The gospel of Matthew presents Jesus Christ as King. The "Sermon on the Mount" is the manifesto of His kingdom. There Christ proclaimed "blessed" - approved by God, all who were in His kingdom. The beatitudes describe the character of the citizens of the kingdom of God. We are today considering the fifth beatitude, "Blessed are the merciful," meaning those who are merciful are blessed, approved by God.
Matthew 5:7 (NKJV) Blessed are the merciful, For they shall obtain mercy.
The religious practices Jesus encountered in His day were superficial and external. Judaism was very ritualistic - the Jewish religious leaders thought God's kingdom could be obtained through good deeds. They were proud, indifferent, and selfish. They thought their formalized religion qualified them for leadership under Messiah's rule.
John the Baptist said to a group of Sadducees and Pharisees:
Matthew 3:7 (NKJV) But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
John spoke of a fiery judgment that was soon to come on those whose religion was only external. The "Sermon on the Mount" confronts such people with what really matters: being broken in spirit, mournful, meek, hungry for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, and peaceable. Those are all internal qualities. Christ dismissed as worthless all the credits the Jewish religious leaders had given to themselves.
When Jesus said, "Blessed are the merciful", His Jewish audience would probably have been surprised. Both the Jews and the Romans were merciless peoples. They were egotistical, self-righteous, and condemning.
The Romans glorified justice, courage, discipline, and power - not mercy. They considered mercy to be a sign of weakness. When a child was born, the father had the right of patria potestas. If he wanted the child to live, he held his thumb up; if he wanted it to die, he held his thumb down. If he didn't want the child to live, it would be exposed or killed. Roman citizens could kill slaves they no longer wanted; there was no recourse. A husband could kill his wife if he wanted to. In our society as well as the one existing at the time of Christ's earthly ministry, it might have been more accurate to say that if you are merciful to others, they will step on your neck! Do you remember the line in the movie Karate Kid that said, "Mercy is for the week"? Our society might agree with that, but Jesus wouldn't. Jesus said that mercy is for Christians, citizens of His kingdom.
So what exactly is Mercy? Let's see if we can define it. One aspect of mercy is: Forbearance. Webster says mercy is: "That benevolence, mildness or tenderness of heart that disposes to overlook injuries - or to treat an offender better than he deserves." The New International Dictionary describes mercy as: "Forbearance from inflicting punishment on an adversary or a lawbreaker." Forbearance is a legal term meaning: "Refraining from enforcement of a debt, right, or obligation that is due."
Mercy is a word you will hear used in the legal system. After the conviction has been made, the jury has unanimously declared your guilt, and the sentence is about to be handed down, Mercy is begged for. Your advocate may say, "We would like to throw ourselves on the mercy of the court. My client is a wife and has three children, we beg for mercy."
Mercy is not found in a state of innocence, nor is it sought before the sentence is sure. When an appeal for mercy is invoked, it is your only hope. There is no prayer that your defense argument will prevail, there is no hope that reasonable doubt will be established. The only hope is that the gavel will not come down with the sentence you have now been declared worthy of, that the judge will show mercy.
When we come to Jesus, he grants us forbearance of the penalty of our sins. We are guilty, we owe the debt, but Jesus grants us permanent forbearance. Having received forbearance, Jesus expects us to do the same with our fellow men.
In our society, we really want to see justice given out to other people. Justice seeks to give people what they deserve for what they have done. Justice seeks to get back at the person who perpetrated the wrong against us. For others we want justice, but for ourselves we want mercy.
Mercy also involves the idea of Compassion. The second part of the definition of mercy is: "The compassion that causes one to help the weak, the sick, or the poor." The word "mercy" is used some 250 times in the Old Testament. It appears as the word mercy (96), kindness (38), and lovingkindness.
If we study the creation of hospitals throughout the world, we will notice that they are mostly of Christian origin. Why do you think this is true? Because hospitals are manifestations of this Christian characteristic called "mercy". Paganism did not give rise to hospitals. They are a result of Christian compassion.
