Are you merciful?

We sometimes describe people by an absence of mercy. We say, “She is so unmerciful.” We mean that she lacks feeling for others. She doesn’t have a sense of true pity. She has a harsh and judgmental spirit. 

Not so with the true disciples of Jesus.

Those who are the salt and light of the earth are merciful! They have a heart of compassion and pity leading to deeds of mercy. Why? Because they know what it means to stand in great need before God and to receive God’s mercy.  

  • Jesus describes those who, in poverty of spirit, recognized their need for mercy (Matthew 5:3ff.). They’ve realized their pitiable condition before God.
  • They’ve mourned and grieved over it. 
  • They’ve replaced self-defense with meekness.
  • Realizing their emptiness, they hunger and thirst for righteousness. They’ve reached life-changing conclusions about their own condition. 
  • Then, as they experience this beatitude of mercy, they lift their eyes to realize that others stand in need and they feel compassion for them.

Mercy as weakness

In commending “mercy,” Jesus again overturns the standards of His day (and of the natural, self-centered man of all ages). To the Romans “pity” was a sign of weakness. They exalted in power, not pity—in courage, strict justice, and a lack of feeling.  This was a society that took public amusement in the torture of others.

The Apostle Paul described the Roman society saying, “God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful.”  (Romans 1)

Roman society rejected God and deified man. As a result, mercy was not highly esteemed.

Throughout history, nations that reject God and replace man as the center usually end up being very cruel and inhumane. Though they might say they are humanistic, when God is rejected, humanity suffers at the hands of man. Such was the case of Roman society. 

As a footnote to this, America as a nation has really taken the lead in missions of mercy. But the more we turn away from God the more we will continue to see the hardening of the nation’s heart toward the needy. And we are seeing this already in the treacherous murder of millions of babies through abortion: the hardening of the nation’s heart toward the most helpless of all.  

When 2 Timothy 3 describes the perilous time of last days, among other things it says: “People will be lovers of themselves, proud, abusive, ungrateful, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, brutal, treacherous, and conceited.” We are rapidly moving in that direction! In many of our cities we’ve already arrived.

Along with the attitude of the Romans in Jesus’ day, among the Jewish leadership (the Pharisees), a legalistic self-righteousness definitely took priority over “mercy” (cf. Luke 19:9-14: certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt).  In Matthew 23:23, Jesus said to them: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” Beyond the attitudes and actions of the leaders, the common explanation of suffering was “deserved punishment for sin.”

You may recall in John 9, when Jesus and the disciples passed by the blind man.  What did the disciples say to Jesus?  “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?”  Jesus said, “Neither.”  But in their minds, representing the prevailing opinion, suffering was related to punishment for sin.  And the mixture of this opinion along with the hardness of Roman culture and the calloused, self-righteousness of the Jewish leaders, made for a society that put a low premium on mercy.  So Jesus again takes issue with the worldly mindset in this pronouncement.  I think it’s true that (for the most part) the world prefers to insulate itself against the distress of others.  This is just a carnal tendency of the natural self-centered man and Jesus goes hard after it with this beatitude.

What is mercy?  

Is it not compassion for those in need? Mercy identifies with the miserable in their misery. In distinction from grace—grace deals with the sin and the guilt. Mercy deals with the results of sin (the pain, misery, and distress). Grace cleanses and reinstates. It gives what is undeserved. Mercy extends relief. It helps and cures. With reference to judgment—it withholds what is deserved.  One writer said: “In relation to salvation, mercy says, “NO HELL!” whereas grace says, “HEAVEN!” Mercy says, “I pity you!” Grace says, “I pardon you!” (J. MacArthur, p. 192, VI, Matthew)

Could it be that mercy lays claim on us whenever and wherever there is suffering within our reach and our means to help? 

As 1 John 3 indicates, the feeling and action of mercy is related to the love of God at work in and through us.  I John 3:17-18 says, “But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?  Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.”

In terms of human institutions, one thinks of mercy with reference to the Red Cross: the group of people dedicated to going into war-torn, famine-stricken lands to heal and to feed. And certainly this is mercy.  

Jesus commends merciful actions that meet basic human needs.  

In fact, in Matthew 25 on judgment day Jesus will say to His own, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.  Then the righteous will answer Him saying, Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink?  And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You?  And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?  And the King will answer and say to them, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”  

On the human level this kind of mercy for those in distress is perhaps most powerfully portrayed in Luke 10 with the good Samaritan (Read Luke 10).

Notice the Samaritan “felt compassion” for the man who fell among robbers—was stripped, beaten and left half-dead.  And out of that compassion he invested his own time, cloth, oil, wine, transportation, and money.  The man was obviously a complete stranger to the Samaritan and he didn’t necessarily deserve all that help.  But the Samaritan let mercy (deep feeling and sympathy) lead to grace (giving to help).

