Mercy, Not Sacrifice: Sabbath Controversy in Matthew 12

A “God of technicalities”?

The first article I ever published in academia was “The Sabbath Controversy in Matthew: An Exegesis of Matthew 12:1-14″ which appeared in the Restoration Quarterly 27.2 (1984) 79-91. I have now uploaded this on my Academic page.

At some point in the future, I may reflect in personal terms on how that study subsequently impacted me. But that is for another time when I have more time. Perhaps I will make it part of a series about theological turning points in my life. 

However, I linked it today because it relates to my last post, especially the paragraph I quoted from Daniel Sommer at the end of that post. Sommer rebuked what he called a “technical” use of the hermeneutic of silence and authorization. No doubt many wondered whether Sommer himself was not guilty of similar technicalities on where he drew lines of fellowship. In other words, why is the use of instrumental music in a worshipping assembly a godly reason to limit fellowship but to break fellowship over the right hand of fellowship is a technicality? Especially, I might add, when we have technical definitions of when a worshipping assembly begins and ends (choirs–even instruments!–are permitted after the closing prayer but not before), whether a family worship in the home using the piano meets the definition of “worshipping assembly, etc.

Sommer’s language of technicality intrigued me.  That language sometimes pops up in the Stone-Campbell Movement. One recent example  is F. LaGard Smith’s argument that the God of Jesus is a “God of technicalities” (e.g., Naaman, Uzzah) in his Who is My Brother? Facing A Crisis of Identity and Fellowship (p. 252; also p. 127).

It seems to me that this is exactly where Matthew 12:1-14, including the quotation of Hosea 6:6, has something to teach us.  God is not interested in technicalities–he desires mercy rather than sacrifice.  Technically, David broke the law when he ate the “bread of presence” because he was hungry and in a hurry.  Technically, the priests profane the Sabbath every week when they offer sacrifices on the Sabbath.  But if we understand the heart of God, then we will not make these technicalities into fellowship barriers between God and humanity.

Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 as a hermeneutical principle.  If the Pharisees had known the meaning of Hosea 6:6, they would have had the theological and hermenutical lens through which to consider the actions of others. If they had known the meaning of Hosea 6:6, they would not have condemned the disciples….and neither would we condemn David…and perhaps we might not condemn each other as well.

When we evaluate others based on the technicalities of ritual and precision obedience, we miss the heart of God. God is relational, not technical.  God is more interested in mercy than he is ritual.  God is more interested in relationship than he is perfectionistic precision. This is the declaration of Hosea 6:6, the application of Jesus, and Matthew expects his readers to embrace it as a principle for living in relationship with others (see also the use of “mercy” in 9:13 and 23:23).

This does not entail a rationale or an excuse for disobedience, but it should soften our heart with the mercy of God as we relate to others. After all, should we not treat others with the mercy with which God treats us? And, indeed, I need lots of mercy…mercy for my actions, my words, my ignorance…and much more!  I am grateful that God’s heart yearns for mercy more than sacrifice, for heart more than ritual, for relationality more than technicality.

The article I have posted–first written as a seminar paper for a course at Western Kentucky University in 1980–was one of my first steps toward seeing God’s heart instead of what I once thought was his technicalities.  Maybe it might help you…or maybe not.   🙂

14 Responses to “Mercy, Not Sacrifice: Sabbath Controversy in Matthew 12”

  1.   rich constant Says:


    john mark

  2.   rich constant Says:

    The first article I ever published in academia was “The Sabbath Controversy in Matthew: An Exegesis of Matthew 12:1-14″ which appeared in the Restoration Quarterly 27.2 (1984) 7991

    just finished reading
    boy oh boy john mark… 25 years old?
    you were one peice of work
    lesser to the greater…. 🙂
    my friend …
    rom 15:8 maybe paul talked a bit with matt.

    by the way…
    bless you and all yours ..

  3.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    “Do not judge others, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7.1-2, NIV).

    If we must just, then let us judge… only let us first consider if we are willing to be judged by the same criterion we employ in our judgements. The more I am aware of my own sinfulness and inperfections, the more cautious I am in judging others and the more I am willing (and wanting) mercy.

    Grace and peace,


  4.   rich constant Says:

    i always try to remember, if anyone stumbels in one point of the law he is gulty of breaking it all…

    kinda makes for a level playing field….

    if we of the body of believers want to be under the rule of of gods good love (hrough the redempshion from the death) that is found in his son, are we not called to reciprocate to others the grace we find being also son’s.

    i also like the point of the sheep in the pit on the sabbath.
    and is it better to do good on the sabbath than not.

    brings up the question /and answer…of the
    righteous act of the cross,and pit of seperation man was in, the redempshion through perfect faithfullness for all( that are willing to copoperate,and reciprocate god’s good by not counting the sins and trespasses of others)growing into the divine nature that any loveing father would be proud to say “his is my son in whome iam well pleased”

  5.   Larry James Says:

    Folks who regard God as a divine being of technicalities actually are held captive by a view of the nature of the Bible that has nothing to do with God’s own reality. Jesus dealt with this all the way to his death. Maybe we “sweat the small stuff” so much because the really big things are so clear and so demanding. Studying the Bible like a legal brief is a bankrupt proposition.

