"Mercy to the Merciful"
(Delivered Sunday, July 18, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version.)
One of the most important and life-changing principles about the Christian life that we can ever come to grips with concerns our motivation for living that life.
Many people mistakenly believe that the motivation for living the Christian life should be that we must live it in order to be accepted by God and declared 'righteous' in His sight. But the Bible teaches us that the reverse is true. By virtue of His sacrifice on the cross for us, and because of His righteousness being credited to us, Jesus has already made us fully accepted by Father in love and 100% righteous in His sight. And so, in Christ, our motivation has changed. We are now to be motivated to live the Christian life, not to become something that we're not, but to behave like something that we already are.
This great truth is reflected in The Beatitudes - that portion of Jesus' teaching from the Sermon on The Mount that we've been studying over the past several weeks. The first three beatitudes, as you'll remember, reveal to us our deep need for God's grace. The first reminds us that we come to God "poor in spirit"; the second, that we come mourning over our sin; and the third, that we come meekly and in humility as unworthy sinners. This is all because of the great need for God's gracious gift of righteousness that our sins have placed upon us; and so the fourth beatitude teaches us how blessed those are who come to God hungering and thirsting for righteousness, because they will be filled. God's gracious gift of righteousness is granted to them through Jesus Christ. He who knew no sin became sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21).
And now, in Christ - being declared righteous - we are to go on and live like what we are. We are to live transformed lives in practice, because we have been transformed in the sight of God - 100% accepted in God's love, 100% righteous in His sight, and endowed with all power by the Holy Spirit to live as our Father calls us to live. And that's the focus of the remaining four beatitudes. They express the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ who now lives out in practice the righteousness that has been granted to them by God's grace through faith. Such people are now to behave "pure in heart"; are now to behave as "peacemakers"; and are now to suffer persecution gladly "for righteousness sake". And the first of these four remaining beatitudes teaches us that such people are now to be "merciful". Jesus says, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" (Matthew 5:7).
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I'm obliged to tell you how genuinely unworthy I feel as I come to this beatitude this morning. If you've ever felt that it was hard to hear a sermon on these beatitudes, then you ought to try preaching one sometime! Something happened to me the other day that makes me feel as if I have no right to speak on this subject at all.
Just a few days ago, my wife and my two sons and I were in West Portland, visiting one of our favorite pizza restaurants and strolling around some of the shops. There was a homeless man - one of those people who are living illustrations of the destructive power of alcohol - sitting on the sidewalk, rubbing his leg. Apparently, he had fallen; and a long trail of blood was running down his leg from his knee. It was an ugly sight to see on an otherwise pleasant evening; and as my family strolled by, I tried to ignore him.
After dinner, and as we walked along to some of the other shops, I saw the man again - this time on the other side of the road - still rubbing his bleeding leg. He saw us walking by; and held out his bloody hand, asking if I could give him just a quarter or something. This time, because he held his hand out to me, I tightened up even more and hurried my family past. He was very filthy, and his leg was still smeared with dried blood. He was ugly, and unpleasant, and very inconvenient to my plans for the evening. So, we just kept on going. And as soon as we went past him and on to other things, I had pretty much forgotten about him.
The next morning, I woke up thinking about the verse that I was going to preach: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." And immediately, the Holy Spirit brought this man to mind - and my hard-hearted reaction to him.
Now; I know that it would have been unwise to have given the man money. But even if he would have abused any money given to him, the fact is that he was a bleeding human being sitting on the street; and no one wanted to help him - including me. There were a lot of things I could have done for him. I could have called on the cell phone and gotten him some some sort of help with his injury. Or, since we have a first-aid kit in the car, I could have bandaged his wounds. At the very least, I could have acknowledged his existence and talked to him.
Some folks would argue that it would not have been wise - in terms of personal liability - to do anything; and they may or may not be right about that. But what bothers me most of all - what the Holy Spirit was convicting me about the most - was my reaction to the poor man. I was unwilling to do anything! As soon as I saw him, I immediately closed up and refused to allow myself to feel any compassion for a needy human being. It hit me full force when I woke up the next morning, thinking about this beatitude.
