At our Home Church this last week, we were going to dive into Matthew, Chapter 9, and in preparation for the study, I found myself [once again] involved in a treasure hunt in God's Word. I was intrigued with the account [in verses 9-13] of Jesus calling Matthew, the tax collector, to follow Him. Scripture says that as Jesus was eating with Matthew at his house, "many tax collectors and sinners" came and ate with Jesus and His disciples. But when the Pharisees, who were religious, saw this gathering, they questioned why Jesus would eat with such a group of despised people. (Mind you, they are despised by those with religious spirits. Jesus doesn't want anyone to perish, but rather all to come to repentance, as 2 Peter 3:9 tells us).
I can imagine Jesus sitting there with those people and pouring into them, sharing the Gospel of the Kingdom, which is why He says He was sent (Luke 4:43). And His reply to the Pharisees is what set me on an amazing trip through the Bible ... Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.
Now, this is not the first time that I have read this passage, but this time I was stopped in my tracks. Jesus said to Go and learn what "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice" means. Now, those who were there with Him, would have understood that this phrase "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice" came from the writings of the prophet Hosea, and also is referenced by the prophet Micah. So it had meaning to those listening at that table. But since I believe that the Bible was inspired to speak to all generations, I clearly saw Jesus's instructions to me not to just read it, but to "go and learn what it means"! It is obvious that it is important that we know what MERCY means, if it is what God told the prophets He desires.
So that set me off on a search to learn what MERCY is and why God desires it above sacrifice. There was much to learn, and on different levels. I was not particularly surprised to see that our English translations of the Bible have once again short-changed us. In Hosea, the Hebrew word for "mercy" is chesed, and is probably one of the most important words in Old Testament theology [as it applies to God]. Biblical scholars assign three facets to this word: strength, steadfastness, and love -- and all must be present to represent the fullness of mercy.
The word chesed points to one of God's central characteristics: His lovingkindness to His people who need redemption from their sin, their enemies, and their troubles in life. But it also stresses reciprocity -- our strength, steadfastness and love for God and His Kingdom and its people. When we truly walk in chesed, we live a life of sanctification (set apart for God) and in response to His covenant with us. I believe that Jesus was reminding the Pharisees of this important fact: all the sacrifices they performed to remove their sins was not as pleasing to the Father as their mercy (employing the Old Testament understanding of chesed).
To further add to the richness of this word MERCY, our English Bibles translate Jesus's use of the word here in Matthew from the Greek word, eleos. Here, in Matthew, the word mercy means "the removal of misery from our sins". That's what Jesus was doing with these tax collectors and sinners. And the Gospel of the Kingdom is all about knowing there is no misery in God's Kingdom in Heaven, and that Jesus had come to establish this same rule of government here on earth ... Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. But we must not forget the context in which the hearers received this message. They are Pharisees, religious leaders of the Jews, who well knew the writings of the Old Testament prophets and what that phrase "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice" meant.
The prophet Hosea was writing what the Lord spoke to him: "Say to your brothers, "You are my people', and to your sisters, "You have received mercy' ". Through Hosea, God is calling His people back from their rebellion, disobedience, and unrepentant hearts. In Hosea 6:4-6, God asks:
What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes early away.
5 Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets;
I have slain them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgment goes forth as the light.
6 For I desire mercy and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
By reminding the Pharisees to "Go and learn what this means", Jesus is reminding them that since God is merciful to us [and removes the misery of our sins by forgiveness], He desires that we do the same for others. And Jesus is modeling that display of MERCY [for His disciples] by showing what it looks like as He expresses it to the tax collectors and the sinners.
But there is another level of meaning that I don't want to just skip over. When Jesus quotes "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice" from the prophet Hosea, I believe we are to understand that by Old Testament standards, sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins was a temporary system and unable to permanently remove the effects of sin. Therefore, recognition of God's mercy (His strength, steadfastness, and love) to deliver Israel from their sins was of more consequence. But for us New Testament believers, we recognize that Christ's sacrifice for us is the ultimate mercy [and display of God's deliverance from our sins] as well as the fact that God still desires reciprocal mercy on our part to see others delivered from the misery of their sins. We now play a part in dispensing God's mercy through Kingdom living.
So, as you can see, our English word mercy does not come close to defining the fullness of all that God's mercy exemplifies. It includes His faithfulness, His lovingkindness, His strength, His goodness, His pity in our times of need, and yes, even His reproach [done out of His love for us]. But here is what I've learned by "going" and "learning" as Jesus instructed me .... if our concept of mercy does not include all these facets, it inevitably loses some of its richness. As The Strong's Concordance points out when defining the Hebrew word chesed, "Love, by itself easily becomes sentimentalized or universalized apart from our covenant with God". Jesus intends us to understand that all that God has done for us is wrapped up in that word "Mercy", and because we have benefited from it, we are to extend it to others when sinners express repentance and seek Him. Thank the Lord that His mercies never end and they are new every morning. Great is His faithfulness!
Matthew 5:7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.