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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Obedience and Knowledge of God (2:4)
Obedience and Knowledge of God (2:4)

It is important at the outset to put knowledge and obedience in the proper order. Obeying the commands of God is not a test we must pass in order to gain knowledge of God, a prerequisite of knowing God or a condition that must be fulfilled in order to come to know God. Rather, obedience is the manifestation or evidence of knowledge of God.

In light of what the Elder has written about human sinfulness and the need for confession, we can conclude that obeying God's commands does not require perfect obedience, if by perfect obedience we mean living without sinning. But obedience to God's commands should be more than an interesting addendum or occasional accompaniment to our lives. "Obeying God's commands" points to the shape of the Chris tian life as a whole, to the consistency of our discipleship, and not to individual acts taken in isolation. What is not in view is hollow adher ence to a check list of rules or directions to be followed, as one follows a map to a destination or a recipe in a cookbook. If we try to map out obedience to God down to the last detail, then the life of faith loses its character as pilgrimage. Discipleship becomes an obstacle course to see whether we can negotiate each successive obstruction on our own. Obe dience ceases to be response to a living God, and becomes instead a check list of rules. This is a dry and sterile view of Christian discipleship. I am reminded of the student who once asked, "Do you want us just to memorize this, or do we need to understand it?" Some Christians seem to live their lives with the grim intent to "just memorize it," enjoying none of the fullness and mystery that comes with wholehearted response to the God of our faith.

Some readers may be frustrated to think that all we get by way of answer to the question, What does God want of us? is the response, Obedience to God's commands. But this is deliberate. We are not given directions, but direction. That direction can be summarized as "walking in the light," as striving to conform our character to that of God. What C. S. Lewis wrote in another context fits here: "We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules; whereas He really wants people of a particular sort" (1952:77). And the sort of people that God wants are those who hope to conform themselves to the very character of God.

Anyone who has had a hand in raising children knows about the process of shaping people of "a particular sort." When my daughter throws her food on the floor and I tell her not to do it, I am giving her a command that I would like to be obeyed. But in the end I do not want her to stop dropping her cereal on the floor just because I say so, but because she too recognizes the mess and waste it creates. Rules are given to guide behavior, but they are meant to be appropriated as internal guiding norms, not as external sanctions and prohibitions.

And yet we recognize that the words obey his commands direct the reader toward the concrete and practical. In the Elder's view, it is inev itable that what is interior must express itself in external and concrete action. "Knowledge of God" is not a sort of vague, unformed, abstract or indefinable private experience, although it may be extremely person al. "Knowledge of God" may express itself in various ways—through love and service to others, in prayer and worship of God, and so on. Here John is concerned to remind his readers that knowledge of God ex presses itself in obedience, and obedience is always measured by con crete actions. After all, Jesus' obedience was made manifest in the ulti mate sacrifice of his life on the cross.

Thus knowledge of and obedience to God are not entirely equivalent, nor are they unrelated to each other. We may best speak of "keeping God's commands" as characteristic of knowing God. " `Keeping the commandments' (like fellowship with one another, 1:7) is not the con dition, but rather the characteristic of the knowledge of God. There is no knowledge of God which as such would not also be `keeping the commandments' " (Bultmann 1973:25). We might say that the question behind these verses is not, How do I get knowledge of God? but, What does knowledge of God look like? How does it express itself? So too the child who knows her parents well also knows their expectations well. And the child who loves and respects her parents, honors their expec tations.

The idea that knowledge of God expresses itself in obedience has its roots in the Old Testament. The prophets especially spoke of knowing God, though more often they rebuked the people for not knowing God (Job 36:12; Jer 9:6; Is 1:3; 5:13; 1 Sam 2:12). The lack of knowledge of God does not imply intellectual inadequacy in comprehending God. Rather it points to a moral failure, to a lack of faithfulness and obedience. Those who know God live according to the way that God prescribes. "Knowing God" is understood in personal, intimate and relational terms.

To claim to love and know God without acknowledging God's claim upon us is simply hollow. Worse, it is a blatant contradiction in terms. Such a claim manifests a lack of relationship with God, a lack of being in him (v. 5). This phrase calls to mind a sphere in which we live our lives, a realm in which our decisions, choices, behavior and character are shaped. Those who are "in God" are those whose character and behavior are shaped by God's truth, righteousness and love (Kysar 1986:46). In fact, God's truth is viewed as something that is active, indwelling and powerful, something that shapes the person in whom it dwells. Obvious ly, then, those who have God's truth within them, and who know God, will manifest God's character.

In verse 6 the author speaks of this relationship with God with a new phrase, live in him. Live is the same word that older versions translated "abide"; other modern translations use "remain," or other variations. "Live" or "remain" strike those of us familiar with the old "abide" as colorless and flat. But the ordinary live serves well for "ordinary people." First, the term describes "the way in which a human life is determined by a fundamental relationship" (Kysar 1986:46; compare Marshall 1978:127). One lives either in the sphere of light or in the sphere of darkness. Our lives, our daily "walking," are shaped by the sphere in which we live. Second, in Johannine literature, live regularly connotes faithfulness, steadfastness, perseverance or continuing in allegiance to someone (Jn 8:31). It speaks to ordinary people of the consistency and faithfulness that is required of us. In short, the author's concept of "abid ing" points to steadfast faithfulness. This is what God wants of us.

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