The Merciful Heart

These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.’

Matthew 5.7

There are two ways you can approach the beatitudes. One is completely wrong, and the other is right. The wrong way is to understand them as commands; ‘You need to be more merciful’ (or whatever). The right way is to see them as descriptions; ‘This is what a Christian looks like’.

And so, each one of these beatitudes function like biopsies of your heart. Just as a doctor might take a tiny sliver of cells from your body and put them under a microscope to examine what’s going on, each one of these beatitudes looks at some ‘sample tissue’ in your spiritual life. Are you poor in spirit? Meek? Merciful?

In that sense, they each reveal what kind of faith you have; and in fact, whether you are a Christian at all. Why? For this reason: Christianity is not primarily a new way of life, a new moral law, or a means of modifying one’s behaviour. Christianity is in fact all about you being recreated. ’Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come’ (2 Corinthians 5.17). Becoming a ‘new creation’ is such a profound change at the core of your being that it has to find expression, it has to show. And so if you are truly a Christian these beatitudes will be descriptions of your new spiritual life.

That is especially true of this fifth beatitude, ‘Blessed are the merciful…’ It penetrates into our hearts and reveals whether we’ve experienced the grace and mercy of God. The bottom line (as we’ll see) is that a person who does not have this merciful heart has never truly been the recipient of God’s mercy. Or, to put it positively, a Christian has the life of Christ in them and that must show! It must be evident!

What is a Christian? It’s someone whose old life has died and has experienced the new life of Christ in them. ’I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…’ (Galatians 2.20). What does this mean in practice? It means that they will become more like Jesus.

Now, let’s bring this together by thinking about mercy. What does Jesus have to do with mercy? How does the life of Christ in us cause us to be more merciful?

1. Jesus taught mercy

Being merciful is essentially the ability to have pity on someone when you have some kind of power over them; it’s the ability to see the situation from their perspective and make the decision that’s best for them. Jesus taught mercy in two ways.

First, Jesus taught mercy in the context of forgiveness. This comes across most powerfully in his parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18.23-35. A servant owes ten thousand talents (about £2,460,900,000.00 in today’s money) to a master, and is unable to pay off his debt, and so the master lets him off. This same servant is owed a hundred denarii (about £4,750.00) by another servant, and demands that the money is repaid. When the master hears about all this, he calls the servant in and condemns him with these words; ‘And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ (v.33). 

This mercy is not an easy-going tolerance (something we often see these days), because the Bible says that God is merciful, but that his mercy is enhanced by his righteousness and hatred of sin. 

Second, Jesus taught mercy as compassion. In the famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.30-37) a man is travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho, he gets attacked and left for dead, and a Levite and then a priest both pass him by. In the end a Samaritan stops and helps the man. (For the Jewish audiences to hear ‘Samaritan’ may have had much the same effect as a Belfast Protestant hearing ‘Catholic’, or a southern Nigerian hearing ‘Muslim’.) Jesus closes off the parable by asking which of the men was a neighbour, and the answer is ‘The one who showed him mercy’ (v.37).

This kind of mercy is not condescension. Nor is it the guilt-motivated charity work that we often engage in to make ourselves feel better. Instead, it’s a deep compassion welling up from the heart.

2. Jesus lived mercy

Often in the gospels Jesus is approached by people asking for mercy (e.g. the blind men in Matthew 9.27) and he never refuses to offer mercy to those who ask, usually by healing people of their sicknesses.

Wherever Jesus went he felt a deep compassion for lost souls. ‘When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’ (Matthew 9.36). 

It makes us wonder how Jesus might see the people of London, were he walking around the streets today. Wouldn’t he see ‘harassed and helpless’ souls everywhere he looked? The immigrant family with no community and poor job, or the single mother with credit card debts and screaming kids, or the city banker who leaves before it’s light and gets home after dark chasing some indefinable ambition — all of them are harassed and helpless.

3. Jesus has shown mercy to us

Any of us who have come to know Jesus have felt the power of his mercy. The words of Isaiah 61 have become personal to us: that he has bound up our broken hearts, that he’s brought us liberty, that he’s comforted us in our mourning, that he’s given us a crown instead of the ashes of repentance (see 61.1-3).

And yet, this mercy is not just something in our past, it’s something we experience in the present and anticipate for the future. Hebrews describes Jesus as a ‘merciful and faithful’ high priest (Hebrews 2.17). He constantly makes intercession for us, pleading his blood before the Father, answering every accusation, and requesting that we be acquitted of all our wrongdoing. 

The implications of all this are clear: if we as Christians have the life of Christ in us, then we ought to become more like Jesus and show the same kind of mercy to others that we’ve received from him. A Christian is merciful.

What if we fail to show mercy? There must be consequences on our lives. We may become turned in on ourselves in loneliness and isolation. We may even make enemies. And ultimately, our lives will have that hollow emptiness that is described so vividly by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13: ‘If I give away all I have… but have not love, I gain nothing.’

What happens when our lives are characterised by mercy? Think about this from three angles:

First, in yourself. There is a benefit to you immediately. There is a kind of intrinsic value in becoming a merciful person: it will make you happy! ‘The merciful man doeth good to his own soul’ (Proverbs 11.17, KJV). ‘He that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he’ (Proverbs 14.21, KJV).

Second, in relation to others. To put it very simply, you will have friends. And not only that, but the people around you will be quick to show you mercy when you need it.

Third, in relation to God. The beatitude says ‘…for they shall receive mercy’. Now this is easily misunderstood. There is no way Jesus could have meant this as a conditional (you’ll only receive God’s mercy if you are merciful to others). I say that for two reasons; (1) It makes mercy transactional, something you earn, which is a contradiction of the nature of mercy. If we could ‘earn’ God’s mercy by being good, it would no longer be mercy. As AW Pink puts it, the beatitude would rather go like this: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain justice.’ (2) It undermines the character of God. Everywhere in the Bible we see God as the first mover, initiating his saving plan, loving us when we were dead in sin.

Instead, we should understand the beatitude as a straightforward description of fact; that the people who show mercy to others are Christians, and Christians are those who will receive mercy from God.

This is true for the extraordinary reason that we have experienced the mercy of God in Jesus. As he was hanging on the cross he cried out, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23.34). Jesus wants to create his likeness in you, which includes making you more and more merciful! This is exactly what we see happening in the life of Stephen. As he is being killed by stoning, he cries out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ (Acts 7.60). He is dying in a truly Christ-like way, expressing the same sentiments as Jesus in those moments of death. This is what we’re talking about! This is what it means to be a new creation, to have Christ’s life in you: that he makes you like him.