Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Partial obedience

by John D Ramsey

As a parent, perhaps nothing is as exasperating as a child’s partial obedience. Lisa deals with this more than I do, but she cannot bring herself to praise the little girls for almost obeying. In fact, by now the girls should know that their greatest grief comes from doing only part of what is required of them. Partial obedience is a calculated human behavior that disrespects authority and asserts autonomy in such a way as to undermine accountability. When parents spot this attitude in their children, it is difficult to avoid resorting to anger.

In 1 Samuel 15, God commanded Saul to annihilate the Amalekites: all the people and all their livestock. Saul, obeyed to a point. The Amalekites descended from Abraham through Isaac and Esau. Yet when Israel came out of Egypt Amalek attacked them. Joshua led Israel in battle, and while Moses held up his staff, Israel prevailed. When Moses lowered his staff, Amelek prevailed. Aaron and Hur each held up Moses’ hands until Joshua’s forces prevailed in the battle. God promised at that point to “completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” Exodus 17:14 (NIV)

Amalek illustrates how God deals with nations in contrast to how he deals with individuals. People ultimately stand before judgment when they die. Nations, however, God judges in history. The nation of Amalek committed a crime against God and his chosen people centuries before Saul’s kingdom. Yet God waited until Saul was king to deal with Amelek. Surely all from Amalek that escaped death from Joshua’s army had died long before God commanded Saul to destroy Amalek. Did all the Amalekites Saul killed share hatred against Israel with their ancestors? Even if they hated Israel, God’s stated purpose was clear. He punished Amalek for how they treated Israel during the Exodus from Egypt.

God chooses when and how he judges the nations. Likewise, God chooses when and how each of us will die. God’s justice is not ours to criticize. If we question God’s judgment, we exalt ourselves in arrogance. There is no injustice in God’s decision. There cannot be injustice because God alone is the Creator of all things. No one is greater than the God who created him. Furthermore, no man and no nation of men will escape God’s justice even if God displays his patience throughout history.

When Saul warred against Amalek, he and his army spared Agag the king, and “the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs and everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy . . .” 1 Samuel 15:9 (NIV)

When Samuel learned what Saul had done, he demanded, “Why did you not obey the LORD? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the LORD?” 1 Samuel 15:19 (NIV)

Saul defended himself against this indictment saying,

But I did obey the LORD . . . 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.

1 Samuel 15:20, 21 (NIV)
Saul, of course could not have “totally destroyed them” and “brought back Agag their king.” His two statements were mutually exclusive. Either he “totally destroyed them” or he did not. Moreover, he allowed his army to take plunder when God had commanded them to destroy everything. Saul made the excuse that part of the plunder was devoted to sacrifices to Samuel’s God. Samuel rebuked Saul with an oft-quoted proverb,

Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams
.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
he has rejected you as king.

1 Samuel 15:22, 23 (NIV)

Samuel condemns Saul’s partial obedience calling it “rebellion” and “arrogance.” Samuel compares rebellion against God with divination (some translations say, “witchcraft”). How is rebellion similar to divination? Very simply: Saul’s rebellion sought another way other than obedience to God. Saul’s crime would have been no worse had he consulted an oracle of Baal. He rejected God’s command and pursued another.

Likewise, Samuel compared Saul’s arrogance to idolatry. Arrogance before God is idolatry because it exalts the creature above the Creator.

The consequences of Saul’s partial obedience should be sobering to all. God cannot condone our partial obedience. When Jesus spoke from heaven to the churches in Asia, he praises those who remained true witnesses, but among the church of Pergamum were those who taught sexual immorality and idolatry. Jesus, told them to “Repent . . . Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” Revelation 2:16 (NIV) To Thyatira, Jesus says of a so-called prophetess who beguiled believers with her false teaching, “I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.” Revelation 2:23 (NIV)

I doubt that the church in Pergamum thought that they were following Balaam. Yet, some were condoning sensuality and even immorality. Likewise, not all in Thyatira followed Jezebel, but they all tolerated her. Perhaps they wanted to make their churches “seeker-friendly.” Sometimes modern Christianity refuses to sweat the small stuff. We would rather encourage unity by upholding only what we can establish by consensus.

Yet the broader our unity, the more shallow our faith becomes. We let the full testimony of God’s Word fall away by our rationalizations. From 1 Samuel 15 we learn that God sees our partial obedience as if they were the sins of divination and idolatry. By pursuing a lowest-common-denominator type of consensus rather than Canon, we “divine” rather than discern. By presuming that such actions please God, we elevate ourselves above him in arrogance.

Certainly, there are cultural expressions of worship that vary from place to place. These differences we should embrace, and if we cannot, we should overlook them without criticism. Certainly denominational labels are neither here nor there; both faith and apostasy reside within every so-called Christian organization. There is no such thing as a Christian organization, by the way. Christian people organize, but our organizations are hollow not hallowed. The only unity that matters is the unity of faithfulness founded upon the knowledge of Jesus Christ. You cannot incorporate this, it is the Holy Spirit's work.

We obtain this knowledge of Jesus Christ through the faithful application of God’s Word by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Correct doctrine is Scripture without our contrivances. Rather than tossing out Scripture to accommodate meaningless consensus, we should all rather cast aside extra-Biblical dogma, politics, and tradition that Scripture does not support. If pursuit of Biblical truth divides us, so be it. Let us divide amicably without condemnation. Better let us each commit to uphold fully the truth of Scripture. Then let us each pursue full knowledge of the Son of God through the help of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus told the woman at the well in John chapter four, “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” John 4:23 (NIV) True worship of God does not arise from our partial obedience to His Word. Nor, will God indefinitely tolerate rebellion and arrogance among his people. God’s patience may persuade some churches that his judgment will never come. Perhaps they believe that God no longer cares about the purity of truth in worship. Beware; God remembered his oath against Amalek. Likewise, God will not tolerate our individual disobedience indefinitely, either: Saul vividly illustrates this truth for us. Moreover, if we do not tolerate such behavior in our own children, we can be assured that God will not tolerate partial obedience in us.

We should repent and return to our first love – Jesus Christ. Our grandest church buildings and organizations may erode when we do. True Christianity is not about building churches or our trying to “take over the world”; it is about “[knowing] Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3:10 (NIV) Such is our calling. Such is our hope. Yet, mere partial obedience disparages our high calling in Christ.

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