Saturday, October 01, 2005

Mercy, not sacrifice

      If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. (Matt. 12:7 NIV)
      Jesus' remark in Matt. 12:7 arose during a controversy with the Pharisees over Sabbath laws. In it, Jesus quoted the prophet Hosea (Hos. 6:6) in order to demonstrate how empty the Pharisees’ adherence to the letter of the Law was. He had used this same quotation in another controversy with the Pharisees (Matt. 9:10-13), with essentially the same import. But, by citing Hosea, Jesus was saying more than that—He was making it clear that the Law and the Prophets intended something far deeper than restricted behavior from the very outset—and that Jesus was not merely a revisionist.
      So, what does it mean, when God says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice…”? (Hos. 6:6a)
      The key word is “mercy.” The Old Testament uses chesed, the Hebrew word translated “mercy,” numerous times, usually meaning God’s mercy towards sinners, Israel, or a specific person. In this context, “mercy” is the action of God withholding His just wrath (Gen. 19:19; 20:13; 24:27; 32:10; 39:21; Ex. 15:13; 34:6,7; Num. 14:18,19; Deut. 5:10; 7:9). It can also mean kindness or generosity (Gen. 21:23; 24:12, Josh. 2:12,14). Some examples of kindness towards one another are found in Gen. 40:14; 47:29. The Psalmist uses the word abundantly, 128 times, particularly in the repeated formula in Ps. 136, “His mercy endures forever,” but also many other places. In Ps. 136, the AV renders the word as “mercy;” NIV and the Message, “love;” ASV, NASB, Darby, “lovingkindness;” Young, “kindness;” NLT, “faithful love;” ESV, “steadfast love.” It is a favorite word in the Old Testament in describing the Lord’s favor.
      One difficulty we have with the meaning of the passage is that our word, “mercy,” has narrowed in meaning since the time of the AV translation (1611). It is now restricted to the legal sense of “mercy,” to specific acts or institutions of charitableness, and to the withholding of punishment. It is evident that the envelope of meaning attached to chesed is far broader. When Jesus used the word, it doubtless had the meaning that the Old Testament attaches to it, not our more restricted meaning in English.
      Some of the Old Testament usages clearly refer to covenant behavior, that is, God showing mercy in response to fidelity to the covenant. But the usage in Hosea 6:6 is different in an important way, that is, it describes an attitude of man rather than God. This does not require its meaning therefore to be fundamentally different, but it does mean that the assumptions one makes about the “mercy” of God do not necessarily hold as applied to man.
      C. H. Toy (Quotations in the New Testament, 1884) wrote that what God wanted from Israel was a heart in accord with Himself. Gaebelein (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 1979) asserted that eleos, the Greek word for “mercy,” as a translation for the Hebrew chesed, is close in meaning to “covenant love.” These two analyses point, I think, in a common direction.
      We also have two clues, close by, as to the meaning of “mercy” in the context of Hosea. One is the usage of chesed in Hosea 6:4 (though the AV translators rendered it as “goodness” and the NIV translators, “love,” the underlying Hebrew word is directly related). In verse 4, whatever the feature being talked about is, it comes and goes. Such language certainly speaks of fidelity (or the lack of it) to Israel’s covenant responsibilities.
      The second clue is in the second half of verse 6, “and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hos. 6:6b NIV) Hosea was strongly poetical throughout his book, and he reported the Lord’s speech in the form of synonymous parallelism, that is, the two halves of the verse are analogous to each other. This means that “mercy” has approximately the same relationship to “sacrifice” as “acknowledgment of God” has to “burnt offerings.” Since burnt offerings and sacrifices refer to essentially the same thing, one must conclude that mercy and acknowledgement of God are, if not the same thing, at least strongly related, that is, they both describe the deeper adherence to the covenant relationship of Israel to its God than mere sacrifices.
      Thus, the verse contrasts the classic antitheses of appearance versus reality, form versus substance, and ultimately, faithfulness versus hypocrisy. The word rendered here as “mercy” is loaded with meaning, and the accusation implicit in it is damning in the most literal sense.
      Finally, let’s not forget Who is speaking. It is the Lord telling us, “I desire…” If no other lesson can be derived from the Bible, there is this, that when God wants something, either He gets it or there is an accounting. In quoting Hosea 6:6, Jesus not only exposed the Pharisees’ weakness and sin but their danger as well.
      It is not unusual to study a text of Scripture and to find layer after layer of rich meaning imbedded in it and its surrounding context and background, for much of the Bible is like that. But few passages are so densely packed as these, the two episodes with Jesus, and the passage from Hosea, a “minor” prophet who has the temerity to proclaim what God “wants.”
      I am going to step out on a limb and suggest that what God wants, what these passages are talking about, is well described by the word “friendship.” (John 15:14,15) He wanted His people to keep His Law, not just because of the alternative of punishment, but because He is good, just, loving, and merciful, worthy of friendship and allegiance. God called Abraham His friend (Isaiah 41:8), because Abraham believed God and did what God commanded, in awe before God's majesty. In this age of grace, He still wants the same thing, goodness and mercy, justice and neighbor-love, all the products of a heart that is a friend to God. C. H. Toy was right: God wants people to learn how to have a heart like His. And He sends His Spirit to us to create that new heart. (Rom. 8:14)
      The Law was a framework for grace, for friendship, for peace between God and man for the building of a people who would ultimately harbor the Son. Their rejection of the Son was the last straw (Matt. 21:33-42) in a long-term relationship that had gone wrong at almost every turn.
      The Pharisees did not understand Hosea 6:6 rightly for the same reason that they did not understand the Law rightly. Jesus accused them, through the Hosea quotation, of the most extreme hypocrisy, adherence to form while omitting the substance, feigning allegiance to the Lord while practicing idolatry in their hearts. Numerous times, Israel had been told the secret of their relationship to God: “the Lord will circumcise thine heart,” (Deut. 30:6) and “Rend your heart, not your garments,” (Joel 2:13) etc. Moreover, Hosea was not the only one to record the Lord’s displeasure with outward form without inward substance. There is Isaiah,
“Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
      Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
      I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts
      my soul hates…” — Isaiah 1:13,14 (NIV)

