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Obedience:  Fear or Reverence?

By David A. DePra

And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night. And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron: and the whole congregation said unto them, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness! And wherefore hath the LORD brought us unto this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? Were it not better for us to return into Egypt? (Num 14:1-3)


But as for you, your carcasses, they shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years, and bear your whoredoms, until your carcasses be wasted in the wilderness. (Num 14:32-33)


And Moses told these sayings unto all the children of Israel: and the people mourned greatly. And they rose up early in the morning, and went to the top of the mountain, saying, Lo, we be here, and will go up unto the place which the LORD hath promised: for we have sinned. And Moses said, Why now do you transgress the commandment of the LORD? But it shall not prosper. Go not up, for the LORD is not among you; that you be not smitten before your enemies. (Num 14:39-42)


These passages bring us upon the scene at the point where Israel was parked on the other side of the Jordan, awaiting entry into the promised land. They had been delivered from Egypt and had now come to the land which God promised Abraham over four hundred years earlier.


In preparation for entry into the land, they sent in, under God’s direction, twelve "spies," or scouts, to examine what they were about to encounter. The spies were then to return and give to the congregation a report, so that they could more intelligently enter the land God had given them.


But of the twelve spies sent into the land, ten of them brought back an evil report. Israel chose to believe these ten spies instead of believing God. Indeed, they actually accused God of lying to them and betraying them – despite the fact of all the miracles that had seen God do to get them out of Egypt. Israel even considered going back to Egypt.


Of course there was no going back to Egypt. Most of Egypt was lying on the shores of the Red Sea, having been drowned trying to pursue Israel. Furthermore, what was God going to do – open up the Red Sea with another miracle so that Israel could get back to Egypt? There was no more chance of Israel going back to Egypt then there is for a saved person to be, "born again backwards." Egypt was dead, and so is our old man in Adam. Once you are delivered from sin and born again, the question is never whether you can LOSE your salvation. You can’t. The question is what you are going to do with it. What will we become in our relationship with God now that we have been set free?


The entry into the promised land is NOT a type of our salvation. Salvation is typified by Israel’s deliverance out of Egypt, and their crossing of the Red Sea. The promised land is a type of the believer’s inheritance in Jesus Christ – which we are to enter into NOW, and begin experiencing in this life. But our inheritance has some obstacles – those tribes. Just as Israel needed to drive out those inhabitants, so are we, as believers, required to overcome our obstacles if we are to fully experience what God has for us in Jesus Christ.


The issue here is not EARNING. The issue here is TAKING POSSESSION of what is freely given. We receive salvation all at once, "by grace through faith." But then we must go on and enter into everything that salvation holds for us. This is the promised land. The process takes a lifetime and requires that we overcome those things which hinder the life of Christ in us.


Israel was not willing to believe God and enter the land of Canaan by faith. They saw the tribes and the obstacles and believed God had lied to them. They absolutely rebelled against God. This, of course, resulted in the judgment of God that that would wander in the wilderness.


The question for us is this: When we encounter obstacles to the promises of God, do we continue to stand by faith in the fact that God says our victory over them is assured, or do we allow those obstacles to convince us that God has been unfaithful? Or perhaps we simply resign ourselves to defeat, and assume that we simply allowed ourselves to hope for too much? "Maybe God didn’t REALLY promise victory," we might think. This is the conflict, and the temptation, and the lesson in this account. It strikes at the heart and core of so much in the Christian walk.


A Change of Heart?


Israel refused to enter the land. Therefore God gave them EXACTLY what they wanted: He forbid them to enter the land. He said they must wander in the wilderness for forty years, until all those who had rebelled were dead. But the very next day, Israel had a, "change of heart." Having refused to believe God and enter the land, they now realized the severity of the judgment which was upon them. They emerged the next morning, climbed up a mountain, and proclaimed that they were now willing to enter the land. In short, all of a sudden the promised land didn’t look so bad. All of a sudden, they were willing to cut whatever deal they could to keep from having to wander in the wilderness forty years – even if that meant entering the land filled with enemy tribes.


But God said NO. Why? I mean, only one day earlier God had told them to enter the land. So here they were, only one day later, on the mountain top, the same congregation, the same promised land, the same God, under the same promise God made to Abraham, and they were now willing to obey! They were now willing to obey the very same command to enter the land which they had refused to obey a day before. But now God said no. Why?


Was this God saying, "Too bad, you lose?" Was it God saying, "You missed your chance. Too bad for you?" Was this a matter of coming to their senses too late, or of Israel repenting one day too late – and it costing them forty years? No. None of those things reflect God’s attitude. In truth, Israel’s, "change of heart," was actually nothing less than an even greater hardening. Having realized that they had brought judgment upon themselves, they now rebelled against even THAT – and tried to cut the best deal they could. Their actions were not motivated by faith at all. They were motivated by the same unbelief by which they had refused to enter the land the day before.


