What does it mean to obey God? Do we have to?
1 Samuel #13. The Obedience of Faith
(and what the heck does this picture have to do with it?)
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The Old Testament has a lot of value for us in many ways. We can learn from examples, both positive and negative. We can see how God deals with people who live by faith, and with those who don’t. We can receive comfort in God’s promises to his people (and if we trust Jesus, we are his people, those promises are for us). We can learn about God’s standard for holiness.
But we must never forget that the Old Testament is first and foremost about Jesus. The Life, death and resurrection of Jesus are the central concern not only of the New Testament, but also of the Old Testament. Luke describes how Jesus helped his disciples to understand this.
25 He said to them, “How unwise and slow you are to believe in your hearts all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into His glory? ” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. Luke 24:44-45 (ESV)
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures
The Jews divided the Old Testament into two parts: “the Law” or “the book of Moses” which are the first five books of Bible. The second part was called “the Prophets” and it included not only the books which we call “prophetic” but in fact, all of the other books of the Old Testament. So when the New Testament says “the Law and the Prophets” or “Moses and the Prophets” it means “the entire Old Testament.”
The purpose of the entire Bible is to help us to know Jesus better and walk with him in faith. So even as we read these Old Testament scriptures, we should be asking, “Lord, show us Jesus in this part of scripture.”
I think this is particularly important when we come to a section like 1 Samuel 15. We talked about the concerns of Holy War last time, but now we get to a part that is very easy to apply wrongly.
Saul disregarded the Lord’s command to utterly destroy the Amalekites. He spared the life of the Amalekite king. Quite possibly he did this because, out of fear for his own head, he wanted his followers as well as foreign armies, to differentiate between royalty and ordinary people. In any case, he disobeyed God’s command in this respect. He also allowed his followers to keep the best livestock alive. Once again, this may have been from insecurity. His warriors may have been grumbling about pointlessly killing good animals. Even if they weren’t, he may have wanted to appear gracious and become popular by rewarding those who fought with him. There may not be anything wrong with that, except that the Lord clearly commanded otherwise.
When Samuel confronts Saul about what he has done (or, failed to do) Saul claims that he has saved all the animals for sacrificing to the Lord. Frankly, I think he was lying. I think he got caught, and he decided in that moment to make up for his failure to obey by making a sacrifice with the captured animals.
Samuel says something very significant:
Then Samuel said: Does the LORD take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? Look: to obey is better than sacrifice, to pay attention is better than the fat of rams. (1Sam 15:22)
This is theme repeated throughout both the Old and New Testaments. The Psalms reference this exact concept several times. So does Isaiah, and Hosea. Jesus mentioned the idea a few times in the New Testament. Even so, we need to be careful as we apply this to our own lives. It is very easy to say, “That’s right. I just need to obey God. We just need to do the right thing. What’s the point of saying we follow God if we don’t obey him?” I understand this attitude, but I think it tends to lead us away from the true meaning of this passage.
First, I think it comes back again to the fact that Saul was religious, but had no relationship with God. What he did seemed good. Saving the animals to sacrifice later was a religious thing. After all, sacrifices were part of Jewish religion. But Saul used his religion to keep from actually interacting with God, actually listening to him and responding in faith to what God said. Jesus said the Pharisees were religious like Saul too, and he hated it. Instead of listening to what the Lord actually said, they practiced religion. So this is a warning to us, to not let religion get in the way of faith. Religion keeps track of rules and regulations to follow, instead of living in a real, faith-relationship. In all sincerity, I try not to be religious. But living in faith is very important to me. Sometimes “sacrifice” is obedience. But we don’t live by rules, rather by relationship.
Second, we must understand that Jesus fulfilled this passage on our behalf. The writer of Hebrews quotes Psalm 40, and says that it is fulfilled in Jesus:
6 In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. 7 Then I said, “Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: 8 I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” Ps 40:6-8 (ESV)
Jesus delighted in God’s will. He didn’t live according to religious rules – the law of God was within his heart and during his time on earth he lived out that law through dependence upon the Father. He obeyed God perfectly. We cannot obey perfectly. So Jesus did it on our behalf. The obedience we owe God is complete and perfect in Jesus Christ, and only in Him. So when you think, “Oh, I have to obey God, because to obey is better than sacrifice” actually what you should hear is “I need to trust Jesus even more. Trusting him is my obedience, because has already done the obedience for me. Rather than act more religious, I need to trust more.” This is living by faith.
