Sacrifice has long been an activity of God’s people that testified of their faith in God. “And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering” (Gen 4:4). God commanded Noah to make special provisions of extra animals in the ark so that he would be able to offer a burnt offering after the ark came to rest on dry ground. And this sacrifice was to God a “sweet savor” (Gen. 8:21). To this we can add the sacrifices of all the patriarchs, and the countless sacrifices of God’s people at the tabernacle and temple of God. All these bloody sacrifices pointed to Christ who offered himself once on the cross.
To sacrifice is to devote and consecrate something wholly to God. What is given is something that we could use and enjoy for ourselves, but instead, it is given to another. God demanded a bloody sacrifice of the Old Testament saints to point to the only sacrifice that could redeem us and make satisfaction for God’s judgment upon our sin: the very life and blood of Christ. Christ gave his life so that we might have eternal life. Today we are called as God’s people to “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1). We consecrate our life unto God, and in doing so, we also give of our life to fellow believers. We don’t use our gifts, abilities, and resources for ourselves, but serve others to show our thankfulness to God for salvation.
A life of presenting ourselves a living sacrifice is a beautiful thing. It is a characteristic of the child of God who has learned something of denying himself and taking up his cross to follow Christ. Doing so takes humility, spiritual maturity, and discipline. For the rich man who claimed to have obeyed all the commands of God, it was the last hurdle to attaining full spiritual maturity. Jesus said to him, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matt. 19:21).
Not all sacrifice, however is pleasing to God. Cain brought a sacrifice to God, but he was not pleased with his sacrifice of the fruit of the land. The unbeliever may give things up to others, but if it is not done out of faith and out of thankfulness to God, it is not pleasing to God. Deep down is the hope that in giving, there will be some kind of return, even if it is only a good feeling of doing something “good.” Even as Christians our concept of sacrifice can be very weak and selfish at bottom.
A life of godly and humble sacrifice is an indication of spiritual maturity, but there is still more for the Christian to learn. Our life is a life of growing in faith, working out our salvation, and striving to enjoy that freedom from the bondage of sin that Christ has given to us. Even as we grow, however, our eyes are opened more and more to the fact that sin clings to even our best works. Nevertheless, we grow, and we cling to Christ, and keep our eyes fixed on something that Christ learned to do perfectly: obey.
God says of obedience, “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15:22). We obey when our will is the same as God’s will. If our will does not conform to God’s, then our sacrifice is vain. When Jesus went to the garden of Gethsemane to pray, his heart and flesh cried out in agony. Nothing could be more horrible and further from what our flesh desires than the suffering which Christ faced. Yet, it was God’s will that his only begotten Son endure that suffering and perform that sacrifice, and Christ willingly obeyed. This is the obedience God demands: a heart that truly desires “Thy will be done.” When God leads us through the valleys, we walk without trying to scramble out, but humbly submit, trusting that this is the way to higher ground with God.
God reveals to us the amazing and profound fact that Christ learned this obedience. God shows us the relationship between sacrifice and obedience in Hebrews 5:6-7 where we read of Christ, “As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedec. Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared; Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him; Called of God an high priest after the order of Melchizedec” (Heb. 5:6-10). Notice that not only did he learn obedience, but the purpose and goal is the salvation of all them that obey him. This kind of obedience must be found in us! It is found in us because we are united to Christ by faith, and our union with Christ by faith begins to work a harmony between our will and God’s.
It is our nature that we will what gives us ease, pleasure and glory. Our will is to fulfill our own desires and serve our corrupt and sinful flesh. At the heart of our sinful nature is our belief in the lie “ye shalt be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Our sinful nature puts others down to bring personal glory; it directs lots of time and energy to the achievement of our personal goals; it would rather not love our enemies and esteem others better than ourselves. God’s love for us demanded that his will be obeyed by Christ – restored covenant fellowship and love with his people meant suffering and sacrifice. We must learn to do the same in our life. “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous”(1 John 5:3). When our will is God’s will, then we won’t grieve and complain or look for loopholes when he calls us to walk in his commandments.
Obedience is a very difficult thing to learn. Godly parents strive diligently to plant the seed of understanding in their children when they as servants of God, with authority from God, demand obedience from them. As young people, we need to examine our hearts to assess how well we have learned the lessons of obedience. If we fight tooth and nail with our parents, how can we expect to live in obedience to God? Obeying our parents is easy compared to obeying the commands of God. If a child of God has not learned the lessons of obedience very well within the home in which God has placed him or her, it is only that much more difficult to learn these lessons later.
The lessons God places before children in the home may be such things as a command to take out the garbage, clean your room, and wash the car. Of course there are other things you would rather do. Not only that, just the idea of doing it simply because someone else tells you to do it is grating upon our nature. Love for God and our parents destroys those wicked desires, but often because of that sin that clings to us, we still often need a threat to motivate us. So you set out to do the chores. You take out the garbage and wash the car ever so nicely. Your room is a complete disaster, but another idea comes to mind as you wash the car. The garage could use some tidying. My parents would be thrilled to see the garage back in shape; it would be much easier than cleaning my room, and besides, my room is my own space and I really don’t mind sleeping in a pig sty. You are convinced that your parents should be pleased, but they are not, and neither is God. Saul tried the same thing, but God said “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22). He and you failed the lesson. Your will was not in harmony with your parents.
Really, the work of cleaning your room is far easier than our calling to love our neighbor. If we can’t overcome the urgings of our own will to do what we want and avoid some work, we won’t even come close to humbling ourselves before others and living in love with our brothers and sisters in the Lord. The work of growing in faith is difficult, and often discouraging. But we must remember that it is the way to knowing God, his love, and his mercy so that we can live with him forever in covenant fellowship. The reward is marvelous beyond comprehension as we read in Isaiah 64:4: “For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him.” So have courage. Drink often of the means of grace, cultivate an active devotional life, and learn obedience.
“Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:6-9).