Word Study: To Disobey (ἀπειθέω)

“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” (John 3:36, ESV)

There is a fascinating little word in the very last verse of our current passage that deserves a closer look.  Which raises the question: “When I’m studying the Bible, how do I know which word(s) to drill down on?”  I’m glad you didn’t raised that question, dear reader, because it’s one with which I’ve struggled as well.  What word/words deserve extra time in any given passage?  The answer, I’ve come to believe is: it doesn’t really matter.  “What?”  You shout indignantly.  “How can that possibly be?”  It doesn’t matter because as you chip away day after day and month after month (hopefully) taking up the Scriptures and studying them, your experience (and the illumination of the Holy Spirit) will teach you what words are important.  In other words, the problem is self-correcting, so don’t worry about it, just press on and study. But I digress…

How does the New Testament use the verb “to disobey” (ἀπειθέω) and what does it mean?  The word means “to disobey” or “to be disobedient.”  Louw-Nida [super cool Greek dictionary] defines it as: “unwillingness or refusal to comply with the demands of some authority—‘to disobey, disobedience.’”

When one begins to look at how the words is used in the New Testament, it gets interesting.  As one dictionary points out, the verb is always used in the NT to refer to God or his will.  In other words, when the NT uses disobey in this sense, it always has to do with being disobedient to God or to what God has spoken.

  • “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17, ESV)
  • “For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience,” (Romans 11:30, ESV)
  • “but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” (Romans 2:8, ESV)

We could give more examples, but you get the point.  Since it is used in this way, as the Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (EDNT) points out, it becomes a technical term for nonacceptance of the Christian faith, as is clear from our passage where believing in the Son is contrasted not with not believing in the Son, but with whoever does not obey the Son.

EDNT:  One could say pointedly: disobedience against God’s will manifests itself not primarily in the transgression of individual commandments of God, but rather in resistance against the revelation of God’s salvation in the gospel.

This is hugely significant and why the word is so important to understand.  Those who are disobedient (ἀπειθέω) are fundamentally not just people who commit individual sin; they are people who resist God and all he stands for.  They are in open rebellion against God, the gospel, and anything else that calls them to surrender, yield, and submit to God.

Dear reader, if “disobedient” as used in the New Testament, refers to you, then you are in a heap of trouble.  Look what John says: The wrath of God remains on him [you!].  I know what you’re thinking, this is terrible news.  This is depressing news.  This news is unwelcome.  This news, however, is true.

Wasn’t it nice of John not to just leave us with the bad news.  Did you forget what he wrote back in John 3:16? ““For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, ESV).  You do not have to have the wrath of God on you.  Jesus came to take that wrath.

So what do you need to do?  Yield!  Surrender!  Lay down your arms!  Wave the white flag.  That’s it.

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