We have been working down the Beatitudes on Sunday nights. And the Beatitudes, we said the very first week, is the description of the blessed life found in Matthew chapter 5. The blessed life is a life of beauty, and a life of beauty is where truth and goodness meet together. In other words, it’s what life looks like for the citizens of the kingdom of God. It’s how the citizens of the kingdom of God act into the world; that’s the Beatitudes. It’s describing, really, just the Christian life. And we have come to the Beatitude about mercy, about the merciful.
The first three we called the negative Beatitudes – blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn in spirit, blessed are the meek, the humble. And in all those, those are really about a Christian’s disposition before God. It’s coming in all three together and saying, “I am bankrupt before God. I do not have righteousness. I am a sinner. I need help from the outside.” That’s why we call them the negative Beatitudes. And then the logic in the next is, “Now that I’ve come with humility, I’ve come with a poverty, I come hungry and thirsty for an alien righteousness. I hunger and thirst for a righteousness that is not my own.” And then after that, the next three which we’re starting tonight are called the positive Beatitudes. One commentator says this. “The first half emphasizes the neediness of God’s children and then in the second half we turn our attention to those in need.” How do God’s children act towards those who are in need? That’s what the second half of the Beatitudes are doing. It’s language, in Paul, of “putting on the new self.” We’ve come to faith in this journey through the Beatitudes and now we are putting on the new self and learning to live, imitate, Jesus Christ. And so, let’s turn to Matthew 5 verse 7 and hear Jesus tell us about our calling toward those in need. Let’s pray before we read it.
Our Lord and God, we need Your Word. Your Word is life to us. So we ask, Holy Spirit, that You would come and open the eyes of our hearts to see. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.
This is Matthew 5, verse 7:
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
Well this is God’s holy Word.
Now I know what you’re thinking. This morning, it took us thirty minutes to get through fourteen verses. And if you do the math and you divide, then it shouldn’t take very long to – but that’s not how it works! You all know that by now! The most obvious question when you read, “Blessed are the merciful,” is “What is mercy?” And so that’s the first thing. And then after that, we’ll consider the ground or the motivation to do mercy, to be merciful.
What is Mercy?
So first, “What’s mercy?” John Stott says that if you look at the word “mercy” across the Bible you see that it has potentially two definitions. At minimum, mercy means “extending forgiveness to other people.” In the way that God shows mercy to sinners, He extends forgiveness to us. And so mercy at least means that. But mercy sometimes in the Bible means more than that. It means not only extending forgiveness, but also meeting human needs through good works; meeting a person’s felt needs through a good work. So the question is, “What do we have here?” “Blessed are the merciful” – what does this term “mercy” mean in this passage?
And if you look at this word “mercy” throughout the whole book of Matthew, it’s really clear, because in the very next chapter, Matthew chapter 6 verse 2, Jesus says in the same sermon, “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” And the ESV translates that as “when you give to the needy,” but “give to the needy” is literally just one word in Greek, and it’s the very same word that we have right here in Matthew 5:7, the word “mercy.” So it literally says, “When you show mercy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” But the reason they translate it as that is because that term means when you are giving yourself, your time, your treasures, your material to somebody that has a need, and that’s what the word “mercy” means in Matthew 5:7. It comes up twelve more times in the gospel of Matthew, this word, and eleven of those it’s very clear in the context that it’s referring to having and showing compassion to somebody who has a real material felt need.
Just listen to a few of the most famous commentators on this book. John Nolan says, “The merciful here refers to those who are kind to people when they are in need.” Or Leon Morris, the reformed Baptist theologian says, “This is about those whose bent it is to show mercy, not just as an occasional impulse; it is showing by habitual merciful deeds that we have responded to God’s love.” Or John Stott, “Mercy is compassion for people in need. That is to be distinguished from the term ‘grace’,” he writes. “Grace extends pardon for sin and guilt, forgiveness. Mercy is the term in Matthew that deals with the pain, misery, and felt needs that sin has caused. Grace extends pardon; mercy gives relief across this gospel.” And so, what is mercy? Mercy is extending forgiveness and meeting human needs, showing compassion to people who have real felt needs.