This is also observable in Isaiah’s prophetic description of Jesus’ ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and freedom to prisoners; to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” (Isa. 61:1-2, cf. Lk. 4:18).

Mercy has a way of asking the question—What if I were in this beaten man’s place?  – or How would I want people to respond to me? Again, mercy has a way of crawling into the skin of another—to feel what he feels.

In contrast, what thoughts do you suppose went through the priest’s and Levite’s minds as they passed by on the other side?

  • “He must have done something to deserve it.”
  • “What a mess he is—He should be more careful.”
  • “If he’s dead and I touch him, I’ll be ceremonially unclean.”
    • “He probably deserved it.”

Hard and calloused hearts lead to selfish responses. No wonder Jesus said to the Jewish leadership, “Give that which is within as charity and then all things are clean for you (Lk. 11:14).

In this parable the kind of “mercy” Jesus advocates does have to do with outward physical needs.  But it also confronts the prejudice of the human heart that hardens us to mercy.  It is not without significance that Jesus chooses two Jewish clerical characters and a Samaritan.

Two dimensions to mercy

1. Kindness to one in need (and Jesus wants to confront our prejudices on this level, challenging the human heart where it most resists.)

2. Pardon extended to one who has wronged us in some way (and in this, Jesus confronts us when we’ve been unjustly treated and the law is in our hand)

Notice Luke 6:31-36 – “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

 If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Interestingly, after this Jesus warns about improper judging (vv. 37- “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven).  

James 2:13 says, “For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”  

Perhaps the most pointed illustration of this dimension of mercy is found in Matthew 18:23-35.  Do you remember this parable?

Pay day arrived and the deeply indebted servant had to pay up!  But so colossal was his debt that it would be impossible for him to repay. So the king issued judgment. The servant, his family, and all he possessed was to be sold. So the servant begged for more time and the account says: “The lord of that slave felt compassion (that’s mercy) and released him and forgave him the debt (that’s grace). Freely given—yet there is an unspoken expectation. Because, after that slave went out and refused to release a fellow servant of a very small debt, hardening his heart to the pleas for patience. The text says: “Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you entreated me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you’ (an unspoken expectation). Well, in verse 34, “The lord once moved with pity was then moved with anger and issued judgment.” And in verse 35 Jesus says, “So shall my heavenly Father also do to you if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

“Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”  

Jesus taught His disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). There are two sides to it.  The disciples of Christ are merciful because they have received mercy and because they need mercy. 

As John Stott wrote, “This is not because we can merit mercy by mercy or forgiveness by forgiveness, but because we cannot receive the mercy and forgiveness of God unless we repent, and we cannot claim to have repented of our sins if we are unmerciful towards the sins of others…Nothing proves more clearly that we have been forgiven than our own readiness to forgive” (pp. 47-48).

Lloyd-Jones breaks this down in practical terms.  He writes, “If, when you sin, you see it and in repentance go to God, and there on your knees immediately realize that you are not forgiving somebody else, you will have no confidence in your prayers; you will despise yourself.  As David puts it, ‘If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.’  If you are not forgiving your brother, you can ask God for forgiveness, but you will have no confidence in your prayer, and your prayer will not be answered.  That is what this beatitude says (p. 104).  (cf. and balance Matthew 18:15-22 w/ Luke 17:5)  Mark it down!  God’s mercy is forever the standard for our mercy (cf. Ps. 18:25; 2 Sam. 22:26; Ps. 32:10; Prov. 19:17).

God’s mercy

It is significant to note that mercy is one of the most prominent attributes of God in the Old Testament.  Of the more than 150 occurrences of the word mercy (chesedh), 90% are used of God and His actions.  

  • Lam. 3:22-23  “His compassions never fail; they are new every morning.”
  • Ex. 34:6  “The Lord declared Himself to be merciful, gracious and longsuffering.”
  • Neh. 9:17  Nehemiah prays to God saying, “You are a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness.”
    • Joel 2:13  “Turn to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness.”

Do you remember why Jonah didn’t want to preach salvation to Nineveh? Because, as he said to God, “I knew that you were a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness.” (Jonah 4:2).

God’s very seat is called “the mercy seat” (cf. Heb. 4:16- “throne of grace—find grace and mercy…”).  When the New Testament speaks of our salvation, Ephesians 2:4-5 says: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions made us alive together with Christ.” 

With regard to our salvation, how aptly we sing: “Mercy there was great and grace was free; pardon there was multiplied to me…”

  • He saw me ruined in the fall,
  • He loved me not withstanding all;
  • He saved me from my lost estate—
    • His loving-kindness (mercy), O how great!

Jesus was mercy incarnate

As the writer of Hebrews says, “He had to be made like His brethren in all things that He might become a merciful and faithful High Priest” (one who can be touched with the feelings of our weaknesses) Hebrews 2:17.  Mercy flowed from Him continuously as he healed, fed and helped others in need and as he received and forgave tax gatherers, prostitutes and other outcasts of society.

