I desire mercy, not sacrifice

Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”Matthew 5:20 

The true will of God, and God’s commandments, are the subject of Jesus’ longest and most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said: “you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her, has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

Understanding the true will of God is the duty of every believer. Sometimes, religious people can be so caught up by the letter and form of their religion, that they forget the main purpose of their religion: to know God.

As Jesus’ disciples walked through a grain field on the Sabbath day, they picked the grain to eat, and the Pharisees questioned Jesus, saying, “Look! your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”

The Sabbath was intended as a day of rest, but Jesus’ disciples needed to pluck the food because they were hungry.

Jesus replied, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:1-7).

Illustration of Jesus giving sermon on the mount to crowd of people, Gospel of Matthew
Illustration of Jesus giving sermon on the mount to crowd of people, Gospel of Matthew

The Pharisees had a wrong concept of God. They thought religion was an act of service to God, as a slave to a master.

The Pharisees could not see that God had given them laws because He loved them, because He wanted to help them, and because He wanted to show them how to love one another. The Pharisees had a religion, but they did not really know or understand God. Through the prophet Hosea, God told us, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). God’s people had forgotten the true religion of the heart, the religion of love and justice.

And so God sought, for once and for all, to end the enmity of religion between Himself and man. And He offered the blood of His Own Son as the final sacrifice for the sin of all mankind.

Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus . . . let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19,22) For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father’ (Romans 8:15). 

This New Covenant is not the earning of favor from God, but the acceptance of all of the riches of Christ, through adoption in His family.

Paul wrote: “He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14).

The standard of righteousness of the New Covenant is higher than the written code. It is the true love of God and every man from the heart. Not as an act of religion, but as compelled by the love of Christ.

We may still want to give things up to draw closer to God. We may give up our televisions, our money, or even our food, but God does not want us to bow down our heads in an act of religion. Through the prophet Isaiah, God told us the essence of true religion:

“Is it a fast that I have chosen,
A day for a man to afflict his soul?
Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush?
Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?
If you extend your soul to the hungry
And satisfy the afflicted soul,
Then your light shall dawn in the darkness,
And your darkness shall be as the noonday” (Isaiah 58:5-10).