The radiant message of Matthew 9:9-13 is that Jesus came to save sinners. The context shines the spotlight on Christ with glaring intensity. Christ and His mission are plainly the center and all else is designed to point to that center.

We now look at the next principle that will help to rightly calibrate our understanding about this important passage and its related application:

5. God’s Grace is the Lesson

Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’” (Matthew 9:13). The lesson He calls them to learn is the profundity of God’s grace. Here again a subtle shift of center can easily redirect our focus. One commentator explains Jesus’ words to mean, “Go and learn this: Compassion is what God is asking us to demonstrate.” But Jesus was not correcting their view of sinners, He was correcting their view of God and consequently their view of themselves. It was not that they simply lacked compassion or were negligent in reaching out to sinners. The lesson they needed to learn was much deeper—much more profound and central. They needed to learn the heart of God and apprehend their own desperate need for His grace. It was God that they lacked most, not duty.

Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, which has more to do with what God wants wayward Israel to know about Him through repentance and faith. The whole context stresses this fact. The prophet warns of God’s judgment that is coming against apostate Israel: “For I will be like a lion to Ephraim, and like a young lion to the house of Judah. I, even I, will tear and go away; I will carry off, and no one shall rescue. I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress earnestly seek me” (Hosea 5:14–15). But at this very junction, the Lord extends hope through repentance: “Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up” (Hosea 6:1). This is precisely the ministry that Jesus is now demonstrating. Jesus, then, is like the promised new dawn of God’s grace upon an ill-deserving people. What He is calling for is that the people would know Him—know His heart: “Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth” (Hosea 6:3). This is the context that hosts our Lord’s quotation—the larger lesson that the Pharisees must learn. The original reads, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). Jesus was calling for a true knowledge of God and not merely a show of piety. Couched in the book that so graphically illustrates spiritual adultery, Jesus was pointing them to the scandalous grace of God. It was as if He were saying, “You bring Me your sacrifices, while what I want is to show you My mercy.” Jesus is effectively telling them, “Go and learn the heart of God. Only then will you understand who I am and why I have come. Only then will you see why I eat with tax collectors and sinners. Only then will you see your need.”

This is precisely the point that Jesus later teaches concerning tax collectors and sinners. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1–3). Jesus then teaches them about His mission and the principle of grace through three parables. Again, they needed to learn the heart of God. Each of parables powerfully illustrates how God seeks sinners and rejoices over every single sinner who repents (Luke 15:7, 10)—it is all by grace and for God’s glory. This is why Jesus will later say, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21:31). Why? Because by grace, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed” the witness of John that pointed to Jesus (Matthew 21:32). No sin is too great for Christ to forgive and no sinner is too sinful for Christ to save. To quote an excellent line, “Our sins they are many, His mercy is more.”

The Pharisees did not understand this because they did not understand the heart of God (Matthew 11:28–30; Luke 14:21-23; 19:10; John 3:16)—this was the central indictment. First, they failed to see Jesus for who He was and why He came. Second, they failed to see themselves rightly. It is interesting that Jesus never said that the Pharisees’ were wrong in thinking the tax collectors and sinners were wicked. That much was true. What He did say was that they were wrong in thinking so highly of themselves. Instead, they should have cried out, like Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). This captures the point. Grace is the grand lesson. Far from being offended when Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13), we should be overjoyed! J. C. Ryle has aptly stated, “The first thing needed in order to have an interest in Christ is to feel deeply our own corruption, and to be willing to come to him for deliverance. We are not to keep away from Christ, as many ignorantly do, because we feel bad and wicked and unworthy; we are to remember that sinners are those he came into the world to save, and that if we feel we are sinners, that is good. Happy is he who really comprehends that one principal qualification for coming to Christ is a deep sense of sin!” Our own faults should be perceived as so great that they eclipse the faults of all others. We should be so preoccupied with the weight of our own need and the glory of God’s own mercy that our eclipsing ambition is to make much of this Christ—to extol His mercy, His grace, His compassion, His lovingkindness, and His power to save. When we learn this lesson, the focus is not on me or on others, it is on Christ. This is what all sinners need most.

This passage does not focus on how we treat one another, though that certainly gives occasion to expose hearts that do not know God. Exposing corrupt views of God and self are focal in Jesus’ rebuke, not a call to duty.

In our next post, we’ll look at principles six and seven. For more teaching on Matthew 9:9-13, listen to “Jesus Came to Call Sinners”.