Mercy is an attribute of God:
Exodus 34:5-6 (NKJV) Now the LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. 6 And the LORD passed before him and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth,
2 Corinthians 1:3 (NKJV) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,
Ephesians 2:4 (NKJV) But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,
As you read through the Bible, you find instance after instance where God could have administered justice to mankind, but instead dealt with them with mercy and compassion.
Remember when God led the Israelites out of Egypt? He then called Moses on the mountain to give Him the Ten Commandments ( Exodus 32). Moses had been on the mountain for about 40 days (Exodus 24:18), and the people thought that something happened to Moses. What did the people do? They commissioned Aaron to build a golden calf for them to worship. God knew what they were doing, and He could have taken them out right then and there. As a matter of fact, that is what He considered doing until Moses pleaded with Him not to do that:
Exodus 32:10-14 (NKJV) "Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation." 11 Then Moses pleaded with the LORD his God, and said: "LORD, why does Your wrath burn hot against Your people whom You have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 "Why should the Egyptians speak, and say, 'He brought them out to harm them, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from Your fierce wrath, and relent from this harm to Your people. 13 "Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them, 'I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven; and all this land that I have spoken of I give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'" 14 So the LORD relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.
This is mercy. God has proved Himself merciful time and time again.
Mercy is one of the awe-inspiring attributes of God, whereby He looks upon man in his pitiful state of sin and rebellion and comes to his aid. The supreme act of mercy was the death of Christ upon Calvary's cross.
Hebrews 9:5 (NKJV) and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat [hilasterion] Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
Two cherubim overshadowed the mercy seat, the place where the blood was sprinkled on the day of atonement to make propitiation for the sins of the nation. The "mercy seat" was a slab of pure gold which fit over the top of the ark of the covenant. God said:
Exodus 25:22 (NKJV) "And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the Testimony, about everything which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel.
The words "mercy seat" are from the Greek noun hilasterion, which means: "the removal of wrath by the offering of a sacrifice." The mercy seat was interposed between the tables of law contained in the ark, by which the sinner stood condemned, and the glory of God's holy presence. An uncovered ark is a throne of judgment. This might explain a very difficult Old Testament passage:
1 Samuel 6:19-20 (NKJV) Then He struck the men of Beth Shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. He struck fifty thousand and seventy men of the people, and the people lamented because the LORD had struck the people with a great slaughter. 20 And the men of Beth Shemesh said, "Who is able to stand before this holy LORD God? And to whom shall it go up from us?"
In order for them to look into the ark, the mercy seat had to be removed. If you saw the movie, Indiana Jones, you may remember the scene where they took the mercy seat off of the ark, and all who looked into it died. In removing the mercy seat, they exposed the law; and apart from the mercy seat, the law is death to all who break it. The Lord Jesus Christ is our mercy seat. He stands between the sinner, who violated the law, and a holy God.
As Christians, as children of the heavenly Father, we have a duty to imitate our heavenly Father who is described in the Bible as delighting in mercy:
Micah 7:18-19 (NKJV) Who is a God like You, Pardoning iniquity And passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, Because He delights in mercy. 19 He will again have compassion on us, And will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins Into the depths of the sea.
God delights in showing mercy to us. In fact, it is a joy for him to show mercy to miserable sinners. If this is so, then we who are the children of our heavenly Father must imitate him and delight in showing mercy to the miserable:
Micah 6:8 (NKJV) He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?
The Lord requires this of us. This is not an option or a matter of opinion. If we are His children, we are to love showing mercy. I think that far too many of us love justice rather than mercy:
Colossians 3:12-13 (NKJV) Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 13 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.
Just in case you are wondering exactly how to show mercy, Jesus gave us a parable of mercy in action:
Luke 10:30-34 (NKJV) Then Jesus answered and said: "A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 "Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 "Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. 33 "But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 "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.
The man who had fallen among the thieves was a Jew. A priest passed by on the other side. The priest, a religious leader, refused to stop to help the Jew. The Levites were those who ministered in the things of the Lord. This Levite showed no mercy. The Jews and the Samaritans hated each other. The Jews looked at the Samaritans as an abomination, and the Samaritans refused to deal with the Jews. The Samaritan, however, showed mercy.
