When I was growing up, my sister and I stayed at my aunt’s house a lot and would play with our cousins. We loved going there because they had a huge playroom with two huge closets full of toys and games. There were transformers, Lego’s, board games, red paper bricks, and every other fun toy. We were always in that room, playing, creating, building, having fun, and usually making quite a mess while doing it… We always dreaded it though, when my aunt or my mom would come and tell us we had to clean up the room by a certain deadline. We knew we were just going to get the toys back out again anyway, so we didn’t really see the point in cleaning the room, but we knew we had to do it because they said so… One time, one of us decided the fastest way to clean the room would be to cram everything as fast as possible into these closets. We would: pick up a toy, run to the closet, throw it in the closet, and repeat. The playroom soon began to look clean, although the closets were now a disaster. But, it was clean though, just how our mom wanted it to look… Finally, the deadline would come, and our inspectors would inspect. We would all held our breath, anxiously hoping that they wouldn’t look in the closets…if only they wouldn’t look in the closets and see the mess we had really made… to the visible eye, we had done what was asked of us…
We had obeyed our parents, because we had cleaned the playroom, and we had done it on time. Our cleaning had the appearance of truly obeying because the result was a clean room. But as kids, we hadn’t learned how to get the job done in a way that would be pleasing to our parents.
Tonight, we’re going to look at our need to learn what true Christian obedience looks like. We’ll see our need to have a heart after God’s own heart. We’ll see how hiding things in the closets of our lives may appear to be obeying God, but if our hearts and minds are elsewhere, God doesn’t want it. He doesn’t want partial obedience.
We need to learn true obedience by looking to the one who was able to perfectly obey God. Only Jesus is able to walk perfectly in obedience to God. We need to understand the heart of our God, so that we can learn to follow him and obey him as he desires.
The main idea we’ll learn tonight is: The Christian is able, with a heart after God’s own, to learn to walk in the path of obedience.
Let’s turn to 1 Samuel 15:1-23, to look first at what the path of obedience does not look like. Then we’ll look at what Christian obedience really is, and finally how we can learn to walk in it.
READ 1 Samuel 15:1-23.
Tonight, we’re looking at what true Christian obedience is. We’ll look first at what it is not, then what it is, finally how we too can learn true Christian obedience.
I. What Christian Obedience is NOT
Let’s start with remembering what the book of 1 Samuel is about. The author of this book is concerned to tell us how Israel came to get her king. In chapter 8, the people of Israel come to Samuel, who Ashley talked about two weeks ago, Israel’s last judge, demanding a king. They wanted to be like the other nations with someone, a figurehead, to lead them out into battle. Their desire for a king, however, was seen as a rejection of Yahweh as their king, but Yahweh allowed them to have a king anyway.
This is where Saul comes onto the scene. God led Samuel to find Saul and to anoint him as Israel’s first king. Although Saul was from the least family, Kish, of the smallest tribe of Israel, Benjamin, he was still chosen to lead Israel. He was “an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites—[he was] a head taller than any of the others” (9:2). Saul was chosen for his height and his military prowess.
But Saul was not without his major faults. Prior to this story, in chapter 13, Saul committed a great sin against the Lord and Samuel by offering a sacrifice before a battle (13:12). Only a priest was able to offer a sacrifice. When Samuel finally arrived on the scene, he pronounced the Lord’s judgment on Saul, saying in 13:13-14, “You acted foolishly…You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.” Saul’s disobedience led to his line being cut off, just like, in the last lesson we saw, that Eli the priest’s line was cut off for his sons’ disobedience and wickedness. Saul did not keep the Lord’s command, and he did not have a heart after God’s own.
Now, we come to what was recorded and read in chapter 15. We learn of the problem of this passage in verse 11, that God was grieved that he made Saul king, because he turned away from the Lord and did not carry out his instructions. (Using the word “grief” when speaking about God, means that he was sad, just like he is over our sin, not that he made a mistake. Biblical writers will often use human words that we understand to describe God, while at the same time, affirming that he does not change—see verse 29 here).
What was it that God had asked Saul to do? What were God’s instructions? In verses 2-3, we find God’s command. He wanted to punish the Amalekites (verse 2) for not allowing the wandering Israelites to pass through their land on Israel’s way out of Egypt, recorded in Exod 17:8-16. For their defiance, God told Moses that one day he would “utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Exod 17:14). In the books of Numbers (14:20) and Deuteronomy, God reiterates his promise to totally destroy Amalek for attacking Israel from behind when they were faint and weary, and for not fearing the Lord (Deut 25:17-19). God promised that once Israel was settled in their land (like they now are in the book of 1 Samuel), that he would remember this promise to Israel and he would carry it out. And this is exactly what the Lord has just asked Saul to carry out. Saul was to be an instrument of God’s delayed and final judgment on the Amalekites.
