But I thought those Laws were only for the Jews; Psalm 119


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Matthew 9:13 But you go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,' for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

Written by the Finger of God

Written by the Finger of God

Yesterday I used this Bible verse to validate an argument I was making regarding other faiths.  Since that time, the same Scripture was brought to my attention by 3 different people at three different times totally unrelated to my project.

I don’t know if anyone else has these types of serendipitous events happening in their lives but when strange little coincidences “God Winks” like that happen, I’ve learned to pay attention.  So, I sat down with the verse at hand and meditated on its meaning. 

It’s no surprise that the fullness of this passage is so much more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.  It’s one of those gems where you find layer after layer of rich meaning imbedded into it.  What I’ve found is this verse provides me with a valuable lesson about grace, the law of God, and the TRUE meaning of legalism.

The word Mercy in Greek has apparently been debated by many scholars but most agree it represents an unmerited loving kindness toward man brought about through the knowledge of God.  I’m going to assume this definition is correct when analyzing this topic.

In chapter 9 of Matthew, he and Jesus are eating with tax collectors and sinners.  When the Pharisee’s call them out for eating with such “scum” Jesus replies with the following, “But you go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,' for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentanceMatthew 9:13

The obvious meaning of the scripture seemed to mean that we should show (God-like love) to everyone but when I cross referenced it, it seemed to go a bit deeper.

First of all, I never really thought about it, but who are the righteous that Jesus “came not to call”?  We know there’s no such thing since “There is none righteous, no, not one:” (Romans 3:10) and Christ came for everyoneWell, since Jesus is talking to the Pharisees who were repeatedly condemned for considering themselves “righteous, I think this is Christ’s way of pointing out the absurdity of their so called “righteousness”.

A little later in Matthew the Pharisees also condemn the disciples for picking grain on the Sabbath and Jesus provides the same explanation to convey why breaking the law in this instance was okay.  Matthew 12:7 But if you had known what this means,'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless.

Many Christians use these Scriptures to prove that God no longer wants us to abide by any laws because “He desires mercy and not sacrifice” therefore, we are saved by grace through his mercy and need no longer sacrifice or obey laws. 

First, he refers to the disciples as “guiltless.” I believe their lack of guilt is not due to Christ’s abolishment of the law, but instead, He is saying that since the disciples understood the very purpose of the law (resting in Christ) they were free from sin. 

Considering the Sabbath was created so we could rest in God’s love and the disciples were with Jesus in that very moment (eg. resting in his love) then gathering food for them wasn’t breaking the law. The Pharisees were missing the point.  They were suggesting it was better for people to go hungry, or to not break bread with even God Himself in an attempt to obey the law.  That’s a foolish sacrifice! 

Here are some Scriptures that lead me to believe that Jesus is not suggesting that grace and mercy are given freely therefore we are no longer asked to obey the law (sacrifices), but instead, that grace and mercy are given to us freely therefore we SHOULD obey it out of our love for God and our eagerness to know Him and walk in His ways. 

When I look at Jeremiah  7:22  “..I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in all the ways I command you, that it may go well with you

Again in Ecclesiastes 5:1 “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.” 

Here, the author is equating the sacrifice of fools to offerings given by those who don’t LISTEN and don’t even know why they’re performing this ritual in the first place. Instead, make sacrifices based on your understanding of God’s love (Listen!  Understand!).  How do we listen to God as opposed to making blind sacrifices resulting in legalism? Faith comes by hearing the Word of God. Do we hear God’s Word and then go about our way doing whatever we want? Or do we hear it and OBEY it out of our love and reverence for who God is?  Mercy is an act of love.  So is saying that you love God enough, or do we need to obey Him with action by loving His law?

The Pharisees, these legalists, had it wrong because they made sacrifices without having a true knowledge of the loving nature of God.  Foolish sacrifices.

They say, “Hey, we’re God’s chosen people.  Let’s obey the law out of formality and pride then we’ll get salvation because we’re so good” I fear many modern day Christians are saying something pretty darn similar, “Hey, we’re God’s chosen people.  Let’s NOT obey the law since we have grace, and therefore, now we’re so good.

But is it that God says?

