“Unless a person keeps the commandments of God, he cannot make progress even in a single virtue”
– Abba Agathon
By studying the lives of Old Testament prophets, we are able to highlight a clear concept towards being a servant of God, which is being obedient towards God’s commandments.
Originally I used to imagine that the life of a prophet living among the Israelites was such a prestigious position, since it is through the prophet that God speaks to his people. However after another read of the Bible, I quickly realised that such people were the most ridiculed figures among all of Israel. Prophets were chased about by kings and queens and made a mockery of by false prophets. Additionally, to become God’s messenger a prophet must empty themselves of his/her will and follow the Lord’s command regardless of the consequences.
Let’s see some examples to illustrate.
Isaiah the prophet was given a command by the Lord to call his son Maher-ShalalHash-Baz. Hosea the prophet was commanded to marry a harlot, so that when people asked him, how can you do such a wicked deed? Hosea would answer: this is because “you have committed great harlotry by departing from the Lord.” Another example is when God wanted to further reprimand the Israelites for going after other gods, He commanded Hosea to call his first child “Lo-Ruhamah” meaning “No Mercy”, for the Lord “will no longer have mercy on the house of Israel” (Hosea 1:6), and also to name his second child “Lo-Ammi” meaning ( not my people ) for Israelites are “not my people, and I will not be your God” (Hosea 1:9). I do not recommend you look for these names in any baby names book.
The Lord commanded Ezekiel the prophet to lie on his left side for three hundred and ninety days, so that when asked by the people he will inform them that these are the days of the house of Israel. God then commanded him to lie on his right side for forty days as a sign of the years of iniquity of the house of Judah, one day for each year.
In all these occurrences, the commands given to the holy prophets by God were never questioned by the prophet, even in such personal matters as to whom they are to marry and what names they shall give to their children. It should also be noted that the people of Israel and Judea did not always respond positively to God’s warnings that he sent through His prophets. Instead the people ridiculed the prophets for saying and doing what they did and often the prophets were pursued by the kings or rulers of the time for prophesying against them. In all the above accounts, we see that the prophets had no will of their own, but instead their will was to obey God’s commandment regardless of how silly or harsh it may appear.
When St. Paul wanted to give an example to the Philippians of complete obedience that they should imitate, he could not have used a better example than Christ Himself who “emptied himself taking the form of a servant” and in His obedience to the Father He was “obedient to the point of death.” (Php 2:7-8).
The monastic movement first started because of St. Anthony’s obedience to the Gospel’s command “sell all you have and follow me” (Matt 19:21) and it is this obedience to God’s commandments that monks imitate. It was also for this reason that many monastic leaders such as St. Shenouda or St. Pachomius were titled by their biographers “our father the prophet”.
St John of the ladder (Climacus) defines a monk as one who is guided only by the commandment of God and the word of God in every time and place and matter. Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov (a Russian Orthodox bishop) in his great book, The Arena, he emphasises that the whole Christian life and especially the monastic life should be based on following the commandments of the Gospel.
“He who has based his life on the study of the Gospel and the practice of the commandments of the Gospel has based it on a solid rock. In whatever predicament he is placed by the circumstances of life his task is always with him. He is constantly active, constantly struggling, constantly progressing, although his activity, his struggle and progress are unnoticed and incomprehensible to others. Whatever troubles and trials he may encounter, they can never defeat him.”
So it is vital if we are to call ourselves Christians to follow God’s commandments which are in the Gospels no matter what the cost is. For some of us a good place to start would be to know what these commandments are, by reading them in the Gospels.