government (Rom.13.1-Rom.13.2, Rom.13.5; Titus.3.1; 1Pet.2.13)

  • Old Testament

    The highest significance of its usage, however, is that of the relation of man to God. Obedience is the supreme test of faith in God and reverence for Him. The Old Testament conception of obedience was vital. It was the one important relationship which must not be broken. While sometimes this relation may have been formal and cold, it nevertheless was the one strong tie which held the people close to God. The significant spiritual relation is expressed by Samuel when he asks the question, "Hath Yahweh as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of Yahweh? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" (1Sa 15:22). It was the condition without which no right relation might be sustained to Yahweh. This is most clearly stated in the relation between Abraham and Yahweh when he is assured "In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice" (Ge 22:18).

    In prophetic utterances, future blessing and prosperity were conditioned upon obedience: "If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land" (Isa 1:19). After surveying the glories of the Messianic kingdom, the prophet assures the people that "this shall come to pass, if ye will diligently obey the voice of Yahweh your God" (Zec 6:15). On the other hand misfortune, calamity, distress and famine are due to their disobedience and distrust of Yahweh.

    This obedience or disobedience was usually related to the specific commands of Yahweh as contained in the law, yet they conceived of God as giving commands by other means. Note especially the rebuke of Samuel to Saul: "Because thou obeyedst not the voice of Yahweh, .... therefore hath Yahweh done this thing unto thee this day" (1Sa 28:18).

    New Testament

    In the New Testament a higher spiritual and moral relation is sustained than in the Old Testament. The importance of obedience is just as greatly emphasized. Christ Himself is its one great illustration of obedience. He "humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross" (Php 2:8). By obedience to Him we are through Him made partakers of His salvation (Heb 5:9). This act is a supreme test of faith in Christ. Indeed, it is so vitally related that they are in some cases almost synonymous. "Obedience of faith" is a combination used by Paul to express this idea (Ro 1:5). Peter designates believers in Christ as "children of obedience" (1Pe 1:14). Thus it is seen that the test of fellowship with Yahweh in the Old Testament is obedience. The bond of union with Christ in the New Testament is obedience through faith, by which they become identified and the believer becomes a disciple.

    The external nature of obedience

    An external and somewhat formal approach will tend to focus attention on observable circumstances or inferable causes and consequences of the act.

    The most evident aspect of obedience is the presence of a person (or group) with authority who commands or requests another to comply with his expressed will. This authority can be recognized because usually it is expressed through the media of accepted customs and traditions, of venerated ordinances and laws, whose value to human life are unquestionable. To obey is to adjust to demands judged to be worthy. Obedience, thus, can be seen as being motivated by such things as convention, habit, fear of punishment, and hope of reward. When Moses says, “If you obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments which I command you this day, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey...” (Deut 28:1, 2, see also 30:9f.), it seems evident that the response of obedience frequently occurs in a matrix of external causes and inducements similar to those listed above.

    A word of caution is necessary, for it is easy to make the inference that the Biblical writers advocated obedience to God only for practical reasons. Such an inference would be too naturalistic in its understanding of the Old Testament and New Testament, and ignores the deeper spiritual aspect of obedience found even in the Old Testament, e.g., in 1 Samuel 15:22, “To obey is better than sacrifice.” Undoubtedly most of the obedient responses of men in Scripture included an element of obeying because of what was commanded: religion in the Bible is never looked upon as impractical. The Biblical idea of obedience is distorted if it is not recognized that men also obeyed because of who commanded. God’s will was thought to be definitive for the establishment of all practical wisdom and law. Hence, Biblical writers could present practical reasons for obedience and speak of desirable consequences, while all the time they knew that true obedience to God’s Word took place without thought of reward.

    The manner in which the obligation to obedience is developed and applied is a formal element of obedience. The psalmist, e.g., is urging obedience when he stresses the dependence of man, as a created being, upon God as the uncreated Being (Ps 95:6, 7). The law of God likewise is seen as placing men under an obligation to obedience because it was graciously given (Exod 19:5; Ps 119:1-4). In the New Testament, man is under the same compulsion to obedience, but only because of the knowledge of God revealed in Christ. Similarly a promise of blessing is expressed, but it is more specific concerning the hope of appropriating the glory and excellencies of Christ (2 Pet 1:3-7). God’s common goodness to all men is a formal basis for obedience (Ps 145; Acts 14:17), and God’s special work of redemption is pressed as the ground for loving obedience (1 Cor 6:20, etc.).

    The internal aspects of obedience

    When Jesus rebukes those who outwardly comply with the law but inwardly do not (Matt 6:2, 5, 16; 23:23-25), He is exemplifying Samuel’s perceptive insight about the internal aspect of obedience when he said “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam 15:22). True obedience is more than subjection to an authority in a formal manner, for a person can be subservient without a corresponding inner disposition of obedience. Biblically, to obey is to hear in such a way that inner assent is inseparable from outer activity. Bultmann describes this as the whole man standing behind and being in what he does. He says the individual “is not doing something obediently, but is essentially obedient”Jesus and the Word, p. 61.

    The obedience of Christ

    Obedience in both its external and internal senses underlies the Biblical explanation of how man has been reconciled to God. Paul describes Christ’s work of redemption as an obedience unto death (Phil 2:8) and as an obedience that will make many righteous (Rom 5:19). Christ’s work as the true High Priest is conjointly His life of obedience in the days of His flesh (Heb 5:7, 8) and the offering of His body in sacrifice as an obedient response to the will of God (Heb 10:7-10). Theologians speak of these as the active and passive obedience of Christ.

    Not only Christ’s work, but also His person can be understood in terms of His obedience. For John, Jesus is the Son of God because of His perfect unity with the Father. Such unity is established upon the basis of the perfect obedience of Jesus, whose meat and drink it is to obey the will of God (John 4:34) and to do the things that are pleasing to Him (8:29). The Christian receives the benefits of Christ’s obedient life and death through faith in Him, that is so vital that it will “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).


  • J. H. Worman, “Obedience,” Mst, VII (1877), 271-273.

  • A. Dorner, “Obedience,” HERE, IX (1917), 438-440.

  • R. Bultmann, Jesus and the Word (1934), 53-75.

  • W. A. Whitehouse, “Obedience” RTWB (1950), 160, 161.

  • J. J. von Allmen, A Companion to the Bible (1958), 314, 315.

  • A. Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the NT (1958), 29-31, 149-152.

  • F. B. Huey, Jr., “Obedience—A Neglected Doctrine,” ChT, XII, #8 (1968), 374, 375.
  • References