1 Sam 15:22 And Samuel said, Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. (KJV)
To begin this teaching, I borrowed a passage from I Samuel directed at King Saul. Saul had been anointed king over Israel per their request to be “like all the nations” (I Sam 8:5, 20). Israel’s rejection of the Lord as their King set them up for future hardships. Saul showed signs along the way that he had some problems with obedience. Despite Saul’s character flaws, it appears that the Lord was still willing to work with him and gave him some specific instructions (I Sam 15:3) regarding the Amalekites. Saul partially obeyed the Lord, but decided he would pick and choose which commands were important to obey and which ones he felt he could disregard. The verse above shows Samuel’s response to Saul’s disobedience. And those same words echo throughout thousands of years, and speak to us today. Truly, to obey is better than sacrifice!
Saul had been given specific instructions to utterly destroy the Amalekites (men, women, infants, animals, etc.). The Amalekites were noted for their cruelty, and this direction from the Lord was in response to their cruelty towards Israel. Saul comes to the people of Amalek and begins to smite them. But he decides that perhaps it would be wise to spare a few things; like King Agag, the best of the sheep, the oxen, and “all that was good” (I Sam 15:9). Everything that was “vile and refuse” they utterly destroyed. When Samuel comes to Saul, Saul greets him by saying “I have performed the commandment of the Lord”. I’m not sure if he really believed that, or if it was simply a way of justifying his actions. I find that the longer we disobey, the more we are willing to justify our disobedience. In the New Testament, we are warned that we can sear our “conscience with a hot iron” (I Tim 4:2) or become “past feeling” (literally numb!) to the effects of sin (Eph 4:19). The writer of Hebrews warns us against becoming “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:13). Samuel is not fooled by Saul’s statement of piety and basically says (and I’m very loosely paraphrasing here) “if you have obeyed the Lord, why do I hear all of these sheep and oxen?”.
It is at this point that we might expect that Saul would come clean about his disobedience and motives for not fully carrying out the command(s) of the Lord. Instead he defers and says “the people” spared the best of the sheep and oxen so that they could sacrifice unto the Lord. Samuel sees right through this and accuses Saul of “flying upon the spoil”. Again, one might think that Saul would confess that he has been caught red-handed. But instead he says “Yea, I have obeyed the voice of the Lord….”. Samuel then proceeds to tell him that obedience is better than sacrifice!
We look at Saul’s story and shake our heads in amazement that he could be so blessed by God and have such a callous disregard for the commandments of the Lord. But we must take heed just as Paul warned the Corinthians that we might not fall after that same example!
Sacrifice is a noble thing. As a matter of fact, Jesus Christ is our ultimate example of what it means to sacrifice. He is the perfect sacrifice, as the writer of Hebrews describes. In John’s Gospel, Jesus Christ tells us that laying down one’s life for another is the ultimate expression of love (John 15:13). Many people in scripture are noted for their acts of sacrifice for the cause of Christ and the Kingdom of God. Today’s teaching is not a critcism of sacrificial acts of giving, worship, and love. But it is a caution, that sacrifice is not a substitute for obedience. When Jesus began his ministry and started to explain the nature of the Kingdom of God, he warned that there must be a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). Christ’s ethical teachings contained in the Sermon on the Mount are probing and challenging. One of the reasons this is so, is because Christ deals not only with the outward expressions of obedience, but the inner workings and motivations of the heart.
While we’re on the subject of the Pharisees, let’s observe a few things about them. They were skilled craftsmen in the art of outward piety. Their forms of worship were well observed (their manner of praying, giving, and fasting are particularly mentioned). They did all of these things and yet their hearts were clearly not in step with the type of obedience that the Lord required. Again, this is not a treatise against sacrifice. Jesus gave us an example of this when talking about their manner of giving/tithing:
Matt 23:23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. (KJV)
Jesus didn’t say “stop what you’re doing”, but rather that they should have observed all of God’s commands, and not simply those that suited them. Unfortunately, many unbelievers view us as modern-day Pharisees. Certainly not all of their criticisms are warranted, and we understand that one cannot understand or even see the Kingdom of God unless they are born-again (John 3:3). But many of us are perpetuating the “hypocrite” charge that is so often leveled against us. The word hypocrite literally means “an actor under an assumed character”. This is exactly what we are, when we make the decision that sacrifice can replace simple obedience. And so many of us have soothed (or perhaps seared) our consciences by believing that our sacrifice will be enough to please God. Countless individuals fill churches, sit on pews, sing in choirs, teach Sunday school, place offerings in the plates each week- but have hearts far away from God.