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Someone has said that we behave the most like God when we show mercy to those in need. And if that's true, then I am much further from God's likeness in practice than I have the courage to admit. I have a failure in my life as a disciple of Christ in that I refrain from showing mercy to others in need. And rather than being worthy of preaching from a beatitude on mercy, I feel that I ought to cry out to God for mercy myself.
And may I share with you a surprising thing that all of this taught me about the beatitudes? My sense of failure before God drove me back to the beginning of The Beatitudes. I realized that I myself am still quite poor in spirit before God. I mourned deeply over my failure. I felt driven to humility and meekness before the Savior whose likeness I so poorly represented. And I found that I hungered and thirsted for a righteousness - a righteousness that I truly possess in position before God, but do not yet display in practices as I should.
Having admitted all that to you this morning, I now feel at least a little more freedom of spirit to speak on this beatitude. I confess to God - and to you - that I am a failure in keeping it; but I want to grow. I want to be more like Jesus, who was perfect in His expression of mercy to those in need around Him. I want Him to expand the embrace of my heart so that it is more like the embrace of His own.
Let's examine this beatitude together; and as we do, let's allow the Holy Spirit all the freedom He wishes to examine us with respect to it. Let's submit ourselves to Him and allow Him to show us where we are personally falling short of this beatitude's call on our lives as Jesus' disciples. And as we do so, may the Spirit of God make us to be more like the righteous women and men that Jesus has already - in great mercy toward us - died to make us to be.
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Let's begin then by asking . . .
1. WHAT IS 'MERCY'?
"Mercy" is one of those words that's hard to define with out resorting to the use of the word in the effort to define it. One definition that I found, however, has stood out to me. The Puritan preacher Thomas Manton wrote that mercy is "a melting disposition whereby we lay to heart the miseries of others and are ready in all occasions to be instrumental for their good."1
Consider that definition with me. First, it's "a melting disposition"; a condition of heart in which the sight of someone in need does not harden me, but softens me - one that, in effect, "melts my heart". Second, it's not a disposition in which I can see someone's need and then walk away to go on to other things; setting the need out of mind. Rather, it's one in which I take the misery of others carefully to mind. I think about it. I consider it; and consider also what should be done about it. Third, it's one in which I am not caught off guard or taken by surprise by someone's need - not one in which I become flustered over the sacrifice or inconvenience someone's need may present to me; but one in which I am "ready in all occasions to be an instrument for their good."
I appreciate that definition, because it shows how "mercy" is to be an action of three things: the emotions, the mind, and the will. When we see someone in need, true mercy causes us to feel about it, think deeply about it, and rise up to take action toward it. "Mercy" is often related to the idea of "grace"; but they are really two distinct things. I found it interesting to notice how the apostle Paul sometimes began his letters in the New Testament. His usual greeting was something very much like this: "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 1:3). But when he began his three Pastoral letters - that is, his two letters to Pastor Timothy, and his one letter to Pastor Titus - he inserted another, very distinct word: "Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord" (1 Tim. 1:3; see also 2 Tim. 1:2 and Titus 1:4). He makes "mercy" a distinct thing from "grace"; and adds it to the things he wishes upon the pastors to whom he wrote. (Personally, I like to think that Paul did this because he recognized how much mercy pastors really need!)
One of the great scholars of biblical language - Bishop Richard C. Trench - explained the difference between the two Greek words for "mercy" and "grace" in this way: the central idea of "grace" is God's unmerited love (that is, in the free grace and gift He displays in forgiving the sins of the guilty); but the central idea of "mercy" is that of relieving the misery that those sins have brought about.2 It's particular focus is on relieving the misery of the miserable, and on meeting the needs of the needy - and all as an aspect of the greatness of God's grace. In other words, "grace" deals with sin and guilt; and "mercy" deals with the pain, misery and distress caused by that sin and guilt.
