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No Selective Obedience

This sermon is evaluated in the clinic by Paul Borden and Steve Mathewson.
No Selective Obedience
Image: Pearl / Lightstock

In the Blues Brothers movie, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd drive around in a car with a message on it: "On a Mission from God." Some people have a messianic complex — I'm on a mission from God — and a movie like Blues Brothers can make good fun of their grandiose ideas.

But the fact is every Christian is on a mission from God. There are things God has given us to do, and they are serious business. Every time people feed the hungry, they are on a mission from God. Every time people clothe the naked, they are on a mission from God. Every time people preach the Word of God, they are on a mission from the Lord. Every time you use your spiritual gift, you are on a mission from God.

What is the responsibility of someone who is on a mission from God? How should we respond?

In our text, 1 Samuel 15:1-35, we read the account of somebody who utterly failed in carrying out his mission from God.

Verse 1: "Samuel said to Saul, 'I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king over his people Israel. So listen now to the message from the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty says: I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt.'"

A little background: When God delivered the Israelites out of Egypt, the Amalekites ambushed them. That's the story in which Moses got up on the hill and raised his hands. Whenever his hands were up, the Israelites were victorious. Whenever his hands came down, they would start to lose. After that battle, God spoke ominous words: " I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. "

Here is the fulfillment of that, as God now intends to carry out the judgment he had pronounced some four hundred years earlier.

Verse 3: "Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys."

Strong words. A terrible judgment. God says I want this people and everything they have wiped out. He uses a Hebrew term that means " totally destroy. " It is a special term that means to wipe out the Amalekites as an act of judgment . It's an act of God. God sends Saul on a holy mission, a holy war.

Verse 4: "So Saul summoned the men and mustered them at Telaim — two hundred thousand foot soldiers and ten thousand men from Judah. Saul went to the city of Amalek and set an ambush in the ravine. Then he said to the Kenites, 'Go away, leave the Amalekites so that I do not destroy you along with them; for you showed kindness to all the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt.' So the Kenites moved away from the Amalekites. Then Saul attacked the Amalekites all the way from Havilah to Shur, to the east of Egypt. He took Agag King of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword. But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs — everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed."

Do you get the picture? Did they obey the command of God? No. They obeyed part of the command of God — but in a way that showed their hearts. They kept the best for themselves — the sheep, the plunder. That would have been like money today. They walked away with the good stuff.

And Saul kept Agag, the king, alive. That, in those days, was a trophy. Instead of just having normal servants around, a king got a rush out of having former kings be the servants around his table. And so Agag was kept alive as a trophy of war. And in so doing, Saul and the Israelites disobeyed the command of God.

What happened?

Verse 10: "Then the Word of the Lord came to Samuel: 'I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.' Samuel was troubled and he cried out to the Lord all that night."

Interesting, God does not say, " Samuel, I want you to go talk to Saul. I am happy that he followed my instructions 85 percent of the way. He almost made it. Yes, he missed on Agag, and they shouldn't have taken the sheep and the cattle, but pretty much they got it right. " No. God says, "I'm grieved because he has turned away from me, and he has not carried out my instructions."

We're going to read now the dialogue as Samuel confronts Saul. Once we read this dialogue we will see several of the characteristics that got Saul in trouble. I want us to take note of these characteristics because they are the same things that get you and me in trouble. Every one of us in this room has been guilty at times of the same thing Saul did: selective obedience, partial obedience. Saul's heart shows why we do it.

Verse 12: "Early in the morning Samuel got up and went to meet Saul, but he was told, 'Saul has gone to Carmel. There he has set up a monument in his own honor and has turned and gone on down to Gilgal.'"

When God first chose Saul to be a king, Saul was humble. In fact, you may remember, he was hiding among the baggage when they tried to make him king, he was so shy. Now he's putting up monuments in his own honor, probably in big letters: " Saul, the Man. "

He's seeking his own honor. Mark this, when we seek our own honor, it will divert us from 100 percent obedience to our Lord. We will find ways to partially obey the Lord. We will find ways to compromise what God has commanded us to do.

Verse 13: "When Samuel reached him, Saul said, 'The Lord bless you! I have carried out the Lord's instructions.'" Interesting how quickly he blurts out those words. He knows he's been caught red-handed. He knows he's guilty, and so he starts out with pious talk: "The Lord bless you, Samuel. "The first thing he says is " I have carried out the Lord's instructions."

Verse 14: "But Samuel said, 'What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle I hear?'" Saul was sent on a mission in which there was no question about what he was supposed to do. And now as he stands before Samuel, he says, " I have obeyed the Lord's instructions, " and in the background it's " Mooooo " and " Baaahhh. " And Saul is wishing he could put his hands over the mouths of all these cattle and sheep because every one incriminates him.

