Imperatives and Exhortation

With a title like this, I have probably attracted about two or three readers. That is because the first term would send many folks racing to a dictionary, while the second term would strike many as being judgmental or intolerant. And I am speaking about a Christian audience here.

If I had a title like “Going with the Flow and Feeling Good” or something like that, I probably would get all sorts of interest in this article. But I want to speak about how the Bible is in fact full of commands and exhortations. Specifically, I want to discuss the hundreds of imperatives found in the New Testament.

So what is an imperative? It is one of a number of moods in grammar – both in English and NT Greek. There is also the indicative mood, the subjunctive mood, and so on. But the imperative mood has to do with commands, orders, and requests.

Thus the verb in this sentence is in the imperative mood: “Be filled with the Spirit”. This in fact is a NT command, found in Ephesians 5:18. The point is, there are just so many imperatives and exhortations found in the NT, that one has to challenge much muddled Christian thinking here.

For example, it is quite common in Christian circles today – especially those affected by much of the foolishness emanating from the emerging church movement – to go on and on about how Christianity is simply about loving relationships, and has nothing to do with rules and regulations.

They try to make the case that one is either relational, or legalistic; one either loves, or one is bound by rules. They fail to realise that the Bible in general and the NT in particular, never divorce these two, but always holds them together.

If we really love God, we will keep his commandments. And there are plenty of commandments given in the NT. Indeed, I have been quite curious as to exactly how many there are. Maybe Greek scholars out there can help me out on this, but in the meantime I have done a quick google and came up with this.

Some sites have featured an article by someone claiming that there are over 1000 imperatives in the NT. This is how this particular article begins: “There are 1,050 commands in the New Testament for Christians to obey. Due to repetitions we can classify them under about 800 headings. They cover every phase of man’s life in his relationship to God and his fellowmen, now and hereafter.”

If this is an accurate figure, it is a most telling statistic. Given that there are just under 8000 verses in the NT, this means that one out of every eight verses is a command or order – mostly to the believer. Given this fact, how anyone can claim that rules, regulations and commands have nothing to do with the Christian life is beyond me.

Part of the reason for writing this article is because of a passage – another imperative – that leapt out of the pages as I was doing my daily Scripture reading. 1 Timothy 4:13, in the NKJV, says this: “Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.”

This passage struck me for a number of reasons, Not only is it yet another example of a command given to believers in the NT (not a suggestion or a good idea, but an order), but the three things it exhorts us to do are three things we tend not to do, or even find problematic.

Indeed, one of the three exhortations is that we should be involved in exhortations! We should regularly be exhorting one another. To exhort means to give instruction, to encourage, or to console. And as Philip Towner notes, it “generally has in mind the implementing or changing of behaviour”.

But so much of our postmodern age in fact hates the very idea of passing judgment, or making moral pronouncements, or calling one to account. And this disastrous mindset has heavily crept into the churches today as well. If a believer dares to exhort another believer, he is often accused of being judgmental, intolerant or legalistic.

Thus the many exhortations to exhortation in Scripture have all but been ignored or neglected by much of today’s church. But the other two commands given by Paul in 1 Tim. 4:13 also get pretty short shrift in contemporary Christian circles.

The first order is to “give attention to reading”. This of course would have to do with reading Scripture. But how many Christians today even devote five minutes a day to reading God’s Word? Most have never read their entire Bible, and most would tend to give it the most fleeting attention.

More problematic is the fact that this is probably really a command to engage in the public reading of Scripture, as many commentators point out. Versions like TNIV and NRSV make this clear in their translation of this passage. This was a common practice in temple and synagogue worship, and Paul orders Timothy to do the same.

But how much public reading of Scripture do we find in today’s church? Not only is Scripture featured little in most modern church services, but even in the sermons, we often find more pop psychology, feel-good stories, and topical discussions than we do the actual exposition of Scripture.

Indeed, expository preaching, in which an entire book of the Bible is faithfully preached through for a period of time is quite rare today in our modern churches. Not only that, but sermon time continues to shrink, as does the entire church service. Any sermon over 15 or 20 minutes will cause great commotion in the pews (or more likely, in the cushy seats that people can more easily fall asleep in!).

The other command, to devote yourself, or pay attention to, doctrine is perhaps the most foreign to modern ears. Doctrine!? You have got to be kidding! Doctrine divides; love is all that matters. Forget all this baloney about creeds, doctrine, theology and teaching. What we want is relationship and fellowship.

But Paul and the other NT writers would never have conceived of Christian fellowship which was not based on sound doctrine and proper teaching. Everywhere in the NT the importance of correct doctrine and solid teaching is affirmed and championed.

William Mounce summarises this threefold command: “Timothy’s lifestyle is to be characterized as a devotion to, an immersion in, the biblical text. . . . The agenda Paul spells out for Timothy emphasizes the centrality of the text for theological correctness and includes not just a basic reading but a fuller awareness of the text’s meaning that is gained through study, reflection, and devotion.”

But if we simply take this one passage alone, and hold it up in contrast to much of today’s church life, we can see a huge discrepancy. The very idea that Paul or anyone else should tell us what to do is already anathema to many believers.

And the idea that Paul can insist that we do certain things, that he can command us to love God in a certain way, well, that is just really too much. But in this one passage, Paul, inspired by the Spirit of God, orders us to do these very things. We are to attend to reading, exhortation and doctrine.

All three may have fallen out of favour for many believers today. But that is all the more reason to remind ourselves of Paul’s command, and the thousand-plus other marching orders found in the NT. These commands are not optional extras, nor are they legalistic impediments to a love relationship with Jesus.