To return to my experience of that poor man on the street; "grace" would have made me put a temporary hold on my plans for the evening and go to him in love. It would have made me tell Him that God loves him and is willing to make him a new man in Christ. It would have made me - a sinner saved by grace - love him as a fellow sinner in need of God's grace. But "mercy" would have moved me to help him out of his miserable situation that his sins had gotten him into - that is, to bandage his leg, heal his wounds, wash him, and fed him - meeting his immediate physical need. It would have made me put action to my love.
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I don't believe we could possibly understand mercy without first looking to God. He is where mercy starts.
Mercy is not a product of nature - just as watching a few minutes of any wildlife documentary on television will quickly prove to you! It's not a product of human beings in their natural state either. I remember reading a quote once from one of the founders of a major fast-food chain. He said, "If your competition is drowning, stick a garden hose in his mouth!" That's man's natural way. Mercy doesn't start with man. It's not in fallen human nature to show mercy. Mercy has its beginning in the person and character of a holy God.
Let me share a Bible verse with you that means a lot to me personally. When I was a brand new Christian, I began attending a presbyterian church in Seattle. An older, very godly and saintly gentleman in the church - a man named Les - gave this verse to me written on a card. He had a special love for young people; and he delighted in giving them a Bible verse that was based on the initials of their name. My initials are G.A.; so the verse he gave me was Psalm 145:9; "The LORD is good to all . . ." (G.A.; "good to all".)
But then, around that time, someone else very special came into my life - a young woman named Marilyn. And after we got married, Les came to me again, because he wanted to give us a Bible verse that had both of our initials on it. And would you like to know what verse that was? It was the very same verse. Psalm 145:9 says, "The LORD is good to all" (G.A.); ". . . and his tender mercies are over all his works" (M. A.).
I still have the card with that verse on it taped into one of my Bibles. Not only is it a meaningful verse to me personally; but it's also a wonderful affirmation of the broad expanse of God's great mercy. Mercy is a feeling of tenderness on God's part. It's associated with His great goodness; and it's over all His works.
Did you know that, when God wished to reveal His character and nature to Moses, "mercy" was a key part of the description? God passed before Moses, and proclaimed:
The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 34:6-7).
He makes clear in this revelation of Himself that He does not simply pass by sin and leave it unpunished. But twice in this self-declaration, He makes mention of His own character of "mercy". Two different words are translated "mercy" in this self-declaration: one that refers to God's tender compassion, and another that refers to His steadfast love. And this is what God wants us to know about Himself - that He is a greatly merciful God. Psalm 62:12 tells us that "mercy belongs to" Him. James 5:11 tells us that "the Lord is very compassionate and merciful". Psalm 86:5 tells us that He is "good and ready to forgive, and abundant in mercy to all those who call upon" Him. The Bible tells us that it is by the mercies of the Lord that His people are not consumed, "Because His compassion fail not. They are new every morning" (Lam. 3:22-23). In fact, Micah 7:18 tells us that "He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy."
Would you really like to understand the mercy of God? Then look at Jesus - God in human flesh - as He walked on this earth among the needy. He was moved with compassion toward those who were "weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd" (Matthew 9:36). His compassion toward people took action - even toward multitudes of needy people - because He healed them and fed them (Matthew 14:14-21; 15:32-38). Blind men would cry out to Him, "Have mercy on us, O Lord, Son of David"; and He would have compassion on them - touching their eyes and giving them their sight (Matthew 20:29-34). A leper - the most untouchable of the 'untouchables' - fell before Him and said, "If You are willing, You can make me clean." And Jesus - with compassion - stretched out His hand, touched the leper, and said, "I am willing; be cleansed." And immediately, the man was completely cleansed of all his leprosy (Mark 1:40-42). He would come upon a poor widowed mother weeping at the funeral of her son; and then - out of great compassion for her, and apart from her even asking anything of Him - He stopped the funeral, touched the coffin, raised the dead man to life, and gave him back to his grieving mother (Luke 7:11-15).
