Obedience in Giving
In 1 Samuel 15:22, Samuel rebuked King Saul for disobeying God’s command to completely destroy the Amalekites and keeping the best of the Amalekites’ livestock, supposedly so he could offer sacrifices to the Lord. Samuel said, “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.” Under the Old Covenant, God commanded the Israelites to present various sacrifices and offerings to Him, but this passage in 1 Samuel, together with other Scriptures, establishes the principle that obeying God is more important than sacrifices and offerings. While the requirement for animal sacrifices has been abolished by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ once for all, we who live under the New Covenant are still called to give offerings to the Lord, and the principle that obedience is better than sacrifice therefore still applies. At the same time, giving to the Lord is itself an act of obedience, and it is possible to be disobedient in the way we give to the Lord, even as we outwardly “obey” His commands to give. So how does the principle that “obedience is better than sacrifice” apply to our giving today?
Most importantly, our giving ought to flow from lives that are first given over to the Lord. God does not so much desire our gifts as He desires us, and our offerings to Him are meaningful only insofar as they come out of hearts that love Him and desire to obey Him. If our hearts are not right towards Him, our offerings are meaningless. This thought is expressed in numerous Scripture passages such as Isaiah 1:11-17 or Amos 5:21-24, in which God tells the Israelites that their offerings are meaningless and that He has no pleasure in them – in fact that He despises them and will not accept them, because of the Israelites’ evil deeds. In the New Testament, the Pharisees were so diligent with their giving that they even tithed their herbs and spices; yet Jesus condemned them for neglecting “the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” (Matthew 23:23) As Jesus pointed out, they certainly should have been diligent about their giving, but there were other matters of greater importance that they had neglected; and so they were condemned rather than praised.
This isn’t to say that we should stop bringing offerings to the Lord if our lives are not right with Him. Rather, we should repent and turn from wickedness, seeking His forgiveness and restoration, so that our offerings might be pleasing to Him. That’s because although God commanded sacrifices be made to Him, His desire was not for the sacrifice, but for the person offering it. Sacrifices and offerings were never intended to be a means to gain favor or merit with the Lord, but rather a reminder of our sinfulness and of our total dependence on Him (Hebrews 10:1-4), and thus, a reflection of hearts that are seeking after the Lord in repentance, in faith, and in thankfulness for His gracious provision of all things. As King David prayed after committing adultery with Bathsheba, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17). Only after David had repented and received God’s forgiveness could he say, “Then there will be righteous sacrifices, whole burnt offerings to delight you; then bulls will be offered on your altar.” (Psalm 51:19).
To the disrespectful and rebellious remnant of Israel in the prophet Malachi’s day, God likewise said, “‘Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you… and I will accept no offering from your hands.’” (Malachi 1:10) And yet, Malachi looked forward to a day when the Lord would send His messenger to purify His people, so that they would once again offer acceptable offerings to Him. Of this messenger, Malachi writes: “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.” (Malachi 3:3-4)
This messenger of whom Malachi spoke was none other than Jesus Christ, “who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for Himself a people that are his very own” (Titus 2:14). In fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy, we have become “a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5b) Through Christ’s righteousness, we are enabled to present to the Lord “offerings in righteousness” that are acceptable to Him. And yet, the requirement that our offerings should come from holy lives does not change, as was illustrated forcefully by the example of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). In a time when others in the church were selling properties and bringing the money to the apostles to help meet the needs of the poor in their midst (Acts 4:34-37), Ananias and Sapphira also sold some property, but lied about the price they had received, so that they could keep part of the money for themselves and appear to be more generous than they really were. Because of their lie, not only was their offering unacceptable, but the Lord struck them both dead.
In contrast, the Macedonian Christians for were commended for their giving, because their giving reflected lives that were first of all given over to the Lord. The apostle Paul writes of these believers, “And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will” (2 Corinthians 8:5). The Macedonian Christians desired to be completely obedient to the Lord, and their giving arose naturally and spontaneously out of their complete devotion to the Lord.
