The Beatitudes are a description of the characteristics of people who belong to Christ’s kingdom. In Matthew 4 we read that Jesus was preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Then Jesus went through Galilee proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing diseases and afflictions among the people. As Jesus goes up the mountain, he is reenacting Moses going up the mountain and receiving the Law. Jesus is now declaring the law, that is, the covenant of the kingdom of heaven. In Matthew 5:7 Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
The word “mercy” is used in the Gospel of Matthew to refer to showing compassion, pity, and favor toward the suffering and needy (Matthew 9:27; 15:22; 17:15; 18:33; 20:30). We get a good feel for this word when we read the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). Remember that there was a man who fell among robbers and was beaten severely. A priest and a Levite pass by and do not offer assistance. But a Samaritan comes to his aid, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care. Jesus then asks, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (Luke 10:36) The lawyer responded, “The one who showed him mercy” (Luke 10:37). Here we see that mercy is showing compassion, pity, and favor.
Mercy, therefore, is not just a feeling. Mercy is not some detached feeling or a sentiment that does nothing. Mercy is a feeling that causes the individual to act. Sometimes we describe mercy as not giving to others what they deserve. While there is truth to this declaration, we are going to see that this is not a complete definition for mercy. Mercy is not merely refusing to bring judgment on those deserving of judgment. Mercy is genuine compassion expressed in genuine help and selfless concern shown in selfless acts. The people in God’s kingdom are those who are givers of mercy. Mercy is something that is shown, not merely felt. Later in Matthew, Jesus will call mercy one of the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23).
Mercy was not a characteristic of 1st century culture, nor ours today. A popular Roman philosopher called mercy, “The disease of the soul.” It was the sign of supreme weakness. We see this in the Jewish culture also. Matthew 5:43 records the saying was to love your neighbor and hate your enemy. We see in these cultures that mercy, if it was given, was reserved for those who had been merciful to you. Our world today is not far removed spiritually from the Roman world when Jesus gave these blessed statements. Our culture says the same thing: “If you don’t look out for yourself, no one else will.” Another slogan today: “Don’t get mad, get even.” People are still treated like things, power is the supreme deity, and financial success is the most important thing in life. There is even the saying to, “Show no mercy.” Today, just as then, mercy is weakness in the minds of most.
The Mercy of God
We see Jesus showing mercy on many occasions. He looked on people and was moved with pity and compassion (Matthew 9:36; 14:14; 15:32). Jesus showed compassion on the sinful woman caught in adultery. Jesus always showed compassion and love toward the people. This is what attracts us to Jesus! He truly cared for people. He had a legitimate concern for their needs and difficulties. In fact, we see the ugliness of the human heart with how the religious leaders treated Jesus. You will notice in the gospels that the more Jesus showed mercy and compassion, the more the religious leaders hated Jesus and looked for opportunities to kill him. The hatred grew so great that the people and leaders had Jesus nailed to a cross. Yet, even while hanging on the cross, with nails driven through his outstretched hands, we see the mercy of Jesus. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Notice in this we see a distinction between mercy and forgiveness. The mercy of our Lord is the basis for his desire to forgive us. “…he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior…” (Titus 3:5–6 ESV). Mercy was the basis upon which forgiveness was extended. God’s forgiveness of our sins flow from his abundant mercy.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, (Ephesians 2:4–6 ESV)
Notice that Ephesians makes the same distinction between mercy and forgiveness. Because God is rich in mercy with great love for us, he saved us by grace and made us alive together with Christ. While Jesus is on the cross we see his mercy as he extends the opportunity of forgiveness to them.
We must be merciful because this is the very character of God. Jesus declared, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). The mercy of God should be renewed in our minds and hearts at least every Sunday as we partake of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper reminds us of the mercy of God that we have experienced. God’s mercy is the basis of our forgiveness. This teaches us something valuable. Our lack of forgiveness and our unwillingness to forgive others comes from a lack of mercy for others. Mercy drives forgiveness. If I am not forgiving, then I am not merciful. If I am not merciful, then I am not in the kingdom of heaven.
The Challenge of Mercy
Mercy is a challenge to develop in our character. Showing mercy means making ourselves vulnerable. We will be hurt by what other people do to us. We will extend ourselves to help people without reciprocation or thanks. We will give of ourselves to those who need us without regard for receiving something in return. Compassion and pity are not often praised in our world but it is the very heart of God that we are showing to the world. Mercy is not earned. Just like grace is no longer grace if it is earned, mercy is no longer mercy if it is deserved. Mercy is compassion that is undeserved. We are not to show mercy to whom we think deserve our mercy. We are to be like the character of God, extending mercy to all. Show mercy when people sin against us. The merciful expend themselves to assist others.
But sometimes we misunderstand mercy. Mercy does not mean that sin is ignored. We know this because God is merciful toward us but that does not mean our sins are ignored. Mercy recognizes the reality of sin. Mercy has the recognition of wrongdoing. Jesus did not show mercy by pretending that people were not sinning. Jesus did not show mercy by not convicting the people of their sins. Jesus was being merciful by identifying sins and giving them hope for forgiveness through him. Mercy identifies sin but then shows the way to reconciliation with God. Mercy does good toward the other even in the face of opposition or evil.
Now think about what Jesus taught a couple times in the Gospel of Matthew: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” This declaration ought to be weighty to us and must not be emptied of its impact. God wants people who have a heart for him and for others. God does not want heartless pew sitters. We are people who help and heal. I am so troubled to hear how often Christians have an argument or a moment of an unkind word, and rather than showing mercy, there is division. People leave the congregation and go to another. People get their feelings hurt and dwell in bitterness and leave. Going to church is not the test to know if you have received God’s mercy. Being merciful to others is the test to know if you have received God’s mercy. Mercy is not desiring for other people to do good for others. Mercy is when we seek and act upon opportunities to be mercy givers, like the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. Think about what the prophet Micah declared to the people:
And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy [kindness; ESV] and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8 NIV)
They Shall Receive Mercy
The sinner’s plea can only be the words, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). God only shows mercy to the merciful. “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.” Listen to the chilling words of James:
For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:13 ESV)
What terrifying words to hear! Judgment will be without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. We also have another saying: that person is getting what they deserve. But is that what we want to have happen to us? Do we want to get what we deserve for how we have treated others? I know I have made many, many mistakes with you and I do not want to get what I deserve. All of you have been very merciful toward me with all of my flaws and errors. You know others have been merciful toward you with your flaws and errors. Yet how often we will refuse to help people and refuse to be merciful because we think the person should not have put themselves in this mess in the first place! They are only getting what they deserve. But we want others to be merciful toward us and not give us what we deserve. Further, we want God to be merciful toward us and not give us what we deserve. Do we want to get what we deserve for how we have treated God?
Mercy toward others begins in our lives by having a penetrating awareness of our own desperate need of mercy from others, and especially from God. It is mercy that shows compassion to the helpless (Luke 10:37) and extends forgiveness even to the one who gives repeated offense (Matthew 18:21-22). But this is what is important: mercy is not prompted by the appeal of certain qualities of the offender. We see this truth when God showed mercy to us through the cross (Romans 5:8).
Matthew 18:33 “And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” God’s mercy compels us to be gracious, kind, compassionate, and merciful toward others.
Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy. Oh, how we need this! Let God’s mercy transform your heart to be mercy givers to all people.