Retirement communities are unlike any other lifestyle that I can imagine. Services are continually offered for food, activities, rides, concierge, information, chapel services, musical events, maintenance, and emergency assistance. Not to mention a community that is immediate and constant, whenever one desires it. Every day and night, the staff prepare the next meal or event or offer it to us. Very few things in life continually operate that we can rely upon without thinking. Having lived here for almost six years, I find it easy to take these services for granted. As we consider what is so constant, I am sure the air we breathe, the patterns of day and night, sun and moon, seasons, and God’s creation all come to mind. We also think of God’s continual sustenance for life, general mercy for all creatures who are alive, for the benefit of people—none of which we should take for granted. And Christians are blessed with the special mercy of God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “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.” (Ephesians 2:4-5) Do we rejoice in God’s mercy? Being blessed with his salvation and mercy, shouldn’t we long to live a life that reflects Christ’s love, offering this mercy to others?
What Is Mercy?
Grace is God’s favor to us that we do not deserve and mercy is his withholding that wrath which we do deserve. ”In some ways mercy may be compared with grace; that is, it is undeserved. But it is not grace itself. And in the pastoral letters Paul even adds mercy to his normal Christian greeting—grace and peace—thereby implying a distinction between them. “Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Tim. 1:2; Titus 1:4).What makes mercy different from grace? Primarily it is the quality of helplessness or misery on the part of those who receive mercy. Grace is love when love is undeserved. Mercy is grace in action. Mercy is love reaching out to help those who are helpless and who need salvation. Mercy identifies with the miserable in their misery. We cannot state the definition of mercy, however, without thinking at once of the cross of Jesus Christ. For it was here that God acted out of grace in mercy to fallen, sinful man. In fact, God’s act was so complete at the cross that there is a sense in which mercy can be seen by a sinful man there only. In his sinful, fallen state man could do nothing to save himself, so God stepped forward to do everything that needed to be done. Dr. Barnhouse has written, ‘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…All the mercy that God ever will have on man, He has already had when Christ died. This is the totality of mercy. There could not be any more… [God can now] act toward us in grace because He has already had all mercy upon us. The fountain is now opened and flowing, and it flows freely'” (1) And, as recipients of God’s continual blessed mercy, believers are merciful to others.
Who Are the Merciful?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). He is saying that those who show mercy are the ones who are united in Christ and his mercy. “Because we have experienced this mercy from God we in our turn are to show mercy to others. We cannot go on from this point, however, without first calling attention to the fact that this beatitude has been a problem to some persons because it seems to imply that receiving mercy from God depends upon our showing mercy to others. The beatitude…seems to imply that we must act first in showing mercy. Does it mean this? Obviously not, unless this statement of Jesus Christ is to be accepted as contradicting all Scripture, including his own clear testimony, or unless we are to abolish the doctrine of grace entirely and with it all hope of salvation. If we are to be dealt with on these terms, no man would ever see heaven. No one would ever receive God’s mercy. Actually, of course, it is the other way around. For what Jesus actually was saying was that we are to show mercy because we have received mercy and are confident that we will continue to receive it. Conversely, if we do not show mercy to others, we show that we either understand little of that mercy by which we have been saved or else have never been saved.” (2) “Jesus does not specify the categories of people he has in mind to whom his disciples are to show mercy. He gives no indication whether he is thinking primarily of those overcome by disaster, like the traveler from Jerusalem to Jericho whom robbers assaulted and to whom the good Samaritan ‘had mercy’ (Luke 10:30-37), or of the hungry, the sick and the outcast on whom he himself regularly took pity, or of those who wrong us so that justice cries out for punishment but mercy for forgiveness. God’s mercy extends to all those people, and so must our mercy…Our God is a merciful God and shows mercy continuously; the citizens of his kingdom must show mercy too.” God’s mercy is a constant blessing that results in our showing mercy to others. John Stott then asks, “What risks have you taken in showing mercy to others? What risks do you think others have taken in showing mercy to you?” (3)
How Do We Show Mercy?
Peter, Jesus’s devoted disciple, probably thought he had a good grasp of mercy, and was probably shocked when Jesus taught him the extent of Christian mercy. During the Lord’s teaching on the characteristics of the kingdom of God, he asked, “‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.'” (Matthew 18:21-22) Then Jesus told a parable about the kingdom of heaven, comparing it to a king settling accounts with his servants. This king mercifully forgave the entire unwieldy debt of his servant. But when the forgiven servant had the opportunity to “pay forward” this same mercy, he jailed them for their unpaid debts. When his master learned of his coldness toward others, he imprisoned the servant, giving him exactly what he gave to others, no mercy. “The point of this parable is not that we merit mercy by mercy or forgiveness by forgiveness. The point is that we cannot receive the mercy and forgiveness of God unless we repent, and we cannot claim to have repented of our sins if we are unmerciful toward the sins of others. Or, interpreted in the context of the beatitudes, it is ‘the meek’ who are also ‘the merciful.’ For to be meek is to acknowledge to others that we are sinners; to be merciful is to have compassion on others, for they are sinners too…Nothing proves more clearly that we have been forgiven than our own readiness to forgive.” (4)
Our Unbreakable Connection to God’s Mercy
At the end of the parable, Jesus said, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”‘ (Matthew 18:23-35) “That is troubling. Indeed, it is so troubling that many have tried to see if they cannot get rid of its disturbing implications. For one thing, it seems to imply a ‘works’ salvation. That is, if you forgive others (a work), you will be forgiven. That seems contrary to the doctrine of justification by faith. Or again, even if it does not teach that, the parable seems to imply a continuation in grace by means of works. We may be saved by grace; but if we fail to act in an upright manner, God may cancel His forgiveness and have us thrown into hell anyway, just as the king had his wicked servant jailed. What we have to recognize is that in this one story Jesus is not giving the whole of biblical theology. What He says is true enough, namely, that there is an unbreakable connection between God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of other people. That is intended to snap us out of any lethargy we may have and confront us with the life-changing power of the gospel…If we are justified we will have that nature of God that will increasingly and inevitably express itself in forgiveness, just as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven us. We will be able to pray, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’ (Matthew 6:12).” (5) As recipients of God’s continual blessed mercy, believers are blessedly merciful to others as much as possible through the Holy Spirit’s power and guidance. And our blessedness increases as we share with others the blessings of God. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)
Related Scripture: Genesis 4:24; Numbers 7:89; Psalms 23:6; 24:14; 145:8-9; Isaiah 57:15; Matthew 6:14-15; Luke 6:36; 17:4; Colossians 3:13-14; 1 Timothy 1:16; Titus 3:5; James 2:13; 3:17; Hebrews 4:16; 1 Peter 1:3.
- Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Matthew 5:7-9, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
- Boice, Ibid.
- Stott, John, The Beatitudes—Developing Spiritual Character, pp. 35-38, InterVarsity Press, 1998.
- Stott, Ibid.
- Boice, James Montgomery, The Parables of Jesus, Matthew 18:21-35, Moody Publishers, Kindle Edition.
September 1, 2022