WHAT DID JESUS MEAN, “I WILL HAVE MERCY, AND NOT SACRIFICE?”
by Shawn Brasseaux
“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” (Matthew 12:7-8). What did our Lord mean, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice?” Let us search the Scriptures and find out!
Read the verses with their context: “ At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat.  But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day.  But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him;  How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests?  Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?  But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple.  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” (Matthew 12:1-8).
Firstly, notice that Jesus’s hungry disciples are picking corn on the Sabbath day. This angers the Pharisees, religious leaders who are sticklers of Mosaic Law-keeping, and who piously tell Jesus, “Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day” (verse 2). They are reminding Jesus of what the LORD commanded Israel through Moses in Exodus 20:8-10: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work….”
Let us see why the Sabbath is important in the context of Matthew chapter 12, thereby learning the meaning of verses 7-8.
The Sabbath day first appears in Scripture in Genesis 2:1-3: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.”
Notice that creation and the Sabbath day are connected. God has just created the heavens and the earth. After six days of working, He rests—not because He is tired, but because His work is finished. From this point onward to Moses and the Law, the Bible makes no reference to man keeping the Sabbath.
Through the Mosaic Law, the LORD commanded Israel in Exodus 20:8-11: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.”
Again, see how Sabbath-day observance and the creation week are related. When God instructed Israel to keep the Sabbath day, they were not to do any work (just like God ceased from His work in Genesis chapter 2): instead, on the Sabbath, Israel was to take the time to remember God’s original plan in creation and their role in it. This background information will now help us better understand Matthew 12:8: “For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.”
Genesis 2:1-3 and Exodus 20:8-11 explain that Israel’s Sabbath-day keeping was connected with the creation week. The writer of the book of Hebrews elaborates:
“ For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.  For he spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works.  And in this place again, If they shall enter into my rest.  Seeing therefore it remaineth that some must enter therein, and they to whom it was first preached entered not in because of unbelief:  Again, he limiteth a certain day, saying in David, To day, after so long a time; as it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.  For if Jesus had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day.  There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.  For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.  Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief” (Hebrews 4:3-11).
Quoting Psalm 95:7-11, which describes how most of Israel rebelled against JEHOVAH under Moses’s leadership and thus could not enter the Promised Land (the “rest,” God’s kingdom on earth), the writer of Hebrews cautions Israel during the (future) seven-year Tribulation not to repeat their forefathers’ mistakes, so they may enter Christ’s millennial kingdom.
Both Adam and Israel under Moses fell into sin, delaying God’s earthly kingdom connected with the Sabbath “rest.” Regarding Matthew 12:7-8, Jesus the King, is now on earth, ready to bring in Israel’s kingdom if she would trust Him!
Genesis 2:1-3, Exodus 20:8-11, and Hebrews 4:3-11 explain how the Sabbath day (the day of God’s “rest”) was the sign of God’s earthly kingdom (God’s “rest”). Psalm 132:5,8,13,14, the words of King David, enlighten: “Until I find out a place for the LORD, an habitation for the mighty God of Jacob…. Arise, O LORD, into thy rest; thou, and the ark of thy strength…. For the LORD hath chosen Zion; he hath desired it for his habitation. This is my rest for ever: here will I dwell; for I have desired it.”
The Sabbath-day rest reminded Israel of God’s original purpose in creation, and her role in His plan to reclaim the earth. Had Adam not sinned, God’s earthly kingdom would have been established 6,000 years ago with Adam and Eve. God created the nation Israel to do what Adam failed to do in the earth, but Israel too fell into sin, so again, God’s earthly kingdom was postponed. That earthly kingdom was in David’s mind when he sought to build the Temple, God’s house (Psalm 132 in the previous paragraph, and note how God declared, “This is my rest for ever: here will I dwell; for I have desired it.”).
Unfortunately, 600 years after David, at the close of the “Old Testament” Scriptures, sinful Israel has been scattered among the nations, JEHOVAH’S glory has left the Temple, and the Temple has been utterly destroyed. For the next 400 years, God is silent toward Israel (John the Baptist’s ministry breaks that silence).
When we come to the context of Matthew chapter 12, we find Jesus Christ, the LORD of Psalm 132, now come to His nation Israel. The mighty JEHOVAH has now arrived in human flesh to offer Himself as their King, to usher in that kingdom whose establishment has been repeatedly interrupted by sin. The Pharisees, blinded by their religious fervor, fail to see Jesus as “Lord of the sabbath day.”
Christ’s disciples are hungry, so they pluck corn and eat it as they and Jesus pass through the fields (Matthew 12:1). The Pharisees, rather than being sympathetic toward these hungry believers in Christ, chastise them for “[doing] that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day” (verse 2). “Moses said not to work on the Sabbath Day, and Your disciples are disobeying Moses!”
