Mercy Triumphs Over Justice
Jan 23, 2008
We have not fully appreciated the statement in James 2:13, "mercy rejoiceth against judgment" (KJV), or "mercy triumphs over judgment" (NASB). Let me explain.
James, the brother of Jesus, was the first leader ("bishop") of the Church in Jerusalem. At the time Jesus was crucified, he was not even a believer, as is so often the case with family members. But after Jesus' resurrection and appearance to the brethren, he became firmly convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. Eleven years later--after the other James had returned from a missionary journey in Spain and had been martyred by Herod (Acts 12:2)--Jesus' brother by the same name was elected bishop in Jerusalem.
This James was well versed in the Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament). No doubt he had studied the Ark of the Covenant and had seen how its construction manifested the mind of God insofar as the law's application and administration.
The Ark itself was a box made of wood overlaid with gold (Ex. 25:10, 11). Wood speaks of humanity or human flesh, while gold speaks of the divine nature. This combination of wood overlaid with gold prophesied of the ultimate purpose for man's creation, which is to take human flesh, made of the dust of the ground, and overlay it with gold in order to manifest the glory of God in human flesh.
This purpose was first seen in Jesus Himself, who is the first to fulfill the prophecy of the Ark of the Covenant. But, of course, it also prophesies of His Body--those who will yet fulfill this purpose by completing the journey through Passover, Pentecost, and finally Tabernacles. Upon such people the glory of God will rest, even as the Head is so positioned on the Body.
Within the Ark were three things: the two tablets of the law (Deut. 10:5), Aaron's rod (Num. 17:10), and an omer of manna (Ex. 16:33). See also Heb. 9:4, where they are listed together.
These signified the law, the authority to administer it, and the Word of God (and Christ who is the Word made flesh).
When Heb. 8:10 speaks of God writing the law in our hearts by the New Covenant, this is pictured as the Ark housing the tablets of the law. Those who have the law written in their hearts are those who have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church (the manna). These are also the administrators of the law, on behalf of the rest of humanity, until such time as all come to the knowledge of God for themselves. This is the purpose of the New Covenant (Heb. 8:11).
As bishop of Jerusalem, James certainly would have studied this carefully in order to know how to administer the law with justice and mercy in the Church. He took note that the mercy seat was positioned on top of the Ark itself and was made of pure gold (Ex. 25:17). We read in Exodus 25:21,
"And you shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I shall give you."
Hence, James says, "mercy triumphs over judgment." The translators may not have understood that James' statement was referencing the Ark of the Covenant, or they probably would have translated it: "mercy exults (or is exalted in position) over justice."
The law, of course, administers divine justice. The Greek word used by James is krisis, which (according to Strong's Concordance) means "decision (for or against); a tribunal; by implication justice (specifically, divine law)." In other words, it has to do with making a decision in regard to two disagreeing parties about what is right and what is wrong. Many think that judgment is a purely negative word, and no one wants to be "under judgment," because they think it is synonymous withcondemnation. But in reality, judgment is neutral, because in a dispute both sides are judged, but only one side is right and is certainly not condemned (ruled against).
A better word to use, then, which conveys a more accurate picture in today's world, is justice. True justice is determined by the divine law. Man's laws are often unjust in themselves, and when this problem is combined with the problem of having imperfect administrators of the law (judges), there can be much injustice in a nation, as most people are aware. But divine justice is perfect, by biblical definition, for it reflects the mind of God.
The only real problem arose when God appointed men as administrators of the law in the lower courts on earth. The administration of the law has often become hardened and legalistic in its application. This is a particular problem among those who have not studied the Ark of the Covenant itself and therefore do not understand that "mercy exults over justice."
James uses the Greek word katakauchaomai, which, according to Strong, is a combination of two other Greek words, kata, "down," and kalupto, "to cover up." For example, in 1 Cor. 11:7 we read that a man ought not to have his head covered (kalupto).
In that same sense, the mercy seat COVERS the Ark of the Covenant. It is positioned above the tables of the law. The term also means "to exult, to exalt, to triumph, and to rejoice." James uses the term as a perfect play on words. Even as the mercy seat is exalted over the law, so also does mercy triumph in the end, and, in fact, mercy rejoices even as the winner of a contest rejoices in winning the prize.
Now here is the final application of this verse: The glory of God hovered over the Ark between the Cherubim. Essentially, the Ark of the Covenant was the Throne of God, from which position He spoke to the people and ruled them as King. Exodus 25:22 says,
"And there I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel."
The Ark itself was God's throne. The throne is a universal symbol of law. Hence, the Ark contained the law to signify that the One sitting upon the throne was administering the justice of the law. However, the King sat upon the mercy seat, which was the place of administration. Even as God makes a distinction between the Ark and the mercy seat, so also is there a distinction between the law and its administration. One can have the law and still administer it incorrectly (or without mercy), and this often happened in the history of Israel.
It is only when the King administers the law with mercy that true righteousness is established in the land. This is the mind of Christ, before whose tribunal all shall stand (Rom. 14:10).
Jesus never put away the law when He was called to administer it. He was certainly accused of it by those legalists who did not understand the mercy factor. But even in the case of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), He did not put away the law, but rendered judgment according to the law of jealousy found in Numbers 5, as I have shown earlier. In the Sabbath issues that topped the list of accusations, Jesus showed that God was more interested in mercy than in rigid, man-made rules defining "rest."
By the mercy factor, God never intended that a man should go hungry or remain sick on the Sabbath for the sake of "resting." The intent of the law is mercy, which, in fact, provides true justice by the mind of God. The Pharisees were largely devoid of this understanding, and for this reason they unjustly accused Jesus of violating the Sabbath.
And at the Great White Throne Judgment, Christ will sit upon the mercy seat when judging the people. The fiery law will go forth as a stream from the throne (Dan. 7:9, 10) to form a "lake of fire" (Rev. 20:14). But mercy will always triumph over judgment.
Dr. Stephen Jones