While addressing a group of staunch legalists, Jesus accused them of being hypocrites because they only kept part of the law. The part of the law He mentioned was tithing, a human action. He said they were hypocrites because they “ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith.” (Matthew 23:23)
Although these two ideas appear together in other parts of scripture, my first thought when I read this verse was that justice and mercy were listed side-by-side—equal—as two of the “more important aspects of the law.” How can justice and mercy coexist on this list? And how can mercy be part of a law, any law?! Aren’t laws about being just and making things fair?
One of God’s attributes is holiness. This attribute compels Him to be just and expect holiness from all who interact with Him. He knew that our holiness would never measure up to His criteria (Romans 3:12). But another attribute of God is love. God is love (1 John 4:8), so His love also compels Him to have grace and mercy on those who call on His name.
In the time of the Old Covenant, God’s expectation for holiness and meant constant trips to the altar to sacrifice animals that the people either bought or raised—a sacrifice of the time and money as well as the animals’ lives. Now we live under the New Covenant. Jesus put an end to that type of sacrifice when He laid His life down for us as the ultimate sacrifice. His life meets the requirements of Justice—forever and throughout all eternity. Now the only sacrifice God requires for us to receive His mercy is a repentant heart and faith to believe that He has forgiven us.
These three “important aspects of the law” completely comprise our salvation. Justice requires us to admit that we were wrong, repent of our sin, and ask for His mercy. It is through our faith that His sacrifice was sufficient rounds out the law (Ephesians 2:8).
In this one statement to the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, Jesus sums up the entire plan of salvation in which justice and mercy coexist peacefully and beautifully to bring us into a closer relationship with the Father. And in that closer relationship, we are able to be an example to those around us as we live out our faith, extend His mercy to others, and point them to a right relationship with Christ.