I want to look a little more closely at God’s command in verse 3, God says to “totally destroy everything,” or some translations say “utterly destroy,” “totally destroy,” or “devote to destruction” all the things listed. The Hebrew word which means “totally destroy everything” is harem. This word and command meant something very specific. Deut 7:25-26 says that the things of conquered people, including the women and children, were detestable to the Lord and should be set apart for destruction, and Deut 20 (laying out the rules for this harem warfare) says that God didn’t want Israel to learn the ways of these conquered people, or to worship their gods [20:16-18], so they were offered up as a sacrifice to the Lord. We can see how women and children even could perpetuate and teach the worship of other gods. The word harem is always used in conjunction with holy warfare and sacrifice. The Amalekites are to be sacrificed through harem warfare for turning their back on YHWH and on the people of Israel.
Let me interject here and say that Holy warfare can be a hard subject for us as modern readers, especially women, to understand. There has been more confusion since 9/11 and extremist Muslim jihad, which is also seen as a holy war. The OT concept was similar to this, so we have to understand what it meant at that time, but also understand it in light of Christ’s coming. In the OT, God initiated wars against flesh and blood enemies. These wars were a form of worship and had appropriate sacrifices and rituals to go along with them.
(I know I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic. I want to recommend this book: Show them No Mercy: 4 views of God and Canaanite Genocide which discusses 4 different Christian views of what God meant by this holy warfare language. I follow Tremper Longman’s view that shows that in the NT, there is spiritual continuity from the OT concept holy warfare (of literally sacrificing people), meaning that now that Christ has come, this harem warfare is carried out (in the NT and beyond) against the spirits, powers and principalities, against Satan and his demonic forces [Eph 6:12, Rev 12:7-9]. It is no longer a flesh and blood battle that the Lord calls Christians to engage in, but a spiritual one.)
The next question to consider is: How did Saul respond to the Lord’s command? What did he do? Verse 9 tells us that he spared Agag, the Amalekite king, and the best of the animals. So Saul, decided that instead of fully carrying out the Lord’s command, he would save what he thought was best and then bring it to God as a pleasing sacrifice. But, we’ve already seen that nothing from the Amalekites could at all ever be considered good enough to be a separate sacrifice to the Lord. So, Saul was selectively obedient. He did what he thought was best. He did what he thought would be pleasing. His act was like me and my cousins giving the appearance of following our parent’s command to clean the playroom, meanwhile the closets (also part of the room) were not at all clean.
Saul’s Response to Samuel’s Accusation
How does Saul respond when Samuel meets him and confronts him, starting in verse 13?
- First, Saul doesn’t even see what he did as wrong. In verse 13, he says “I have carried out the Lord’s instructions…” He has?
- Second, in verse 14, he blame-shifts and denies disobeying. Samuel confronts him with the sounds of bleeting sheep and the lowing of cattle. Samuel can hear the animals. He knows they have survived. If Saul had carried out the Lord’s command, there would be no animals left and certainly not Agag, their king. In verse 15, he shifts the blame onto the soldiers. Then he reaffirms that he totally destroyed the rest. How could he have “totally destroyed” some, but not all? He’s admitting that he didn’t completely carry out the task, while at the same time saying he did carry it out.
- Third, Saul again says he obeyed and refuses to repent. After Samuel calls him out in verses 17-19, in verse 20, he says, “But I did obey the Lord.” He’s still not willing to admit he’s done anything wrong.
He says he completely destroyed them and brought back their king. But, if one remains, how could he have been completely obedient? And again, he blames the soldiers. Saul is only selectively obedient as fits his needs and desires. He is the king, the head of the tribes of Israel, God’s anointed, and the one chosen to carry out God’s judgment on a people who had long-ago wronged Israel and Yahweh, and here he is looking like me as a defiant child saying, “But I did clean the playroom, you didn’t say I had to clean the closets too. I did what you asked me to do.” This is the picture of what disobedience to the Lord looks like: not seeing our wrongdoing, denying, blaming, and refusing to repent.
So what was it that God wanted from Saul? He wanted Saul to fully obey him and to have the right heart for doing it. Verse 22 sums it up. It says, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? [The answer is an implied no.] To obey is better than sacrifice.” God wanted pure motives in what Saul was doing. He wanted to Saul to obey him, because he recognized that the Lord knew what was in his and Israel’s best interests.
The idea of God desiring obedience and a pure heart over sacrifices is a theme that runs throughout the Bible. In Psalm 51, we learn that the sacrifices God truly desires are a “broken spirit and a contrite [meaning: repentant] heart” (vv. 16-17). In the minor prophet, Micah 6:8, we learn that it’s justice and mercy and walking humbly with the Lord that God desires over sacrifice. Even in the NT, Jesus says that more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices is to “love God and your neighbor” (Mk 12:33). God’s saying that the sacrifices must be made with the proper heart and frame of mind truly seeking the things that God is interested in, like: justice, mercy, and love, offered in obedience.
Verse 23, then, lays out the consequence for Saul’s disobedience. “Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king.” The Lord was looking for a man who was after God’s own heart, who would follow God truly and consistently. Nothing Saul would do after this point would matter to God. He already forfeited his kingship by his disobedience and unwillingness to repent when confronted. The chapter ends with the Lord grieving that he had made Saul king.