And Amos,
"I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
      I cannot stand your assemblies.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
      I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
      I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
      I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
      righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
Amos 5:21-24 (NIV)

      And the Pharisees had ignored it, explained it all away.
      Don’t forget: when we read about the Pharisees, we are reading about ourselves. For, each of us was as dead as a Pharisee inside before Jesus called us into life. We cannot ignore the latent (let alone, active) Pharisee, the hair-splitting legalist, the self-righteous bigot, the seeker of salvation through works, the religiously respectable, in ourselves. So, now the question comes to us.
      This is the Great Divide: what do we love better than friendship with God? Are there formalities that we Christians honor above true worship and service? Do we love the sounds of other voices better than His Word? Are we giving lip service to God while hiding idolatry in our hearts? Are we willing to admit the breadth of meaning that can attach to “idolatry?” (Col. 3:5)
      Jesus’ teaching here cannot be ignored. Are we listening? Are our Christian institutions teaching and practicing “sacrifice” rather than “mercy,” and are we standing by silently while they do so?
      I can hear it now from faithful readers: “Yes, but at my church…” Yes, I know, and at my church, too. I regularly find the service deeply meaningful, the liturgy satisfying, the sermon to be uplifting spiritual food, and so on. Often, I feel that the sermon or message had a singular meaning for me, that the Lord was speaking to me in a special way through the service.
      But I challenge you today (and me, too) to hear the words of Jesus in Matt. 9:13, to go and learn what this means, “I want mercy, not sacrifice.” Jesus intends for us to understand this. He wants us to realize the capacity to be friends with God, through Himself. He wants us to ignore appearances and seek the reality, to avoid formalities and seek the substance, to be faithful and avoid hypocrisy. He has rich blessings in store for those who make the effort. It begins with seeking the Kingdom, and then all the other things will be added, as He promised. (Matt. 6:33)
      There is more. The church is being purified in our era, and all that is not gold will be burned away. How much of our life, both individually and corporately, is empty traditions or hollow ritual? Probably more than we want to admit—more even than we suspect. Well, the Lord, who is the Lord of the Sabbath, can breathe life into the deadest things (like me) and raise any of them to be living, loving, caring partners in His ministry to the world. If we hold onto the empty and the hollow, we will lose more than an opportunity.

24 Comments:

Anonymous Becky said...

Thanks for the touching and beautiful meditation.

I enjoyed the explanation of chesed. If it means "God's favor," though, how is mercy different from grace?

Let's all move forward in our friendships with God. He's waiting for us.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Robert McAnally Adams said...

Mercy is not very different from grace. The Hebrew lexicon I consulted for this project emphasized the covenant and relational aspects of chesed that would be missing from chen [grace]. But I certainly agree that the sense in which grace is used in the New Testament is very close indeed to chesed.

12:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

fantastic brother. thanks

8:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is exactly what I was looking for :) Thank you, friend!

5:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are a replacement theologian?

12:39 AM  
Blogger Robert McAnally Adams said...

What do you mean by "replacement theologian"?

1:12 PM  
Blogger Myrna said...

