I've been reading through the book of Matthew, and in chapter 9 I came across verse 13. It's when Jesus was answering the Pharisees after they asked Him why He ate with the tax collectors and sinners:

13: But go ye and learn what this meaneth, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.

I didn't give it much of a thought until I came to chapter 12 verse 7. Here again Jesus was answering the Pharisees too after they asked Him why His disciples were plucking and eating the ears of grains on a Sabbath.

7: But if ye had known what this meaneth, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.

And the first part really hit me - "if ye had known what this meaneth".

I did a Bible search for the phrase and found Hosea 6:6

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

Can someone please explain to me in a very simple way what the phrase means "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice" and why Jesus was telling that to the pharisees.

Why does he use the specific word mercy?

Checking the meaning of the word at google it says:

Compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm.

6 Answers 6


Jesus was with little doubt alluding to the passage in Hosea.

See also Isaiah 1:11-17 (21st Century KJV)

11: To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats.
12: When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts?
13: Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.
14: Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them.
15: And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.
16: Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil;
17: Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

What Jesus was saying was if the Pharisees knew God and understood what really mattered to Him, they would not put such overemphasis on rules about such things as ritual cleanliness and restrictive Sabbath observance.

  • Finally understood. God wants us to love Him sincerely not 'bribe' HIm with our gifts and sacrifice. Your answer and @Mason answer have shed light to this issue. Thanks alot and God bless.
    – Parto
    Feb 26, 2014 at 13:39
  • @Parto Well technically to me that makes it very confusing because then what is the point of the Crucifixion if it was about mercy and not sacrifice? Aug 19, 2014 at 19:43
  • God requires sacrifice in a way Paul describes it in Colossians 1:24
    – Grasper
    Nov 11, 2014 at 14:12
  • 1
    @publicstatic I believe the crucifixion was about mercy. It was done to "bring many sons to glory." The point in Hosea and Isaiah isn't, "Don't sacrifice," it's "Don't sacrifice hypocritically. First learn to be merciful." Jesus sacrificed himself as an act of mercy after living his life constantly demonstrating mercy on the downtrodden. Jan 31, 2015 at 19:22
  • @publicstatic another way to look at this is that mercy is how we interact with others but sacrifice is how we interact with God. There are many times that it's mentioned that loving people and loving God are not mutually exclusive. Also see the parable of the unmerciful servant, Matthew 18:21-35, love fulfills the law, Romans 13:8, a tree is recognized by its fruit, Matthew 12:33, parable of the good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37, about sacrifce, Matthew 5:23-24.
    – dwbartz
    Mar 29, 2017 at 10:29

Probably the clearest explanation is found in Galatians 3:24:

Wherefore the law [of Moses] was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.

Various times in the Old Testament (see the answer by Confutus for a few examples) the prophets pointed out God's frustration at the people missing the point, but they just missed the point of that too. By the time of Christ, it had gotten to the point where it would not be at all unreasonable to say that the Jews were worshiping God's Law more than they were actually worshiping God.

This is a very easy trap to fall into; replace "the Law" with "the Bible" and you can see evidence of it in several Christian groups today. Jesus was trying to warn them, as had the prophets before him, that they were still missing the point: what God wanted was not a fanatical, fetishistic devotion to the letter of the law, because the law was simply a tool to prepare their minds for the higher law, the law of the Gospel.

What God wanted was for them to grasp the bigger picture, to learn to love him and to love each other. The Pharisees' attitude of condemning and scorning "the sinners" when they themselves were not perfect--instead of, perhaps, using their own moral high ground to help raise these sinners up and help them to repent--showed that they did not understand the bigger picture.

And again, criticizing Jesus and his disciples for taking gleanings to eat while they traveled, which was explicitly permitted and protected by the law, simply because they happened to do it on the Sabbath, is quite a stretch when they attempted to apply a provision meant to prohibit laboring, the day-to-day work that one does as part of their livelihood. (The somewhat stretched Rabbinical logic went like this: picking this grain is a whole lot like harvesting, which is something that, at harvest time, is certainly performed as labor, therefore it should not be done on the Sabbath, just to be on the safe side to make sure we're not accidentally violating one of the commandments.)

The overarching theme, when looking at both of Jesus's complaints in which he pulls out this verse, is that they are missing the big picture, "missing the forest for the trees" in modern parlance.


The inappropriate administration of God’s authority is being addressed here. There is no question that the Pharisees had authority; the issue with the Pharisees is their lack of love for those that were vulnerable to the administration of that authority.