Now, you know, that makes a lot of sense because God, throughout the New Testament, has given us two interdependent ministries that every single person in the church has been called to engage in. And Jesus even said it about his own ministry. It said that “He went about” in this book doing the ministry of “word and deed.” And He said to His disciples, “And now I want you to go and do likewise.” And there’s no better place to encapsulate this two-fold calling that we all have – Word ministry and deed ministry – than Ephesians 2:8-10. You’ll remember Ephesians 2:8-9 as the classic VBS memory verse. Right? “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And it is not of yourselves; it is a gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.” That is saying that the biggest problem that any human being faces is spiritual pollution, alienation from the living God. That is the biggest issue that we all face. And Word ministry comes to people and says, “But you can be saved by grace through faith alone in Christ alone and not by works! It’s the Gospel. It’s beautiful!” That’s the ministry of the Word that every single one of us is called to take.
But you can’t stop there. You have to read verse 10. And verse 10 says, “And now, you are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God has prepared for you, in advance, that you would walk in them.” And so we’re told there, there is a ministry of Word, of taking the Gospel to the world, to wherever we are, and a ministry of deed, of good works in the midst of that, and that those two are entirely interdependent. And that’s exactly what Jesus is talking about here. Even more logical is the fact that God gave us a two-fold office, government structure, in our church to display that fact. We have elders who are meant to be examples to all of us of proclamation of the Word, of taking the Word of the Gospel to people. And then we have deacons who are the table servers who are called to be examples to us of how to do deed ministry and how to show good works. And both of those are entirely interdependent. You can’t have one without the other in ministry. And neither of those offices are exclusive to the person who is doing them. They are merely the exemplars for all of us to go out and be lowercase “e” – elders and deacons – to do the ministry of the Word into the world wherever we might be. That’s every single one of our calling and that’s exactly what Jesus is calling us to right here.
There’s this really interesting moment in Ephesians chapter 4 verse 28 where Paul is talking about thieves in the Ephesian church that come to know Jesus. And he says, “If you were a thief and you have come to believe in Jesus, then from now on you need to get a job and find honest work,” Paul says. Naturally, if you were a thief, you’ve got to stop thieving and get a job and do some honest work, Paul says to the thieves; if you believe in Jesus, that’s your call. But then he says why he wants them to do that. And the answer in Ephesians 4:28 is “so that you may be able to give to anyone you come across that has a need.” And so one of the central purposes for human work that Paul puts forward is that we work in order to be able to give to people. That’s what Paul says even to the former thief in Ephesians 4:28.
Jonathan Edwards, the great 18th century pastor, North American pastor, you know he’s famous for preaching, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” that classic high school text that we all read. And he says in that text that we are all barely dangling over the pit of hell because of our sins and we need the Gospel; we need justification. We need to be forgiven of our sins; we need grace. But a few weeks after he preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” he preached a sermon about ministry, about mercy to those in need. And this is what he said about it. “Where do we have any command in the Bible laid down in stronger terms and in a more urgent manner than the command to give to the poor?” This is from the man who preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and he’s saying just a few weeks later that this is also our calling – to show mercy; to be people of mercy and good works to those in need.
In Romans 15, Paul starts to conclude his letter at the end and he starts to tell the Romans the reasons why he wrote the letter. And he makes really clear that one of the reasons he’s writing the letter to them is because he cannot come and see them, and that he’s wanted to come and see them for so long but he’s unable to. And he says, “The reason I’m unable to come and see you right now is because currently I am going around to the churches in Asia Minor, collecting goods and money to take to the poor in Jerusalem.” And he said, “I can’t come and see you until I finish that task.” And that reminds us of what the apostles in Jerusalem said to Paul when they commissioned him. Galatians chapter 2 verse 10, they said, “As you go on your way, taking the Gospel to the Gentiles, to all the world, we want you to remember one thing.” What was it? “Do not forget the poor,” they told him in Galatians 2:10.
