Posted by: rogermitchell | September 14, 2011

God is about mercy, not sacrifice, and no sparrow is forgotten!

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mat 9:13) and “Are not five sparrows sold for two cents? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God” (Luke 12:6).

In order to get to the heart of Jesus’ take on the whole idea of payment and appeasement as a means of relating to God, I think it will help to look at these two sayings of Jesus together. There is something so crucial to his deliberate subversion of the whole empire domination system here, that motivates him to tell the Pharisees in no uncertain terms to “go away and learn what this means.” I suggest that this is central to the mindset change that Jesus wished to accomplish in the incarnation. After all, the sacrifice system and its outworking takes up a significant part of the law and the prophets which he claimed to fulfil.

In a previous post on katargēsis and the temple (April 29th) we have already considered the way that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection brought the whole temple liturgy to an end. He did this by carrying through all that was good from it into his own life and subsequently that of his body of followers. So by insisting that the Pharisees, who were seeking to maintain the law and liturgy, learnt the deeper implications of his desire for mercy not sacrifice, it follows that he was implying that at a deep structural level the temple system itself was about mercy, and not about sacrifice. So what was sacrificed was not about payment and appeasement at all, but about mercy, or as alternatively rendered, compassion. It is very important to get hold of this.

Jesus is not saying that because God is sovereign, and we have offended him by not recognising his authority and keeping his law, we are under his angry condemnation, but then the sacrifice system provides a secondary way of mercy by paying off his intrinsic sovereign offence and anger. It is rather that his mercy is what defines him and not his offended power. God is not an angry God needing to be appeased. He is a merciful, compassionate God desiring mercy and compassion to be shown to all and lived out by all.

Looked at this way the sacrifice system is revealed by the teaching and attitude of Jesus, to be about the primacy of God’s mercy and in need of being re-understood in this way. This is where the sparrow comes in. Because if even “a sparrow that falls” moves God’s heart, how much more does a pigeon, a lamb, a goat or a bull, and even a sheaf of corn. The issue is clearly not monetary value but emotional, creational compassion. Sin is revealed as that which elicits God’s compassion, not his anger, condemnation and offence.

With every sacrifice throughout the whole tabernacle and temple period, God’s heart was shown to be overwhelmed by the effects of human sin, and to be bearing it together in his own heart with the bodies of living manifestations of his own deeply loved creation. The purpose of the sacrifice was not to appease God but to demonstrate and carry away the effects of sin. Sin viewed in this way is that which is unloving and unmerciful, and hurtful of God’s own compassionate heart and creation, not what offends God’s person, hierarchical position or sovereign rule.

This takes a long time to grasp, because God’s sovereignty and its offence is the teaching about God that lies at the foundation of Christendom with its marriage of church and empire. But it is not this kind of God that is revealed in the incarnation, and it is in the light of the incarnation that the Christian disciple is called on to understand and interpret life and the universe, particularly the Old Testament, and not the other way round.


  1. Hi Roger,
    For me this again brings me back the very first contact that I had with you after all these years. The idea and thought that comes to mind is that the Old Testament imagery foreshadows Christ. This is something that I never understood until I started asking the question.

    Did Jesus end the Old Testament system? Or did Jesus complete it? And we never really understood it to begin with. So, it’s best to start with the substance (Jesus) and work our way backwards.

    We no longer kill animals because Jesus Christ the Lamb of God came to take away the sin of the World. Jesus did make it go away, He completed it, He was the final word. All that pain and suffering was talking about Someone. I believe that it is correct to go back and talk about much mentioned in Leviticus in these terms, things that we did then, we no longer do now because they were completed in Christ.

    Spirit filled people live apart even though they live in the World, they are not of it. They obey the 10 commandments not because of a written law but because of the New Nature at work within us through the Holy Spirit. We don’t try we just are children of our Father in Heaven.

    It doesn’t just go back to Moses, for instance, circumcision (the removal of the flesh of man). Jesus is the fullness and fulfilment.

    The Temple Hierarchical structure that we ended up with does not align with what we started with.

    The Law was there to teach people acceptable from unacceptable, good from bad and in that explain The Father to Israel, it was meant to be a teacher not a bondage. But if you love sin and yet are still under the Law, what good can The Law do you? Again if you love darkness and are close to God, what good will that do you?

    Again, just to prove it, with all that we know about Jesus, imagine trying to live like Him but without the Holy Spirit. You would find yourself under The Law.
    For me, The Law isn’t bad, when properly understood and applied; it’s good, wonderful even because it teaches us about God.

  2. I think it is interesting that we find it so difficult to grasp the essential truth of God’s mercy and compassion. Yes, it might go back to long teaching that came out of the church embrace of empire. But I wonder if there isn’t something else there – I won’t say a sadistic desire for punishment but maybe we like a system of accounts. Then we can tote up what we owe, choose to pay or not, and be on our way. A God who bends close with compassion and mercy may be far more frightening to us. How do I resist that?

  3. Hi Roger,

    I had a dream with you in it the other night where you were saying that you were finding it difficult to know how to work out what you are carrying at the moment. It’s because so many people have a view of who you are and what you believe that based one ten years ago and that they aren’t really hearing what you are saying!!!

    With that in mind and hoping I can hear, I find this topic really interesting. I find it hard to get my head around this. I having been reading through the old testament and have got as far as Deuteronomy. I know some of the ways we are meant deal with the tension of old and new testaments but as I was reading through all the sacrifices I find myself really struggling to understand the point of it. Being from a farming background I can picture what is happening and the smell and mess isn’t really for the faint hearted. Being a priest wasn’t very glamorous, he basically a glorified butcher. Why does God set up set up a complex priest system with the mess and gore and to bring the Jews to this place his dealing with other nations is so brutal but through it all there is amazing signs of power etc and then reveals himself in Jesus who is so different?

    If God heart is for mercy as it says through the old testament was the world pre Christ so dark and messes up that until Jesus came and dealt with the sin that the best they could have was the old testament covenant?

  4. It once struck me deeply that God says in Lev. 17:11 “For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar.”
    He has GIVEN it, not demanded it. Even though of course Israel was given a law that contained the whole sacrificial system, yet this was a gift, a way for man to understand that God provides access to Himself.
    And, yes, it must have been a gory business. But 3000 years ago, life was gory in the extreme everywhere. Could one say that God speaks our language and uses our cultures to speak to us? Right in the middle of the most cruel cultural environment, God GIVES in stead of demanding.

  5. Roger, wow! “It is rather that his mercy is what defines him and not his offended power.” one to mull on. Thanks for your explanations.

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