Ultimately we are all vulnerable to the authority of God, we are fortunate that God is a God of mercy:

In Genesis 19:19 “grace” and “mercy” are used in one statement by Lot to God:

“Behold now, thy servant hath found grace (chen) in thy sight, and thou hast magnified thy mercy (checed), which thou hast shewed unto me in saving my life”

Grace apears as magnified mercy!

We know that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Grace is magnified mercy. We know that we are not saved by works (Ephesians 2:9).


As simply as it can be put The Pharisees, were to the Church what Academia is to the world today, in that they were the supposed experts in the law, and were trusted with teaching the law to the public.

Jesus was scolding them because they had missed the true meaning of what the law, was intended to mean.

To that end both Mason Wheeler, and confutus are correct that he was referring to the passage in Hosea. Rick's answer that he was referring to the inappropriate administering of God's law is also correct, but needs some more explanation.

Like we Christians today the Israelites were determined to do their best to please God, and the Jews of today still try to obey some very strenuous laws to do so.

Jesus scolding of the Pharisees could easily be applied to some today, in that what Jesus was telling both them and us today is that no Sacrifice will atone for sin without God's grace.

Even to this day far too many people still do not understand how forgiveness works through sacrifice.

one joke that was told to me pretty well sums up the discrepancy;

Baptist do not recognize other Baptist in the liquor store. That is meant to be funny, and we can laugh at it,(which I did), but on closer inspection there is far too much truth there.

The real message Jesus meant to convey, was that the Pharisees were deluding the people by teaching them that forgiveness was earned by doing all those things and then making a sacrifice to God.

The true meaning of Jesus was (knowing that He was the ultimate sacrifice) Do you think that I came down from Heaven, to suffer and die for such menial things?

My Jesus did not suffer and die, for any other reason than to bring God' Mercy, to those who truly regret that they have saddened God, by their selfishness.

consider these Scriptures:

Matthew 26:28 KJV For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.

I have highlighted the second part because it says for many and not all.

Matthew 7:14 KJV Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

finally consider these Scriptures:

Matthew 7:21 through 23 KJV

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

Back to your original question The true emphasis in:

"But if ye had known what this meaneth, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless."

is "If you had taught the true meaning of the Scriptures, you would know that these are innocent in God's eyes, but guilty in yours, because you have perverted God's laws."


After much prayer and contemplation, I have learned these things, over time, from the Holy Spirit. There are many lessons to learn from Matthew 12 1-8. The overall message, at a quick glance, is that Jesus and His disciples are being watched and condemned by a group of people that believe that they know God and His law better than anyone. They pride themselves in tradition and, because of their blindness, they can't see the true God, who happens to be standing right in front of them. Before understanding what is meant by "I desire mercy and not sacrifice", there is an important principle that must also be understood; that "worship" is, in essence, "imitation". This can easily be observed in our modern pop culture when youth "worship" their favorite public figure by imitation.

Does God Desire Sacrifice? Deep inside the nature of man, in the psyche, are "shades of the garden". When the first parents did what they did, and ran when God came calling, it shows that a change had occurred in their thinking. "God was now out to get them". In an effort to cover their guilt, they covered themselves, which is symbolic of man's thinking that he can be good; that he can appease the "angry God". A sacrifice was made, evidently, as God provided them with the skins of animals to cover their nakedness (guilt and shame among other things). Imagine what they were thinking as he approached them with the skins of dead animals. "We're next", "He did say afterall, 'you shall surely die'". They now had entered into "new thinking", that has been genetically passed on to all of mankind. I like to refer to it as "the angry God syndrome".

When God later instituted the sacrificial system, I believe that the people of that day were thinking something like this..."God is just licking His chops to punish us for our selfish acts, so instead of eliminating us, He has relented, and will be satisfied with the death of our favorite pet." They obviously did not understand, as a people, the purpose or meaning of the sacrifice, or else they would have expected the "lamb of God would come to take away the sins of the world". They would have been looking for a Saviour instead of a King. Since their traditional thinking was limited to seeing God as angry and condemning, and since the principle of worship is imitation, they became an angry and condemning people. They sought to make many extra rules and obligations in order to appease the angry God and thereby escape the yoke of Roman bondage. "By beholding we become changed." If ones view of "god" is marred, one will automatically imitate that in their behavior. If our view of Him is healthy, then...we will be at peace. It's the principle of worship.