Jesus was even compassionate and merciful toward those who this world would say didn't deserve mercy - to those that, from the stand-point of the natural man, would deserve nothing but pain and misery. He told the woman that was caught in the act of adultery, "Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more" (John 8:11). He told the thief who hung on the cross next to His own, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). He even prayed for those who crucified Him; saying, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do" (Luke 23:34). No man ever walked this earth that was more filled with mercy that our wonderful Lord Jesus!
And let me ask you, dear brother or sister in Christ; do I really need to convince you that the true definition of "mercy" has it starting point in the person of God our Savior? Don't you already know this personally? You and I don't have to look very far for proof, do we? We don't really need to look any further than ourselves; because, as Paul wrote,
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us to sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4-7).
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This leads us, then, to another, very practical question . . .
2. WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE "MERCIFUL"?
I suppose, given all that we've said so far, that the easiest and most biblical way to answer that question is to simply say that it means to behave toward the needs of others like God did toward our own. It means to see the need of someone else, to be moved with compassion toward them - not closing up, but allowing ourselves to feel their need as if it were our own - to take their need up as our own cause, and to give ourselves to the meeting of that need.
Jesus has, I believe, given us the perfect illustration of mercy in action. He taught us what it means to be someone's "neighbor" - even if it was someone who, in the view of the natural man, would be a hated and despised enemy. He said,
A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jerico, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, passed by on the other side (Luke 10:30-32).
By the way ... Let me interrupt at this point to say that this is one of those cases where I don't take any comfort in finding myself in the Bible! The action of those first two passers-by sounds all too familiar to me. But we read on;
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, "Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you." (vv. 33-35).
Jesus asked the man to whom He told this story, "'So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among thieves?' And he said, 'Him who showed mercy on him.' Then Jesus said to him, 'Go and do likewise'" (vv. 36-37).
That story, I believe, illustrates perfectly to us what it means to be "merciful". And we should note that, in Jesus' beatitude, "Blessed are the merciful . . .", the Greek adjective is meant to describe someone who shows mercy all the time. Jesus isn't speaking of an occasional, guilt-driven burst of temporary charity. Rather, He is referring to those whose bent is to show mercy3 - that is, whose very habit of life it is to be merciful.
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Finally, let's note the promise that Jesus gives us in relation this beatitude. Specifically, let's consider the question . . .
3. WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO "OBTAIN MERCY"?
This is a very unique beatitude, in that the promise corresponds exactly to the state of being that the beatitude calls us to (that is to say, mercy is the promised blessing of being merciful).4
Now; we need to be very careful how we understand this; and not interpret this to mean that mercy toward others somehow "merits" mercy from God. Jesus is not calling us to "earn" God's mercy through doing good works of mercy. What Jesus is telling us here is that, if we have first tasted of God's mercy toward us, then we are obligated to respond to that mercy by showing mercy toward others; and so long as we refuse to do so, God will withhold needed mercy from us.
A good analogy for this would be what the Bible tells us about forgiveness. If we have tasted of God's forgiveness toward us because of our sins, then we're obligated to be forgiving toward the sins that others commit against us. Ephesians 4:32 says, "And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you." Similarly, Colossians 3:13 says that we are to "put on" the character qualities of Christ: "bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do."
Jesus Himself teaches us that the fact of our having been forgiven by God obligates us to be ready to forgive others. In teaching us the model prayer of a disciple, Jesus taught us to pray, "And forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Matthew 6:12). And knowing that we'd have some questions about that, He went on to explain; "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (vv. 14-15). God is being described here as our "Father"; so this is not a matter of salvation. Rather, I believe it illustrates to us that - as His children - if we will not be forgiving as we have been forgiven by God, then it places a strain on our relationship with the Father. He holds our unforgiveness against us, until we repent of it and forgive the one who has sinned against us. This was, I believe, the point of Jesus' parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35. The master in that parable would not forgive the great debt of the servant who refused to - himself - be forgiving toward another. And Jesus said, "So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespass" (Matthew 18:35).