Just the opposite is the case. As Jesus simply and forcefully stated, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15).

Click to access new_testament_commands.pdf

[1300 words]

8 Replies to “Imperatives and Exhortation”

  1. This subject should not surprise someone who realises that being a “disciple” is closely related to “discipline”.

    A related issue – is our faith an “add-on”, or an “app” that we download, or is it all pervading, a priority motivator, a driving force?

    John Symons

  2. 1050 imperatives – the one I battle with is the GO into all the world preaching the good news…..It is ironic though that you tell children, teens, young adults, adults, older adults to seniors, there are no absolutes, do what you wanna do, yea, free baby, guilt free, do as you feel & pleasure yourself living, with no strings attached…….funny, we would not want the surgeon operating on us to have a ke serra serra attitude……he/she has to follow strict disciplines or the patient will die and the Lawyers will sue. God will be our judge & prosecutor….sobering. On a different topic, I saw Bondi Rescue the other night and a Korean guy drowned and was eventually resuscitated by the Lifeguards. The strange thing was that the Korean guy, in halting english, described how, as he was drowning and he knew he was going, said he had an incredible peace. I dont know if the guy is a Christian – then 2 hours later on the Christian channel, I see Joni Eareckson Tada describing how, when she dived in shallow water and broke her neck, that she had a wonderfull peace, as she was drowning. Tada called it ‘dying grace’ – have you heard of this Bill?
    Neil Innes, NT

  3. I think the emerging church movement is infiltrating the real church. It thrives on the false dichotomy you describe Bill: “that one is either relational, or legalistic; one either loves, or one is bound by rules. ”

    Recently someone advocated that churches should be welcoming and inclusive to all, including prostitutes, gays etc. An excellent approach: we should exhort all to accept salvation, while teaching the imperative to repent and sin no more.

    In clarifying just how we should welcome all into the church, we discussed the role of gays within the church. But, in that debate, the imperative side was accused of lacking love and of being judgmental Pharisees – while the emerging side claimed to be ‘with Jesus’ in love and forgiveness and in not setting up barriers.

    The imperative side said that the church could not allow people in active same-sex relationships to remain in fellowship while the other side refused to be drawn on the need for repentance while insisting in forgiving seventy times seven.

    To show how wishy-washy we have become: here are the final statements from the two debaters:

    A) “My position is not nor has it ever been one that supports homosexuality per se – however I would be find [sic] a Church that wittingly or unwittingly sets stumbling blocks for homosexuals on their journey with God to be less than gracious in the full Christ-like meaning of the word by either allowing them to fall into sin or by intentionally preventing them being full members of God’s people.”

    B) “My position is and has always been that we should love sinners and earnestly seek their salvation. In relation to homosexuality we should never condone that lifestyle by allowing people who insist on remaining in same-sex sexual relationships to remain in membership or to hold any office in the church.”

    Statement A) avoids the issue of whether we should allow people who insist on remaining in same-sex sexual relationships to remain in membership or to hold any office in the church. In other words the imperative of repentance is ignored and a lifestyle of sin is effectively condoned.

    Peter Newland

  4. I have had so much trouble in my bible study group, holding the position you hold. For some reason, the other position, that of unqualified “love” never made sense to me, as I was so glad Jesus forgave my sin and gave me a way out of it. I thought that every forgiven sinner would think that way.
    But ignorance of the Word of God has a lot to do with it, for only in it do we find the detailed picture of the character of the One whose justice demanded a price and whose love paid it Himself.
    Ursula Bennett

  5. “Indeed, expository preaching, in which an entire book of the Bible is faithfully preached through for a period of time is quite rare today in our modern churches. Not only that, but sermon time continues to shrink, as does the entire church service. Any sermon over 15 or 20 minutes will cause great commotion in the pews (or more likely, in the cushy seats that people can more easily fall asleep in!).”

    One of the reasons I love the online sermons at Mars Hill Church. 90% of the sermons go through books of the Bible and Pastor Mark Driscoll rarely speaks for less than an hour. 70 minutes seems to be his standard.

    Until I “discovered” MHC in 2008 it never occurred to me you could preach through the books themselves. After 17 years of being a Christian I had only ever heard theme based preaching.

    Michael Mifsud

  6. Some real live ministers still preach through the Bible. At Bible college we were told it was a way to prevent preaching from our favourite subject every week. However that may not always work. At any rate our minister works through books of the Bible and it is interesting how often the subject is also timely. We are usually satisfied with an hour service rather than an hour sermon though.

    Katherine Fishley

  7. Bill, I have noticed that people I talk to seem to think that being saved from the guilt of sin encompasses the meaning of salvation. The bible illustrates that being saved from the power or dominion of sin is also part of what it means to be saved. Of course sanctification is a process, but it happens through Christ’s work by grace through faith the same way we are forgiven. I don’t think we need to persuade people to be obedient, but rather show them the real meaning of salvation. There are many verses that say if we’re not saved from our old ways, we will not enter heaven. John 5:30, Rom 2:7, 2:13, Heb 12:14, Mat 3:10, 1 Jn 2:17 to name a few. When John the Baptist pointed at Jesus and said, “Look! The lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”, he meant more than the removal of guilt. Of course, being forgiven will always be the foundation of salvation, but through the resurrection, we receive his life and become like him. 1 Jn 3:5,6 “5 But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. 6 No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.”

    Scary stuff!
    Thanks again

    I love that you wrote this and appreciated your style in delivering it. I just would humbly add that being brought from a sinful life to a righteous life is part of what being saved means.
    Jason Staton

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