Mark 7:6 He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. (KJV)
Jesus mentions Isaiah the prophet, and I think that would be a good place for us to look now. Isaiah chapter 58 is a vivid example of what happens when we choose sacrifice over obedience. First, let’s look at the frustration of the people of Israel. Now whether or not we would readily admit it, we might read these words and identify with them more than closely than we think. Let’s look at their story:
Isa 58:2 Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God. 3 Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours. (KJV)
On the surface, they seem like good church people don’t they? They have daily devotions, delight to know more about God, kept ordinances, and enjoyed approaching the presence of God (we could probably insert “liked going to church” there), and they fasted. But they sensed something dynamic was missing in their relationship with God. Why were they fasting with no results? Why did it seem as if all their sacrifice was being ignored? God goes on to explain to them in vivid detail that they were missing some of the weightier matters of the law, just like the Pharisees. I won’t post the whole chapter (I encourage you to read it on your own), but we find out that they needed to also be burden-relievers, they needed to reach out to their loved ones and their neighbors. They needed to take care of the poor, and be physically and emotionally available to those in their lives. Now if that doesn’t challenge us, I don’t know what will! The Lord then goes on to say that if they (and we) do those things, they will experience the provision and blessings of God. But it requires total obedience, not merely a sacrifice that ignores weightier matters of the Kingdom.
Hosea 6:6 For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. (KJV)
This verse in Hosea is repeated in the Gospels (Matt 9:13, Matt 12:7). The recurring theme of the New Testament is that love is a fulfilling of the law. Love for God, and love for fellow man is the overarching message of the scriptures. The mission of Jesus as revealed by Luke is to “seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). If we are believers who value sacrifice over obedience, we will never truly help to fulfill the Great Commission. We can comfort ourselves by giving money to missions, but that does not relieve us of our duty to pray for missions and missionaries. We can invite our friends to church, but that does not relieve us of our duty to love them and allow them to see Christ in us each and every day. We can attend church services every time the door is open, but that does not mean we have permission to ignore the Kingdom of God in the marketplace and in our homes. One of the most terrifying pictures in the bible is recorded in Matthew chapter 7. Here is an eternal example of what happens to those who value sacrifice without obedience.
Matt 7:21-Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? 23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. (KJV)
I’m not trying to scare you today, but if you can read this passage without holy reverence, you may need to spiritually examine yourself. These people depicted here are clearly people of sacrifice. They are involved in Kingdom work (prophecy, demon expulsion, “wonderful works”) in Jesus’ name. They clearly call Jesus “Lord”. But they have obviously been duped into believing that they can practice iniquity (the word literally means “lawlessness”) and their sacrifice will somehow balance the scales of judgment. Jesus says that only those who do the will of the Father will enter the kingdom of Heaven.
Finally, we will look at David’s prayer of repentance found in Psalm 51. Most theologians believe that this Psalm records David’s prayer of repentance after his sin with Bathsheba. I am glad that this is recorded in the canon of scripture. There are times when we fail God, just like David did. David’s remorse resonates with each one of us who has ever sinned against God and violated His holy commands. His petitions to God are extremely touching and transparent. He pleads with God to cleanse him, purge him from iniquity, and wash him from his sins. He asks for the joy of God’s salvation to be restored unto him and for the presence of God and the Holy Spirit not to be removed. He then acknowledges something that we’ve been looking at today:
Ps 51:16 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (KJV)
David realized that a burnt offering or a sacrifice wasn’t going to solve his problem. His problem was a heart problem. It would only be remedied by a brokenness, confession to God, and a willingness to fully obey the commands of the Lord. Maybe this message today has brought you to a place of conviction. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is ministering to you even now- bringing you to a place of remorse over your own sin(s). While the bible rejects the notion of sacrifice without an obedient heart, it also promises that God won’t reject or despise those who are truly broken over their sin. If that is you today, you can stand upon this promise found in I John.
I Jn 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.(KJV)
May God bless you as you continue to study His Word!
Reference Material on Obedience from: http://www.truthablaze.com/index.html