Blessed are the Merciful
As we continue our study on the Beatitudes, after looking at the four traits relating to our disposition toward God from verses 3-6, we come now to four traits corresponding to our demeanor toward others in verses 7-12. We can treat the first half as vertical relationship and the last half as horizontal relationship. Or verses 3-5 as the state of emptiness, while verses 7-12 as the state of fullness, an overflow of the satisfaction in verse 6, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be satisfied.”
Today we will look at the fifth beatitude in verse 7, “Blessed are the merciful for they will be “mercied”.
Note : There’s no verb for mercy in English. We will pick this up later.
Our aim now is to answer these five questions pertaining to mercy.
- First, how does a heart become merciful? Or where does mercy come from?
- Second, what is mercy? Or what is a merciful person like?
- Third, how does mercy differ from forgiveness, love and grace?
- Fourth, should a merciful person always show mercy? Or Is there a time when we ought to dispense justice instead of mercy? Or is mercy one with justice?
- Fifth, why will only merciful people find mercy from God in the judgment day, if salvation is by grace through faith?
Where does mercy come from?(vv. 3-7)
The best way to answer this question is to look at the immediate context. We can see from verse 6 that those who hunger for righteousness will be satisfied, and hunger presupposes emptiness and brokenness. There’s a recognition of poverty in spirit, mourning over sin, and meekness. And we can say that being merciful is right. Therefore mercy comes from a heart that is broken, a heart that cries out in hunger to God for the work of his mercy to satisfy us with the righteousness we need. In other words, you can’t be merciful in the biblical sense until you experience God’s sovereign mercy first. Or to put it positively, those who come to understand and experience God’s mercy will be the most merciful people.
So it is virtually the same as saying that the mercy that God blesses is itself the blessing of God. Therefore to become merciful toward others, we have to keep on reminding ourselves of the mercies of God toward us undeserving sinners.
What is Mercy?
But what does mercy means? Or what is a merciful person is like? To answer this question, let’s look to what mercy is contrasted against. It’s helpful to know what it is not in order to understand what it is.
Mercy Contrasted to Sacrifice(Matthew 9:10-13)
First it is contrasted to sacrifice. In Matthew 9:13 Jesus told the Pharisees to go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” So we too should follow Christ’s command here. Let’s learn what this quotation from the Old Testament means. This is a quotation from the greek version of Hosea 6:6, where the context is that God accuses the people that their mercy is like a morning cloud. Like a dew that goes early away(Hosea 6:4). Now in the Hebrew both verses used the word faithfulness instead of mercy. However, we will use Jesus’ and Matthew’s translation, because their use of the greek version is inspired, not my understanding of the Hebrew version of Hosea 6. So in Matthew, when Jesus said that God loves ‘eleos’, he really meant mercy.
But why did Jesus said these things? It is because the Pharisees were more concerned with superficial sacrifices, formalities and rules than expressions of internal qualities such as mercy. Same thing is true in Hosea’s time. The people were concerned more about external performances than the attitude of the heart. Therefore you can be very religious and be merciless at the same time, and as a result God will not accept your so called “sacrifices”. Sacrifices by themselves are not bad, but when it is done by a heart absent of true love for God that expressed itself in qualities like mercy toward others, then it is just hypocrisy.
Mercy comes from a heart that is broken, a heart that cries out in hunger to God for the work of his mercy to satisfy us with the righteousness we need
So mercy is not just an act, but more importantly a state of the heart. In fact you may do acts of mercy and still be merciless, so be warned. Don’t confuse the act with the quality of being merciful. Although I must immediately add that the opposite extreme is also false. To have feelings of mercy and compassion does not mean you are being merciful. True internal mercy will result in external acts of mercy. Take note that there’s no English equivalent for the greek verb “eleao”. It literally means to mercy. So the only way to show the internal reality of mercy is to act it out. James put it this way in James 2:15-16, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it?” This is referring to those who claim to have faith but does not work. I think this applies also to those who claim to have mercy but does not act it. In fact James will talk about this work in the following chapters, and you will see that it includes acts of mercy.