And so what we see across both the Old and New Testaments is that one of the ministries that God has given people, citizens of the kingdom of heaven, is what has been classically called the ministry of mercy; the ministry of mercy. One writer talks about how John Calvin approached the ministry of mercy in Geneva in the 1500s during the time of the Reformation. And this is what he says. “Every Sunday, Calvin organized almsgiving to the poor, and that was part of regular worship. He also organized his deacons into two groups – the procurators who met with and assessed those in the community that had needs in order to give them alms from the church, and the hospitalitors, whose chief operation it was” – and this is from a book that Calvin wrote – “whose chief operation it was to lead the church in going out and caring for the sick, the aged, the widows, the orphans, and the other poor creatures of society.”
And you know, that language – the sick, the aged, the widows, the orphans, and the other poor creatures – is an earlier version of what Nicholas Wolterstorff now calls in one of his works “the quadrilateral of the vulnerable” that we see throughout the whole Bible. God, throughout the Bible, regularly directs compassion and mercy and commands people to do compassion and mercy to the orphan, the widow, the poor, and the stranger – the quadrilateral of the vulnerable that we see over and over again throughout the text. Now we said the very first week the Beatitudes, they are the new Sinai; they are Jesus Christ going up the mountain and giving the ten words again. This is Christian ethics. This is our calling in the Christian life. Jesus is saying here kingdom citizens are characterized by a growing lifestyle of compassion to those that are in need.
Rodney Stark and Larry Hurtado – Rodney Stark is a historian and a sociologist and Larry Hurtado was a professor of mine in Scotland that just passed away a month or two ago, and he’s a New Testament scholar. And they both wrote books about the first three centuries of the Church that have become fairly popular. And they both separately came to the exact same conclusion about how the Gospel spread so quickly across the Greco-Roman empire in the first three centuries of the Church, about how it flipped the world on its head; how it turned the whole society upside-down in just about 150 years or so.
And this is what they say. They say, both, there are three reasons the Gospel changed the Greco-Roman empire. The first one, they said, is the unique message of the resurrection. There had never been anything like it. The second one they say is the blood of the martyrs. So many people saw human beings that were willing to die for the resurrected God-Man. And the third thing that they both say, looking at all the texts of the first, second and third centuries outside the Bible, is that the Christian lifestyle of mercy towards those outside of the Christian society was so radical that people couldn’t understand it. That they couldn’t fathom, they couldn’t understand why Christians were helping the pagan sick, were opening hospitals and giving care to so many different people that had need.
And there’s one great example of this. There’s a letter that was written to a man named Diognetus. This is between 125 and 175 AD; we don’t know exactly when. And a lot of people think it was written by a man named Justin the Martyr, one of the great theologians of the Early Church. And this is what he writes to Diognetus trying to convince him to believe in the Christian faith or describe what Christianity looks like in the Greco-Roman world. And this is what he said. “Christians are indistinguishable from other people in the way they dress, in the way they speak,” in the way they do life, go to work, all those sorts of things – “but there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens but they labor under all the disabilities of strangers. Like others, they marry and they have children, but they do not kill their children.” He’s referencing an early form of abortion there. “They share their meals but not their wives,” he writes. “They live in the flesh but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They are obedient to the laws” – and here it is – “they are obedient to the laws of the empire, yet they live on a level that transcends the law. They love all people and yet at the same time all people persecute them. They are condemned because they are not understood. They are put to death but they know they will be raised to life again. They live in poverty but they enrich many. They are destitute but they possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are attacked by Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Gentiles, but nobody can explain the reason why they hate them.”
We are called to take the Gospel to the world and, interdependently, Jesus is saying here, to show mercy to people in need as citizens of the kingdom.