Verse 15: " Saul answered, 'The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord your God, but we totally destroyed the rest.' " Rationalization, making excuses — we have all done it. Whether we've said it to other people or said it to ourselves in our own hearts, we find a way to make excuses: " It was his fault. It was her fault, Lord. Yes we did it, we only obeyed you partially, but we did it because we wanted to do this for you. We're going to make a sacrifice for you. " How easily we deceive ourselves. And we use the most pious motives, " Oh God, we're doing it for you. We disobeyed for your sake. "

Verse 16: " 'Stop!' Samuel said to Saul. 'Let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.'

" 'Tell me,' Saul replied.

" Samuel said, 'Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And he sent you on a mission, saying, " Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; make war on them until you have wiped them out. " Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?'

" 'But I did obey the Lord,' Saul said, 'I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.' "

Here Saul is again still spouting rationalizations. Samuel now gives one of the most stunning rebukes in the Bible. These passages, if your Bible is like mine, are in verse form, like a poem. They are worded in a memorable way — apparently God wanted these words memorized, perhaps even sung, so that his people would always remember them.

Verse 22: " Samuel replied:

'Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices

as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord?' "

In other words, yes, God commanded sacrifices and offerings, and in the book of Leviticus he made it clear these sacrifices were pleasing to him — a sweet smelling savor unto the Lord — but not at the cost of obedience. Obedience pleases God more than sacrifice.

He goes on:

" To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. "

Know this: the Lord loves your obedience. He cherishes it.

Verse 23: " For rebellion is like the sin of divination, And arrogance like the evil of idolatry. "

Here God through Samuel says, " Saul, what you have done is rebellion. You decided, 'I don't care what God says, I'm going to do what I want.' " That's rebellion. Even if it's 90 percent there and 10 percent not, when we decide we're doing it our way instead of God's, it's rebellion.

Not only that, he says it is arrogance. When we rebel against the Word of the Lord, we put ourselves above it: " I don't need to follow the Word of God. What is this Word of the Lord? I know better than God does. " That is an arrogant spirit toward God himself. God says that's like divination — witchcraft — and idolatry. God picks out two of the worst sins that all Israelites knew — idolatry and witchcraft — and says that's what rebellion and arrogance are like.

Samuel says finally, " Because you have rejected the Word of the Lord, he has rejected you as King. "

How do you feel about the Word of the Lord? In this story Saul received a prophetic Word from Samuel that was the Word of the Lord. You and I all have the Word of the Lord in front of us in our Bibles. It carries just as much authority as the Word that Saul received from Samuel. If my attitude toward God's Word is " I'll pick and choose. I'll do this, but I think I'll ignore that, " we are in a state of rebellion against and arrogance toward the Word of the Lord. I can't pick and choose. God's Word has authority over my life.

Verse 24: " Saul said to Samuel, 'I have sinned. I violated the Lord's command and your instructions. I was afraid of the people, and so I gave into them.' " Here we see another reason why Saul gave selective obedience to God's Word. He says, " I feared the people. " Mark this: If you fear people, you will probably compromise the Word of the Lord because God's Word goes against the grain of so much of what our culture teaches today. To follow the Lord as a sold-out servant of Christ requires you to swim against the stream. If you're afraid of people, forget about it; you're going to compromise. You may go 60 percent with God, but 40 percent with people. You may be 95 percent there, but there will be an element where you waffle.

Verse 25: " 'Now I beg you,' Saul says, 'forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord.' " If anything short of full obedience is disobedience and rebellion, what do we do? We all know what it is like to do that. I've failed. You've failed. We stand before a holy God as rebels. At some point we all have rejected God. What do we do?

We're going to see what to do not by what Saul does — because he does the wrong thing — but by doing the opposite of what Saul does.

In response to his failure , Saul admits he has sinned. But Saul does not truly repent. What he does instead is give a bit of sham religion rather than a whole-hearted turning to the Lord.

Verse 25: " 'Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord.'

" Samuel said to him, 'I will not go back with you. You have rejected the Word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel.'

" As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. Samuel said to him, 'The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors — to one better than you. He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind.'

" Saul replied, 'I have sinned. But please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord your God.' "

Two very important things he says here. " Please honor me before the elders. " Saul still seeks honor. You can't repent and at the same time seek honor for yourself. Repentance is all about humility and honesty. It isn't about, " Samuel, will you please come with me? I have to save face here. I have to hold on to my royal position, so I need you to stand beside me politically. You're the prophet of God. If you're not with me, I'm sunk. " That's what Saul was concerned about.

Notice in verse 30 Saul says, Come with me " so that I may worship the Lord your God. " What's the pronoun? Your God. In fact, three times — in verses 15, 21, and 30 — Saul refers to the Lord as " your God. " We use the psychological term Freudian slip. Whatever you want to call it, Saul's telling the truth, because deep in Saul's heart, God was not his God.