This is really a good example of what the apostle Paul calls, "worldly sorrow." Paul says:


For godly sorrow works repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world works death. (2 Cor 7:10)


"The sorrow of the world," is one which results from getting caught. It is the result of consequences coming upon me for my actions, and I therefore regret those actions. But not so much because those actions were wrong. Rather, I regret them because of the consequences. ‘The sorrow of the world," always comes because I wanted my own way and didn’t get it. Instead, I reaped a whirlwind.


Godly sorrow, however, is sorrow because I have sinned against God. It is a MORAL sorrow – due to the fact that I know I did wrong. The result of Godly sorrow is always repentance – I will not want to repeat my sin.


When we make mistakes and sin against God, there are always going to be consequences. If we repent, God may remove those consequences if He sees that doing so is best for us. But it is also possible that He may NOT remove them. Either way, if we have truly repented of our sin, then even if God allows the consequences to remain, then we will submit to Him IN THEM. We will know that the judgment of God is for our good – it is His chastisement. And we will submit to God in that, because we will know that only then can He bring us back into His original purpose and plan.


The reason some Christians never realize the will of God for their lives is because they sin, yes, but then don’t submit to God when the consequences come. They are like rebellious children who will not obey their parents in any thing. This is a certain recipe for disaster in the Christian walk.


Israel had a worldly sorrow. They did not regret sinning against God. Indeed, they went right ahead and sinned against Him all the more – the tried to push into the land after He forbid them to enter. Through these actions they were proving that God was just in sentencing them to the wilderness for forty years.




We find in this lesson a fundamental issue in the life of each Christian: Our motive for obeying God. The question is this: Do I obey God because I trust Him? And love Him? Because I REVERENCE Him? Do I seek to do right because it IS right? Or – do I, "obey," God ONLY to avoid the consequences for disobedience?


To, "obey" God to avoid the consequences for disobedience, or to earn something from Him, betrays the fact that I place little value on GOD HIMSELF. Do you see that? My "obedience," in this case, is not motivated by a love and reverence – by a desire to worship God. Instead, I am, "obeying" Him because I HAVE TO. Indeed, if all the consequences for disobedience were removed, and all of the supposed rewards were given freely – and my obedience had nothing to do with either – some of us would not obey God at all.


One example: If I walked into my father’s home and saw a twenty dollar bill lying on the table, why would I not steal it? If the only reason I would not steal it was because I was afraid of getting caught and arrested, then do I love my father? No. Or if the only reason I would not steal it was because I needed a favor from my father, and was afraid he wouldn’t grant it, then do I love my father? No. Hopefully, the reason I would not steal the money is because I love my father and would never want to do anything like that to him. I would know what was RIGHT and I would do it – motivated by RELATIONSHIP. Motivated by love.


Can we see how this question strikes at the heart and core of our relationship with God Himself? Obeying God to avoid the consequences of disobedience, which includes obeying Him to earn, rather than lose, a reward – is NOT faith. It isn’t faith, love, or trust. And it certainly carries NO REVERENCE for God. To the contrary, such motivation is nothing more than ME serving my own interests. God is only in the picture because I know He has power over me – and can see to it that I reap what I sow.


Obeying God because He is bigger than me might keep me out to trouble, but it will also keep me out of the promised land. Indeed, such motivation boils down to FEAR.


The Christian is certainly in a process of coming to know God, and consequently, in the process of having his motives purified. But in the end, I should obey God because I revere Him, love Him, and do not want to violate Him. FEAR should have nothing to do with it. Ambition is out of it. Rewards and punishment should never figure it.




God wants a RELATIONSHIP with us. He wants a relationship which He intends to last throughout the eternal ages. How far do we think we are going to get in such a relationship if we obey God only for what we will get out of it?


Now, someone is liable to say, "But there ARE consequences for disobedience, aren’t there? And there are blessings for obedience, aren’t there? So what is wrong with obeying God to avoid consequences and obtain blessings?"


The issue here isn’t consequences. The issue is motivation. It is true that if I obey God simply to keep out of trouble, I’ll keep out of much temporal trouble. But I won’t have a relationship with God!


You can train an animal to do the right thing by offering it a big enough reward, or by threatening it with a punishment. But is this the kind of relationship God wants to have with us?


There is nothing MORAL or RIGHTEOUS about doing what is right to simply avoid the consequences for doing wrong. Anyone who has any brains or sense of self-preservation will do that much. But if I am walking with God I will obey Him because it is good and right to obey Him. That is love and that is trust.


