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).