A couple of my former pastors have had this same idea of trying to develop a book (or in a broader sense a discipleship program) that revolves around a systematic analysis of the commands of Christ in the Gospels. Dr. Piper has successfully accomplished this objective. His insightful analysis of the text gets to the directness and simplicity of the individual commands while grouping them in a logical arrangement. His work could benefit from the practical homework assignments associated with the assimilation of each principle in a discipleship environment. But in his characteristic fashion he maintains the emphasis on not just obeying the commands, but promoting the glory of God in doing so. Check out the pdf version of the book on Piper’s website.
“The aim of this book is God-glorifying obedience to Jesus.” I liked the emphasis on “the mission of teaching” that Christ charged His disciples with in the Great Commission passage. This is the only way the world will ever be made aware of the scope and definition of all that Christ declared from the Father. What Piper felt to be an obligatory reference to the quest for the historical Jesus was just a distraction for me. But the author quickly moved away from that interaction with historical theologians to engage the text of Scripture. His methodology started with the observation and categorization of all of the commands — both direct and implied. Only those with “abiding significance for faith and life” were included. Here are some observations from specific individual chapters:
You Must Be Born Again — The connection between water and spirit in the John 3 narrative is traced back to the OT reference from Ezekiel 36:25-27. The sovereignty of God in bestowing this precious gift of the new birth is pictured in the mysterious working of the Holy Spirit — “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” But you can certainly see the results of the Spirit’s work in the transformed lives of individuals who have experienced regeneration.
Repent — Luke 3:8 makes a clear distinction between the inward nature of the change involved in repentance and its external fruit. The urgency of this universal appeal is directed back to the impending wrath of God which hangs over all of mankind with the threat of judgment. This necessity of repentance was not just relegated to the preaching of John the Baptist, but continues to be an essential part of the gospel message in this church age.
Love Me — Piper exposed the common fallacy of people who argue that love is just a matter of the will and just involves obedience to God’s commandments. “Love is not synonymous with commandment-keeping; it is the root of it. So the love that Jesus demands is something very deep and strong — like the closest family bonds of affection that we have, but greater than that and more than that.”
Listen to Me — Why do so few people respond in repentance and faith to the words of Jesus? What makes the difference in the hearts of the elect who do listen and obey? Piper remains faithful to the doctrines of grace and sovereignty that are so foreign to man’s natural sense of fairness:
“We are not neutral like some metronome wand poised straight up between truth and error — waiting dispassionately to be inclined to one side or the other. No, we are heavily tilted toward selfishness and all the errors that support it. When Jesus speaks, unless God acts to give us ears to hear and eyes to see, there will be no place in us for the words of Jesus.”
Despite that theme being repeated so clearly and so often in the New Testament, many still balk at humbling themselves under God’s sovereignty.
Love God . . . — Piper uses the phrase “compellingly beautiful” to describe the how the church must view its bridegroom. He chooses this phrase “to stress two things. One is that loving God is not a mere decision. You cannot merely decide to love classical music or country western music, much less God. The music must become compelling. . . Something changes inside you, and as a result he becomes compellingly attractive. His glory — his beauty — compels your admiration and delight. The other thing I am emphasizing . . . is that love for God is not essentially behavior but affection — not deeds but delight. God’s glory becomes our supreme pleasure. We begin to prefer above all else to know him and see him and be with him and be like him.
This has been a major emphasis of Piper’s ministry.
Rejoice and Leap for Joy — Piper draws a connection between the command to rejoice and the necessity of sharing in the sufferings of Christ. “Jesus’ demand that we rejoice is the key that unlocks his demand for holiness.” We must find in Christ the “power of a superior pleasure” that cuts the stranglehold of the attraction of the cares and pleasures and riches of this life. He concludes “the essence of the reward that we count on to complete our joy is the fullness of the presence of Jesus experienced in the age to come.”
Fear Him . . . — The annihilationists are dealt a death blow by the comparison drawn in Scripture between enjoying eternal life and experiencing eternal torment. The duration of both must be parallel. “Hell is not a mere self-imposed natural consequence (like cigarette smoking leading to lung cancer); it is the penalty of God’s wrath (like a judge sentencing a criminal to hard labor).” He goes on to dismiss the watered-down notion that fearing God just involves reverential awe. “There is also a real fear of him that can coexist with sweet peace and trust in him.”
Always Pray and Do Not Lose Heart — Understanding God’s purposes for prayer helps the disciple maintain his focus and energy. “Prayer is designed by God to display his fullness and our need.” “. . . prayer is designed to magnify God’s glory while sustaining our joy in Him.” . . . “The first function of prayer is to pray that people would pursue the glory of God.”
Humble Yourself in Childlikeness — “Trust is probably the main focus in Jesus’ comparison between his disciples and children. Children may have all kinds of faults, but in a normal, healthy family they trust their daddy to take care of them. They do not lie awake wondering where the next meal is coming from.” Speaking the truth boldly does not contradict this mindset of humility — as charged today by those who have subscribed to the axioms of relativism. Ultimately, Piper defines humility as “the gift to receive all things as a gift thankfully and unself-consciously.”
Do Not Be Angry — Embrace Mercy and Forgiveness — All anger cannot be wrong since we have examples of Jesus getting angry. Jesus is condemning the “strong feeling of displeasure including feelings of contempt and hostility that seek expression in murder or pejorative name-calling.”
Strive to Enter Through the Narrow Door . . . — Piper develops the concept of striving; he notes “the implication is that we must struggle, wrestle, and exert ourselves.” The enemy is our own sin. Therefore there is a need for life-long vigilance and watchfulness. The parable of the soils illustrates how easy it is for pleasure or pain to pull us away and distract us from dependence upon Christ. This section stands in stark contrast to the easy believism so prevalent in this age. These requirements to persevere might seem harsh and burdensome if not coupled with the gracious provision of Christ. As the one who fulfilled the New Covenant, Jesus provides not just new life but new resources to live that life. We now have God’s law written on our hearts and the Holy Spirit as our helper. “We must strive to enter because that is the mark of the one who belongs to Christ. If we do not strive, we do not bear the mark of belonging to Jesus. But the striving does not create the relationship. The secure relationship produces the joyful striving.”
Every Healthy Tree Bears Good Fruit — “Purity rises to the degree that God is treasured supremely in Jesus.. This is what the Pharisees failed to do, and what the superior righteousness does.”
Love Your Enemies … — Piper takes the command regarding the priority of reconciliation over worship in Matt. 5:23-24 to mean: “If . . . your brother has something legitimate against you.” Otherwise, he explains, Jesus would have had an unending stream of offended people to pursue. We are responsible to seek after forgiveness and reconciliation where possible; but especially to resist the temptation to harbor a grudge against someone who has wronged us.
Do Good to Those Who Hate You — Piper takes a very moderate stance on the issue of the cessation of the miraculous gifts of healing. “I do not see any reason to deny that some measure of miraculous healing should accompany the ministry of the gospel today. I suspect there will always be differing judgments as to how prominent that ministry should be.” Regarding the command to “Turn the other cheek” Piper wrestles with the tension between “how to let them have their full impact on my heart and life and yet not take them more absolutely than Jesus intended. My fear is that if I make any qualification I will minimize their intended force. On the other hand, they will also lose their force if they seem so unrealistic that people just pass over them as irrelevant to real life.” So his approach to some of these radical commands (e.g. to give even over and beyond what you are asked to give) is to view them as “hyperbole in the frequency it is required. . . There are times when doing good for someone will not include giving whatever he asks.”
That is just a sample from the first half of the book. Piper covers 50 different demands of Jesus. Each one deserves study and application on its own.