The Truth is, God wants people who want to do the right thing to the complete disregard of any reward or punishment. THAT is righteous character. The moment I introduce reward or punishment into the equation, it is no longer true righteousness. It is not love or trust.


Obedience – if it is real – is the OUTCOME of being rightly related to God by faith. Contrast this to the notion that obedience gets us rightly related to God. Nope. Seeing the difference between the two is vital for a Christian. It is everything which law and grace is about.




Israel looked at the enemies in the land and were afraid of them. Their fear of the enemy was greater than their faith in God. That day, fear won out.


Fear is behind more of our motivation for even OBEYING God than we know. As we have been seeing, people obey God to avoid a penalty for disobedience. THAT is fear. People obey God to earn a reward, which is the same as saying they obey Him to avoid losing a reward. Again, that is fear.


Fear is never of faith. Never. In fact, if I allow fear to motivate me, I am believing fear, and that is actually UNBELIEF. It is not of God. Fear is never of God. God is love, and perfect love casts out fear. Not the other way around.


"The fear of the Lord," is never, "being afraid of Him." The fear of the Lord is a REVERENCE due to the value I place upon God. A reverence for God makes me want to obey Him because I value who He is and what He is doing. Being afraid of God, however, is never because of the value I place upon God. It is because I do not believe He loves me. Thus, in the final analysis, the true fear of the Lord is actually the OPPOSITE of being afraid of Him.


Lots of folks turn to Christ out of fear of hell. Sure. And while that might keep them out of hell, it doesn’t get them far with God. Thus, rather than turn to Christ simply to escape hell, it would be better to turn to Christ to escape SIN. But even better, how about turning to Christ, not so much to escape FROM something – but to escape TO God Himself?


The "escape" issue is in play because we start in a condition we need to be delivered from, and so God often approaches us from that point – and tells us what will happen if we don’t turn to Him. But in the end, simply escaping FROM doesn’t get us far, because then we have to deal with where we are escaping TO. As we grow in Christ, our appreciation of what we have escaped FROM ought to become more defined by the God we have escaped TO. His greatness will show us how terrible a thing we were delivered from.


Freely Forgiven


Ask yourself: If right now, ALL negative consequences were removed for sin, and ALL rewards were given to you regardless of your works, would you obey God anyways? Would you do what is right?


Well, I’ve got news: All negative consequences ARE removed for sin! What do we think happened when Jesus died? He took away all sin and conquered all death! And because of the death of Christ, we don’t need to try to EARN rewards. God has already given us freely all things in Jesus Christ. These are the results of the finished work of Christ, and the grace He provides. So in the eternal sense, if we have received Christ, there is NO condemnation for sin, and we are co-heirs with Christ.


So you see, not only is it wrong motivation to try to earn anything from God through obedience, but it is also DECEPTION. You are trying to earn what is already freely given. You are trying to escape, through works, that from which you are already delivered. The problem, therefore, is that you don’t believe. And because you don’t believe, you DO – in order to get what is already freely provided. And you continue living in a world of deception and darkness.


But – someone is bound to say – if all the penalty for sin is removed, and we already have access to all things freely in Christ, then why obey at all? But my friend, if you are asking that, then you have a huge problem. Why indeed! How can we NOT obey? If you and I have the slightest idea of what Jesus Christ has done for us, and if we have come to place any value on it, we WILL OBEY GOD! We will obey Him – not out of fear or greed -- but because we revere and love Him!


Obedience is always the OUTCOME of a relationship with God which is based in faith and love. Always. That doesn’t mean we will ever be perfect. It simply means that we have a life inside of us, and a motivation, which hungers and thirsts after righteousness. If we are born again, despite our failures, we will WANT to obey God.


Some folks imagine that if you show people that Jesus has already accomplished what most of us try to do through our works, that people will take the finished work of Christ and turn it into a license. The fact is, if you and I truly see and embrace the forgiveness of God through Christ, we are seeing it only because we grasp our need for it. And if we grasp our need for it, then once we embrace it, this will not result in license. It will result in such a reverence for God that we will desire all the more to OBEY Him.


People that walk in license do so because, at best, they accept the forgiveness of God as a doctrine only, to which they assent. They have not embraced the forgiveness of God as a helpless sinner. THEY CAN’T HAVE! You cannot embrace the forgiveness of God as a helpless sinner, who is repenting of sin, and then turn around and turn that forgiveness into a license. It is a moral impossibility to do so.


If I obey God only to avoid punishment, it is because I have never been broken in spirit. I have little or no reverence for God, and have not seen the price He has paid for my redemption. Indeed, my "obedience" is nothing more than my rebellion being worked out along the lines of what I think is necessary for me to do to cut the best deal possible.


