But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance. Matthew 9:13
When Jesus tells us to go learn what something means, it’s probably a good idea to go and learn what it means! And here it seems that Jesus mocks the Pharisees’ pride (since they thought themselves so knowledgeable of law) by telling them to go learn what this scripture from the book of Hosea meant.
Jesus actually quotes this verse twice to the Pharisees. Once here in Matt 9 and also in Matt 12:7. It’s funny to me how Jesus quotes it in chapter 12, “But if you had known what this means…” It’s almost like He’s saying, “If you had gone and found out what this means like I told you to before, then you might have some sense in your head!”
But the fact that Jesus quotes it twice makes it all the more important for us to understand. So what does it mean?
The scripture that Jesus is referencing is Hosea 6:6. Lets look at the context of that portion of scripture to get a better understanding of what God is saying.
O Ephraim, what shall I do to you? O Judah, what shall I do to you? For your faithfulness is like a morning cloud, and like the early dew it goes away. Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have slain them by the words of My mouth; and your judgements are like light that goes forth. For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. – Hosea 6:4-6
God’s people had turned away from Him, as they often did. Every so often there would be revival in the land, but just like the scripture says, their faithfulness to God would last about as long as the morning dew. In response to their rebellion, God would send his prophets to them in order that he might ‘hewn them (i.e. chop as with an axe),’ and ‘slay them’ by the words of His mouth.
God’s Word is like a sword – it is ‘alive and powerful, sharper than any two edged sword’ (Heb 4:12). It cuts to the heart in order to bring people into a state where they are aware of their sinfulness. We see this in the book of Acts:
Now when they heard this (the Word preached), they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and to the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do? The Peter said to them, “Repent…” – Acts 2:37-38
You see, the Word cut to the heart. Before the Word came to them, they were in their sins, but they were careless. They weren’t thinking about their sin. They weren’t thinking about the judgment to come. They weren’t thinking about spiritual things. They needed God’s mercy, but they were not in a position to receive God’s mercy. It wasn’t until they were cut down with God’s Word that they were in a position to receive mercy. They were brought down to a point where they saw their sinful state, and were sorry for it.
For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it For I perceive that the same epistle (letter) made you sorry, though only for a while. Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. -2 Cor 7:8-10
The apostle Paul, here in Second Corinthians, speaks of a similar circumstance. The Corinthians were in sin. Paul sent them a letter that cut them down and made them sorry (i.e. feel guilty) for their sin. That guilt produced repentance, which led them to receive God’s mercy.
This is what God was trying to do with the people that Hosea was preaching to. He so desired to be kind to them (to have mercy on them), but how could have mercy on those who were not ready to change?
It’s like a surgeon who must cut into a man to fix the problem. Unless the knife comes to the patient’s body, he can never be made well. Unless God can bring you to a place where you are sorry for your sin and ready to repent, He can never show mercy and kindness to you – even though He so desires to. You will die, and live forever in Hell.
In my teenage years I was trained and worked as a lifeguard. During training the instructors spoke of how some people who were struggling to stay above the water would panic and seek to grab a hold of the rescuer. This frantic victim would make the situation worse, and quite possibly drown both himself and the rescuer. In response, the lifeguards were trained to punch the victim in the face. Although it was painful for the victim, it was the best way to save the victim.
God, in a sense, needs to punch us in the face. Not necessarily because we are frantic, but because we are careless. It would be as if your best friend was in a daze, about to walk over a cliff. You would shout at him, you would grab him, you would hit with a baseball bat if you had to! Anything to keep him from going to his death.
This is what God means when He said he sent the prophets to ‘hewn’ them and ‘slay’ them.
But His people were not listening. Instead they held to a religious facade that included sacrifices and offerings. They would go to the temple and offer sacrifices, but their heart was far from the Lord. They served other gods, they lived in sin, but they had this funny idea that as long as they offered sacrifices to the Lord, too, then they would be OK. They were not OK. That’s why God said “I desire mercy, and NOT sacrifice.”
This brings us back to Jesus, and His dealings with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were condemning Jesus for eating with sinners, but Jesus was eating with the sinners for the very purpose of plunging in the Sword of God, that they might come to a point of repentance. Notice what He said,
I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance. – Matthew 9:13
Jesus, at the dinner table, was calling sinners to repentance. His gentle, but pointed words would cut them to the heart. Jesus wasn’t being buddy-buddy with these guys. He was posing serious questions, but doing it in such a manner of love that they were ready to listen.
Jesus was seeking to bring these sinners to a place of sorrow for their sins, so God could ultimately have mercy on them and bring salvation. The Pharisees, on the other hand, refused to associate with sinners at all. They thought God was well pleased with their sacrifices. They tried to obey all the rules, offer all the right sacrifices, and say all the right prayers, but they were totally missing God’s heart. God is happier about one sinner coming to repentance than about 99 righteous people doing all the right things:
I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just people that need no repentance – Lk 15:7
Jesus has declared to us the reason for His coming, and that is to seek and save that which is lost. If we miss this, then we, like the Pharisees, miss the very heart of God. Are we seeking to show God’s mercy? Are we bringing joy to heaven? If not, then we must also repent, and begin to pray that God would teach us to be the kind of servants that He desires.