"I Desire Relationship Not Sacrifice"


December 2017


This past week we ended the holiday of Hanukkah or “Dedication” that commemorates when Judah Maccabee restored the purity of Jerusalem’s temple after having been desecrated by Gentiles with their pagan sacrifices.  Among other things, Judah’s forces tore down the altar that had borne the blood of pigs, and rebuilt a new one in its place.  Having completed the remodeling, Judah celebrated this rededication for eight days at the end of 164 BC.  At the heart of Hanukkah is restoration of pure sacrifice.

We also know according to John 10:22 that Jesus was in the temple courts during at least one celebration of Hanukkah almost 2000 years ago.  Reading the gospels, we know that the Temple was at the center of Jesus’ visits to Jerusalem.[1]  He likely would have taught on the southern steps of the Temple as other Jewish sages of the first century would have, like Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher.[2]

Jesus’ frequenting of the House of the Lord should not be surprising, because as a Jew, Jesus was obedient to God and His Torah which commanded the Jewish people to bring sacrifices only to Jerusalem.  Jesus’ interpretation of scripture may have been creative and provocative at times, but his reading of the holy text was always faithful to its intent and spirit.  In fact, his challenging teachings in the gospels often betray an affinity for the biblical prophets and their call to repentance and restoration.

One time, Jesus was eating a meal with some people who were considered unclean.  Some of the religious leaders asked Jesus disciples,

“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

When Jesus heard this, he said,

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 

But go and learn what this means:

‘I desire hesed, not sacrifice.’

For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”         Mt 9:10-13

At first glance, one could think that Jesus was negating the temple and its sacrifices.  But if we look deeper, we notice that Jesus was quoting the Prophet Hosea who had called the people of northern Israel 700 years prior to remember their eternal covenant with God.  The book of Hosea is a prolonged plea for restoring the relationship between the Lord and His people who had sought and sacrificed to other gods.

“Come, let us return to the Lord. 

He has torn us to pieces, but he will heal us;

he has injured us, but he will bind up our wounds.

After two days he will revive us;

on the third day he will restore us,

that we may live in his presence.

Let us acknowledge the Lord;

let us press on to acknowledge him.

As surely as the sun rises, he will appear;

he will come to us like the winter rains,

like the spring rains that water the earth.”

“What can I do with you, Ephraim?

What can I do with you, Judah?

Your love is like the morning mist,

like the early dew that disappears.

Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets,

I killed you with the words of my mouth—

then my judgments go forth like the sun.

For I desire hesed, not sacrifice,

and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”     Hos 6:1-6

The verse that Jesus quotes, is often translated as “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” but mercy is not a sufficient translation here for the Hebrew word, hesed.  The semantic range for hesed is wide, with possible translations of different occurrences in the Hebrew Bible:

lovingkindness, mercy, kindness, loyalty, faithfulness, faithful love, covenant faithfulness, allegiance, constant love, love that lasts, or loyal love. 

Put simply, hesed is the “glue of a relationship”—it is what sticks two parties together, whether a marriage, a family, a political alliance, and especially God’s relationship with Israel.  Hesed is that faithfulness and loyalty found in any true relationship.

Thus, Jesus affirmed the words of Hosea.  Sacrifice without loyalty, or faith without faithfulness, is not acceptable in the eyes of God.  God wants a real relationship with us.  Or you could idiomatically say, “For I desire relationship, not just sacrifice.”

A generation after Jesus, the temple was destroyed by Titus and the Romans in 70 AD.  Jesus had spoken about that coming day and how one stone would not be left upon another stone.[3]  He had even spoken about another desecration of the temple.[4]  With the temple’s destruction, the religious authority of the temple was transferred to the coastal city of Yavne by the Jewish leadership under Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai.  With sacrifice no longer available, the future of the Jewish people’s relationship with God would require fresh application of scripture.  One rabbinic story recounts this turning point in Jewish practice. 

Once, when Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua passed by Jerusalem [after its fall], they were looking upon the city and the ruins of the Temple and Rabbi Joshua exclaimed, “Woe unto us, that the holy place is destroyed which atoned for our sins!”

Rabbi Yohanan replied, 'My son, do not grieve on this account, for we have another atonement for our sins; it is hesed, as is said, I desired hesed, and not sacrifice.[5]

Jerusalem’s temple had been the sacred bridge between God and His people for a thousand years.  Moving forward, with or without a temple, God’s bond with Israel was ultimately not based on Israel’s sacrifice but on God’s hesed—his faithfulness and loyalty towards them.  

Sacrifice was and is important, but the cart must not go before the horse.  While it may be easy to assume our sacrifice merits God’s response, it’s the “obedience” of our sacrifice that draws His attention.[6]  God’s purpose is relationship.  Hanukkah’s hope is that restoration of relationship for the Jewish people.  Even greater, we know God seeks to restore His relationship with all nations and peoples through the “grace of the Lord Jesus.”[7]

“After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent.

Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it,

that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,

even all the Nations who bear my name,

says the Lord.”                                Acts 15:16-18 (LXX Amos 9:11-12)



[1] Lk 19:47; 21:37; Mt 26:55

[2] Tosefta Sanhedrin 2:2; Acts 22:3

[3] Mt 24:1-2,

[4] Mt 24:15

[5] Avot de Rabbi Natan 4.  Within Rabbinic Jewish tradition, this story was used to explain how prayer and personal piety replaced temple sacrifice.

[6] “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord?  Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” 1 Sam 15:22

[7] Acts 15:11-21