Sacrifice and Obedience

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio

In the first book of Samuel, , 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 , 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. 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 , it states that Jesus has suffered “once for all” to end the need for sacrifices. 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 ().

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 , he commands the otherwise obedient rich man to be even more obedient! In Matthews gospel, 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 (). We must be doers of the word ().

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11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.

26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.

25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

5:1 They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” 10 And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, 12 and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out, and entered the pigs, and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and were drowned in the sea.

14 The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. 16 And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. 17 And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.

21 And when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered about him, and he was beside the sea. 22 Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him, he fell at his feet 23 and implored him earnestly, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” 24 And he went with him.

And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him. 25 And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, 26 and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. 28 For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” 29 And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’32 And he looked around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. 34 And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

35 While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” 36 But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37 And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James. 38 They came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39 And when he had entered, he said to them, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40 And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was. 41 Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” 42 And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement. 43 And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

12:1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

3 thoughts on “Sacrifice and Obedience”

  1. Simon, how different this is from the contemporary self-serving attitude expressed in these words; “it’s easier to seek forgiveness than gain permission” – almost the reverse of the sacrifice and obedience words of the prophet Samuel.

    The rebellious heart of man says, “Rules be damned!” If I want to break God’s law or the morays of society, or the rules of my employer, or my marriage vows – I’ll do it regardless of consequences. If it serves my purposes – I’ll do it. I can always seek forgiveness later.

    Thanks for this challenging reminder.

    1. Thanks Don. Very true. Our Lord requires radical obedience from his followers (and, ultimately, from those who don’t follow him). I think even certain strands of Christian theology encourage the sort of attitude you’ve described. Radical obedience is entirely superseded by God’s radical grace. However, God holds both dear and so should we.

  2. Very helpful post Simon. The fact that many teach a form of Christianity that ignores the importance of Christian obedience is very revealing of one’s understanding of the biblical nature of salvation and how it brings transforming grace. The only reason we can obey is because in His grace He has granted us the desire and capacity to obey (cf. ). To ignore the place of obedience in the Christian life is to ignore a significant biblical doctrine.

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