Mercy Contrasted to Straining Out Gnats (Matthew 23:23-24)
Second, mercy is contrasted with straining out gnats in Matthew 23:23-24. Jesus again rebuked the Pharisees by saying that they ought to not neglect the weightier matters of the law, namely justice, mercy and faithfulness, but the Pharisees would rather strain out gnats. That is they put more emphasis on minor things. Not only that, after accomplishing these trivial things, they neglect the most important ones, and one of them is mercy.
So we can learn from both of these passages that a merciful person is not preoccupied with the trivial things of the world or even external religiosity. He feels and acts mercy. To quote John Macarthur, “Mercy is seeing a man without food and giving him food. Mercy is seeing a person begging for love and giving him love. Mercy is seeing someone lonely and giving him company. Mercy is meeting the need, not just feeling it.”
Mercy Illustrated in the the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)
To confirm our definition of mercy and what a merciful person is like, let’s look at another passage, but this time in Luke 10:25-37.
Remember that in our passage in Matthew 5:7, we are told that blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy, or more accurately will be “mercied”. Then in Luke 10:25-37, when a lawyer asked Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”, Christ replied that the persons who will receive the mercy of eternal life are those who have loved God with all their hearts and their neighbor as themselves. It’s the same as saying, “Blessed are those who are merciful now to their neighbor, for they shall receive the mercy of eternal life in the future.” I think this is not a stretch because immediately after this, when the lawyer asked him, “who is my neighbour?”, Jesus gave the parable of the good samaritan.
“Jesus Replied “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho [and so he was probably a Jew and thus hated by the Samaritans], and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of the three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” [The lawyer] said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.””
Borrowing from John Piper, let’s look at the four dimensions of mercy and love here and what is the opposite.
- First, it sees distress (verse 33: “A Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and 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 on him”).
- Third, it responds externally with a practical effort to relieve the distress (verse 33: “He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and 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 Samaritan . . . “).
The merciful have an eye for distress, a compassionate heart, an effort to help, in spite of enmity―that’s mercy.
So what is the opposite of merciful in this parable? The point of this parable is the same with Matthew 9:13. There Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'” Here he says, “Go and show mercy like the Samaritan, not like the priest and the Levite.” The priest and the Levite in this parable is an illustration of people that is concerned more with sacrifices, that is external and empty religiosity, but not with mercy that God loves. So the opposite of merciful is everything the Levite and priest is not. They are not sensitive to the needs of others, and so they don’t have a heart of compassion, and does not make an effort to help.
Mercy, Forgiveness, Love and Grace
Now that we know what mercy is and what a merciful person is like, how does it differ from forgiveness, love and grace? I ask this because clearly, mercy is not just being kind to others. It is not just compassion for the needy. There’s a specific kind of mercy Jesus had in mind in Matthew 5:7. In context you will see that these merciful people are being persecuted in verses 10-12. And in Matthew 5:38-48 that when we are being wronged not only we ought not to retaliate, but give them what they do not deserve. We are told to love our enemies. A helpful way to understand mercy more is to distinguish it from few other virtues. Graciousness, being forgiving and loving.
John Macarthur in a sermon once said, “Forgiveness comes from the fountain of mercy. We cannot think of mercy without its expression in forgiveness, and we cannot think of forgiveness without its source, mercy. But forgiveness is not the only expression of mercy. We cannot narrow mercy.”
So forgiveness is more narrow than mercy. Mercy is where forgiveness is flowing from. But forgiveness presupposes that the condition for it was met, namely repentance. Mercy on the other hand is always unconditional. You might say,” that sounds like a contradiction.” I don’t think so. Being given an opportunity to repent and be forgiven instead of receiving swift justice is a demonstration of mercy and grace.
