Sermon preached on Matthew 5:7 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 2/16/2014 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Blessed are the Merciful”
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. That is the beatitude under consideration today as we continue our sermon series through the Sermon on the Mount. As I reflected on this beatitude in preparing for today’s message, this common saying kept coming to mind: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” I kept thinking about that in relationship to mercy. We could ask, which comes first, our receiving of mercy, or our giving of mercy? I ask that, because to be fair, this beatitude and a few other verses have sometimes led people to a false conclusion. That some have come to the conclusion that our receiving of mercy from God follows our showing of mercy to others. Someone might point to later in this Sermon on the Mount to two similar verses: The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12 that says “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” and then Matthew 6:14 that says, “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.” And so some have come to believe that a Christian is forgiven of their sins at least in part through the instrument of forgiving others.
Now, I can appreciate why someone might come to think that, when reading these verses in isolation. And I can appreciate why someone might ask which came first, the chicken or the egg. But in both cases, the light of greater revelation answers such questions for us. For the chicken and the egg, we remember in Genesis 1, that God at the beginning spoke into existence the living animals, and doesn’t give us any notion that they were in form of an egg. It seems a simple and safe reading to infer that chickens were created first that went on to then have eggs. Well, the light of other revelation is clear on the topic of receiving and showing mercy. We are not justified by the instrument of mercy. We are justified by the instrument of faith. We affirm that we are justified by grace through faith. We don’t say we are justified by being merciful. That’s just clear in the Bible.
You see, what we have here is actually the result of God having first shown us mercy. By us having begun to know the mercy of God, we have begun to be merciful ourselves. By way of analogy, I refer you to the call for Christians to love one another in 1 John 4. In 1 John 4:12, it says that if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. Taken alone, you could see how someone might think that this means that if we love others, only after that will God and his love will be in us. But that’s not what it’s saying. Because if you read on in the chapter, 1 John 4:19 goes on to say that “We love because he first loved us.” And then in the verse after that it goes back to the point then that we have to love others. Otherwise, it becomes clear that we’ve never personally known the love of God. If we have first known the saving love of God in Christ, we surely will begin to love others. In the same way, our verse for today helps us to understand that if we’ve truly known the mercy of God, then we will surely begin to be people that are merciful to others. That’s clear from the context of the rest of Scripture. But it’s also subtly here as well. Before coming to this beatitude, we’ve first seen the Christian described as those spiritual beggars, bowing before God, mourning over their sin, looking in meekness for forgiveness and grace. And so the context in the beatitudes even implies that we have first come to know mercy and grace from the Lord.
So, with that important clarification to start, I’d like us to think more generally now about mercy. What is mercy? It’s important to understand, because it’s something that we receive as Christians, as well as something we are to give. Actually, to clarify, it’s not just something for us to give to others; It’s what we are to be — to be merciful; not to just outwardly show it. We are to actually be merciful. So then, what is mercy? There are two main interrelated senses of this word in the Greek. The most general sense of mercy can be defined as compassion and pity. It’s that response we have toward people with great need. If we are driving along, and see someone hurt alongside of the road, if we stop and help them, we can say that we had mercy on them, because of their condition. A number of times in Jesus’ ministry, when he healed a sick person or cast out a demon from someone, such healing was described as Jesus showing mercy to such people. Given their great need, it’s mercy and compassion to help them. That’s the most general sense of mercy.
However, another sense of mercy, and maybe the one we most think about as Christians, is that mercy that forgives someone who is in debt to you. In a court room, if a judge shows some type of clemency, that is described as mercy. In the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18, there mercy is put in those exact terms. The master forgave one servant a huge amount of money he had owed him. That was put in terms of mercy. This is the sense of mercy we especially think about when we think of our relationship with God. We realize that we have this huge debt to God, incurred because of the sins we’ve committed against him. We realize we need him to show us mercy because of all those sins we’ve committed against him.
