What is Mercy in the Bible?

Scripture Reading

And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw [it,] they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?  But when Jesus heard [that,] he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.  But go ye and learn what [that] meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

Matt. 9:10-13

Matthew is Called to Follow

The scene here with Jesus among the publicans and sinners combined with the Pharisees scrutinizing his actions, was also recorded in Mark and Luke. Both alternative accounts provide further information on what transpired. Recall from the previous study that Jesus had just called Matthew to follow him. He was a tax collector, known as a publican, and was working at his receipt of custom when Jesus approached him. Shortly after his calling, Matthew also known as Levi, then proceeded to provide the most gracious hospitality for Jesus, likely inviting many colleagues, “And Levi made him a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of publicans and of others that sat down with them.” [Luke 5:29]  Further information indicates that several people also followed Jesus to Matthew’s house, “…for there were many, and they followed him.” [Mark 2:15b]  So here then, the stage is set for Jesus to address the superficial accusations from the Pharisees, and to then deliver a compelling message of compassion, faith and hope for everyone that was present in the house.

Scribes and Pharisees

A previous study titled, Who were the scribes, encompassed the antagonistic nature of both the scribes and the Pharisees. As rulers of the religious elite for the Jews, they developed over time countless traditions of the elders in the form of religiosity and supplanted them over the very commandments and law of God. As such, the very notion of Jesus, keeping company with publicans and sinners was considered offensive to them, since they saw themselves beyond reproach from a religious perspective. They had forgotten in the process though to maintain the more important matters pertaining to God and Jesus later condemned them for this, “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]  They were the antithesis of what is mercy in the Bible.

Subtle Details

It is always interesting to read and then ponder verses of scripture because in the initial reading quite often some points get missed. A noticeable one in this instance is the phrase recorded by Matthew, “Why eateth your Master.” This indicates that the Pharisees did not confront Jesus directly, but rather most likely muttered their concern under their breath to his disciples. Not only that, they described Jesus as “…your Master…” thereby distancing themselves from someone whom they deemed was in transgression of their self imposed tradition of being in company with people of ill repute. Surely by now, after all of the preaching, teaching and miraculous healings performed by Jesus, the Pharisees must have had a fairly strong inclination that this was no mere man. Even one of their own from last week’s study, named Nicodemus, stated to Jesus during an earlier encounter, “…we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.” [John 3:2b]

Sinners to Repentance

With the Pharisees’ accusation, or rather condemnation now shared with his disciples and obviously overheard by Jesus, it is now time for the Lord’s rebuttal toward their mistaken contempt. Here Jesus responds with a figurative phrase highlighting that only sick people require a physician. In other words, he is the physician and the publicans and sinners are the people that are sick, but in this case it pertains principally to one of spiritual sickness in soul and spirit; otherwise known as our sin nature. The relevance of this passage completely parallels with Luke, “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” [Luke 19:10]  The “lost” described here also infers spiritually lost or spiritually sick people.

Now before getting to the crux of this week’s scripture reading on what is mercy in the Bible, let us move on to the last comment made by Jesus, “…for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” This also ties directly into the physician/sick figurative phrase but now he is literally distinguishing between the righteous and sinners. Since this was directed to the Pharisees it could more aptly have been phrased self-righteous for without the imputed righteousness from God, no one is righteous in their own standing by human effort or works. This was illustrated by Paul, “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.” [Rom. 3:10-11]  Paul is referencing David’s writings with part of it noted here, “…[there is] none that doeth good, no, not one.” [Ps. 14:1-3]

Mercy and not Sacrifice

With the scene expounded upon somewhat to gain better context and background, perhaps this raises the point as said to the Pharisees encompassed in the middle of Jesus’ comments, “But go ye and learn what [that] meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.” It is notable that Jesus is actually quoting from the Old Testament, “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” [Hos. 6:6] Since Jesus said “…go ye and learn what [that] meaneth,”  let us now explore scripture references and do exactly that to learn what he means by this statement.

Mercy in the Old Testament

The act of mercy, or compassion as it is more popularly known today, dates all the way back to the first book in scripture as recorded in Genesis. A man named Lot encountered two angels from the Lord as the pronouncement was made upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destroy them for their wickedness. Since Lot and his family were to be spared for their faith in the Lord, Lot said, “Behold now, thy servant hath found grace in thy sight, and thou hast magnified thy mercy, which thou hast shewed unto me in saving my life; and I cannot escape to the mountain, lest some evil take me, and I die.” [Gen. 19:19] The events portrayed throughout this chapter illustrate the abundant mercy of the Lord upon Lot but it also demonstrates the striking justice and judgment from the Lord over the sins of mankind.

Two other passages from the Old Testament help to illustrate the similar message as shared by Jesus in this week’s scripture on sacrifices versus mercy. Take for example this passage of scripture, “And Samuel said, Hath the LORD [as great] delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey [is] better than sacrifice, [and] to hearken than the fat of rams.” [1 Sam. 15:22] Another comparable reference, “For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give [it:] thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God [are] a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” [Ps. 51:16-17]

Mercy in the New Testament

The New Testament scriptures also help to support the congruent message in scripture of mercy versus sacrifice. Jesus faced accusations from the Pharisees when he and his disciples ate corn from the fields on the Sabbath day. After Jesus demonstrated how this was perfectly acceptable by citing two examples from the Old Testament he then stated this message, “But if ye had known what [this] meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.” [Matt. 12:7] 

A second example takes place when a certain lawyer asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life. After it was mutually confirmed on the importance of loving the Lord with all of your heart, soul, strength and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself, the lawyer challenged Jesus on who is his neighbor. This led to the parable of the good Samaritan where Jesus described the scene of a badly injured man lying by the roadside. Three people subsequently walked by the man, a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan but only the last person showed compassion upon the man and took great care of him. The contrast and irony here is that a priest and Levite were deemed to be far more reputable in society than a despised Samaritan. As Jesus confirmed with the lawyer on who was the true neighbor in this parable, “And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.” [Matt. 10:37]

Merciful Christians

To close off this study on what is mercy in the Bible, as Jesus stated above, “…go ye and learn what [that] meaneth…,” the mercy of the Lord has become our focus this time. Mercy, or compassion, is quite often absent in today’s culture and hopefully this study has provided a better perspective on the mercy of the Lord upon his people. As believers in Christ, it is then our duty and calling to personify this mercy among others, be it family, friends, co-workers, strangers, and even our enemies. This may require people to step out of their comfort zone, to take the less traveled higher road and to do what may often be contrary to emotions; but mercy indeed has its place in the life of believers.

In conclusion, the apostle Peter gave this eloquent and summative statement of God’s glorious and abundant mercy upon us in this scripture, “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]

Bible Study Questions

  1. In this study on what is mercy in the Bible, why do you think the scribes and Pharisees did not associate themselves with publicans and sinners?
  2. Jesus called sinners to repentance but why is this so important for people of faith?
  3. Explain the difference from scripture between mercy and sacrifice. Hint, mercy in the Old Testament.
  4. In the parable of the good Samaritan what did he do for the man found on the roadside that made the difference?
  5. Fill in the blanks. “But God, who is rich in _________, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in ____________, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;).” Eph. 2:4-5
  6. How do you think being unmerciful affects our witness for Christ in the world among people?
  7. What is one thing you could start doing today to show more mercy to people around you?

WORD GUIDE – * (publican – A Jewish tax collector for the Romans)

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