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Matthew 9:13 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.” (NKJV)

Jesus commanded the prideful, religious hypocrites to “go and learn” what this means: “I desire mercy not sacrifice”. For those of us guilty of pride or hypocrisy at times, perhaps we should go and learn this too.

First, it helps to put the statement into modern context. We would be more likely to understand if it were stated, “I desire mercy over acts of religion”. But wait! Doesn’t Jesus desire, even command us to do certain “religious” things?

At the time Jesus spoke these words, wasn’t it God’s law that the Jews sacrifice (a religious practice of giving certain possessions back to God)? Yes. So wasn’t the Lord contradicting Himself? Of course not. Then what was He saying?

Jesus was always trying to teach the disciples and the crowds that the “internal” was more important than the “external”. When the “inside” (the heart) is right, the outside takes care of itself. Jesus taught a higher standard of internal transformation rather than external religious conformation.

We’re commanded not to commit adultery (an external constraint); but Jesus said don’t even lust (an internal act) or you have already committed adultery. If you don’t lust (internal), you won’t commit adultery (external).

We’re told not to murder. Our higher New Testament standard is not to hate another person at all. If we don’t hate (internal), we won’t murder (external). We are commanded not to lie, but greater still, not to be dishonest in anyway. If we’re not dishonest (internal) we won’t lie (external).

Let’s look at two real men in the Bible for comparison. One man had the externals right but failed internally. The other man struggled externally, but had the right heart attitudes. The first man:

  • Was a very successful politician who brought peace to his land
  • Was a successful businessman
  • Was known world-wide for his wisdom
  • Built the world’s most magnificent church building for God
  • Was the richest man who ever lived

And yet the Bible says this about him:

1 Kings 11:9-12 So the Lord became angry…., because his heart had turned from the Lord God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice, and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods; but he did not keep what the Lord had commanded. Therefore the Lord said…., “Because you have done this, and have not kept My covenant and My statutes, which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to your servant. Nevertheless I will not do it in your days….; I will tear it out of the hand of your son. (NKJV, names dotted out on purpose)

Now compare that to our second Biblical example. This man:

  • Was man of bloodshed
  • Was very self absorbed at times
  • Committed adultery and took another man’s wife
  • Then murdered the husband of this woman
  • Pridefully disobeyed God by taking a census of his nation

But the Bible has this to say:

Acts 13:22 And when He had removed him, He raised up for them… as king, to whom also He gave testimony and said, ‘I have found… a man after My own heart, who will do all My will.’ (NKJV, names removed by me)

Huh? God was angry at the guy who, by outward appearances, had it all going right. But the wife-stealing murderer was a “man after God’s own heart”. Of course the two men described are King Solomon, and his father, King David. What a remarkable contrast between how we would judge them versus how God, who knows the heart, judged them.

Why did God favor David who seemed really messed up at times, over Solomon, who by all appearances was tremendously successful?

Solomon’s “externals” were right, but he ignored the “internals”.
David’s “internals” were right even though he struggled with “externals”.

David immediately repented when confronted with his sin. Solomon went after other gods even though all his success was the result of God’s blessing. David lamented and confessed his wickedness. Solomon disobeyed God even after being warned multiple times.

In light of this, Jesus statement, “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice'”, could be explained to us in these words:

“You’ve got it wrong. I don’t care about your outward Christian acts as much as I care about whether or not your motives and attitudes for doing them are holy. Get your heart right and your conduct will follow.”

It takes three sentences to clarify (in our vocabulary) what Jesus said perfectly in six words. Jesus didn’t just state those six words alone. He tells us to “go and learn it”. This is partly because we are so spiritually dull and partly because we have to practice what Jesus said over a period of time before we come to fully understand it.

Get your heart right and an acceptable holy life will follow. That is the essence of Christian living.

Father in Heaven, help us to understand that You are a heart-changer and that our behavior will follow our heart. Give us the wisdom to know that external behavior is important but only when it is the product of a Christ-like mind. In Jesus name, Amen.

Contemplation: Do you find yourself sometimes measuring how “good” of a Christian you are by evaluating your external performance (church attendance, Bible reading, prayer)? Do you evaluate your spiritual status by conformity to behavior and lifestyle standards? Or by the depth of your humility, love and obedience flowing from a transformed and regenerated heart?

Application: This is a tough one. Christian hearts produce Christian fruit (works of righteousness). And yes, by that, we can evaluate our Christian walk. But we must be very diligent to cut that fruit open and see if, and how many, worms are crawling around inside. Christian “sacrifices” (good works, adherence to standards) must be motivated by a pure desire of obedience to God and in no way be a source of personal merit, personal glorification or self-righteousness.

  1. What is the most obvious Bible truth you have learned today?
  2. What change in your life needs to be made concerning this truth?
  3. What specific thing will you do today to begin that change?