Confusing Knowledge for Obedience

One of the more quotable figures of American history, Mark Twain, said, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”  At first blush it seems like an odd thing to say but upon closer examination we begin to identify with his discomfort.  There are some things contained in the Scriptures that are difficult to understand, there is no doubt about that.  However, the essentials of the faith, the core of common doctrine that is shared by all those who believe in Jesus, are really quite easy to understand.  The difficulty comes in living them out.

Take for example Jesus’ response to the lawyer who asked, “what is the greatest commandment?”  Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39).  One does not need years of Bible study, knowledge of the Greek language or a New Testament commentary to understand what this means.  Jesus is here restating, and extending, the teaching of the 10 commandments.  He is telling us that loving God is to be our first priority in life, that we are to apply our best efforts to the practice of loving God and that we should care as much about the needs and concerns of others as much as our own.  That is not difficult to understand but requires God’s grace and intentionality on our part to live it out.


In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus says that we are to “love our enemies”, “pray for those who persecute us”, forgive in order that we may be forgiven, reconcile quickly with those who have hurt or offended us, give generously, pray to our Father in secret, “seek first the kingdom of God” and to not “lay up for ourselves treasures upon the earth.”  Again none of these verses of Scripture are hard to understand, it is living them out on a daily basis that seems so elusive.  It is when we consider these teachings of Jesus, and others like them, that the words of Mark Twain begin to resonate deep within us.


I have long been an advocate for daily Bible reading, small group Bible study, personal Bible study and Biblically based, application oriented preaching/teaching.  I continue to be today.  But I have a concern that we are substituting a pursuit of knowledge for obedience to the revealed will of God.  That is to say that we are satisfied once we have understood what the Bible teaches us and never quite get to the part where we actually do what it says.  It also appears that we have confused rightly understanding the Bible, or having knowledge, with practicing a life of faith. The Bible continues to be one of the best selling books in America, there is an abundance of good teaching available over the radio and the internet and yet polling data continues to tell us that a very small percentage of professing Christians has anything resembling a Christian worldview that impacts their daily lives.


Loving God and loving our neighbor moves beyond knowing, or saying, the right things to concrete expressions of obedience and kindness. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), Jesus confronts the religious leaders of his day who had confused having knowledge and position with being right with God.  He points out the emptiness of their religion without obedience when both the priest and the Levite in the parable pass by the man who was beaten half to death by robbers, while the Samaritan (who would have been despised by the Jews) was moved with compassion, bandaged his wounds and paid for his care.  Jesus ends the parable by asking the question, “which of these 3 do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robber’s hands?”  The obvious answer, and the one that Jesus confirms, is the “one who showed mercy toward him.”  This same teaching of Jesus is covered in even greater detail in the parable of soils (Luke 8:4-8; 11-15) when he compares the human heart to the various types of soil; rocky, thorny and good soil.  Jesus explains that “the seed is the Word of God” and that the good soil represents “the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.”


We live in a day where it is difficult to stay focused.  We have so many choices, so many different opportunities and there is so much information to try and assimilate in order to stay current.  Yet, we are finite and limited creatures, limited in our ability to understand and even more limited in our ability to enter into meaningful change that endures.  In times of honest reflection many of us would confess the whole business is more than a little overwhelming.  If any of this has hit a chord with you I am going to suggest a little experiment.  Begin by asking the Lord what Biblical truth He would have you address at this time.  It may be loving your neighbor, growing in your stewardship, controlling your tongue, practicing a life of thankfulness or any other teaching that would allow you to grow in Christ.  Then review as many of the Scriptures on the topic you can remember.  If you have difficulty identifying more than a couple you might try using a concordance to help in your search.  Finally, for the next 30 days make these texts the sole focus of your study and meditation.  Ask God for new insight, ask Him for the grace to grow in this area of your life and become intentional about living out this particular aspect of the Christian faith.  Resist the temptation to get involved in the study of other Scriptures or to spend time reading books on the subject.  At the end of the 30 days, I think you will find that you have grown significantly in your understanding and more importantly your obedience.