The submitting to authority, the doing of what is commanded, the complying with what is required, or the abstaining from what is forbidden.
In the Hebrew Scriptures the thought of obedience is expressed by sha·maʽʹ, meaning, basically, “hear” or “listen.” Thus, at times sha·maʽʹ refers to simple hearing, becoming aware of something through the auditory senses. (Ge 3:10; 21:26; 34:5) But when what is spoken expresses will, desire, instruction, or command, then the sense of the Hebrew term is that of paying heed to or obeying the one speaking. Adam “listened” to his wife’s voice, that is, acceded to her desire that he join her in eating the forbidden fruit. (Ge 3:17; compare 21:12.) Joseph refused to “listen” to the importunities of Potiphar’s wife. (Ge 39:10) King Saul feared the people and “so obeyed [listened to] their voice,” overstepping God’s order in doing so. (1Sa 15:24) Jehovah’s promise to Abraham concerning a seed was granted because Abraham “listened to,” or obeyed, Jehovah’s voice, keeping his commands.—Ge 22:18; 26:4, 5; compare Heb 11:8; see EAR.
The same Hebrew term is used with reference to God in ‘hearing’ or ‘listening’ to men. Here the English term “obedience” is not suitable, since humans cannot command God but can only petition or supplicate him. Hence, when God told Abraham that “as regards Ishmael I have heard you,” he was telling Abraham that he had given regard to his request, would act upon it. (Ge 17:20) In a similar way God ‘heard’ or responded to the appeal of persons in times of difficulty or affliction, answering their pleas where he saw fit to show mercy.—Ge 16:11; 29:33; 21:17; Ex 3:7-9; compare De 1:45.
Similar to sha·maʽʹ, one Greek verb expressing the idea of obeying (hy·pa·kouʹo; noun form hy·pa·ko·eʹ) literally means “hear under,” that is, to hear submissively or to attend (as at Ac 12:13). Another term conveying the sense of obedience is peiʹtho, which means “persuade.” (Mt 27:20) In the passive and middle voices it means not only to be persuaded (Lu 16:31), to trust (Mt 27:43), to believe (Ac 17:4) but also to give heed (Ac 5:40), to obey (Ac 5:36, 37). From this term comes the negative form a·pei·theʹo (meaning to disbelieve [Ac 14:2; 19:9] or disobey [Joh 3:36]), as well as other related terms.
From this it can be seen that obedience, as expressed in the original languages of the Scriptures, depends first upon hearing, that is, receiving information or knowledge (compare Lu 12:47, 48; 1Ti 1:13), and then upon one’s submitting to the will or desire of the one who speaks or otherwise expresses such will or desire. Submission, in turn, is dependent upon recognition of that one’s authority or right to ask or require the response indicated, as also upon the hearer’s desire or willingness to satisfy the will of such one. As indicated by the Greek peiʹtho and a·pei·theʹo, belief, trust, and confidence also enter in.
Obedience to God Essential for Life. God has first claim to the obedience of all his creatures. They rightly owe him implicit obedience as their Maker, the Source from whom life derives and on whom life depends. (Ps 95:6-8) Because he is the All-wise and Almighty God, what he says merits the utmost respect and attention. A human father properly expects his word to be carried out by his children, and if a child is slow to respond, the parent may say emphatically, “Did you hear me?” Far more so does the heavenly Father rightly require receptive attention and response to his expressions.—Compare De 21:18-21; Pr 4:1; Isa 64:8; 1Pe 1:14.
There is no substitute for obedience, no gaining of God’s favor without it. As Samuel told King Saul: “Does Jehovah have as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying [form of sha·maʽʹ] the voice of Jehovah? Look! To obey [literally, to listen] is better than a sacrifice, to pay attention than the fat of rams.” (1Sa 15:22) To fail to obey is to reject the word of Jehovah, to demonstrate that one really does not believe, trust, or have faith in that word and its Source. Hence the one failing to obey is no different from the one practicing divination or using idols. (1Sa 15:23; compare Ro 6:16.) Verbal expressions of assent mean nothing if the required action does not follow; the lack of response proves a lack of belief or respect for the source of instructions. (Mt 21:28-32) Those satisfying themselves with only hearing and giving mental acceptance to God’s truth, but not doing what it calls for, are deceiving themselves with false reasoning and receive no blessing. (Jas 1:22-25) God’s Son made clear that even those doing things similar to those commanded, but evidently in a wrong way or with a wrong motive, would never gain entrance into the Kingdom but would be completely rejected.—Mt 7:15-23.