I am wondering about the meaning of "sacrifice". I have always tended to view this verse from another perspective - that the sacrifices given were not just gifts of meaningless offerings but were offerings that were costly to the giver. So the meaning of God in this verse would be that the value of mercy in the eyes of God is even greater than the value of the most precious thing I could place before Him on the altar. There are many seemingly merciless people who think they have given up everything to follow Christ. What are your thoughts on this from the perspective of the word "sacrifice"?

8:54 AM  
Blogger Robert McAnally Adams said...

To Myrna,
Hosea, and thus God, was addressing people who had allowed sacrifice to decline to meaninglessness. Meaningful and expensive sacrifice might well fall into a different category. I am not even sure that God weighs goodness, because all He talks about is abundant goodness, as in Amos 5:24, "But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"

On the other hand, it is clear that "mercy" (chesed) ranks very high in the Lord's hierarchy of righteousness (if there is a hierarchy).

10:49 AM  
Anonymous Kris said...

On the Album by Judith Gruver, Judith Sings to her Friends, there was a song with that phrase "I desire Mercy and not Sacrifice." I came to get more of an understanding. Thanks.

3:10 PM  
Anonymous T.J.P. said...

But... is Jesus in this context reminding the Pharisees (and us) that this is what He wants from us to Him...or is He again, speaking to the Pharisees (and us) that that is what He wants from us to each other? Remember who is He defending..Himself or His action of calling Matthew and having a nice dinner at Matthew's house, which by the way, the poor fisherman couldn't provide for Him,
T.J. P.

5:44 PM  
Blogger Anah Grace Childe said...

Anytime Jesus says something twice, there is reason to see the depthful meaning of the phrase, MERCY OVER SACRIFICE.

An insight reveal'd. I was peering at it through the outward meaning of MERCY--but now I see more clearly, God wants my enduring friendship.

It makes more sense, since, I have often been running around sacrificing my life in the name of God when God wanted two things from me, TURN FROM THE WORLD, TOWARD GOD and REST IN GOD'S ETERNAL PROTECTION--sounds like DEATH AND ETERNAL REST!

I am here.
Anah Grace Childe
Waco, Texas
highly favored among women

11:10 AM  
Blogger tony said...

Thanks for the insights from this Bible verse. I enjoyed reading your interpretation of chesed.

However, I was wondering whether chen or channan is closer to what is expressed in this verse. It is more than a 'legal mercy' ('ought' according to the law, covenant') but a 'merciful mind' (the gift of channan is primarily the merciful heart itself) that goes with the mercy shown.

It is expressed in the mercy which Jesus shows to Levi (ch.9) and the man with a withered hand (ch. 12). Channan in Jesus reveals his merciful heart that recognizes the needy and that stands with the needy.

Sacrifice satisfies the covenantal response; mercy completes the response and brings the person to the merciful heart of God....

I am not an authentic bible scholar; please correct me.
Tony Neelankavil, Trichur, India.
e-mail: tneelan@gmail.com

11:27 AM  
Blogger Tony Neelankavil, Trichur, India said...

i had a second thought.
It seems literally Chesed is used here and eleos in NT. However, don't you think that the NT texts reveal the spirit of channaan in the mind of Jesus, as explained before?

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoa, yall are deep. I honestly had trouble following some of what yall were saying. Scholars for sure.
I am just a simple man trying to read the bible and understand some of it. Can't it just be simply love? Love Him because we want/need to, and do the right thing for the right reasons and be thankful He doesn't hit us with a lightining bolt when we don't, because that is what we deserve?

10:27 AM  
Anonymous Jim said...

God has already provided the ultimate sacrifise: JESUS OVER ALL THINGS, BECAUSE HE (JESUS) WAS, IS and ALWAYS WILL BE THE WORD OF GOD.

WE WILL ALL BOW BEFORE HIM

7:31 AM  
Anonymous MomsterTeacher said...

Thank you for sharing this! I feel God's love for us all the more- His desire for!our friendship is deeply moving!

4:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too was trying to understand this verse from the sacrifice angle. Can it mean that God wants us more to display love to others (mercy) rather than to give up something we love (sacrifice) in the name of God ?

Why would God want us to give up something we love unless it is bad for us ?

To sacrifice something (whether we love it or not).....could be only to gain undue favour in God's eye or to gain attention in man's eyes...both of which seem incorrect.

So, sacrifice as a concept in God's name just seems like a weakness and thats why God would probably want us to develop feelings of love and mercy rather than a spirit of sacrifice.

I am just trying to understand this for myself....and would appreciate thoughts on this angle.