If you love me, obey my commandments. John 14:15

And what are these commandments.  Some Christians would argue that, there are only two, all the other ones are out.  But again, what does God say?  Matthew 22:37-40, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” 

Therefore the law, the entire law, is about love.  So to obey the law is to love God.  This isn’t legalism if we do it out of our love for Christ.  It only becomes legalism if we leave Christ out of it and instead try to become righteous by obeying it.  But obedience out of love is far different than obeying it for selfish purposes such as pride and formality like the Pharisees consistently did.

When looking at Hosea 6:6 we see another interesting parallel. “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”  Since “sacrifice” is given through burnt offerings, I think we can see that mercy is given through the knowledge of God. 

So I think what Jesus was trying to say is this: “I desire you to show lovingkindness, and compassion toward those who don’t deserve it. I desire you to do this not out of obligation or duty or because “I said so” but instead, be obedient and do this because of your knowledge of who I am.”

Knowing God results in obedience to the law.  Not the other way around.

We obey the law out of your reverence, out of our desire to be more like Him, and out of your sincere gratitude for the ultimate sacrifice and love that He offered us on the cross. If you KNOW me, you’ll WANT to do this.  You’ll desire Mercy if you really know who I am, because I am Mercy.   This is what I desire more than your meaningless sacrifices. 

Knowledge of God gives birth to mercy which gives birth to a new heart and Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26) one where I'll want to walk according to His ways (laws) all of my days and not out of a burden and obligatory commitment, but because I'm so in love with the beauty and character of God that I'll want to be just like Him!  And because of his promise to me, and the new Spirit he's given me, I know I have the ability to do what He wills.  And I have this unmerited loving mercy, because of his sacrifice, born out of the greatest love imaginable.  Doesn't this just make you want to dance?  I mean seriously, how beautiful is that promise?!!!

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  • Tony York

    Tony York July 08, 2010

    yay.. the post is back.

    I have copied over my comment from the other post to here:

    Great post and here are some thoughts concerning the 2 dimensionality versus the 3 dimensionality of knowing God.

    In Psalm 119, David drives the point about getting to the 3 dimensionality by being taught ‘the meaning behind God’s statutes’.

    He didn’t just want to know the letter of the law (2 dimension or flat), he wanted to know why the law existed (3 dimensions - alive).

    We are given the law in part to understand God’s character.  He didn’t say don’t steal because it hurt other people but because it called into question His ability to be providential in our lives.  When we steal we question God’s ability to take care of us. We miss out on seeing His hand in our lives.  By understanding this, we focus on what God is doing in our lives instead of what we are ‘not allowed to do’.  That creates a basis for obedience through love and respect.


  • Jessica

    Jessica July 09, 2010

    “When we steal we question God’s ability to take care of us. We miss out on seeing His hand in our lives.”

    Wow. I think you have a great perspective here.  If we understood the purpose behind some of God’s laws instead of lumping them into a big rule book, it’d be much easier for us to walk in His ways.  I’ve noticed it’s easy to spend so much time in the NT that we forget that the OT (even the rule book) paints just as beautiful a picture of the character of God.  It’s just a harder read:)

  • Maureen

    Maureen July 09, 2010

    Great post and very well said. I think today people forget that God made laws to PROTECT us, not to cause us harm.  We are so in the “our rights” mindsets that we don’t like to be told what we can/cannot do.  Like you said, if we just remember that its out of love that God created any rule, then we might out of Love obey it back.

  • Maureen

    Maureen July 09, 2010

    ps. Love the little pic of Moses wink

  • JamesBrett

    JamesBrett July 09, 2010

    great post, jessica.

    i think Jesus’ words concerning his desire for mercy and not sacrifice are given by matthew to instruct a scribal community in how they are to correctly interpret, obey, and (just as much) bind the law on others.  so i read “desire mercy and not sacrifice” as the lens through which we interpret the law—the lens through which the law was always to be interpreted.

    and the jewish community is being instructed to understand the law in this way, because mercy is required for a closed (scribal) community to become open (and even more so because it’s what God always intended—both the mercy and the open community). 

    the matthew 12 passage is in the context of Jesus demonstrating the difference between his version of rest (sabbath) and that of the pharisees.  they pile on laws without lifting a finger to help, while he teaches his people the way of a lighter burden.

  • janice

    janice July 10, 2010

    Jessica I loved your last paragraph thats what its all about Love of God Love of God

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