Like the entire nation Israel, these religious leaders have lost sight of the God who gave them the Law through Moses. The Pharisees, the chief example of this hypocrisy, worshipped the Law instead of worshipping the God whom they were to worship using the Law!! Jesus frequently condemned this vain religious system during His earthly ministry (similar vain religion has plagued the Church the Body of Christ for the last 20 centuries!).
Christ twice-reminded these “educated,” conceited Pharisees of their ignorance of the Old Testament Scriptures: “But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; how he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests? Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?” (Matthew 12:3-5).
Jesus wisely argued that, although the shewbread was only meant for the priests to eat, David and his men were hungry and were permitted to consume it (1 Samuel 21:1-6). Furthermore, He argued that Moses’ inspired writings—“the law”—approved work on the Sabbath if not working caused one to disobey other laws of God. Remember, Israel’s priests had to perform Tabernacle and Temple duties, even on the Sabbath day.
Obviously, the Pharisees were so preoccupied with the Sabbath-day keeping that they overlooked the Sabbath-day meaning! When Christ’s hungry disciples pick corn and eat it, the Pharisees become angry and complain that they have broken the Sabbath-day ordinance. In Matthew 12:3-5, Christ wisely argued that although the shewbread was only meant for the priests to eat, David and his men were hungry and thus permitted to consume it (1 Samuel 21:1-6). Also, He argued, Moses—the Pharisees’ idol—said work on the Sabbath was acceptable if not working caused one to disobey other laws of God.
For instance, Israel’s priests had to perform Tabernacle and Temple duties, even on the Sabbath day. Another example is that the Jewish male baby had to be physically circumcised on the eighth day, even on the Sabbath day, or God wanted nothing to do with him (Genesis 17:10-14; Leviticus 12:3; John 7:22,23). A final example is that the Law commanded Jews to rescue their neighbors’ livestock trapped under burdens or fallen into pits, even on the Sabbath day (Exodus 23:5; Deuteronomy 22:4; Matthew 12:11,12; Luke 14:5; cf. Luke 13:15,16).
Israel’s spiritual condition during Jesus’s day is obvious. Satan, via vain religious tradition, has the Jews keeping laws for laws’ sakes! There is no faith in the Word of God; it is just mindless ceremonies, rites, and rituals. The same is true for much of Christendom today! There is no real hunger for souls and sound Bible doctrine; the emphasis is on experiences, entertainment, ceremonies, and regulations.
Whenever Jesus Christ healed the sick on the Sabbath day, the Pharisees were there forbidding it and criticizing Him. They would rather let sick people suffer than for Jesus to heal them on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:10; Mark 3:1-6; John 5:8-13; John 7:22,23). Jesus addressed their cruelty by telling them, “I will have mercy” (Matthew 12:7). He addressed their faithless religious performance by telling them, “I will… not [have] sacrifice” (Matthew 12:7). The Pharisees had no idea what Jesus meant anyway, for they were too blinded by sin and religious tradition!
“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” (Matthew 12:7-8). What did our Lord mean?
The Pharisees, as well as other religious leaders of Israel, were not serving the LORD of the Old Testament Law that they studied. While they were highly educated and appeared good, they were not merciful toward the sick and hungry. They were sticklers for not working on the Sabbath day, and yet, they had no idea what the Sabbath day even represented. Blinded by their religious tradition, they preferred to see the hungry faint and the sick suffer, than even dare break the Sabbath!
Jesus told the Pharisees, “But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7). The Pharisees’ heartlessness originated from a desire to serve a denominational system rather than let the love of the Lord Jesus Christ operate in their hearts and actions. The disciples were hungry, so Jesus Christ—the Person who authorized Sabbath-day observance—permitted them to pick food on the Sabbath. The Pharisees erred in presumptuously criticizing Christ’s disciples. They failed to realize that the JEHOVAH who had instituted the Sabbath-day observance, the “Lord of the sabbath day,” was Jesus Christ—the Person standing right in their midst!
One last interesting tidbit to conclude: In the companion passage of Matthew 12:7-8, our King James Bible has the unique expression, “the second sabbath after the first” (Luke 6:1). That Sabbath of Matthew 12:1-9 loops back to the original (first) Sabbath of Genesis 2:1-3. The time of the fulfillment of the purpose of that original Sabbath—the establishment of God’s earthly kingdom—was near during Christ’s earthly ministry. Alas, the Pharisees failed to make that connection between those two Sabbaths. Religious tradition had caused them to ignore the God of the Sabbath, thereby causing them to be merciless and self-righteous for the sake of religion, and worst of all, they missed God’s kingdom altogether!
That is what our Lord meant, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.”