Thus, in the matter of giving, the concept that “obedience is better than sacrifice” means that our giving must flow from lives that are first given over to the Lord. When our lives are indeed given first to the Lord, several important attitudes will characterize our giving. These include reverence, trust, generosity, and joy.
When our lives are given to the Lord, the first desire of our lives will be to worship Him; to give Him the honor and the glory that He alone deserves. Our giving will therefore be, first and foremost, an act of worship to our great God and King. Our offerings will be an acknowledgement of our complete dependence on Him and a reflection of our desire to honor Him above anything or anyone else.
This attitude of reverence has important implications for how we give to the Lord. First, it means that we should give humbly, realizing that we give only from what He has given to us. As David prayed after giving a very large offering, “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand…. O Lord our God, as for all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name, it comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you.” (1 Chronicles 29:14,16) The Lord is not dependent on our offerings, nor is He obligated to us in any way when we give to Him, since He gave us everything in the first place (cf. Psalm 50:8-13). We are not doing Him a favor when we give, nor does He owe us anything when we bring offerings to Him.
Second, when we give with an attitude of reverence, it means that we will give our best to the Lord, not the “leftovers” after we have had our fill, because what we give shows how much we think He is worth. This was why God commanded Israel in the Old Testament to present Him with the “firstfruits” of the crop, that is, the first and best portions of their harvests (e.g. Exodus 23:19; Leviticus 23:9-14). Further, diseased or blemished animals were not acceptable (Leviticus 22:19-25; Deuteronomy 17:1). When the Israelites in Malachi’s day tried to bring unacceptable sacrifices to the Lord, He rebuked them, saying,
“A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the LORD Almighty. “It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name.… When you bring blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice crippled or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the LORD Almighty…. “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands. My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 1:6,8,10-12)
The Israelites’ sacrifices showed their complete disrespect and contempt towards God. They tried to offer sacrifices to the LORD Almighty that even their local governor would have been insulted by; thus, rather than being accepted, they were rebuked and rejected. In the same way, had King Saul truly desired to honor the Lord, he would have taken the best of his own flocks to sacrifice to the Lord, rather than trying to offer sacrifices that cost him nothing and that didn’t even belong to him. His act of disobedience showed how little the Lord was worth in his eyes.
In contrast to Saul’s arrogant disobedience and the thoughtless and contemptuous sacrifices of the Israelites in Malachi’s day, was the offering of precious perfume that Mary poured out on Jesus (John 12:1-8). Worth more than a year’s wages, this was likely Mary’s costliest possession, yet she poured it all out on her Lord because she considered Him worthy. In contrast, those around her “rebuked her harshly” saying, “Why this waste?” (Mark 14:6) because they did not value Jesus Christ as Mary did, nor did they consider Him worthy of this treasure.
Living as we do under the New Covenant in Christ’s blood, we are no longer to bring animal sacrifices before the Lord, but the principle still remains that our offerings to the Lord show the value or worth that we place on Him. If we bring Him offerings “that cost us nothing” (cf. 2 Samuel 24:24), it shows that our hearts despise Him and that we consider Him unworthy. When we give, we ought to give of our best to the Lord, not just what we can spare. In our money-based economy, this means, for example, that we should honor Him with the first of our income, rather than waiting until we have spent all that we want to spend on ourselves before tossing some spare change His way.
“‘I am a great king,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘and my name is to be feared among the nations.’” (Malachi 1:14b). When our lives are first given over to the Lord, our offerings will give Him the reverence and honor He deserves.
A second attitude that will characterize our giving when our lives are given to the Lord is trust. In the Old Testament, in addition to the firstfruits, a tithe (that is, 10% of one’s income and possessions) was also required of every person, without exception and without distinction between rich and poor. That this was required of everyone was a reminder that everything they possessed was from the Lord and that each person, whether rich or poor, was equally dependent on the Lord to provide for all their needs. Thus, giving to the Lord was not simply an acknowledgement of God’s reign, but also an expression of trust in Him to provide all they needed.
