When living the Christian life, it is easy to get the mindset of thinking our works are what bring about our righteousness, or to think of ourselves as being better than other people. We can also go so far as thinking it’s okay to commit certain habitual sins as long as we do something religious for God to counteract wrongdoing. I have at times been guilty of these faulty mindsets. Several good examples in the Bible show us this is not what God really wants from us.
King Saul’s disobedience
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go…utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. …
But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them: but every thing that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly. …
And Saul said unto Samuel, Yea, I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, and have gone the way which the LORD sent me, and have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice unto the LORD thy God in Gilgal. 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. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king. [1 Samuel 15:2-3, 9, 20-23]
God’s instructions were clear. Saul was to destroy everything and everyone of the Amalekites. Instead, he and his followers selfishly enriched themselves, keeping all of the good stuff. When Samuel confronted his disobedience, Saul tried to avoid responsibility, blaming it on what others did and then thought he would atone by saying he would sacrifice the best animals to God.
Samuel responded with his famous words, “to obey is better than sacrifice.” Then he explained further that rebellion is like witchcraft and stubbornness is like idolatry. How is rebellion like witchcraft? It seeks to have self-exalting, manipulative control over people and situations as witchcraft does. Stubbornness reflects that we want God to conform to our desires instead of us conforming to his. Based on these principles, I’d say there is a lot of witchcraft and idolatry in churches.
I have sometimes judged Saul harshly until I thought about times I purposely disobeyed God and thought I would make it up to him with sacrifices of extra prayer during the week, or going to Wednesday night Bible study in addition to Sunday morning worship, or by giving extra money in the offering plate. I’m glad we live under the New Testament, where my kingdom rewards may be affected [see 1 Corinthians 3:13-15], but my kingship and priesthood are left intact.
Israel plays the whore, but still performs temple rituals
I know Ephraim, and Israel is not hid from me: for now, O Ephraim, thou committest whoredom, and Israel is defiled. They will not frame their doings to turn unto their God …
O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? O Judah, what shall I do unto thee? for your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away. …For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. [Hosea 5:3-4; 6:4, 6]
At the time God sent Hosea to rebuke Israel, Israel intermarried and formed alliances with pagan nations. In their alliances, Israel adopted pagan, sinful practices of their neighbors like lying, murder, stealing, adultery, and worshipping false gods. They still showed up at the temple for sabbaths and other God-ordained holy days to give offerings.
God said he wasn’t impressed with their sacrifices, stating he preferred mercy and godly knowledge above sacrifices. Today’s church has many similarities to Israel. We overlook blatant sins of people in our congregation. If they are ever confronted about their sin, it’s sometimes done in a way that doesn’t follow Matt. 18:15-17. If one’s congregation is large enough, one can look around on Sunday and see the person who was out getting drunk at the club last night over there, the unmarried couple living together over here, the guy who has a collection at home of things he stole from his job right there, and the guy who beats his wife and/or kids right here.
And they all converge at church thinking attendance automatically keeps them in good standing with God when God prefers them to live out his mercy and his knowledge.
Jesus hangs out with sinners, but doesn’t sin
And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?
But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. [Matthew 9:10-13]
Have you ever snubbed a sinner because they didn’t live up to your Christian standards and you felt they weren’t worthy of your personal time? I know I have. Jesus did just the opposite. Not only did he hang out with sinners, he befriended some of the worst of the worst of sinners, from prostitutes to publicans.
Why would the sinless Lord of glory do that? Well, he loved them so much he wanted to see their lives changed for the best, showing them the life the Father wanted them to live through his Son. He considered it necessary to mingle with them on their own turf by attending dinner parties at their homes. The only people who had a problem with it were self-righteous religious leaders. When they questioned Jesus about his associations, Jesus informed them God’s mercy trumped their personal sacrifice of avoiding the worst sinners.
If Christ had agreed with the philosophy of the Pharisees, he never would have left heaven to come to Earth to save me! Thank God he let his mercy win out.
What type of attitude should we then as his followers have? Not to say this would give us freedom to hang out with unsaved guys at strip clubs, but there are many neutral, non-churchy environments where we can befriend them and let them get to know us while we stand strong in godly convictions. What a difference we could make in unbelievers’ lives!
Conclusion of the matter
Why are mercy, knowledge, and obedience much more important than our sacrifices? They are results of godly wisdom that can most easily fulfill the commandments on which hang all the law and prophets (Matt. 22:36-40). If we perform our many sacrifices from going to church to giving to the poor without these three actions that should come from love, our sacrifices are worthless.
(Originally posted in lengthier form as Mercy, knowledge, & obedience trump our sacrifices in 2008.)