So we come now to how grace and mercy differ from each other. Mercy is not retaliating, grace is loving and praying for those who persecute you. Or as John Macarthur says, “The term mercy and all its derivatives always presuppose problems. It deals with the pain and the misery and distress. But grace deals with the sin itself. Mercy deals with the symptoms; grace deals with the problems. Mercy offers relief from punishment; grace offers pardon for the crime. First comes grace. Grace removes the sin. Then mercy eliminates the punishment.”
So to sum it up, forgiveness will only happen if the offending party admitted to the fault and repented from it, and you can only forgive if there’s someone to forgive. Mercy and grace on the other hand can happen even if reconciliation(which is the result of forgiveness) is not yet possible. Remember that it says, love your enemies. It means that they are still your enemies. There’s no occasion for forgiveness yet. You’re not yet in good terms with them. So we ought to show mercy and grace even if they return evil for it. All of these; forgiveness, mercy, and grace flow from love. So love is bigger than grace, then grace is the flip side of mercy, and mercy is the source of forgiveness.
Mercy one with Justice
Before we get to the implications of mercy in real life situations, we must always remember that mercy is not an affront to justice. Mercy and justice are two different categories. Consider these words from the late R.C. Sproul, “Mercy is not justice, but it is not injustice either. Consider two categories: justice and nonjustice. Everything that is not justice falls under the category of nonjustice, including mercy and injustice. Whether a person receives mercy or injustice, he has not received justice. But note that mercy and injustice are not equivalent. If a leader shows mercy and pardons one convicted criminal and not another, he has not dealt with the nonpardoned individual unjustly. The one not pardoned still deserves his sentence. He is not being treated unjustly if the sentence stands; he is simply not receiving clemency. In passing over some for salvation, God is still dealing with them justly because they have earned their condemnation.”
With this out of the way, can a person be all about justice and still be merciful at the same time?
Or to understand the seeming dilemma, consider this helpful questions from John Piper:
- 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 excellent work but dismisses irresponsible employees who do shoddy work?
- 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 on a Council of Deacons who follow the biblical mandate for church discipline and excommunicate a member for unforsaken, public sin?
The answer is, in this age there will always be a mingling of both. In so far as both might become a testimony to God’s terrible justice, and his sovereign mercy, we can be all about justice and at same time about mercy. There are times that we are called to recompense what others deserve and at times give them better than what they deserve. But definitely, taking vengeance with our own hands in the guise of justice will always be against God. Same thing is true on tolerance of evil with the pretense of mercy. In both cases they don’t glorify God. So be very careful in serving justice and bestowing mercy. This takes discernment. But remember this, we can still be merciful as we act with severity in the service of justice. And we can still be about justice when showing mercy. This is possible if we would only point them to Chirst. Because in Christ’s death mercy and justice meet. The man beside Jesus was still condemned to death because of his own sins, but he received mercy from Jesus. A convicted person’s death may be inevitable because of the demands of justice, but he may welcome it because he experienced Christ’s mercy through the occasional visit of his victim just to share to him the gospel. You may spare the rod from time to time in order to teach your children about mercy and that justice is served not only when you spank them but because Christ received the spanking for them.
Love is bigger than grace, then grace is the flip side of mercy, and mercy is the source of forgiveness.
Mercy and Salvation
How is this not a salvation by works? It seems to be that because the motivation for being merciful is that you will be shown mercy right?
Remember what we’ve seen earlier in the structure of the beaitudes. The mercy that God blesses is the mercy that he gives. Any attempt to act out mercy not because of the outflow of righteousness that God satisfies us with when we were empty, is just a form of empty religiosity. So no, this is not salvation by works. Rather, the evidence that we have tasted mercy, is that we become merciful. And this mercy will produce subsequent mercies. Therefore this is not salvation by works, but the implied warning is equally real. If you are not merciful, you will not be shown mercy! Or to close with James’ words, “Judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”(James 2:13)