New Life in Christ: The Beatitudes for Today V -
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)
Calvin famously said, “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”1 The Westminster Shorter Catechism echoes that conviction when its third question asks, “What do the scriptures principally teach?” It answers, “The scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man.” There is an order and proportion to sound knowledge and true godliness. As Jesus puts it in Matthew 22:37ff., we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and then we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. The whole of scriptural revelation is comprehended, Jesus says, in these two principles. The same order appears in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13), as we move from a focus on the Fatherhood of God, the honoring of his name and the furtherance of kingdom and will, to our daily bread, our need for forgiveness and our deliverance from evil. Our first duty is Godward, and from thence we move manward. Theology precedes anthropology; doxology is prior to missiology. As we come today to the fifth beatitude, we observe the same pattern once again. The first four describe the disposition of a Christian in light of who God is, and in relation to him. Our poverty of spirit is a function of seeing his holiness and our bankruptcy. Our mourning is the result of falling short of the glory of God. Our meekness is the answer of the soul living in sight of God’s greatness. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness describes the appetite of a believer for the God of holiness, glory and grace. But now we reach a turning point. We descend, as Calvin puts it, from the contemplation of God to contemplate our duty to one another. Mercy (5:7), purity of heart (5:8), being a peacemaker (5:9), and being persecuted (5:10) all describe the life of the believer in relation to his neighbor. That we begin this new section of the beatitudes with the blessedness of the merciful is most fitting since it’s those with poverty of spirit, depth of mourning, self-effacing meekness, and longing for righteousness who are enabled to know themselves to be nothing apart from the mercy of God towards them in the gospel.
“Mercy” here is a reference to compassion that seeks to alleviate deep need. Its supreme example is the mercy of God in sending his Son Jesus Christ (Romans 15:9; Titus 3:4-5; Heb. 2:17). We have received mercy. The fruit, Jesus explains in Matthew 5:7, of God’s gospel mercy, is our merciful response to others around us in turn. The blessed are identified by their mercy.
Notice the conditionality of the promise attached: blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Jesus is not saying that our showing mercy earns or merits God’s mercy towards us. But he is saying that God’s mercy falls upon those who are themselves merciful. To understand Jesus’ point, we need to locate mercy on a timetable! Before creation there was electing mercy- the Father choosing to save undeserving sinners in eternity by means of his Son. In the middle of history, there was crucified mercy- the Son bearing our sin at the Cross. Bursting into our lives there was saving mercy- the Holy Spirit bringing us from death to life and unbelief to saving faith. But still to come in the bright future is final mercy upon all those who have been the recipients of the manifold mercies of God, and who have as a result become merciful themselves; upon them, the mercy of glory and heavenly rest descends. It is toward this final horizon of blessedness that all the beatitudes ultimately point us. The kingdom of heaven, the deepest comfort, the inheritance of the earth, the satisfaction of soul, and here now the mercy promised to disciples shall find its consummation only there, in the glory to be revealed when Jesus comes. Your merciful heart and habits here identify you as one who has already been made the recipient of mercy, and one upon whom mercy shall yet descend. Let the promise of future glory generate within you present mercy towards those who need the same saving mercy you currently enjoy!