The difference between Mercy and Sacrifice

Scripture Reading

But if ye had known what [this] meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.

Matt. 12:7-8

Old Testament Throwback

This verse on the difference between mercy and sacrifice forms part of a larger passage of scripture from the preaching of Jesus. The statement Jesus refers to is from a prophetic message in the Old Testament from the prophet Hosea where he states, “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” [Hos. 6:6] Without delving into the often challenging realm of interpreting prophecy, there are some readily apparent themes evident from this scripture.

For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.

Hos. 6:6

Mercy Defined

Let us first however define the key word used in this passage, mercy, as interpreted in the Bible. Jesus spoke about mercy during his sermon on the mount when describing blessed are merciful people in the sight of God. Mercy as defined in a previous Bible study is more akin to having compassion and forgiveness upon people. The meaning and intent is the same as the plea from people who asked to have mercy upon them from the Lord. This was a common expression found throughout scripture as noted below.

Two examples of this are referenced with the first one involving a beggar, “And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out, and say, Jesus, [thou] Son of David, have mercy on me.” [Mark 10:47] A similar plea for mercy was also expressed by King David when he said, “Have mercy upon me, O LORD; for I [am] weak: O LORD, heal me; for my bones are vexed.” [Ps. 6:2] The word mercy is referenced 99 times in the book of Psalms alone, the most in all books of the Bible.

Mercy therefore, represents a plea in reaching out to the Lord with a sense of humility and contrition to the Lord and for him to show compassion upon us. In most instances, it is expressed in prayer and petition to God, perhaps with the intent to be forgiven of sin, or to ask for protection from harm, be it physical or spiritual, or to seek healing from God as the eternal healer.

Have mercy upon me, O LORD; for I [am] weak: O LORD,

Ps. 6:2a

Mercy vs Sacrifice

With that said, let us now look at the phrase from this week’s scripture reading on the difference between mercy and sacrifice. Note first, how the second part of the verse from Hosea states, “…and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” In this passage, burnt offerings are likened to the sacrifice Jesus is referring to in the passage for this week’s scripture reading. Now consider the context in light of the comments Jesus made to the Pharisees. Recall how the Pharisees criticized Jesus for doing something which they viewed as not lawful on the sabbath. In this case, it was picking corn in the fields with his disciples on the sabbath day.

Judgment of the Pharisees

But Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and scribes over their shortsightedness and hypocrisy. Why? Because these religious zealots had evolved over time to instill and impose countless traditions upon the Jews; often holding those traditions in higher esteem than the Mosaic law as received from God. This is why Jesus used examples from the Old Testament such as how David ate the holy bread from the temple when he was hungry but was still blameless.

The point Jesus was making is that the Pharisees held the temple in higher esteem than God who made the temple holy by his presence in the temple. Thus Jesus proclaimed, “But I say unto you, That in this place is [one] greater than the temple.” [Matt. 12:6] The one greater than the temple was of course God but the Pharisees missed the point in the whole discussion. Instead, they became judgmental of others over their inability to keep up with their imposed traditions and completely forgot the weightier matters of the law, such as judgment, mercy and faith.

But I say unto you, That in this place is [one] greater than the temple.

Matt. 12:6

Condemnation of the Pharisees

Fast forward to another encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees when he expounds more deeply upon this same dilemma of their double standards, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier [matters] of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” [Matt. 23:23] The Pharisees had become nothing more than a cloak of self-righteous religion by viewing their own sacrifices more important than showing compassion or mercy to someone.

Fateful Lack of Mercy

There is another interesting example of the word mercy used in scripture and this occurred when Jesus shared a story about two people who lived very different lives. One person was a rich man who wore fancy clothes and ate fine foods. This person was contrasted with a beggar who suffered from sores on his body and could only lay down on the ground where dogs licked his sores. As time progressed, the beggar died and was carried to heaven by the angels. The rich man however had a far more different fate when he died and ended up in hell.

In his place of torment, the rich man exclaimed in agony, “And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.” [Luke 16:24] The sad reality of this passage is that people will indeed cry out for mercy but in this situation it will be long after they should have shown mercy to others.

Apostles Preach Mercy

Let us now transition further into the New Testament to explore a few passages of scripture from the apostles who wrote many letters to new believers in the early churches. Paul often wrote about where mercy truly originates from, “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us,” [Eph. 2:4] Similarly, James wrote of God’s merciful nature as he expressed, “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, [and] easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” [Jam. 3:17]

But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us,

Eph. 2:4

Also note how the apostle Peter presented the mercy from God as he wrote in his letters, “Blessed [be] the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” [1 Pet. 1:3-5] In this passage of scripture there are such blessed words of hope, comfort and assurance for our spirit and soul and they all start with “his abundant mercy”.

Will you have Mercy?

In closing this Bible study on the difference between mercy and sacrifice, let us always remember to seek the Lord in prayer for the abundant mercy he has shown upon all of us. Let us also learn from the Psalmist in having confidence in God’s mercy upon us as written in this passage, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.” [Ps. 23:6] 

Finally, let us be reminded of the enduring and everlasting love from God’s mercy as written in the book of Jude, “Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.” [Jude 1:21]  Dear readers, this is where mercy truly starts, through the love and compassion of the Lord Jesus Christ. Be encouraged by these words from God’s eternal word and show mercy upon others.

As we receive such an abundant mercy from God, it is now incumbent upon us to offer ourselves back to him in sacrifice as Paul so eloquently wrote in his book to the Romans, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” [Rom. 12:1-2]

Bible Study Questions

  1. In this study about what is the difference between mercy and sacrifice, what Old Testament verse is Jesus referring to in this week’s scripture reading?
  2. How would you define mercy to someone who was asking what it means from a biblical perspective?
  3. What is an example of a sacrifice from this Bible Study?
  4. Why do you think the Pharisees were so quick to cast judgment upon Jesus instead of seeking to understand the deeper meaning of his preaching?
  5. The apostles preached that mercy did not come from God, true or false? Hint Eph. 2:4, James 3:17.
  6. Choose one of the verses referenced in this Bible study to memorize as part of growing your faith.
  7. Name one person now in your life who you feel you should show more mercy to the next time you are together.

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