In fact, several chapters earlier Saul failed in a similar way. He failed to do exactly what God told him to do. At that time Samuel told him the consequences of his disobedience: " You acted foolishly, " Samuel said. " 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. "

It says Saul was not a man after the heart of God. What God wants from us when we are selective in our obedience is to repent. He wants us to seek the Lord. He wants us to come to God for forgiveness.

Hebrews 4:15–16 says, " For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. "

I have good news for you: we have a great high priest. His name is Jesus Christ, and when he died on the cross he died for your sin of selective obedience; he died for my sin of partial obedience, my unfaithfulness, for my failures as a pastor, a preacher, and as a husband. The Lord has died for that. He is such a great High Priest that when it is time to repent you can come into the presence of God with confidence not in yourself but in Christ, your Savior. He died for this.

According to Hebrews 4:16, when you come to him, you come to receive, first, mercy. You ask for mercy because you take the sin of selective obedience seriously. You know this is a serious sin on your part. You say, " God, you told me to do such and such, and I only went this far with it. I ignored the rest. And I know that it was rebellion, for I rejected the Word of the Lord. Forgive me; have mercy on me. " True repentance is not cavalier about sin. Repentance does not trivialize sin with a flippant attitude of " Everything is forgiven. And I don't even need to tell you about my sins, Jesus. " No, we come to the Lord and say, " Have mercy on me. "

But we don't stop there. Our attitude is not " Lord, I'll need mercy next week too because I'm sure I will disobey you in the same way next week. " Rather Hebrews 4:16 says the second thing we ask for is grace — enablement from the Holy Spirit — so that we can obey wholeheartedly what God gives us to do. We need both parts of the equation. Ask for mercy because you take your sin seriously; ask for grace because you take obedience seriously.

That is what Saul did not do. Returning to the story in 1 Samuel 15, we now see a contrast sharply drawn between Saul and the prophet Samuel. Samuel proceeds to show Saul what he should have done.

Verse 32: " Then Samuel said, 'Bring me Agag king of the Amalekites.'

" Agag came to him confidently, thinking, 'Surely the bitterness of death is past.'

" But Samuel said, 'As your sword has made women childless, so will your mother be childless among women.' And Samuel put Agag to death before the Lord at Gilgal. "

That's why Samuel went back with Saul. At first he had refused to return with Saul. But then he agreed. He went back to show Saul what obedience is all about. Notice, after Saul admitted that he had sinned, he didn't do anything about Agag. He merely went through the ceremony of sacrifice. It was Samuel who called for Agag and said, We're going to finish the mission. Samuel could have commanded some of the soldiers to kill Agag. No, to show what full obedience looked like, he said, Get me the sword. That is the heart God wants us to have. That is true repentance — after receiving mercy through Christ we set out by God's grace to obey the way we should have obeyed in the first place.

Verse 34: " Then Samuel left for Ramah, but Saul went up to his home in Gibeah of Saul. Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him. And the Lord was grieved that he had made Saul king over Israel. "

This story intersects with our lives in two primary ways. God's Word in the Bible is just as much the Word of God as if he sent an angel to stand in front of you to speak the Word of God. When Jesus says my command is that you love one another as I have loved you, that is the Word of the Lord to us. Either I'm going to partially obey or wholeheartedly obey. The Word of the Lord is bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the Law of Christ. Either I'm going to partially obey or fully obey the Word of the Lord.

The Lord commands husbands, " Love your wives as Christ loved the church. " The Word tells wives, " Submit to your husbands. " We cannot pick and choose the commandments to obey. I can't say, " Lord, I do preaching. I do the pastoring thing. I don't do the wife-loving thing. I don't do foot-washing. I don't do servanthood. " This is the Word of the Lord, and I can't pick and choose the Word of the Lord because I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. I cannot reject the Word of the Lord.

There are other ways God speaks to us. God may say to you, " I want you to do something for me. " There is a calling in your life. Somehow the Holy Spirit makes clear to you what he wants you to do. It is probably related to your spiritual gifts. Your spiritual gifts are as much a responsibility as Saul's responsibility was to wipe out the Amalekites. If God speaks to your heart about an assignment, carry it out.

Thank God for his grace in Jesus Christ. May we never use it, though, as an excuse to be rebels and to be arrogant toward the Word of the Lord. May we always honor and seek by God's grace to obey his Word. And when we fall short, may we repent with sincerity. Ask him for mercy, which we can count on through Christ; and ask him for grace, which we can count on through the Holy Spirit.

Steve Mathewson is senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, lllinois. He is also director of the doctor of ministry program at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.

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