“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ (Matthew 9:13, ESV)
In the gospels, Jesus or his disciples often violated the customs and laws of the Jews. In Matthew 12:1-2, Jesus’ disciples flagrantly violate the sabbath law. The Pharisees, enraged, confront Jesus about this, but he defends them. I believe Jesus’ response to their accusation holds a key to the new covenant, to understanding God’s heart, and to avoiding the immaturity, blindness, deception, divisiveness, and judgmentalism the law brings. He quotes from Hosea 6:6 (in bold): “And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” What a beautiful statement. They clearly broke the law, yet Jesus said they were “guiltless.”
I know a man who said: “God is love, not law.” That is so true. Law was always intended to be temporary, useful for showing man his weakness and sinfulness, and as a “foreshadowing” of the law’s fulfillment – Christ himself.1 Christ, not law, is the revelation of the Father’s heart. But how were the disciples guiltless while clearly breaking the law? The answer is too deep for me to elaborate or see fully, but consider this: you can’t break a law which doesn’t apply to you. According to United States federal law, if I buy and drink a can of beer at age 20, I break the law. Once I turn 21, that law doesn’t apply to me anymore, and I can drink the very same beer without being a law-breaker. True believers are “in Christ,” have died and risen with Christ, and the law does not apply. As well, in Christ the law is fulfilled, done away, and superseded. You can’t break a law when in the presence of the one who fulfills and supersedes that law, and walking according to his heart. This is partly what Jesus meant when he said he is “Lord of the Sabbath.”2
In Matthew 9:13, Jesus actually tells the Pharisees to “go and learn” what God truly desires, as stated through the prophet Hosea. This is the only time in scripture Jesus tells the Pharisees to “learn” anything, implying he is pointing out something essential for religious, law-minded, fearful people to understand if they are to mature. Here’s the full statement Jesus quoted from: (Hosea 6:6, NKJV): “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” Like Jesus, I encourage you to “go and learn” what this means from the only true and trustworthy teacher: the Holy Spirit of God.
Remember, God is love, not law. I believe God has spoken to me, more than once, that He is grieved by the way religion has represented Him; as some sort of unmerciful tyrant who will either eternally torture or severely punish those who slip up. That’s not His heart. Look at Jesus’ life. He refused to condone or allow the stoning of a woman caught in adultery, though the law said that was the punishment. He refused to attribute any wrong to his disciples, though they clearly broke the Sabbath. He welcomed various “sinners” into his presence. He taught love for enemies, doing good to those who mistreat you, loving one-another as he loved us, to honor the Father, to deny self, take up your cross, and follow him. He shows us the Father, as he and the Father are one. Jesus’ life and way were spiritual and free, being of an entirely different sort than the common Christian way of trying to act good, “stop sinning,” and acquire correct beliefs. Change can be scary and hard, but He’s worth it.
- Galatians 2-4, Ephesians 2:15, Colossians 2:17, Hebrews 7:18, 8:5, 10:1, Rom. 3:21, 4:14-16, 7:4, 10:4
- Matthew 12:8