Counteracting disobedience due to inborn sin. At the outset God informed man that obedience was basic, a life-and-death matter. (Ge 2:16, 17) The same rule applies to God’s spirit sons. (1Pe 3:19, 20; Jude 6; Mt 25:41) The willful disobedience of the perfect man Adam, as the responsible head over Eve and as the male progenitor or life source of the human family, brought sin and death to all his offspring. (Ro 5:12, 19) By nature, then, men are “sons of disobedience” and “children of wrath,” meriting God’s disfavor because of their violation of his righteous standards. Failure to resist this inherent inclination to disobedience is the course of ultimate destruction.—Eph 2:2, 3; 5:6-11; compare Ga 6:7-9.
Jehovah God has mercifully provided the means for combating sin in the flesh and for gaining forgiveness of wrongdoing resulting from imperfection rather than from willful disobedience. By his holy spirit, God supplies the force for righteousness that enables sinful men to produce good fruitage. (Ga 5:16-24; Tit 3:3-7) Forgiveness for sins comes through faith in Christ’s ransom sacrifice, and such faith in itself is a deterrent to wrongdoing and a stimulus to obedience. (1Pe 1:2) Thus Paul refers to “obedience [hearing submissively] by faith.” (Ro 16:26; 1:16; compare Ac 6:7.) At Romans 10:16-21 he shows that hearing coupled with faith produces obedience and that the disobeying (disbelieving [from a·pei·theʹo]) of the Israelites was due to lack of faith. (Compare Heb 3:18, 19.) Since true faith is “the assured expectation of things hoped for” and “the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld,” and since it requires believing that God is “and that he becomes the rewarder of those earnestly seeking him,” those having faith are moved to obey, having confidence and assurance as to the blessings that obedience will bring.—Heb 11:1, 6.
In harmony with this, God’s communication to men is not simply a series of terse commands like those of an unfeeling dictator. God does not desire the kind of obedience one obtains from a beast with a bridle and bit. (Compare Jas 3:3; Ps 32:8, 9.) Not a perfunctory or a begrudging obedience, such as even the demons rendered to Christ and his disciples (Mr 1:27; Lu 10:17, 20), but obedience motivated by an appreciative heart is called for. (Ps 112:1; 119:11, 112; Ro 6:17-19) Jehovah therefore accompanies his expressions of will and purpose with helpful information appealing to one’s sense of justice and righteousness, to love and goodness, intelligence, reason, and wisdom. (De 10:12, 13; Lu 1:17; Ro 12:1, 2) Those with the right heart attitude obey out of love. (1Jo 5:2, 3; 2Jo 6) Also, the truthfulness and rightness of the message given through God’s servants persuades the hearers to obey, and hence the apostle Peter speaks of “obedience to the truth with unhypocritical brotherly affection as the result.”—1Pe 1:22; compare Ro 2:8, 9; Ga 5:7, 8.
Jehovah showed great patience with Israel and speaks of himself as “daily getting up early” and sending his prophets to exhort and admonish them, ‘all day long spreading out his hands toward a people that is disobedient and talks back,’ but they continued to harden their hearts like emery stone, stubbornly refusing discipline. (Jer 7:23-28; 11:7, 8; Zec 7:12; Ro 10:21) Even after the coming of Messiah, they endeavored to establish their righteousness in their own way, by works of the Law. Their lack of faith and obedience to God’s instructions through his Son cost the majority of them a place in the Kingdom government, opening the way for many non-Jews to become part of the chosen nation of spiritual Israel.—Ro 10:1-4; 11:13-23, 30-32.
A healthy fear of God also plays its part in obedience, because one recognizes God’s all-powerfulness and that God is not to be trifled with nor can he be mocked, for he renders to each one according to that one’s deeds. (Compare Php 2:12, 13; Ga 6:7, 8; Heb 5:7.) Willful disobedience or disregard for God’s revealed will brings “a certain fearful expectation of judgment.”—Heb 10:26-31.
The Scriptures set forth many encouraging examples of faithful obedience in all manner of circumstances and situations and in the face of all types of opposition. Supreme among these is the example of God’s own Son, who “humbled himself and became obedient as far as death, yes, death on a torture stake.” (Php 2:8; Heb 5:8) By his obedient course he was justified, proved righteous on his own merit, and hence could provide a perfect sacrifice that would redeem mankind from sin and death.—Ro 5:18-21.