The Jew had a right to expect mercy from the priest and the Levite. He did not expect any mercy from the Samaritan; yet the Samaritan was the one who showed the mercy. The priest and the Levite were remiss in their duties by not helping him. The Jew was one of their congregation, but they showed no mercy.
Jesus is pointing to the Samaritan to show what it means to be merciful. The Jew had no claim to any mercy or love from the Samaritan because of the long-standing hatred; yet the Samaritan showed mercy. That is true mercy.
Mercy has four dimensions in this story. First, it sees distress (verse 33:"But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him"...).
Second, it responds internally with a heart of compassion or pity toward a person in distress (verse 33: "...when he saw him, he had compassion"). The word "compassion" is from the Greek word splagchnizomai, which means: "to have the bowels yearn, feel sympathy, to pity, be moved with compassion".
Third, it responds externally with a practical effort to relieve the distress (verse 34: "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").
And the fourth dimension of mercy is that it happens even when the person in distress is by religion and race an enemy (verse 33: "But a certain Samaritan..."). A half-breed Jew with a warped religious tradition stops to help the Jew who hates him. So, mercy has an eye for distress, a heart of pity, an effort to help, in spite of enmity.
Mercy and forgiveness go hand in hand:
Daniel 9:9 (NKJV) "To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, though we have rebelled against Him.
Ephesians 2:4-5 (NKJV) But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
Titus 3:5 (NKJV) not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit,
Mercy is present when God saves us. It is His mercy that allows Him to redeem us.
Those who have received so much mercy should be showing mercy to others. Jesus gave an extended account of a situation in Matthew 18 to demonstrate this:
Matthew 18:21-22 (NKJV) Then Peter came to Him and said, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" 22 Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
That's 490 times. The point is that you should not be keeping count of offenses.
Jesus continues the account in verses 23 through 27:
Matthew 18:23-27 (NKJV) "Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 "And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 "But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. 26 "The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, 'Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' 27 "Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
The king had mercy on the slave. Grace and mercy are similar, but there is a distinction. Grace gives us what we don't deserve and mercy does not give us what we do deserve. Mercy is connected with misery and suffering. This man, in his misery, is about to lose everything, but he is shown mercy and is forgiven.
Jesus continues with a contrast in verse 28:
Matthew 18:28 (NKJV) "But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, 'Pay me what you owe!'
This is a totally insignificant amount in comparison to the ten thousand talents the slave had owed to the king. In fact, the one hundred denarii would not even pay the interest on ten thousand talents:
Matthew 18:29-33 (NKJV) "So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' 30 "And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. 31 "So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. 32 "Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 'Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?'
The point of the illustration is that we who have been forgiven so much and who have received so much mercy ought to be people of mercy and forgiveness. When Jesus said, "Blessed are the merciful" (Matt 5:7), He was saying that mercy should be a characteristic of believers, because we have received so much mercy.
We see mercy fleshed out in the life of Joseph. We read that when Joseph was seventeen years old, his brothers put him in a pit and sold him as a slave. Many years later Joseph is running Egypt and they come to him for help. Once their father dies, they fear that Joseph will retaliate:
Genesis 50:15 (NKJV) When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him."
We all have this temptation to be legalistic towards people, don't we? But notice Joseph's statement in:
Genesis 50:21 (NKJV) "Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones." And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
Joseph showed his brothers mercy. They deserved justice, they had caused Joseph to be in slavery for 13 years. But instead of retaliating, Joseph said, "Don't be afraid; I will provide for you." That's mercy!
It is easy for us, as Christians, to forget and fail to show mercy. If we face a situation where someone offends us or does something grievous against us, we sometimes end up saying, "I can't forgive him." We forget that the offense against us is nothing in comparison to the mercy we have received from God. How out of character that we should be unforgiving and unmerciful! We need to realize that no matter what kind of situation we are in, we will never be expected to give as much mercy to others as we have received from God.
