No, God Doesn't Like 'Churchy' People

Have you ever heard someone talk about people playing church instead of being the church? I have. It is one of those statements that is just vague enough to sound profound and still be interpreted just about any way a person wants to interpret it. It’s a type of statement that doesn’t really help anyone unless it is qualified, but sounds great to almost everyone who hears it. These types of statements abound in our society and are used by many to manipulate others and gain popularity. Here are a few examples:

  • “You are not what you do.”
    • We are literally defined by what we do, who we know, and what we believe.
  • “Wherever you go, there you are.”
    • This is a truism and tautology. It is obviously true and a statement that doesn’t actually help anyone.
  • “Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life.”
    • This statement also doesn’t help anyone. We will have the same struggles tomorrow that we do today because life is cumulative and tomorrow is a continuation of all history and one’s personal experiences up to this point.
  • “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
    • Tell this to someone with cancer or who is paralyzed. It is also not the case that people necessarily develop a better character through adversity.
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
    • Yes, we live in a cause and effect world. What can be perceived as a greater good doesn’t always result from whatever we are trying to reconcile in our minds. While the sentiment is admirable, this statement doesn’t actually help.
  • “All you need is love.”
    • Love, here, usually refers to mere acceptance. That is definitely not all a person needs.
  • “Save 50% on all purchases.” 
    • We actually spend more than if we would not buy anything in the first place…

Again, these statements could carry meaning if we take the time to qualify each term and to spend time to explain what we mean so that they cannot be interpreted any way a hearer desires. Today, we are going to see what God says it means to be the church instead of playing church.

Saul has disobeyed God again, and he is defending himself as if he has pleased God through his religious worship.

1 Samuel 15:20-34

Then Saul said to Samuel, “I did obey the voice of the Lord, and went on the mission on which the Lord sent me, and have brought back Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took some of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the choicest of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”

Samuel said, “Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices As in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He has also rejected you from being king.”

Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned; I have indeed transgressed the command of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and listened to their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me, that I may worship the Lord.”

But Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.”

As Samuel turned to go, Saul seized the edge of his robe, and it tore. So Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to your neighbor, who is better than you. Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.”

Then he said, “I have sinned; but please honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and go back with me, that I may worship the Lord your God.”

So Samuel went back following Saul, and Saul worshiped the Lord.

Then Samuel said, “Bring me Agag, the king of the Amalekites.” And Agag came to him cheerfully. And Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.”

But Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hewed Agag to pieces before the Lord at Gilgal.

Then Samuel went to Ramah, but Saul went up to his house at Gibeah of Saul. Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death; for Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted that He had made Saul king over Israel.

Obedience is better than sacrifice (v. 22-23)

Samuel said, “Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices As in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He has also rejected you from being king.”

Two weeks ago, we read the first part of this chapter. We discovered, together, this idea: obedience is better than sacrifice. We barely got into the idea. This morning, the idea is the subject matter God presents to us. What does it mean that obedience is better than sacrifice? What does it mean to be the church rather than play church?

Samuel is the first one to explain godly worship in life and ministry this way explicitly. Other Biblical writers and Jesus (of course, Jesus is inspiring this word to begin with) will quote him (cf. Psalms 40:6-8; 51:16, 17; Isaiah 1:11-15; Micah 6:6-8; Hebrews 10:6-9; Jeremiah 7:22-23; Hosea 6:6; Matthew 12:7; Mark 12:33). I want to notice the point Samuel is making. The point of human living, striving, and of proper religion is not that people would gain explicit victory, be able to immediately overcome something, gain power for themselves, achieve some type and level of prosperity, gain a blessing, or live a #blessed life. Samuel narrows all of life, ministry, human striving, and religion to one purpose—that God may delight in His people.