Obedience to Other Superiors. The Son’s position as God’s appointed King requires that all others obey him. (Da 7:13, 14) He is “Shiloh” of the tribe of Judah, the one ‘to whom the obedience of the people belongs’ (Ge 49:10), the prophet like Moses to whom every soul must listen or suffer destruction (Ac 3:22, 23), “a leader and commander to the national groups” (Isa 55:3, 4), placed “far above every government and authority and power and lordship” (Eph 1:20, 21), to whom “every knee should bend” in recognition of his God-given authority (Php 2:9-11). He is the High Priest whose instructions lead to healing and life everlasting for those hearing him submissively. (Heb 5:9, 10; Joh 3:36) Since he was God’s Chief Spokesman, Jesus could rightly make known that obedience to his sayings constituted the only solid foundation on which persons could build their hopes for the future. (Mt 7:24-27) Obedience is proof of and springs from the love his followers have for him. (Joh 14:23, 24; 15:10) Because God has made his Son the key figure in the outworking of all his purposes (Ro 16:25-27), life depends upon obedience to “the good news about our Lord Jesus,” and this obedience includes making public declaration of one’s faith in him.—2Th 1:8; Ro 10:8-10, 16; 1Pe 4:17.
As head of the Christian congregation, Christ Jesus delegates authority to others, as he did to the apostles. (2Co 10:8) These persons convey the instructions of the congregation’s Head, and therefore obedience to them is right and necessary (2Co 10:2-6; Php 2:12; 2Th 3:4, 9-15), for such spiritual shepherds are “keeping watch over your souls as those who will render an account.” (Heb 13:17; 1Pe 5:2-6; compare 1Ki 3:9.) Willing response and obedience, like that of the Roman and Philippian Christians and like that of Philemon, to whom Paul could say, “I am writing you, knowing you will even do more than the things I say,” bring rejoicing to such responsible ones.—Ro 16:19; Php 2:12, 17; Phm 21.
Obedience to parents and husbands. Parents have a God-given natural right to the obedience of their children. (Pr 23:22) Jacob’s obedience to his parents was doubtless one of the reasons Jehovah ‘loved Jacob but hated Esau.’ (Mal 1:2, 3; Ge 28:7) As a child, Jesus showed submission to his earthly parents. (Lu 2:51) The apostle Paul admonishes children to “be obedient to your parents in everything.” It must be remembered that his letter was addressed to Christians, and hence “everything” cannot allow for obedience to commands that would result in disobedience to the word of the heavenly Father, Jehovah God, for this could not be “well-pleasing” to the Lord. (Col 3:20; Eph 6:1) Disobedience to parents is not viewed lightly in the Scriptures, and under the Law a continued course of disobedience required the son’s being put to death.—De 21:18-21; Pr 30:17; Ro 1:30, 32; 2Ti 3:2.
The headship of the man also calls for obedience of wives to their husbands “in everything,” Sarah being cited as an example to be emulated. (Eph 5:21-33; 1Pe 3:1-6) Here, again, it holds true that the headship and authority of the husband is not supreme, but ranks below that of God and Christ.—1Co 11:3.
To masters and to governments. Similarly slaves were exhorted to render obedience to their masters “in everything,” not with eye-service but as Christ’s slaves, with fear of Jehovah. (Col 3:22-25; Eph 6:5-8) Those slaves who must endure suffering could take as their example Christ Jesus, even as could Christian wives under similar circumstances. (1Pe 2:18-25; 3:1) The authority of their masters was relative, not absolute; hence Christian slaves would obey in “everything” that was not in conflict with God’s will and commands.
Finally, obedience is due earthly governments, authorities, and rulers (Tit 3:1), since God has allowed them to function and even to render certain services to his people. So it is required that Christians “pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar.” (Mr 12:14-17) The compelling reason for Christian obedience to Caesar’s laws and the payment of taxes is not primarily proper fear of Caesar’s “sword” of punishment but is the Christian conscience. (Ro 13:1-7) Since conscience is the decisive factor, Christian submission to human governments obviously is limited to those things not out of harmony with God’s law. For this reason, to rulers who ordered them to stop carrying out their God-given commission to preach, the apostles firmly stated: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—Ac 5:27-29, 32; 4:18-20.