And so those are the two interrelated senses of mercy. In general, the compassion we show people in their need. And a more specific usage, the clemency we show people who are indebted to us. But of course, that more specific usage is consistent with the more general usage. In that case, you are still being compassionate to someone in a need when you forgive them of what they owe you. Because their need is their debt to you. And your compassion is the forgiveness you show them.
And so with regard to God, that’s exactly what humans need. They need God to look down upon us and see our great need. We need him to see our sin and misery. We need him to see how great of a debt we have incurred to him. We need him to see these things and have compassion and pity on us. To forgive us and come to our aid. This is the mercy mankind needs. In our study of the beatitudes, we’ve seen how those poor in spirit are blessed because we’ve come to realize this need. We’ve recognized our sin. We’ve seen how we have earned God’s wrath and curse. That we rightly deserve God’s condemnation; to be thrown into hell forever. We’ve come then to mourn over our estate. We’ve come to meekly seek God for salvation, hungering and thirsting to be filled with his righteousness. Jesus can say that such a person is blessed, because such have realized their need for salvation and have turned and found it in Christ. It’s like the parable Jesus talks about in Luke 18. The Pharisee who stands before God self-righteously praying and thinking he has no need, he is actually under condemnation. Instead, we need to be like the tax collector who beats his breast in prayer and cries out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” If we truly appreciate our sin and what that deserves, we realize how badly, desperately, we need mercy from God.
So, then, we’ve talked a little bit so far about what mercy is. We’ve come to realize our need. Specifically, our need of it from God. We’re not talking about the need of mercy from others. That’s nice and all when others are merciful to us. But we’re talking about something greater and more important than that. We’re talking about sinners condemned to hell, needing mercy from God. If we are to be truly merciful people, it will start by us knowing this true mercy from God. And that happens in Christ, and by his Spirit.
That’s what this beatitude gets at then. Having come to know this mercy in Christ, we then have become merciful people. That’s because we won’t ever come to personally know this mercy and grace from Christ, unless we’ve first become someone who is poor of spirit, and mourning over their sin, and meekly calling upon God for help and salvation and mercy. Of course, we won’t even begin to beg for this mercy, unless God has first reached out to us by his Spirit. When he sends his Spirit even then, that’s an act of his mercy to reach out to us. And then experiencing that heart-changing work of the Spirit, we come begging for mercy and pardon concerning our sins. And if we have really understood our need, and really found it in Christ, the Bible is telling us that in return we will be merciful to others. It’s not so much a command at first, as a reality. Someone who has truly known God’s mercy in Christ, truly is merciful. They can’t help it. I’m not saying that a Christian can’t grow in such mercy. Surely we can. Surely we can become all the more merciful people. But you can’t begin to be truly merciful if you haven’t experienced the depth of mercy given to us in Christ. But having begun to experience it, if you have really known it, how can you not be a person that is merciful to others?
So then, we are merciful people, and find ourselves in this blessed condition as stated here, only as we have known this divine mercy. And we’ve said that we know it in Christ and by his Spirit. Again, let us exalt Christ then as we think of these beatitudes. Christ was seen as merciful as he lived here on earth. We’ve already noted that he showed such mercy in every healing and exorcism he did for others. But we especially see his mercy at the cross. This was evidenced by his words when he hung there on the cross and cried out, ” Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
This then is the foundation for God’s ability to be merciful when it comes to our sins. God’s ability to forgive us our sins rests on this mercy shown in Christ to die on the cross for our sins. In the words of Romans 3:26, God is able to be just in justifying sinners because the atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross. The Bible reveals these two qualities of God that are in great tension. His mercy and his justice. They meet at the cross of Jesus Christ. God can show us true mercy, that is still in keeping with his justice, by the cross. Because he can forgive us our guilt of sin, because the guilt of our sin was dealt with at the cross. Jesus paid our debt. Mercy and justice were both satisifed.
Ephesians then talks about how we’ve come to know this. Ephesians 2:4-5, 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. It’s his mercy, that we’ve even come to be a believer. Yes, I’ve said that at the start. But I wanted to drive it home to us now with the Scriptures, and in connection with Christ. We know the mercy of God in Christ and by his Spirit. As we know this, it changes us. Having truly known the mercy of God, it softens our heart and makes us people who begin to be merciful too.