  6.   Terrell Lee Says:

    JM, I read that article 15 years ago and it was/is really good.

    If God wants to catch me in a technicality there are plenty of them without even having to examine my ever-changing views related to music, div. and remarriage, the nature of the one church, et al. I’d really have a divine zapping awaiting me.

    I’ve come to some degree of peace in my tension, knowing that heart and head will never fully harmonize. My upbringing (heart) sometimes makes me feel guilt and inadequacy when my study (head) tells me there’s more to consider than technicalities and inadequacy. I’ve come to really appreciate 2 Cor. 7:1 and continue “perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” in my journey. Problem is that the technicalities continue to add up in my journey.

    What has really humbled and helped me is the realization that the only way I can be absolutely sure that I’m doing something the exact way God desires would be for me to have all the information on that subject, arrange it in could Baconian sequence, apply correct Aristotelian logic and then balance this with the heart of God. O well, I guess I’ll have to live with a lot of “perfecting holiness,” not “acomplished holiness.”

  7.   Terrell Lee Says:

    “good Baconian sequence,” not “could.” Another technicality! Will I ever get it right? 🙂

  8.   Mark Littleton Says:

    Thanks for the sharing the article. I agree that God isn’t trying to catch us in technicalities. I also think you’d agree with me that God does, though, want us to obey him.

    So in light of all that, what in your view do we do with accounts like Nadab and Abihu, Uzzah, etc.?


  9.   John Mark Hicks Says:


    God surely wants hearts that seek to obey him, that yearn to know him and love him. The problem is that we do all of that imperfectly and the solution is that God is merciful.

    I would suggest that the story about Nadab and Abihu is not about technicalities but about hearts acting out of irreverance as the failure to observe the technicality at the end of the chapter indicates. Nadab and Abihu were zapped, but their brothers and father were not. It must not be about the technicality, I think.

    As for Uzzah, I have commented extensively on that episode at and


    John Mark

  10.   Mark Littleton Says:

    Thanks for the links, John Mark. I figured you had commented on the accounts before, but I’m too lazy to look through all your material. 🙂

  11.   rich constant Says:

    john mark

    i was reading.

    i don’t think this is to far off topic. maybe put up a link

    you sure write well….first time i have ever GOTTON INTO 1st-2ed CH….!!!

    John Mark Hicks

    And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the LORD searches (literally, “seeks”) every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever.

    The general orientation toward God is described as seeking the LORD. “If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever.” The contrast between seeking and forsaking is strong. They are two modes of life. One yearns for God and is devoted to him with a whole heart and delighted soul (cf. 2 Chronicles 6:38). This expresses the integrity and basic direction of a person’s life. A dedicated life finds peace and joy in serving God. The other, however, yearns for something or someone else. It forsakes God to serve other gods. Its direction is the opposite of seeking God. Solomon is given this fundamental choice—the choice we all have—of seeking or forsaking God. It is the choice

  12.   preacherman Says:

    Do believers really know what it means to sacrifice?
    Do believers really know what God means when he says he desires mercy? Do we understand the terms? If we did would the world be a different place?

    Thank you John Mark for making me think!
    God bless you, your family and ministry in 2009.
    You are always in my thoughts and prayers brother.

  13.   rich constant Says:

    here is my 2 cents worth

    of corse there’s roman’s 12:1

    I look to this as the cross and the trinity showing us what this really means to the father…

    even though the most would say this applies to David…
    i liken this psa. as a principal to be attained in the fullest sence by our Lords faithfullness to the Father’s truth……

    Psa 51:16 For you do not desire sacrifice, or I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering.

    Psa 51:17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.

    not a conceited hart….

    thats it john mark the psalmist said contrite we all misunderstood and thought iit must mean conceit because we’ve got God’s technical hermeneutical principles down to a Science.

    blessings all

  14.   Logan Says:

    This stance of “Mercy not sacrifice” may be even more important to understanding God than we thought….
    And perhaps we should begin to renew our faith and explore the meaning behind Jesus’ “sacrifice”. SHOULD we even think of it as a sacrifice? really, could it have been an act of mercy, whereby he let himself be captured and tormented rather than take war and destruction to his oppressors? I don’t know, but I do know that Jesus was insistent on the notion that God wants mercy, not sacrifice.
    FURTHERMORE, Jesus is alive, resurrected, so how could he be a sacrifice? When a bull is sacrificed it is gone forever; that’s kind of the point right? You LOSE something. Jesus did not ‘lose’ at all. It only SEEMED like he did; and the ‘seeming’ is according to our earthly worldview where we are More fearful of pain and suffering, humiliation and discomfort, than we are of God. anyways, thank you for touching upon this crucial aspect of the gospel.


  1. Mark 2:23-3:6 — Son of Man, Sabbath and Opposition « John Mark Hicks Ministries
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