“What unto me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” saith the LORD: “I have had enough of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats…Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; new moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies– I cannot away with iniquity and the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth; they are a trouble unto me; I am weary of bearing them (Isaiah 1:11, 13-14).
These verses in Isaiah, along with a similar message in Jeremiah 6:19-20, have been a source of controversy. God most certainly commanded not only the sacrifices but also the festival observances in Leviticus, and yet these prophets speak against them! While some believe that Isaiah and Jeremiah are against the sacrificial system because of these declarations, there is no good reason to believe that they are against it or that they are denying that God commanded Israel to offer the sacrifices and observe the festivals. As far as we can tell, the issue has nothing to do with the form of the offerings or the means by which they are offered. God is not rejecting the sacrifices because they are being improperly offered. Instead, the prophets are saying that God has rejected their sacrifices because the Israelites believe in a “sacrifice only” religion.
In this “sacrifice only” religion, the Israelites serve other gods, commit adultery, wrongfully oppress their fellow Israelites, and stand against the prophets of God, believing that they are nevertheless justified since the Temple is in their midst and they are offering the proper sacrifices at the proper time (cf. Isaiah 1:15-20, Jeremiah 6-7). Whether consciously or not, the rest of what God has commanded Israel is minimized or set aside. The people continue to trust in God’s loving kindness toward Israel, believing that since they are God’s chosen people, all will always be well with them.
These Israelites were sorely mistaken, and their confidence would be shattered by the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and the subsequent exile in 586 (cf. Jeremiah 52). As He spoke through the prophets, God was not pleased with “sacrifice only” religion!
While Jesus Christ is the sacrifice that atoned “once for all” in the new covenant (cf. Hebrews 9:11-15), many today still believe in some kind of “only” religion. Many teach a “faith only” religion, positing that all one needs to do is believe in Christ to be saved. The New Testament explicitly teaches that “faith only” religion cannot justify (James 2:14-26). Unfortunately, too many others believe in an “assembly only” religion. Some believe that they can do whatever they wish from Monday through Saturday as long as they “go to church” on Sunday and offer confession, only to go out and do it all again the next week. God will not justify such confession without repentance (1 John 1:9, Matthew 3:2, 9). For others, even though they may not be as sinful, their religion is reduced to the Sunday assembly. They take great pride in doing everything according to God’s will within the assembly, and believe that such alone will justify them.
While many may not intend to have this latter attitude, it is nonetheless present, even among members of the Lord’s body. God has made it abundantly clear that Christianity is not just an “assembly only” affair: we must be as diligent to serve God in every other aspect of our lives as we are within the assembly of the saints (cf. Romans 12:1, Ephesians 5:15-6:9). Let none be deceived: God is only truly honored when we give ourselves over entirely to Him and serve Him at every opportunity (Galatians 2:20, Romans 6:16-18). Christianity cannot be reduced to any form of “-only” religion. Let us learn from Israel and not follow in their pattern of disobedience!