One reason we sometimes get confused is because obedience and trust can sometimes look the same. When you live by faith, it does result in certain actions. It does eliminate other actions. The bible does use the term “obedience.” But we must remember, it is the obedience of faith – not the self-effort of religion. Let me give you a little analogy to help us understand this.
I love spy/suspense shows like the Bourne Identity. Not everything in these shows is entirely righteous, but living in faith, we can find good things in them. Sometimes in shows like this, one of the characters may encounter a time-bomb. Picture a scene like this, where a lady has just a few seconds to defuse a bomb. She doesn’t know how to do it. But she gets on the phone with her friend who does. He tells her, “cut the blue wire, but be sure not to cut the red one.” So she carefully cuts the blue wire, but not the red one.
Now what is going on here? Is she obeying her friend, or trusting him?
Well, both, of course. But you see, her actions of obedience proceed from her trust of her friend. She trusts that he knows how to save her. She trusts that if she does what he says, she will be safe. And so, because of that trust, she acts according to what he says. She isn’t just doing what her bomb-expert friend says because it is the right thing to do. She isn’t doing it from a sense of moral obligation. She is “obeying” him because she trusts that he wants to save her life, and has the power (in this case knowledge) to do so.
You could call it obedience. But I would call it primarily trust. The obedience is a result of the trust.
I want to pursue this analogy a little bit further. In order to get this kind of trust-obedience, you need several factors. First, you have to believe that your life is really in danger. If the lady didn’t believe the bomb was real, chances are, she wouldn’t have called her friend anyway. She would not have been seeking the help she needed, because she wouldn’t have believed she needed it. Second, she had to believe that her friend had the knowledge that could save her. Third, she had to believe that her friend wanted to save her.
Peter expressed this attitude of faith. A lot of people had turned away from following God and Jesus was left with just the twelve apostles.
66 f After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to g the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have h the words of eternal life, 69 and i we have believed, and have come to know, that j you are k the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66)
When we encounter problems with obeying God in our own lives, I think it is usually a combination of these factors at play. Maybe we believe that the situation isn’t really very serious. Although we think obeying God is the right thing, when it comes down to it, we think we’ll be OK even if we don’t. We don’t see his words as life and salvation. So we don’t obey because we don’t believe our problem is that big.
Second, maybe we doubt whether God really has the answers we need. Perhaps we don’t obey him because we aren’t sure that what he is saying to us is relevant and helpful to us in our own situation. I think this was one of Saul’s major issues. He seemed to feel that God was fine for religious things, but in everyday life, you had to take care of yourself and use your common sense. Saul didn’t seem to think the command for Holy War was really right or had any value in his situation.
Third, we sometimes don’t obey because we aren’t sure we can trust God. Maybe we aren’t sure if he really has our best interests at heart.
Do you see the solution to the obedience problem – no matter what causes it? Faith. In each case, we need to change what we believe. We need to make a leap of trust. We need to trust that our situation is in fact serious, and we really do need the Lord to make it through life. We need to trust that the Lord really does have what it takes to save us, that his words are life; we need to trust that He is relevant in every moment of our lives. And we need to trust that he really has our best interests in his heart.
The devil likes to trick us into religion. Do the right thing because it is the right thing. And something in us responds to that. After all, it is the right thing. But is the wrong path, the wrong way to go about it. We can do the right thing with our own effort – for a while. But we fail eventually because it based upon our efforts, not the obedience that Jesus has already done on our behalf.
Then the devil likes to beat us up: You just aren’t obedient enough. You just don’t try hard enough. But the problem isn’t effort. The real solution lies in trusting more. Jesus has obeyed perfectly. His righteous obedience has become ours (2 Corinthians 5:21). Our part is to trust. If we do truly trust, then our lives will reflect the kind of actions the Lord desires. But it doesn’t start with our action, it starts with our trust.
So let me put it to you today. Do you trust that your situation is serious? Do you remember that no one gets out of this world without dying? Do you recognize that you are in a desperate place, the bomb is about to go off and you can only get help from one place?
Do you trust that the Lord has the right, relevant Word for you? Do you accept that he knows better than you, that he will save you if you trust him to?
And do you know that he wants to save you? Do you trust his goodness?
Take a moment right now to let the Lord into your thoughts and prayers as you consider these things.