Several years ago, a man and his wife were traveling on the Interstate Highway in Florida, when their car broke down. The next exit was 40 miles away, and there had been a rash of highway robberies, so no one was stopping to help them. They actually counted 100 cars that drove past – until they finally stopped counting! At last a man stopped to help – a man who could barely speak English. He helped them out, took no money for it when they offered, and then he drove away. The wife turned to her husband and said, “How do you pay somebody back for that?” After thinking for a while, the husband said, “We can’t; but what we can do is pass along what he did for us.”
Now in some ways, that couple’s story is very unique. But in another way, if you are a Christian, this is YOUR story! God saw you helpless, in your sin, and He did what no one else would do or could do — and sent Jesus to die on the cross to pay for your sins and save you. And what can you possibly do to pay Him back? Nothing! We could never pay Him back for one drop of the blood of Jesus that saved us! But what we CAN do – and what we WILL do, if we are really grateful – is to pass along to others the same kind of mercy that God first gave us.
This morning we continue our study of the character qualities of Christ found in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:3-12. These are the qualities that God is using everything that happens in your life to build into you. We’ve seen that He wants you to be spiritually dependent on Him (“poor in spirit”); He wants you to mourn your own sins and those of others; He wants you to be “meek” (trusting in Him and doing what is right); and He wants you to spiritually hungry. Today we come to the 5th quality: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
I. A BIBLICAL DEFINITION OF “MERCY”:
As with each of these Beatitudes, we need to define what this quality of “mercy” that God wants to build into our lives really is. We may have some preconceived ideas about what it means, but what does the Bible actually tell us? I believe that a scriptural definition of mercy is when you “See someone’s need, feel compassion for them, and then do something to meet that need.” Notice the 3 essential elements of that definition: 1) SEE the need; then 2) FEEL compassion for the person in need, and then 3) DO something to meet that need.
“The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:30-37) DEFINES MERCY:
Now let me show you where I got that definition. It is from the story of the Good Samaritan, in Luke 10:30-37. Most of us know this story, of how the man was beaten and left half dead on the Jericho road, and how a priest and a Levite both passed by on the other side. But you may not remember the exact language the Bible uses:
33 “But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he SAW him, he FELT COMPASSION (:34) and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him.”
Do you see what the Good Samaritan did? He “saw him”; He “felt compassion” – and then it says he “bandaged up his wounds, poured oil & wine … put him on his beast, brought him to an inn”, etc. – in other words, he DID SOMETHING to take care of the man’s needs. But then look at the end of the story, as Jesus is giving the moral, and He asks them (:36) “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man … ?” In :37 we find the answer Jesus commended: “The one who SHOWED MERCY toward him.” So here, we find that when the Samaritan “saw, felt compassion, and did something” to help, it was called “mercy.” So Biblical acts of mercy involve seeing someone’s need, feeling compassion for them, and doing something to meet their need.
JESUS EXEMPLIFIES MERCY:
As we have seen, all of the Beatitudes are foremost, character qualities of Jesus Christ Himself. And we do see in the Gospels that Jesus lived out the very definition of mercy I have given you – in fact, that is where I first got it – from reading about Jesus in the Gospels:
— Matthew 9:36 “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them (and 10:1 says He sent out His disciples to minister to them)
— Matthew 14:14 “And when He went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them, and healed their sick.”
— Mark 6:34 “He saw a large crowd, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things.”
— Mark 10:21 “And looking at him (Rich Young Ruler) Jesus felt a love for him, and said to him, ‘One thing you lack … come follow Me.’”
— Luke 7:13-15 “And when the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, ‘do not weep’ and He came up and touched the coffin …” (and raised her son from the dead).
— AND in Luke 15, when Jesus taught on the Prodigal Son, He told them that when the Prodigal son returned home, :20 says the father “saw him, and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” The father had mercy on him – by seeing him, feeling compassion for him, and receiving him back with joy!
There are more examples with very similar language throughout the Gospels; these are some of the most exact. But they all have these three elements in common: seeing, feeling compassion, and doing something to meet someone’s need. That’s how Jesus showed mercy, and that’s what WE need to do as we become like Him.
