The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio
In the first book of Samuel, chapter 15, King Saul neglects the direct commands of God. Samuel’s prophetic word in response to Saul’s sin is as follows:
Has 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 listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.
Here, in chapter 15:22-23, Samuel states clearly what the Lord’s prefers to receive from Saul. He prefers obedience, for “to obey is better than sacrifice.” It is a striking example of God’s requirements upon his people, and it is not the only instance that this juxtaposition between sacrifices and obedience is made. The people were definitely required by God to offer sacrifices; if they didn’t they could not be in fellowship with their God. Yet, it seems that obedience is a sweeter offering to the Lord “than the fat of rams.“ How do these two categories, sacrifice and obedience, fit into redemptive history? What do they mean for us, in light of the work of Jesus Christ?
New Covenant Sacrifice
Jesus is our sacrifice. He is the fulfillment of every animal slain to atone for sin, every piece of grain burnt to make peace with God. Hebrews 9:11-12 says he is our high priest who offered himself as a sacrifice. He is a priest, who climbs upon the altar and offers himself before the Lord. In Hebrews 9:26, it states that Jesus has suffered “once for all” to end the need for sacrifices. Romans 3:25 says that Jesus was put forth as a “propitiation,” an atoning sacrifice for sins. Jesus is the New Covenant sacrifice. Therefore, we don’t need to sacrifice anymore, because Jesus is the final sacrifice. You might say he is the real sacrifice, as he was the only one that could truly wipe away sins (Hebrews 9:28).
New Covenant Obedience
We New Covenant protestants are very aware that we’re saved by God’s sovereign grace alone, and not by any human endeavor or work. However, despite this wonderful truth, God’s requirement of obedience remains upon us. Indeed, the juxtaposition between sacrifice and obedience is heightened in the New Covenant, because sacrifice is no longer required. Obedience, on the other hand, is definitely required. Jesus constantly called people to “follow me,” which requires an obedient act. In Mark 10:17-22, he commands the otherwise obedient rich man to be even more obedient! In Matthews gospel, chapters 5 and 6, Jesus “ups the ante” on the Jews, re-interpreting God’s Law in light of the New Covenant. The epistles are full of exhortations to “do” and “not do,” which all imply obedience. In short, the requirement for obedience has not been done away with in the New Covenant. We must still seek the will of God, and live in accordance with his Law. We must not be conformed to the world, but be transformed so that we can know God’s will (Romans 12:1-2). We must be doers of the word (James 1:22).