How often do we try to make Christianity or church about our striving, our preferences in music, our lives working out, our blessings or blessings that we think we deserve, our victory, our popularity, our health, our being served, or our figuring out how to live better lives? By Samuel’s testimony here, that is bad religion. That is precisely what it means to play church according to God’s word. The first way people play church is by making religion all about them. The primary way we do this is by thinking we can do anything to overcome our own sin. The secondary way we do this is by either expecting to be served because we are members of a church or religion or expecting that the message will be relevant, here to mean offering good life-advice or a motivational speech. All of life, ministry, and religion is about God’s delight, not ours. This is what it means for any church to be a Christ-centered church. We preach about Him. We tell His story. We do not center the teaching around people—making it moralistic, therapeutic, or condemning of people. It is why even when we present the Law, we do not present it as a list of things to do to be righteous but, instead, as a testimony to who Christ is.

In whom does God delight? According to Samuel, it is not the churchy or ritualistic people. It is not those who are so wrapped up in works that things must be done a certain way. It is not those whose goal is to earn God’s favor by keeping a set of rituals. God desires obedience rather than sacrifice. In context, Saul has rejected God’s word because he has not done what God wanted him to do. To see a description of what God commanded Saul to do and why God would issue such a command, please see the sermon from December 8, 2019. Saul was focussed on ritual. He was trying to gain from the Lord by doing stuff that he saw in the Law. We can’t put religiosity under our pillows and expect it to be replaced with blessing when we wake up. This is why Jesus will accuse the Jews,

And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form. You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life (John 5:37-40).

People seem to think, through the ages, that they can do certain things to gain life. Christians idolize the Scripture, thinking that life or victory or success is found in keeping the rules. Buddhists, by emptying the mind. Muslims, by submitting to Allah. Mystics, by practicing the arts or witchcraft. Animists, by worshipping the ancestors. Cults, by fitting in under a certain leader because he or she provides for them in some way. Life, though, is not found in ritual, power, overcoming addiction, trying to rid self of all sin or vice, conjuring up some supernatural advantage, or any other type of merit. Life is only found in Christ and the Scriptures are meant to be a witness about Him. Contrary to the popular saying, the Bible is not our Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth—it is Christ’s testimony of Himself. God delights in us when His word abides in us—when by it we know Him, which is vastly different from trying to gain for ourselves by doing something listed in Scripture or by any religious means. 

Do you sense the struggle? How can God care more about obedience than sacrifice in a way which obedience is not works-based or ritualistic? The obedience God desires is obedience of the heart, not the sacrifices of ritual—it’s loyalty, devotion, love.

Bad religion (v. 20-21, 24-28, 30-31)

Then Saul said to Samuel, “I did obey the voice of the Lord, and went on the mission on which the Lord sent me, and have brought back Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took some of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the choicest of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”

No, he didn’t. Saul is still convinced that he has obeyed God. He is being religious and ritualistic. He is manipulating God’s Law. He has used it to try gaining for himself as has been the pattern in his life. He is equating doing stuff and claiming victory over his enemies with the abiding presence of God’s word. He has not known God; thus, he is stuck merely practicing religion. He cares not what God’s desire and delight is. He only knows that he thinks things ought to be a certain way and has mistaken his pleasure as being God’s pleasure. So many people today do this as well. We mistake what we like, the way we think things ought to be, how we interpret Scripture, and our religiosity to be God’s plan. Like Saul, we do so blindly. This is why we strive to know God more, not keep a set of strict rules. We are unrighteous and insufficient. If our whole focus is on what we are doing rather than who God is, we will never be able to honor God with our actions. Once again, we see the doctrine of regeneration presented in 1 Samuel. Regeneration precedes faith precedes works.

Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned; I have indeed transgressed the command of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and listened to their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me, that I may worship the Lord.”
But Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.”
As Samuel turned to go, Saul seized the edge of his robe, and it tore. So Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to your neighbor, who is better than you.”

Saul repents. Why does he repent? He repents for listening to the voice of the people, not because he rejected God’s word—which was his blunder according to Samuel. In his repentance, Saul still finds a way to shift the blame to others. Not only this, Saul’s repentance was self-centered. Saul was only concerned about what he did or could do, not the depraved condition of his unrighteous heart. His repentance was another form of works-righteousness, religiosity, and ritual. How does one truly repent? Jesus will set the example for His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount,

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Matthew 6:12-13).