And so it all is a bit circular. Those who’ve known this mercy, will be merciful. And so then don’t miss that the beatitude does say the ones who show mercy, will also obtain it. Here’s where it does come back full circle. You will only be merciful, if you’ve first known mercy. But having known mercy, you will be merciful, and in turn you will obtain God’s mercy all the more.
So, then, as those who’ve experienced the blessing of this mercy, let us be merciful people all the more. And be blessed in that too! I’d like to spend a few minutes then in application to press home what it looks like for us to be merciful then in return. God has shown us mercy. What will it look like for us to be merciful?
First, one way we show forth this mercy to others is surely shown in regards to people’s physical needs. That was a quality Jesus had. It’s a quality that we see commended in Scripture. We show mercy to people in their physical needs, especially to our fellow believers. But let’s make sure we realize that it’s not just a quality to express only toward our fellow believers. I remember the parable of the Good Samaritan. This religious outsider was commended for how he treated a stranger. It was clearly mercy and compassion that he was showing in the parable, and Jesus says that’s what loving your neighbor is all about. Or take later in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says to love your enemies. In the similar sermon in Luke, he puts this in terms of both debt and mercy. In Luke 6:35, he says to love your enemies, lend to them, hope for nothing in return, and concludes it by saying, “Be merciful, as your father in heaven is merciful.” Mercy to people, even in physical ways, is something to show in general. Not just to fellow Christians. But the world at large, and even enemies.
I will add one clarification here. I’m not saying that the mission of the church is to launch into some social justice mercy ministry campaign and devote a large focus of the church into that work. That’s not what I’m saying. The church needs to focus on the Great Commission. On evangelism, discipleship, and worship. That being said, Christians in general are to live Christ-like, and part of that means showing mercy even in a general way to the world around you. That’s just part of the command to love your neighbor as yourself.
That being said, this mercy regarding people’s physical needs is especially something to show to our fellow believers. Galatians 6:10, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.” If we are to be merciful to strangers and even enemies, we surely must then be merciful to our fellow Christians. Spiritually we are family in Christ. We see in the book of Acts that generosity which believers had toward each other, to meet each other’s physical needs. 1 Timothy 5 gives the specific example about how the church is to help widows in the church in their needs. This is all part of this general notion of mercy that has compassion and pity for those with need; yes, even material need. And so as those who’ve tasted the mercy of Christ, God has made and is making us merciful people. One way we show forth that mercy then is by helping people in their physical needs. (I’ll add another clarification, that when we show mercy to people in their physical needs, that wisdom is needed. Very often just giving people money is not the best way to show them mercy in their physical needs. In fact, quite often other things are much more significant ways to show mercy to someone in their physical need — like visiting someone when they are in the hospital, or helping someone with a chore at their house when they need help, making meals for someone during some hard time, giving a ride to someone who needs one, etc., etc.)
A second way we then show forth this mercy, is in regards to people’s spiritual needs. We can think about this again as something we show to both believers and unbelievers — though surely the way we show it will be somewhat different. For the unbeliever, we should look around at them and see them for what they are: lost souls in need of Christ. We have been called as the church to go and make disciples of all the nations. It is an act of mercy to do this. If it is an act of mercy to help physically a hungry and sick person of the world, then it’s all the more an act of mercy to help a spiritually hungry and sick person.
But again, then surely, we should show mercy to believers in regards to their spiritual needs. What does that mean? Well, one thought is when a brother or sister in Christ wrongs you, you meekly look beyond your own hurt to see why that Christian did that. It wasn’t out of their spiritual strength, but out of their weakness; out of their ongoing struggle with sin. It’s out of their spiritual need that they wronged you. That’s a spiritual struggle and need that you yourself still have too. And so in mercy you might overlook their sin, you forgive them, you seek reconciliation with them according to Biblical principles. Or even if they don’t wrong you, but you find them spiritually struggling with something, then you be there for them. You encourage them in godliness and speak the Word to them in love. Your pray for them in their struggle. Or if you find some sorrow they are dealing with, you comfort them and encourage them. The applications here are surely endless.