As the objects of God's mercy, we should be willing to give mercy. One who is unmerciful is revealing a character that is not like God. The challenge for believers is to be more consistent in the manifestation of God's glorious character in every area. It is when the pressure is on that we have the greatest opportunity to reveal the mercy as found in God's character.
Can a Christian be unmerciful? Yes! We all battle to live righteously, and many times we fail. But many writers seem to think that if you are not merciful, you are not a Christian. They leave no room for growth or failure. One author writes, "Conversion is inseparable from regeneration." By "conversion" he means: "sanctification, practical holiness - showing mercy." He goes on to say, "The work of regeneration cannot be claimed without the fruits of conversion. If we claim the work of regeneration without having the fruits of conversion, we are lying." Then to prove his point he quotes:
2 Corinthians 5:17 (NKJV) Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.
Does this verse mean that if we have become a Christian, all things in our life will be new, and all of our old sins will pass away? Do you find this true in your Christian life? As a young Christian, this verse used to really trouble me because in my life all things had not become new - practically speaking. Many changes had taken place since I trusted Christ, but there were still old sins that hadn't changed. This verse is not speaking about your practical life, it is talking about your standing before God. The "old things" that have passed away are your standing in Adam:
Romans 5:18 (NKJV) Therefore, as through one man's offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man's righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life.
To be "in Christ" is to have His righteousness - we have a new standing with God because of Christ.
Another writer says, "Being merciful is a test of our Christianity. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones makes this statement: 'If I am not merciful, there is only one explanation; I have never understood the grace and the mercy of God; I am outside Christ; I am yet in my sins, and I am unforgiven (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount[Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971, 1982], 105). We who have received God's rich mercy are merciful, because the grace of God makes us that way. If we are not merciful, we have received a cheap, counterfeit grace. If we refuse to forgive someone who, in repentance, asks forgiveness of us in the name of Christ, we are outside of the kingdom of God."
Another writer says, "If we are not merciful, it means that we did not repent truly, that our sins have not been forgiven, and that we are not Christians. It means we are outside of Christ. If we do not show mercy, we have not been shown mercy and we are not saved."
I get the idea from reading these guys that if you're not perfect, you're not a Christian. If that is true, we're all in trouble. At time we all have been unforgiving, at times we have all been unmerciful. The real problem here is that when we are not walking in fellowship with the Lord, we allow our flesh to take over. If I, as a Christian, have seen and experienced God's mercy yet do not show mercy to others, then I am being inconsistent. But remember, we are saved by God's grace not our works.
Jesus goes on in this beatitude to say, "They Shall Obtain Mercy"
This is not saying that mercy given is necessarily mercy returned. Our Lord was the most merciful person who ever lived, yet people screamed for His blood. If mercy carried its own reward, the Lord Jesus Christ wouldn't have been nailed to a cross, spat upon, and cursed. Jesus Christ was the most merciful human being who ever lived. He never did anything to harm anyone. He reached out to the sick and healed them. He enabled the crippled to walk, the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak. He showed love to tax collectors, prostitutes, debauched people, and drunks. He redeemed them and set them on their feet. Our Lord wept with those who were in sorrow, and made the lonely feel loved. He gathered little children in His arms and loved them. Christ received no mercy from those He gave mercy to. The merciless Roman and Judaic systems united to kill Him. Mercy is not a human virtue that brings its own reward.
Our Lord's emphasis was that if a person is merciful to others, God will be merciful to him. Like the other Beatitudes, it contains a twofold pattern: to get into God's kingdom you must seek mercy; when you are in His kingdom, you will show mercy to others. We have obtained mercy in Christ - this is covenantal, but we also receive mercy on a daily biases. Every time I sin, and God does not kill me I receive mercy.
Let me ask you a question, "Should a merciful person always show mercy?" Think carefully before you answer. Real life is very complex for Christian people who seriously want to live out their faith in a sinful world. How would you answer these questions:
Can a Christian be consistently merciful and yet be a parent who spanks a child for disobedience instead of turning the other cheek to the child's insolence?
Can a Christian be consistently merciful and yet be an employer who pays good wages for hard work but dismisses irresponsible employees who are lazy?