True repentance is about the heart of the individual. As a follower of Christ is able to forgive others, he or she is forgiven by God. Saul is still blaming others. He had not been given a heart of repentance. He will remain unable to forgive and be forgiving the rest of his life. Furthermore, true repentance recognizes that God is the one with authority to deliver from evil, not self by any working, religiosity, or ritual of our own.

Samuel revealed, again, that the kingdom would be torn from Saul. Yes, Samuel’s wit shows through as he reacts to Saul tearing his robe. He declares that the kingdom will be given to someone who is better than Saul. You mean to tell me that, in God’s economy, some people are better than others? By what basis? The word “better” is translated from the Hebrew “טוב,” which means more desirable, better, more moral, more usable, friendlier, kinder, or more organized. This general term can mean a variety of things. So, we ask, “Better in what way?” Since Samuel has already identified God’s delight as the goal of life, ministry, and religion, it seems correct to think that David would be more delightful to God than Saul, who refused to know God through God’s word. David had just as much, if not more, sinful action which defined his life. Like Saul, David will not recognize his sinful action. The only way this makes sense is that while Saul never knows God, David will. This is why Jesus will teach,

For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).

The Scribes and Pharisees were the most religious people of the day. They kept the Law better than anyone else. It wasn’t about keeping the Law strictly. It was about resting in Christ, who fulfilled the Law. It was about knowing God through the Law.

Saul did not recognize the point Samuel was making. The point was not that Saul sinned. As we have seen, when we focus on our sin we miss the point. The goal of Christianity is not that we must make up for our sin or pay for our sin. We cannot. Saul’s great blunder was not his sin in itself but, instead, his self-righteousness and self-will. He was not truly repentant; he was trying to earn salvation and victory by doing the correct things—which is what most human religion tries to do. It is self-centered, selfish, and a blatant rejection of God. Sadly, like Saul, many people claim to worship God even though they have rejected Him—choosing religion or spirituality over true repentance and humility.

Then he said, “I have sinned; but please honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and go back with me, that I may worship the Lord your God.”
So Samuel went back following Saul, and Saul worshiped the Lord.

So, after Samuel reveals that God desires obedience more than sacrifice, Saul’s response is to go worship the Lord—more works-based religiosity equivalent to sacrifice rather than getting to know God’s heart. Saul missed everything that Samuel revealed about God. Many times we do, too. We start playing church rather than being the church.

The result of bad religion (v. 29, 32-35)

Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.”

We simply remember, here, that God is not changing His mind. He predicted that Saul would be a ravenous wolf. He is working all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (cf. Romans 8:28).

Then Samuel said, “Bring me Agag, the king of the Amalekites.” And Agag came to him cheerfully. And Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.”
But Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hewed Agag to pieces before the Lord at Gilgal.

Samuel does what Saul didn’t because Samuel cares deeply about the things God cares about. To see why God commanded the killing of Agag, click here.

Then Samuel went to Ramah, but Saul went up to his house at Gibeah of Saul. Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death; for Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted that He had made Saul king over Israel.

Samuel grieves over Saul because Saul doesn’t get it. We have already discovered what it means that God might regret, repent of, or relent from anything. Click here to see it explained.

Playing Church Means…Being the Church Means…
Making it about me, my preferences, what I’m trying to overcome, and my sins
Delighting in who God is as He delights in His people
Making Scripture about self-betterment or becoming righteous
Knowing God more by His Scriptures
Blaming others for sin, pointing out their flawsRecognizing the unrighteousness and insufficiency of self
Repenting for not being good enough, and trying to do better next timeHaving a repentant heart and coming to know God more through each sin
Caring about looking good in front of othersCaring about the things God cares about

When most people refer to someone “playing church,” they mean that a local church group isn’t doing much to help people. Consequently, “being the church” means getting out and doing a bunch of good stuff. Scripture tells a different story. Playing church is about religiosity and practicing good works in front of people to be noticed by them. Being the church is about knowing God more and resting in Him as He delights in us.

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