So these are two main ways that we show mercy: for people’s physical and spiritual needs. And there are ways we are called to show such to both Christians and non-Christians. Well, as we grow in being merciful let me further stimulate that growth with two important things God’s word teaches us about the character of mercy. First, is that as it says in James 2:13, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” So often when we see people in some great need, there can be a temptation to say about that person, “Well, they made their bed, now they have to sleep in it.
And surely there can be a lot of truth to that. People often are in positions of great need because of their own doing. That is surely the case in a spiritual way when we see how much destruction our sins bring into our life. And in mere physical ways, it’s so often the case too. If you don’t work hard at work and get fired, you are reaping what you have sown In such circumstances, we can look at people in terms of justice and say they are getting what they deserve. And we are probably right. But, what does our mercy say at the same time? Our mercy should pity them and have compassion on them. So our justice says one thing, and our mercy says another. So which wins? Well, James says, mercy is to triumph over judgment. Mercy needs to be our priority then in how we deal with people in these needs. Whether they’ve wronged you, or whether they’ve just hurt themselves by their own foolishness, we can acknowledge justice, but need to lead with mercy. Now yes, in some circumstances wisdom will say that it’s most merciful to the person to let them experience the results of their foolishness. Sometimes it’s tough love that allows them to experience consequences for their action. But if we search our hearts, we know there is a difference between that and a vengeful attitude fueled by bare justice without mercy.
I think this is an important quality of mercy to challenge us in, because it’s such a gut reaction for humans to put justice over mercy. But that’s not what we’ve received in Christ. In fact, the way God was able to put mercy over justice was for himself in Christ to bear the consequences of our sin. May that challenge us in how we are merciful. Because if someone does wrong you, in mercy you may have to truly bear the cost of their sin in order to forgive them. But, given how much we’ve been shown mercy, the true Christian is having this character developed in them. Because we’ve known such greater mercy from God in Christ.
A second quality the Scriptures teach us about mercy is that it should be a cheerful mercy. Romans 12:8 says that “He who shows mercy” should do so “with cheerfulness.” It’s can be hard to show mercy. Even if your mercy is not toward people who’ve personally wronged you, it can be hard to do it. If you were the Good Samaritan, it involved financial cost and loss of time to help out that stranger in need. It’d be easy to grumble and complain about it. Or if someone wrongs you, and you show them mercy and forgive them, you might still struggle in your hearts to do it cheerfully. Again, this is a quality of mercy that we can really struggle in living out.
Saints of God, as soon as we talk about these two qualities of mercy, we remember how we need the Spirit of God to bring this out in us. We remember how quick we are to put judgment over mercy. We remember that even when we do show mercy, we struggle to do it cheerfully. But I love that this beatitude focuses not on what we do, but on who we are. It doesn’t say blessed are those who show mercy. It says blessed are those who are merciful. And we’ve made the point today that we only are going to begin to be merciful people, if the Spirit of God has first worked in our lives, and brought us to the mercy of God in Christ. This is changing who we are at the core. We are changing from selfish, self-centered, self-righteous, harsh people, into meek and merciful people who hunger for righteousness. This by the mercy of God. As we’ve known God’s mercy in Christ and applied by the Spirit, we have begun to be merciful.
And so as you see the Spirit’s work inside you to make you merciful, then praise the Lord. Know that you are blessed. Strive then to grow in mercy, as that is what we’ve been told to do. Rejoice that as he grows you, all the more you know that he continues to give you mercy. Day by day as God’s people we are experiencing his tender mercies which are new every morning. And we will see that mercy in the full on that day of Christ. When so many are found guilty and cast into the eternal lake of fire, we will instead hear of his mercy. At that final judgment day, when his mercy will be publically acknowledged. Then we’ll hear that our name is written in the book of life and that we have been granted mercy for all our sins. Look forward to that day. Until then, be assured that in Christ you are blessed. Amen.
Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.