1:48 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you all for your insightful comments. I had googled this verse while reading Matthew 9 this evening. It struck me that in the context of the entire verse, as Jesus goes on to say, "For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners", the concept of mercy versus sacrifice reflects the heart of the Christian as opposed to the heart of the "religious" person. The merciful Christian, empowered by God's Spirit, loves his fellowman from the heart and thereby lives a life that is glorifying to God! However, those who use self-deprivation, or painful adherance to "the laws" consider their good works to be acceptable "sacrifices" to God, thereby rendering them "righteous". Those folks don't need Jesus or His mercy...they "have it covered" by their works (they think). The sinner has a different attitude: He NEEDS Jesus and His mercy, so he can hear Jesus' call and receive God's forgiveness and the abundant life that bears fruit for the glory and kingdom of God!

10:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. I am really encouraged by God's words.

2:01 AM  
Anonymous Thank You friend... said...

I am so thankful to Jesus for allowing a commentary (Truth) that was written in 2005 of a message that He has been given to His creation since the beginning.
The two times mentioned in Matt., this verse really seeped into me since I read it last night (perhaps for the first time or in a long time). Today I "google" it and your commentary comes up first (I wish it was always a matter of sequence to find the Truth) This isn't deep this is - this is the Full Gospel (before you go there, I am 40+ and dropped out of high school).
Once we recognize we desire peace and forgiveness - His Death took away our sins once and for all. His resurrection, Life in and through us is His desires. Our sabbath rest is to focus on his desire to be "our friend" from here on everlasting. Focusing on that "crazy unbelievable thought" day and night is what it means to experience Grace and the Holy Spirit. I think the best explaining of the word - mercy - is the Greek translation of "eleos" - - COVENANT LOVE. Focus on the supernatural (doesn't have to be spectacular) too-good-to-be true meaning of the 'new covenant". Don't focus any more what it took you to get there. Like being saved from a really cool guy (say you broke through the ice skating) - and turns out you become best friends and really dig each other - but every morning you show up at his house - you say, Thank You for saving me - I really wish (desire) there is something I could do to make it up to you. And you don't stop there, you say this (with desire and sincere heart) several more times each day. While playing Legos, while sharing a meal. When all your friend wants now is to "be" with you. I know, this illustration doesn't come close to the real thing. Because I would have to mention that this "new friend" was thinking about you day and night before you even broke through the ice and needed rescuing...but that would just sound creepy. Focus on the "covenant love" 24/7 and ask Jesus to renew your thoughts daily on being His friend everlasting. All else will flow - The Word says so. And what God says.... Thanks again to Robert for posting this!!

2:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The answer to ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ is far less complicated. It can be understood from Mat 9:12-13, Mat 12:7, & 2 The 1:6

Jesus desires mankind (pharisees) be merciful (refrain from punishing) to the innocent rather than sacrifice them for uncertain/false reasons (like they did to Jesus & the way some evil police/judicial officials unjustly operate in today's society).

In Mat 9:12-13, Jesus says: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’[Jos 6:6] For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The sick/sinners in that passage are obviously the pharisees who immediately jumped to the conclusion that Jesus has committed blasphemy & was deserving of 'just' punishment (death) for it. Of course their conclusion was based on false doctrine & therefore an unjust evil practice.

In Mat 12:7 it is restated as "If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent."

Jesus is stating what is obvious to Him--the pharisees had "condemned the innocent" That was their way of controlling people to follow 'their' strict interpretation of the Word.

In 2 The 1:6, the bible shows plainly "God is just..." He desires men to rightly/properly apply that characteristic in their lives--the pharisees clearly didn't do that--which is why they were referred to as sick & sinners, but faithfully given the opportunity (an apropos example of God's grace/mercy) to meditate on the sentence "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" in hope that they would understand & right their wrongs (i.e. stop condemning the innocent). Unfortunately, some of them obviously chose hate & evil over mercy, because they clearly conspired to have the Romans crucify Jesus.

7:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Continued from above...

Mercy is a form/act of love. When a person expresses such love to someone else, s/he refrains from punishing or reduces just punishment of another person.
Such an act is a manifestation of God's love through that person to another person. When a person has mercy on another person, the merciful person has done good & NO wrong/evil. Therefore a net gain in good has occurred.

On the other hand, when a person sins & the sacrifices something to atone for that sin, such an act leads to a manifestation of God's love through that person to negate the sin. The benefit is that the sinner is forgiven & 'should' learn from the cost of her/his sacrifice; however, some people don't learn from their experiences & recommit the sin+sacrifice process repeatedly. God detests that after a while--even though He is faithful in His patience towards slow learners or people who are willing to continue to repeatedly pay the price to sin. No net gain has occurred.

It is therefore pretty clear why Jesus/God prefers mercy to sacrifice--an act of mercy result in a net gain in good--an act of sacrifice produces no net gain in good, due to the sin.

11:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you:)

5:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad that I googled this passage tonight, as god again in a special way has enabled me to understand his purpose. I wish i could interact with you more often.

9:24 PM  

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