The Motivation of Mercy
Now secondly and finally, the ground or the motivation of mercy. Now we have to be so clear about this because you know, I know there are so many in our church family that are doing works of mercy all the time. You know we saw that even the past 48 hours as so many of our people went out and filled up sandbags and helped people move out of their homes and rescue people from the flood waters. Those are beautiful works of mercy and there are ministries in our church where women are going to the prisons every month and people are going to serve at Gateway and serve the poor every month. And there are so many individuals who are looking for anybody that has need around them in their neighbors. And for many of us as well, if you’re like me, when you start to see how clear this command is throughout the Bible, you say, “Whoa! I feel burdened! I feel guilty! I feel scared even by this calling” – to be an agent of mercy and good works to people in need, especially when you go to the Old Testament and you read in the prophets, passages like Isaiah chapter 1, verse 10 to 17, when God comes to Israel and He says, “You, Israel, are like Sodom and Gomorrah to Me.” And He says, “You come to worship and you obey, you obey all the outward rules and you say you are My child,” but then He says this to them, “but you crush the poor, you ignore the fatherless, and you have no care for the widow.”
And you say, “Whoa! This is a huge calling and it’s heavy and it’s hard and it’s difficult and there’s a danger here,” because you could read the second half of this verse in a way that it was often used in the 20th century to do a lot of damage to the Church and to the people of God. The second half of this verse says, “Blessed are those who show mercy, who do mercy, for they shall receive mercy.” And you could read that as if it’s saying, “If you want to get the mercy of God in the end, you’d better do good works; you’d better show mercy throughout your life or you’re not going to get the mercy of God.” You could read it that way. And it has been read that way. And one of the biggest movements of reading it that way in the 20th century was what we called the Social Gospel Movement, that put works before faith; that said that you have to do good works, you have to do deeds of mercy in order to be received into God’s presence.
But look, we don’t have to go outside of the Beatitudes to know that that can’t be true because we’ve already said the first three, the negative Beatitudes, there’s no coming to God without first being poor in spirit, without first saying, “I am bankrupt. I do not have the good works to come into the presence of God.” That was the first step of the Beatitudes. But we have to say even more than that because it is not even being poor in spirit that is the true ground of our ability to show mercy. You know, if being humble before the Lord and owning your bankruptcy in righteousness, owning your sin before God was the ground or the condition of being accepted by God, none of us would be accepted by God because you can never repent enough. You can never know how much you need to repent. We can never even go that deep into the sin that’s truly there, deep down in our consciousness. And that’s not what we’re being told here by Jesus.
The ground of showing mercy is only this – the only way we can show mercy, the motivation for showing mercy is only in knowing the mercy that we have been shown in Christ Jesus. The Bible does not come to us and tell us to do good works by ever playing a guilt card. Our actions are not ever expected to be produced by guilt but we are instead to cultivate a disposition that’s grounded in knowing the love of God for us. So what does the Bible say? The Bible says to think like this – “I have Christ. I was so poor, I was so bankrupt, but I have Christ. And if I have Christ, I can go and show love to anybody.” That’s the ground; that’s the motivation of mercy. We were so poor, but God, with great love with which He loved us, by Him becoming ultimately poor at the cross, made us rich in Christ. And so, When Helping Hurts, that great book on how to do mercy ministry, it’s thesis is this – effective works of mercy in the Church begin when Christians know that every single one of us is mutually poor before the Lord.
We had our Young Adults Retreat this weekend and last night we had a guy named Samuel Bolen speak to us from the Jackson Leadership Foundation. And one of the things Samuel said to us last night was that we have to understand that poverty and human needs are always relational before they are material. That the biggest human problem is first our alienation from God, a broken relationship before God. Herman Bavinck opens one of his books saying, “Sin has affected much, in fact, everything.” And that means what sin has done to break down relationships, that’s the beginning of true felt needs.