Today, if you ask any Christian, "Why did God institute the sacrificial system? What was its main purpose?...you may get an answer like..."It was to demonstrate the plan of salvation and God's love for humanity". This answer is correct, but it's only half of the story. Think of the sacrificial system for a moment. There are two parties involved...one innocent party and one guilty...angry if you will. Which of the two represents God?...the innocent animal?...or the one with the knife? Of course you know that God is the innocent one. That leaves man as the angry one...the one doing the killing. "Whoever is angry with their brother without cause is guilty of murder". God instituted the sacrificial system so that hopefully, people would see themselves as being the angry party and not Himself. Unfortunately, God could not tell them outright. It would have to be learned by natural demonstration. Of course, this was fully demonstrated when Jesus was murdered. Technically, it was first demonstrated by Lucifer, since "he is a murderer from the beginning". How? Look carefully. Heaven is where "the wages of sin is death" was first demonstrated. Who did Lucifer become angry with without cause? Who did he hate? What replaced love for God?...Love for self (selfishness) replaced love for God. God, or at least love for Him, once dwelt in the heart of Lucy baby, but He was replaced with "self love", or selfishness or sin. Let me rephrase that verse in light of the cross. "The wages of sin (selfishness) is the death of...what? What is the opposite of sin or selfishnesss? Love. Since God is Love, the wages of selfishness is the death of God ( in our hearts). Only love or selfishness can coexist in our hearts at one time since they are polar opposites. Ultimately, it is sin or selfishness that wants the sacrifice. So... does God desire this kind of sacrifice?...the death of humans or animals? No. He says, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice". I believe that He instituted the system, (which they used as food by the way), to try to teach the two lessons as mentioned above. Imagine Him telling the average person that they had, in their nature, a desire to eliminate Him. I expect most people wouldn't believe Him since they are "covered with fig leaves". (Even though today, many people are in the process of eliminating Him). Many others are busy thinking that God wants to eliminate them if they think of Him at all. So,..who desires the sacrifice? We do. Who desires mercy? God does. He does not want to be rejected or abandoned. (Imagine if He did want that...what kind of God would He be?)

The good news is that God is a responsible God. He also desires a sacrifice. Perfect love casts out fear, worry and doubt which can be other forms of selfishness. God is at war with selfishness, condemnation, guilt, fear etc. and He desires to eliminate those things from our hearts so that we can have peace of mind, confidence and purpose. He wants us to enjoy some "replacement therapy". He wants "selfishness" to be sacrificed and replaced with good things. Often, when discouraged or tired, we like to medicate ourselves. We may use booze, drugs, sex, religion, reputation, work, entertainment and a host of other things to comfort ourselves. These things may indeed bring temporal satisfaction, but not the deep, nagging "missing-piece-of-the-puzzle" that we long for. Ultimately, we want purpose and relevance. We have been busy chasing the elusive dream, or maybe we having nagging emotional pain due to lack of forgiveness on our part or because of guilt. Perhaps we have "arrived", having every material possession, wealth and fame. The responsibilities of life have become overwhelming. Many, including myself, are discovering Jesus. We have begun to see "with new eyes" as it were. We have tasted, and it is good. You may have heard people say that the bible has lost its interpretation over the years. I agree. There are two ways of reading. One, where seeing God as angry...the other, seeing Him as what He must logically be...a God of immense love and mercy. Not one out to "get you". Not one desiring the death of the innocent.

In summary, Jesus is asking the religious people of the day to "repent"...to receive the gift of new thinking. Since they viewed God as being the angry and condemning one that makes salvation difficult; and since the principle of worship is imitation, they couldn't help but condemn Him. This had become their nature. It is sinful man that desires the sacrifice...not God. If they would see God as He truly is, a God of incredible mercy and love, they would have become like that. They would have had mercy on Him and not sought to eliminate Him. He desires mercy, for Himself and us. He does not want to be eliminated out of our hearts.

  • Hi and welcome to the site! To be honest it's a little hard to process such a wall of text - perhaps you'd consider editing it to make it a little more concise and readable? Further info on what constitutes a good answer can be found in our help centre. Sep 13, 2014 at 17:42
  • I like this, even though it is quite lengthy it is a good explanation. It makes sense, God won't appreciate violence.
    – padippist
    Mar 11, 2020 at 20:31

About the Mathew reference to Hosea 6:6, I was surprised to see the word mercy used. In another translation (NASB) they use the word loyalty. The Strongs word used is #2617 kheh'-sed which uses such nouns as lovingkindness, goodness, faithfulness, love, acts of kindness. So it looks to me like a better word choice would have been loyalty or faithfulness.

  • Welcome to the site. We are glad you decided to participate. I'm having trouble seeing an answer here. I guess it's in the middle paragraph; it should be translated to a different word. In the future, the site is pretty strict on question and answer format, not discussion forum, so referring to other answers is not really perceived as helpful. I hope to see you post again soon.
    – user3961
    Aug 18, 2014 at 23:44

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