Can a Christian be consistently merciful and yet be a legislator who enacts laws that give stiff penalties for drunk driving and child abuse?
Can a Christian be consistently merciful and yet be part of a Church leadership team who follow the Biblical mandate for church discipline and excommunicate a member for unrepentant, public sin?
Each of these four questions corresponds to a sphere of life: the sphere of the family, the sphere of business and economics, the sphere of government and law enforcement, and the sphere of the church. And my answer to the questions is that it is God's will that there be a mingling of mercy and justice in all these spheres.
God's will is that sometimes we recompense people with what they deserve, whether punishment or reward (justice). And God's will is that sometimes we recompense people with better than what they deserve (mercy). In upholding the claims of justice, we bear witness to the truth that God is a God of justice. And in showing mercy, we bear witness to the truth that God is a God of mercy.
A Biblical parent will usually follow the wisdom that sparing the rod spoils the child (Proverbs 13:24; Ephesians 6:4). But there will be times when a child's fault will be forgiven without punishment to teach the child the meaning of mercy.
A Biblical judge will usually be scrupulously just by impartially sentencing criminals according to the grievousness of their crimes (Romans 13:4). But there will be times when he will dispense clemency for some greater good. When I went to court for a traffic ticket, I pled guilty but asked for mercy. The judge gave me mercy and dismissed the ticket.
A Biblical employer will usually pay a fair wage and insist on hard work (2 Thessalonians 3:10). But there will be times when he will pay more than a person's work deserves, and go an extra mile with an employee who is not really pulling their load.
And an Elder will call public sin in the church to account and exercise discipline and even exclusion from the fellowship (1 Corinthians 5:1-13). But at times they will be merciful to the sinner.
If we ask, "How shall we know when to do justice and how to show mercy?" I would answer, "By walking as close to Jesus in fellowship as you possibly can." I know of no hard and fast rules in Scripture to dictate for every situation. And I don't think this is an accident. The aim of Scripture is to produce a certain kind of person, not provide an exhaustive list of rules for every situation.
The beatitude says, "Blessed are the merciful," not "Blessed are those who know exactly when and how to show mercy in all circumstances." We must be merciful people even when we act with severity in the service of justice.
So the answer to the question, "Should a merciful person always show mercy?" is a qualified "No." No, you will often support the claims of justice and recompense a person the way he deserves in order to bear witness to the truth of God's justice and to accomplish a greater good for greater numbers of people.
But I say it is a qualified, "No", because if you are a merciful person, then even the way you spank a child or prosecute a criminal or dismiss an employee will be different. The mercy will show. The parent may cry. The attorney may visit the criminal and his family. The employer may pay for remedial training. The heart of mercy will show.
God's mercy is completely just. God says to the sinner, "I know you have done terrible things, but I love you, and by My mercy I forgive you." He can do that and be completely just because He came into the world in human form and paid the price His justice requires for our sin by His death on a cross. When Jesus died, God's justice was satisfied. God had said there could be no forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood (Lev. 17:11). There had to be a perfect sacrifice to bear the sin of the world, and Jesus was that sacrifice.
Mercy is not a human attribute - people can't initiate mercy on their own. The platitude, "Be merciful to others, and they will be merciful to you" is rarely true. The only way to be a merciful person is to have within you the mercy of God. Mercy comes from a heart that has first felt its spiritual bankruptcy and has come to grief over its sin.
The key to becoming a merciful person is to become a broken person. You get the power to show mercy from the understanding that you owe everything you are and have to sheer divine mercy. Therefore, if we want to become merciful people, it is imperative that we cultivate a view of God and ourselves that helps us to say with all our heart that every joy and virtue and distress of our lives is owing to the free and undeserved mercy of God:
Proverbs 3:3-4 (NKJV) Let not mercy and truth forsake you; Bind them around your neck, Write them on the tablet of your heart, 4 And so find favor and high esteem In the sight of God and man.
Proverbs 14:21 (NKJV) He who despises his neighbor sins; But he who has mercy on the poor, happy is he.
These verses say that same thing that our beatitude does - the merciful are blessed!
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