In Malachi’s time, many people were withholding part or all of their tithes, perhaps because times were difficult economically (Malachi 3:6-12). In response, God told them that they were in fact robbing Him, and He showed them that their problem was not so much financial, but spiritual – that they had turned away from Him. The Israelites stopped tithing because they viewed God with contempt and did not trust that He would provide for them. As a result, they came under His curse and did not enjoy the abundance of His provision. Against this, the Lord called them to return to Him, bringing their full tithe into the Temple. In return, He would bless them with overflowing abundance, preventing pests from devouring their crops and causing their land to be exceedingly fruitful. They needed only to trust and obey.
As it was in Malachi’s day, so it is in ours. It is a matter of some debate whether the tithe still applies under the New Covenant, but it is nevertheless clear that Christians are still called to give to the Lord’s work (e.g. Matthew 10:9-10; 1 Corinthians 9:7-14; Philippians 4:15-16; 1 Timothy 5:17-18). If anything, since we have such greater blessings in Christ than people living under the Old Covenant did, it would be reasonable to expect that we should give more – not less – than those living under the Old Covenant did, and that a tithe should therefore be the bare minimum expected of our giving.
In any event, the principle still applies that our giving to the Lord is an acknowledgement that everything we have is from Him and an expression of our trust in Him to provide all we need. One reason I often hear that Christians are unwilling to give to the Lord is that they “can’t afford it”; they fear they will not have enough to care for their own needs. In reality, however, the problem is almost always not so much a financial one as it is a spiritual one, due to lack of trust in the Lord (and often also due to a love of money and the things of the world rather than the Lord – Matthew 6:24; 1 John 2:15). But as Scripture tells us repeatedly, the Lord provides us with all we need as we trust in Him (e.g. Deuteronomy 8:6-18; Psalm 127:1-2; Matthew 6:11, 25-34). Specifically regarding the Lord’s provision for those who give to Him, Paul writes, “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously… And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:6,8). Paul likewise writes regarding gifts of support he received from the Philippian church, “They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:18b-19)
When we withhold our offerings because we think we won’t have enough for ourselves, we are telling the Lord that He can’t be trusted to provide for us. But when our lives are first given over to obey the Lord, we will give our offerings freely to Him, because we know that He is the One who has given us everything, and that He will be faithful to provide for us all that we need - and more!
Beyond a confidence that gives in trust that the Lord will provide, lives that are given first to the Lord will overflow with generosity that reflects thankful hearts, because the Lord Himself is generous and “richly” provides for us (1 Timothy 6:17). Beyond the required firstfruits and tithes, the Israelites were encouraged to present free-will offerings to the Lord (e.g. Leviticus 7:11-13). Such offerings were meant to honor the Lord, as expressions of love for and thanksgiving to Him (e.g. Psalm 50:23), and we see many examples of how those whose lives were devoted to the Lord honored Him through generous giving. One striking example was the 8000 talents of gold that King David and the leaders of Israel gave to help build the temple, which based on the price of gold today, would have amounted to over 10 billion dollars! This amazing amount was given “freely and wholeheartedly to the Lord” because their lives were consecrated (that is, set apart) to Him (1 Chronicles 29:1-9).
It is no surprise, then, that generous giving often accompanies repentance and revival. Having repented of their sin in worshiping the golden calf, and having received re-affirmation of God’s covenant with them, the Israelites responded to Moses’ call to contribute to the building of the tabernacle by giving so much that Moses actually had to tell them to stop giving (Exodus 35:4-9, 36:2-7). A similar situation occurred when revival swept through the nation of Judah under King Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 31:1-10). When people give themselves to the Lord, it often results in generous giving.