The disciple of Jesus Christ must forgive, because he or she has been forgiven. And if, having been forgiven, the disciple of Jesus refuses to forgive, God will discipline His child and will withhold forgiveness from him or her until that refusal is repented of. I believe that, by analogy, the disciple of Jesus Christ is also obligated to show mercy, because he or she has been shown mercy by God. And so, in that sense, blessed are the merciful; for then they too will be shown mercy.
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And did you know that the Bible gives us several promises that reveal the blessedness of those who show mercy? The Bible tells us that the merciful will be shown mercy by God in that he or she will be blessed in a time of trouble. Psalm 41:1-2 says, "Blessed is he who considers the poor; The LORD will preserve him in time of trouble. The LORD will preserve him and keep him alive, and he will be blessed on the earth; You will not deliver him to the will of his enemies. The LORD will strengthen him on his bed of illness; You will sustain him on his sickbed."
We also have the promise that a person who shows mercy through their material goods will themselves be blessed with God's mercy on their goods. Proverbs 11:25 says, "The generous soul will be made rich, and he who waters will also be watered himself." Jesus said, in Luke 6:38, "Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you."
We have the promise that the man or woman who is merciful will also see God's mercy shown on his or her posterity. In Psalm 37:25-26, King David says, "I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his descendants begging bread. He is ever merciful, and lends; and his descendants are blessed."
God promises to bless the work of the hands of a merciful disciple. Deuteronomy 15:10-11 speaks of the obligation of the righteous to be generous to the poor; and God - speaking through Moses - says, "You shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, 'You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in the land.'"
God promises to show mercy to the merciful disciple by blessing him or her with richness of soul. Proverbs 11:16-17 says, "The gracious woman retains honor, but ruthless men retain riches. The merciful man does good for his own soul, but he who is cruel troubles his own flesh." Similarly, Proverbs 14:21 says, "He who despises his neighbor sins; but he who has mercy on the poor, happy is he."
And of course, we have the promise that God shows mercy on the merciful man or woman by blessing him or her with future rewards. Proverbs 19:17 says, "He who has pity on the poor lends to the LORD, And He will pay back what he has given."
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I have thought back often over the past few days of my experience - revealing, as it does, my own lack of mercy. And I've tried to learn from it. Let me close by sharing with you what I am going to seek - with God's help - to do differently. Perhaps God will lead you to do the same.
First, I notice something in the acts of mercy performed by our Lord Jesus. They always seem to have sprung from an initial response of "compassion". He "felt" about what He saw. He would see someone's need; and when He did, He would not do what I did the other day - that is, to hurriedly close up emotionally, and become hard to the need that I saw before it had a chance to touched my heart. If Jesus ever felt the temptation to do that, it seems clear that He resisted it. I confess this "closing up" response as a sin; and I will continue to pray and ask God to widen my own sense of compassion. I will ask Him to allow me to feel the gentle rebuke of the Holy Spirit whenever I begin to close up my feelings at the needs of others - and will immediately repent of it.
Second, I'm going to take it for granted that our sovereign Lord is going to deliberately bring the needs of others into my path, with the intention that I show mercy and meet those needs. The Bible says, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). I'm going to believe that the Lord is already at work in my life - training me and teaching me to follow the example of Jesus in showing mercy to the needs of others. And therefore - with God's help - I'm going to consider the needs He presents to me as "good works" that He has tailor-made for me to "walk in".
And third, I'm going to take Jesus' beatitude to heart. With God's help, I'm going to look at the needs of others - when they're presented to me - as the pathway to blessing. "Blessed are the merciful," Jesus says, "for they shall obtain mercy."
1Thomas Watson, The Beatitudes (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1971), p. 143.
2Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench, Synonyms of The New Testament (Grand Rapids: Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc., n.d.), pp. 158-159.
3Leon Wood, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmands Publishing Co., 1992), p. 100.
4Fredrick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), vol. 1, p. 174. .
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