And so the point is this – we have to say as we go forward, to be agents of mercy in this world, “I am just as poor as everybody else is before the face of God, except for Jesus Christ for me. I’m just as poor.” That’s the only way. That’s the only way we’ll ever find the heart, the motivation, the calling, the love, the ability to love other people in good works if that’s our ground. And so, let me say the reason we show mercy is not, first, is not to get God’s grace. That’s called the error of the social gospel. Nor is it to try to usher in the kingdom of God early. We call that sometimes the error of transformationalism. It’s not that either. But what we can’t do, because of those mistakes, is not see the command, is not see what Christ is calling us to here in Matthew 5:7. Instead, we go out and do good works in order to imitate Jesus Christ because we were poor, and in Him, we have become rich. We do it to fight back against the curse, to witness to the future kingdom of God and what it will be like when all the felt needs are taken care of. When, like Felker just a minute ago said, when there are no more hospitals and nursing homes. We do good works to push back the infiltration of the curse of sin into the world.
And so, we’ll close with this. You have to read the passages that command this really carefully throughout the New Testament. You come to a place like 1 John 3:17 and this is what John says. These are the words of the apostle. “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need, but closes his heart to him or is without pity, then how could the love of God be in him?” Whoa! You can hear that and say, “ What is John doing?” He’s doing the same thing as we just said here. What God is saying to us is that the way we over time grow in how we love other people through meeting felt needs, through taking the Gospel and taking good works to the world, is an index of our heart. It’s asking the question, “How much does our heart issue the love that we’ve received already in Jesus Christ?”
Matthew 25 – this is the last long text I’ll read – Matthew 25, the end of this gospel, Jesus uses the language of mercy for the last time in this gospel, in this chapter. And this is what He says. A similar text to 1 John 3; this is in the second coming. Jesus has returned here; He’s prophesying about the future. And he says, “‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father; inherit the kingdom that’s been prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me food. I was thirsty and you gave Me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed Me. I was naked and you clothed Me. I was sick and you visited Me. I was in prison and you came to Me. And then the righteous will say to Jesus, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and welcome You or naked and clothe You? When did we see You sick or in prison and visit You?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.’” And what Jesus is saying there is not that being generous and showing mercy means that you are saved by works; not at all. What it is, is that our works are an index of our heart.
And this is exactly what James was saying in that famous and infamous passage in James chapter 2 when he says, “Faith without works is dead.” And you know Martin Luther, he hated that line so much. He wanted to rip – he wrote about this – he wanted to rip the book of James out of his Bible because of that line. And then he wrestled with it and he came to say this about it. “I have realized we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone, but not by a faith which remains alone.”
And so, you know, it’s impossible tonight to go through the practical steps of what cultivating personal mercy ministry looks like. We would need an entire series on that! But let me point you – I usually won't do this in a sermon, but I do want to point you. Our denomination has an institute at Covenant College called Chalmers Institute that is fully dedicated to thinking through the ministry of mercy. And it’s a fantastic resource to go to, to think of practical ways to cultivate this ministry in your own personal life. But the question here for us tonight as we leave this place is this – Is my faith issuing in good works? Am I growing in my compassion toward those who have real felt needs in my life? And if you’re like me, I see places where it’s not. And I realize I’m not growing in an area where I’ve been commanded to grow in. And so we have to rest again on the grace of God in Christ Jesus tonight and then step back into the footpath of the imitation of Jesus Christ tonight and learn obedience in this area.
John Stott will send us out. John says this, “Our God is a merciful God and He shows mercy continuously. The citizens of His kingdom must show mercy too. Of course the world, at least when it’s true to its own nature, is unmerciful, as indeed also the Church and it’s worldliness can often be. The world prefers to insulate itself against the pains and calamities of humankind, but we cannot,” he writes. “To live the blessed life is to do mercy to those who are in need.”
Let’s pray together.
Father, we ask that because of the great mercy that we have been shown in Christ Jesus we would be cultivated tonight in heart to go forth and show mercy and compassion to others in need. And we ask for this heart, through the Holy Spirit. In Christ’s name, amen.
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