“But if ye had known what this meaneth, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ ye would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7).
The Pharisees have come out again and have attempted to condemn Jesus and His disciples for violating their strictures regarding the Sabbath. Jesus stands against them because they have entirely missed the purpose of the Sabbath on account of their legalistic perspective.
He charges them with not understanding Samuel’s utterance to Saul in 1 Samuel 15:22, a message also seen in Hosea 6:6, Isaiah 1:11-20, and Jeremiah 6:19-20. This message strikes at the heart of what it means to be a true servant of God versus just going through the motions.
In all of those Old Testament contexts, the people of God were providing the sacrifices which God commanded for them to provide in the Law (cf. Leviticus). Yet God would not accept them. It was not a matter of the technical requirements, as if the sacrifices were themselves offered improperly. God rejected them because the sacrifices were not consistent with the rest of their lives. Sure, they would sacrifice to God, but they were not obeying God otherwise! Saul had brought all kinds of animals to sacrifice for God when God told him to devote Amalek to the ban. The Israelites in the days of Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah brought their requisite offerings yet were also serving idols, committing oppressions and violence in the land, and not following the LORD as commanded.
These Pharisees were doing the same thing. They went to great lengths to understand the Book yet did not actually practice much of what was in it. They devised a series of all kinds of guidelines to keep people from violating the Law– a veritable “fence around the Torah”– and in the process missed its most essential commands (cf. Matthew 23:23-24). Even though they did not commit the exact same sins as their forebears, they fell under the same condemnation!
These are strong warnings for us today. It is good to know what the Bible teaches and to do all one can in order to avoid sin (cf. 2 Peter 3:18, Romans 12:9). On the other hand, Christianity is more than just an intellectual exercise, and its core message discourages any attempt at self-righteousness or sanctimony (James 1:22-25, Luke 18:9-14).
We cannot pride ourselves in having all the details of certain elements of our service to God entirely figured out and then miss the whole of the message. If we assemble with the saints and do all things according to God’s purposes, well and good (Hebrews 10:24-25). But we are to show love, mercy, and compassion to all men at all times, and to serve God as fervently outside of the assembly as we do among the saints (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 5:22-24). Even if we have great knowledge of the Book, we have no reason to be high on ourselves: we remain profitless servants doing only what is our duty when we learn God’s will and apply it (Luke 17:7-10). In the end, no matter how “righteous” we are, no matter how “mature” in the faith, we must remain humble servants of our Lord, encouraging all men to come to the knowledge of the truth in love, confessing that we are not the judges but our Lord will judge everyone on the last day (Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 7:1-5, James 4:12, Ephesians 2:1-10, 4:11-16).
Let none be deceived: if you assemble with the saints but do not otherwise accomplish God’s will, God will reject your “sacrifice.” If you strive diligently to obey God in the areas of life in which it is convenient, but refuse to repent in the more challenging aspects of the faith, God will reject your “sacrifice.” If you understand God’s Word well and seek to apply it in your life yet you look down on your fellow man and consider yourself better than they, God will reject your “sacrifice.” It is only when we remember our place and completely give ourselves over to the Lord Jesus Christ that our sacrifices will be pleasing to God (Romans 12:1, Hebrews 13:15)! Let us both show mercy and provide sacrifice, and be pleasing to our Lord!
Ethan R. Longhenry