Likewise, in the New Testament, when salvation came to the house of Zacchaeus, his immediate response was to give half his possessions to the poor and to promise to repay anyone he had cheated four times the amount (Luke 19:8-10), which exceeded the amount required of him under the Law (Leviticus 6:4-5; Numbers 5:5-7). At this juncture, it might be appropriate to note from Zacchaeus’ example that giving generously to the Lord does not only involve giving towards the work of His temple – or under the New Covenant, the work of the Church – although it certainly does include such giving. Giving to the Lord also involves giving generously to others, particularly the poor, and especially the poor among the people of God. While the Scriptures do warn against supporting those who are poor because they are unwilling to work (e.g. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12), the more significant burden of Scripture is that God’s people should be open-handed to the poor in our midst. In fact, giving to the poor is often equated with giving or “lending” to the Lord – and will be repaid by the Lord (e.g. Proverbs 19:17, 22:9; Matthew 26:31-40; 1 Timothy 6:17-19). In other words, when we are generous to the poor, and especially to those who are of the household of God, we are also being generous to the Lord.
At this point, you may be thinking, “Yes, rich people should be generous. But I’m not rich… I can barely afford to tithe, much less give anything more.” However, generosity is not an attribute that should be limited only to those who might be considered rich. For example, the Macedonian churches were not just poor; they were extremely poor (2 Corinthians 8:2). Yet, Paul writes, “their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.” (2 Corinthians 8:2b-4) These believers were so poor that Paul was almost embarrassed to take anything from them, and they had to plead with him to take their gift. Yet in their extreme poverty, they gave with rich generosity – not just this once when Paul was taking a special offering to help the poor in the Jerusalem church – but again and again in support of Paul’s ministry (2 Corinthians 11:8-9; Philippians 4:15-18). Their generosity flowed spontaneously from lives that were given first to the Lord (2 Corinthians 8:5). Their example shows that generosity is not limited to those who are “rich” but is meant to characterize all God’s people, whether rich or poor.
This brings us to a final attribute that characterizes our giving when our lives are first given to the Lord, and that is joy. Why did the Macedonian Christians give so generously even though they were so poor? It was because of the “overflowing joy” arising from God’s grace in their lives (2 Corinthians 8:1-2). Joy – glorious and inexpressible – is the birthright of all who believe in Christ, when we understand that we are receiving the salvation of our souls (1 Peter 1:8-9). Joy is a work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer (1 Thessalonians 1:6), and is second only to love as the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). It is a deep, all-fulfilling satisfaction and gladness in God, and it manifests in a willingness to forsake everything and to endure everything for the sake of Christ (e.g. Matthew 13:44). When our lives are given first to the Lord and we treasure Him above all else, we won’t need to be told to give; rather, our joy in the Lord compels us to give, because we count it a joy and a privilege to lavish our best on Him. This was the case with the Macedonian believers, who entirely on their own, out of their overflowing joy and extreme poverty “urgently pleaded” with Paul for the privilege of giving! (When was the last time you urgently pleaded with your pastor for the privilege of giving?) Their joy was so great that they gave more than anyone thought they could afford to give (2 Corinthians 8:3-4). We see this same pattern in the life of Zacchaeus. Having received Jesus with joy (Luke 19:6), he gladly gave away half his possessions. Joy likewise permeated the giving of the immense gift that David and the leaders of Israel gave for the building of the Temple (1 Chronicles 29:1-21).
While joy is our birthright in Christ, however, it is possible to lose the experience of this joy when we allow the work of the Gospel in our lives to be undermined, for example by false doctrine (Galatians 4:15-16) or by sin that grieves the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30). When we take our eyes off the Lord and treasure things like money or possessions above Him, our joy is sapped; and giving then becomes an obligation grudgingly fulfilled, rather than a joy. In 2 Corinthians 9:7, Paul writes that “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” God desires that we should give with joy, because when we give cheerfully, it shows that our lives are first given to Him.
In summary, obedience to the Lord in the matter of giving means that our giving must reflect lives that are first of all given to the Lord. As we conclude this article, I would challenge you to consider what your offerings to the Lord say about your view of God and about your walk with Him. Does your giving give God the honor that He deserves? Do you give – and give generously – trusting that He is the One who will provide for your needs? Does joy in the Spirit motivate your giving, so that you overflow with joy at the privilege of participating in His work through your giving?
May His grace and His joy so fill our lives that we might walk in complete obedience to Him.