This is what Israel did. They refused to obey God, but then when they learned the consequences, they wanted to get out of those consequences. They were then willing to, "obey" God. Indeed, even after they were commanded NOT to try to enter the land, they disobeyed and went in. The result was defeat.


Just As I Am


We cannot play religious games with God. He sees us just as we are, and even if we don’t see ourselves as we really are, we need to come to God under the realization that HE DOES. So we may as well stop trying to present ourselves to God in a way that we think will make Him happy. Rather, we ought to come JUST AS WE ARE – honestly and openly, but in an attitude of wanting help. We will find that we don’t need to get God in a good mood. He is already in one.


We’ve all heard the hymn, "Just As I Am." Isn’t it a privilege to be able to come to God just as you are? Yes, but actually, this isn’t optional. "Just as I am," is the only way I CAN COME to Jesus! In fact, until I’m willing to come to Jesus, "just as I am," I need not bother trying to come. Why? Because anything other than coming to Christ, "just as I am," means I’m coming to Him, "just as I’m NOT." It means I haven’t seen my need and utter emptiness. It means I still think I must offer Him something in return for His favor. In effect, I am not really coming to Jesus in my need. Rather, I’m BRINGING to Him something I think I have to offer Him.


The problem here isn’t so much that God says, "Come just as you are or I won’t respond." No. Rather, unless we come just as we are, we won’t have any capacity to receive. It won’t matter how much God wants to give us His grace, unless we come naked – just as we are – we CANNOT see it, embrace it, or have any capacity to experience it.


Most of us cannot come to Jesus just as we are, because we have no idea what we are. But God has a solution for this: The wilderness. He takes us into the wilderness where we will be depleted and exposed and whittled down to size. He takes us to where He can show us our great need, and Himself as the only solution. Then – we are able to finally come to Jesus just as we are – naked and without resources.


God put Israel into the wilderness because He wanted to make it possible for them to enter into the promised land. In the wilderness, all the unbelief died out, didn’t it. Yep. And despite the fact that it took forty years, Israel did enter the land. God was faithful.


The Wilderness


Israel failed completely to honor God. They had NO FAITH in Him. Their rebellion was complete. God had to send them into the wilderness.


Of course, we are apt to classify God’s judgment of them as a temper tantrum, or an outburst of wrath. But it was really His mercy. For it is one thing to enter the land by faith. But once you get in there, you have to LIVE OUT OF FAITH. So if you don’t have the faith necessary to enter the land, you will be quickly overrun by your enemies. God spared them that fate.


So it is with the Christian. Without faith, we cannot live a life in any kind of victory. We won’t get past the first stronghold. It will be disaster from the get go. God therefore takes that time to deal with our unbelief, and to build in us faith.


How? By putting us through a wilderness. This is what He did with Israel. Notice what God said about His judgment upon Israel later:


All the commandments which I command thee this day shall ye observe to do, that ye may live, and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the LORD swore unto your fathers. And you shall remember all the way which the LORD thy God led you these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you, and to prove you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not. And he humbled you, and suffered you to hunger, and fed you with manna, which you knew not, neither did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD does man live. Your raiment waxed not old upon you, neither did your foot swell, these forty years. You shall also consider in your heart, that, as a man chastens his son, so the LORD your God chastens thee. Therefore you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to fear him. For the LORD thy God brings you into a good land…..Beware that thou forget not the LORD thy God, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage; Who led thee through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought you forth water out of the rock of flint; Who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers knew not, that he might humble you, and that he might prove you, to do thee good at your latter end. (Deut. 8:1-18)


The wilderness is where I not only learn that I don’t have what I need, but it is where I develop a relationship of DEPENDENCE upon God. God said the wilderness is where He, "humbles us," that is, shows us what we are in comparison and relationship to HIM. That humbles anyone. He also, "proves us," which always means to build us into what He desires. And the wilderness is where He exposes what is in our hearts so that we must confess and be changed.


None of this is automatic. None of it will happen unless we are yielding to God. But the wilderness has a way of bringing that out in us. For there we have nothing we need, and no way of getting it. God therefore becomes our provider out of necessity at first. Later, we find that we’d have it no other way. Once we come to that, we are ready to enter the land by faith.


God KNOWS what He is doing with each one of us. And despite the fact that it sometimes seems as if He is no where near to us, if we would just read His Word, we would find that there is nothing we will ever experience that is not addressed or illustrated in some way in His Word. The wilderness experience of Israel is recorded for us to learn from it.


What all of this should do for us is provide hope and comfort. For even those seasons of wilderness are intended unto the end that we might enter into the fullness of our inheritance in Jesus Christ. The wilderness, rather than qualify us for the promises, shows us that we will never be qualified. Thus, we are willing to simply rely solely on the grace of God in Jesus Christ. We are willing to simply believe, embrace, and progressively take possession of what God has for us. *


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