There are different reasons why we don’t obey. Sometimes, our sinful hearts desire evil more than good. Sometimes, we’re tired and weary. But sometimes, we’re afraid—afraid that obedience is too hard, too costly, or too unsafe.
For example, the Israelites had a clear command from the Lord: go into the Promised Land. But there was a problem: that land was filled with giant warriors who made the Israelites feel like grasshoppers before them. For the Israelites, obedience all of a sudden looked very hard, very costly, and incredibly unsafe. And so, they disobeyed—at very great consequence to themselves.
What could have helped them avoid this was to remember how ancient Near Eastern covenants worked. Indeed, understanding how these covenants worked can help us avoid the Israelites’ mistakes and better understand some of Jesus’s final words to us.
Ancient Near Eastern Covenants
In the ancient world, there were various types of covenants. One of these was a covenant made between a king and a people. Technically, such covenants are known as “suzerain-vassal” covenants; more simply, they are known as “king-servant” covenants.
A king-servant covenant was a relationship of obligation between stronger and weaker parties. The stronger party (the king) was primarily responsible to give military protection to the weaker party (the people); the weaker party was primarily responsible to give complete loyalty to the king and to follow his laws. Understanding these obligations helps us to gain insight into the covenant between the Lord and Israel—and into Jesus’s final words in Matthew.
The Covenant between the Lord and Israel
The covenant between the Lord and Israel at Mt. Sinai was clearly a king-servant covenant: the Lord was the king and Israel was his servant. Understanding the obligations named above gives us important insight into two implications of this covenant.
First, since Israel was the servant, her obligation was exclusive allegiance to the Lord. In other words, “No others gods except Yahweh!” Sandra Richter explains:
Yahweh’s point? No other suzerains! Remember that Abraham’s kin had been long in the land of Egypt and their commitment to monotheism was anything but assumed. How would Yahweh make his people understand that they were to worship him alone? By putting the idea of monotheism into terms they would understand: political terms. Thus the covenant at Sinai couches the relationship between Yahweh and Israel in the well-known conceptual framework of an international political relationship. Just as a nation would never bind itself to more than one suzerain (unless they liked to live dangerously), Israel was not to bind herself to more than one deity. (Sandra Richter, The Epic of Eden, 86).
Such devotion was to show up not only in worshipping him alone but also in following his commands. Obedience was a proclamation: “Yahweh is our king, and he is the one we follow with our whole hearts!”
But the Lord also obligated himself in this covenant. Remember that the king promised military protection to his servants, and this meant that the Lord was promising to watch over the life of the nation when he offered Israel the opportunity of this covenant relationship. Importantly, Israel needed just this kind of assurance at this point in her history. The Israelites were headed to the Promised Land, which was filled with warriors that made the Israelites feel like grasshoppers. Taking this land seemed utterly impossible, and it would have been except for one fact: Yahweh was with them as their king, and he promised to watch over and protect them. This leads to the second implication: because of Yahweh’s presence, they had every reason to march into the Promised Land with bold confidence and nothing to fear, despite the fact that obedience from a human perspective looked utterly impossible. When Yahweh is with you, you can always obey boldly. And this leads us to the final words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel.
Jesus’ Final Words in Matthew’s Gospel
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives his disciples a command that must have seemed utterly impossible: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20a). We might not blame the disciples if they were thinking: “All nations? There are so few of us! How in the world can we reach all nations? This is an impossible task!”
What we must not miss, however, is what Jesus says immediately before and after this command. He begins the command by saying, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). In other words, “I’m the King!” And he follows the command by saying, “And behold, I am with you always, to the very end of the age!” (Matt. 28:20). In other words, “I will be with you in this impossible task, and because of my presence, it’s not impossible at all!”
Do we believe this? Do we believe that King Jesus has all authority in heaven and earth and is with us to accomplish his will? If so, it changes everything for us, because if Jesus is with us, we can obey boldly, with no fear that such obedience will be too hard, too costly, or too unsafe. O Lord, increase our faith!
Dr. Jay Sklar is VP of academics and professor of theology at Covenant Theological Seminary.