But far deeper is the mercy displayed at Calvary. Lloyd-Jones writes: “Look at Him there upon the cross, who never sinned, who never did any harm to anyone, who came and preached the truth, who came to seek and save that which was lost. There He is, nailed and suffering agonies on that cross, and yet what does He say as He looks upon the people who are responsible for it? ‘Father, forgive them.’  Why? ‘For they know not what they do.’ It is not they, it is Satan; they are the victims; they are being governed and dominated by sin.  ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”  That is our example and standard for showing mercy (our tiny calvary within His calvary—I. B., p. 284, Vol.7).

Consistent with the logical order of these beatitudes, we stand like that servant, spiritually penniless before God (poor in spirit and mourning over sin). And so mammoth is our sin-debt that all our efforts and pleas to repay are empty and vain (Titus 3:5). “But  God, who is rich in mercy,” (Eph. 2:15) personally absorbs our debt and releases us from due judgment. And having experienced such mercy we turn to a sinful word—with mercy. And like our Lord, our mercy is much deeper than helping with physical and material needs.  As one has aptly spoken, “It is no true mercy to restore man’s body and neglect his spirit: (p. 284, Interpreters Bible, V. 7). Thus, we turn to a world full of sin and poverty of spirit and proclaim the message of mercy—the gospel of our salvation.  This is most merciful!

More thoughts on mercy……      

Misdirected Mercy (Luke 18:9-14) A paralyzing mercy (inordinate mercy)  “Too merciful for their own good” (or the good of others).  Cf. Romans 12—mercy. A sentimental mercy of compromise (fails to do what’s hardest and best for the individual) 2 Tim. 2:25; Titus 1:11, 13.

Mercy carried too far

“The merciful person, many people think, is one who smiles at transgression and law breaking. He says, ‘What does it matter? Let’s carry on.’ He is a flabby kind of person, easy-going, easy to get on with, to whom it does not matter whether laws are broken or not, who is not concerned about keeping them. Now that, obviously, is not what is meant by our Lord’s description of the Christian at this point, and for very good reasons. You may recall that when we considered these Beatitudes as a whole, we laid great stress upon the fact that none of them must ever be interpreted in terms of natural disposition, because if you start thinking of these Beatitudes in such terms you will find they are grossly unfair. Some are born like this, some are not; and the man who is born with this easy-going temperament has a great advantage over the man who is not. But that is a denial of the whole of biblical teaching. This is not a gospel for certain temperaments; nobody has an advantage over anybody else when they are face to face with God.  ‘All have come short of the glory of God,’ ‘every mouth has been stopped’ before God.  That is the New Testament teaching, so that natural disposition must never be the basis of our interpretation of any one of the Beatitudes” (p. 98, Martyn Lloyd-Jones).

“That sort of false mercy is common in our day. It is thought to be unloving and unkind to hold people responsible for their sins. But that is a cheap grace that is not just and is not merciful, that offers neither punishment nor pardon for sin. And because it merely overlooks sin, it leaves sin; and the one who relies on that sort of mercy is left in his sin” (p. 192, J. MacArthur). 

 “To expect to enter the sphere of God’s mercy without repenting from our sin is but wishful thinking.  And for the church to offer hope of God’s mercy apart from repentance from sin is to offer false hope through a false gospel. God offers nothing but merciless judgment to those who will not turn from their sin to the Savior. Neither relying on good works nor relying on God’s overlooking sin will bring salvation. Neither trusting in personal goodness nor presuming on God’s goodness will bring entrance into the kingdom. Those who do not come to God on His terms have no claim on His mercy (p. 192, J. MacArthur, V. 1, Matthew). (see – Deut. 15:7-8 contrast Deut. 7:16; 13:8; 19:13, 21; 25:12)

The merciful are aware of their own sins and their debt to mercy. This restrains sharp and unmerciful condemnation of others. 

What about an unmerciful professing Christian? 

A Christian is one who has received mercy in great abundance. A Christian who does not show mercy either has a poor understanding of mercy received (which questions the first Beatitude at work) or is not a Christian at all (has never truly received mercy).

“But how could the unmerciful man receive mercy? The one who is not merciful is inevitably so unaware of his own state that he things he needs no mercy. He cannot picture himself as miserable and wretched; so how shall God be merciful toward him? (D. A. Carson, p. 24)

See Luke 18:9-14 for the best representation of the disposition of one who received mercy. The Pharisee is the epitome of the unmerciful man.

Prayer – “My Father, if Your mercy had boundaries, where would be my refuge from just wrath? But Your love for me in Christ is without measure.”   

Grateful for mercy,

Steve Cornell                 

About Wisdomforlife

Just another worker in God's field.
This entry was posted in Beatitudes, Mercy, Sermon on the Mount, Teaching of Jesus and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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