As you read through the rest of the book of 1 Samuel, you’ll see that this book’s answer to what is true obedience is found in the person of David. David will be chosen, not for his height, but for his heart (1 Sam 16:7). David will be obedient to the Lord. When David fails and is confronted, he doesn’t deny, but he repents and changes his ways. David is the obedient one in the immediate context, unlike Saul. Nevertheless, David is still human, he still errs. His obedience and his sacrifices can’t work for all of us, just for him.
II. What is Christian Obedience?
Let’s move now to our second main point, what is Christian obedience then? If Saul represents disobedience, partial truths, and a refusal to repent when confronted, what does true obedience look like?
As we read on into the NT, we see the themes of obedience and sacrifice continuing, but we see that he now requires it of his son, Jesus Christ.
He became man, he humbled himself, and he became obedient to death—death on a cross, Phil 2:8 tells us. Jesus came and obeyed for us, precisely because he knew we couldn’t do it on our own. Jesus alone is the truly obedient one.
Jesus is also the perfect sacrifice. The book of Hebrews in the NT elaborates this theme of Christ both as the perfect sacrifice offered for sin, but also as the perfect high priest who actually gave the sacrifice for his people to God (in chapters 4, 5, 10). He is the true unblemished lamb offered in real sacrifice out of a pure heart. Only the person of Jesus could offer the sacrifice and be the unblemished lamb at the same time. None of us can do or be this. None of us can be truly obedient, and none of us can offer lasting sacrifices that truly please God, because without God, none of our hearts seek or are able to please God.
Out of God’s great love and mercy, he sent his son who could make the perfect sacrifice in total obedience with a true heart after God’s own.
So, to answer our question: what is Christian obedience? It is what only Christ could do. It is Christ’s obedience. True Christian obedience is motivated by seeing Christ’s amazing sacrifice on the cross in perfect obedience for you and for me.
III. How Can We Learn Christian Obedience?
So if Christian obedience is found in Christ, how can we get it and learn it? This is the third, and final point.
I’m sure you’ve all heard plenty that as Christians that you are to be obedient to God. I’m sure many of you have had that hammered into your head since you were a child. Others know there are things you should be doing, but aren’t, or that you shouldn’t be doing, but are, and you’re left feeling guilty about them. You might think Christian obedience means following a certain set of rules so that something bad doesn’t happen to you. This is not the point. The point of learning obedience is to develop and grow a heart after God’s own, seeking love, mercy, justice: the things he desires. Having this heart in turn enables you to walk further into God’s will and path for your life.
I hear a lot of people saying: “do this because God commands it,” or just “do it because he says so.” Sure, he tells us the best way to live our lives, but to reduce it to a blanket command loses the context for knowing the loving God that wants our best. Our motivation is not supposed to be fear or Christian duty—they may work in the short-term, but they won’t produce true and lasting motivation. Our motivation is to acknowledge with our lives and actions the grace that God has given us in calling us to him. God wants us to understand his love for us, shown through his obedient son, so that we are motivated to follow him out of that same love. Gaining a heart that is after God’s own is what produces obedience. And, remember that when we accepted Christ our hearts were already changed to be able to follow God (Ezek 11:19). But, we still need to develop them and learn to love God as he wants us to, and we need to pray for God’s Holy Spirit to guide us. This means recognize where we have fallen short, admit when we are wrong, and seek repentance. Don’t be content with cramming your mess in the playroom closet. But, don’t beat yourself up over some past mistake. Don’t allow yourself to wallow in guilt or shame when Christ has freely offered you life and forgiveness for your mistakes, but you can’t live as if the way you act doesn’t matter.
When I was in China, some seekers we met with wanted to know what they had to do in order to be a Christian. They wanted to know what the rules of Christianity were and whether they fit with their lifestyle or not. Our leader gave a helpful example. He said that often people look at God as sitting in the center of a big circle, where the circle represents Christianity and what you have to do. People ask, “What do I have to do to stay in the circle and not fall out?” But instead of looking at what’s the least I can do to follow God and still be called a Christian (how do I stay on the edge of the circle), we should be looking at how can we move inward, toward the center, toward God and Christ. We should want to be moving inward. We do this by seeing Jesus on the cross, sacrificing himself in ultimate humility, obeying to the point of death, for us. This should motivate you and me to want to learn to have God’s heart and to walk with Christ.
In conclusion, Christian obedience means moving toward Jesus in obedience with a heart after God’s own. We need to remember to draw near to Jesus. This is how we will learn to walk in the path of obedience. Know that, you are able, as a Christian, with a heart after God’s own, to learn to walk in the path of true Christian obedience.
- Explain how you think Christian obedience differs from other ways of life involving obedience?
- Have you been hurt by the idea of Christian obedience? Share a current example.
- How does your obedience to God mimic Saul’s? How can we move to it looking more like a life walked with Jesus?
(Didn’t find what you were looking for? Leave a comment and let me know what would be helpful for you.)
For your reference, I used the following resources in the development of this Bible Study:
- Dictionary of Biblical Imagery
- An Introduction to the Old Testament: Second Edition
- 1 & 2 Samuel (NIV Application Commentary)
- Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide
- Cross Talk: Where Life and Scripture Meet