The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown. (The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I)
So wrote Shakespeare, extolling the great virtue of being merciful. You do not need to be a Christian to understand that the human virtue of mercy is a magnificent thing. We all know that it is a wonderful thing to meet a merciful person. And many people have discovered and utilized the human tendency to return kindness for kindness. But is this the sort of mercy Jesus has in mind in the Beatitudes?
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. (Matthew 5:7)
Is Jesus talking about the sort of person who acts kind in order to pressure people into acting kind to them? Of course not. The issue at hand in this verse is far greater than that sort of manipulative mercy. And we know this because of the example of mercy we are called to follow as Christians — namely, Jesus’s example.
The most merciful person who ever walked the earth received no mercy in return. Two merciless systems, the Roman system and apostate Judaism, came together to kill the merciful Son of God.
The mercy we are called to emulate is not a pragmatic principle or a natural human emotion. It is a mercy which grows out of a relationship with God.
The word “merciful” translates the Greek word eleēmones. The verb form ele’eō (meaning “to have mercy on”) is very common in the New Testament and used often in the Old Testament Greek Septuagint. It means to care for the afflicted, give help to the wretched, or rescue the miserable. The word has the idea of sympathy or compassion.
This isn’t simply the weak sympathy which carnal man is capable of — the “milk of human kindness.” This is genuine, true, and pure divine compassion with unselfish motives that reaches out to help someone who is wretched, miserable and needy.
In the Old Testament, “mercy” is often translating the Hebrew word chesed, which is really an untranslatable word. It has sometimes instead been translated as “lovingkindness” or “steadfast love,” which both make it easier to see that the word implies both a motive and an action. Chesed means a sincere empathy with suffering that compels a person to offer relief.
Thomas Watson wrote a helpful description for clarifying what exactly mercy is:
Mercy properly respects those who are miserable. Love is of a larger consideration. Love is like a friend who visits those who are well. Mercy is like a physician who visits only those who are sick. Again, love acts more out of affection. Mercy acts out of a principle of conscience. Mercy lends its hand to another. Love gives its heart to another. Thus they differ — but love and mercy agree in this, they are both ready to do good offices. Both of them have healing under their wings. (The Beatitudes)
The merciful not only bear the insults of evil men, but their hearts reach out to those very evil men in their misery because they know they will perish in their sins. They are sympathetic with those people who attack them. They’re eager to forgive. They are sympathetic toward the afflicted. They are gentle to the weak. They are forgiving to everyone who abuses them. They are considerate of the fallen. They are generous to the poor. They are gracious to the offensive.
And what is our motive for showing this costly sort of mercy to the undeserving? Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse wrote this:
When Jesus Christ died on the cross, all of the work of God for man’s salvation passed out of the realm of prophecy and became historical fact. God has now had mercy upon us. For anyone to pray, “God have mercy on me,” is the equivalent of asking Him to repeat the sacrifice of Christ. All the mercy that God ever will have on man, He has already had when Christ died. This is the totality of mercy. (God’s Discipline)
We as believers have already received “the totality of mercy” in Jesus Christ. This frees and compels us to show mercy to others in turn. To act otherwise would be entirely unbecoming of a child of God. It is a severe despising of your salvation to receive the fullness of God’s mercy and then be merciless to the wretched and needy.
On the other hand, the Christian who earnestly practices mercy enjoys the soul-satisfying blessing of emulating the very character of God.
This blog post is based on Dr. MacArthur’s sermon “The Only Way to Happiness: Be Merciful,” originally preached in 1998.
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