THE INGREDIENTS OF MERCY
For us to imitate Jesus in this quality of mercy, we must have all 3 of these vital ingredients; if you fall short at any point, you do not have genuine, Biblical, Christ-like mercy:
1) You must SEE the need
This is the vital first step: you aren’t going to feel compassion and do anything for someone if you do not first see their need. This is what Jesus was constantly doing: “He saw the multitudes”; “He saw the young man”; “He saw (the woman who had lost her son)” – the first key to Jesus’ mercy was that He saw the needs of the people around Him.
When I lived in Ft. Worth, a sad story made the headlines: a 71-year old woman had to be handcuffed and forcibly removed from her home. She had signed on the dotted line for a disreputable company to put burglar bars on her doors and windows, for an exorbitant price, and when she could not pay, legally she had to forfeit her home to the company. The police were disgusted at what they had to do. And one officer’s comment was challenging: he said these disreputable people just LOOK for helpless people whom they can take advantage of! You know, Jesus said that often the sons of this world are sharper in their own ways than the sons of light are in theirs! Those who take advantage of people with needs, are often more observant than those whom God has commissioned to HELP people with their needs!
Too many of us as God’s people have to admit that we just walk blindly by – not really seeing the needs that are around us. And if you don’t first see the need, then there is no possibility that you will feel compassion for what you don’t see, and no way you are ever going to do anything about it. We must learn to see needs. We need to learn to look with Jesus’ eyes of compassion. Too many of us see with a “critical eye” instead of a compassionate eye. We see someone with an unmowed lawn, or rowdy children, or an ungodly lifestyle — and we criticize them for it – instead of seeing the need as a cry for help! They need someone to mow their lawn! They need some help on how to bring up their kids! They need a witness about what God can do for their life! If you don’t do anything else in response to today’s message, I hope that you will at least pray: “Lord, help me to see with Your eyes the needs of people around me.”
2) You must FEEL COMPASSION
For some of us, the problem is not that we don’t see the need, but that we don’t feel compassion for people. It is very instructive that in the story of the Good Samaritan, :32 says the Levite “saw him, and passed by on the other side.” HE SAW HIM! The problem of the Levite was not that he did not “see” – he DID see him — it was that he did not care. I wonder how many of us have this same problem: it is not that you do not see people’s needs; it is just that you do not feel anything for them when you do.
Why is it that we don’t always feel compassion for people the way we should? I think what happens sometimes is that we spend our emotional energy on the wrong things. I read where a psychologist said that you only have so many “emotional dollars” to spend – and if you spend all your emotional energy on made up characters in tv dramas, you don’t have any left for real people.
Several years ago I had an older lady in my church tell me that back in 1960, tv was still pretty new, and she had just started watching the soap opera, “Days of Our Lives.” She said she was “so worried” about this one particular character, that she was hurrying through her housework to try to get everything done so she could see what was going to happen – but God just reminded her: “these people aren’t real; this is just a story on tv”! She said she never turned on the program that day – and never watched that show again.
I wonder if some of us today need to make the same kind of commitment: don’t spend all your emotional energy on imaginary people in tv, movies, or books; save your emotional energy for real people: for the people next door, for the people on your job, at your school – for the people the Lord brings across your path, like He did the Good Samaritan’s! We need to let our hearts be touched by real people’s needs, and let that compassion drive us to do something about it.
3) You must DO SOMETHING about the need!
This is where a lot of us fail. It is not that we don’t see the need; we do. And often times, it is not that we don’t feel badly about it; we do. But unless you DO something about it, you haven’t really exercised Biblical mercy. Many people misunderstand this; they think that because they cry or agonize over someone’s need, that they are merciful. Not at all. Biblical mercy does not just “see and feel”; it does something about it!
In Matthew chapter 14, right after :14, where it says that Jesus “saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them, and healed their sick”, the next verse says that the disciples came to Him and said that it was late, and that He needed to send the crowds away so that they could buy something to eat. Jesus response to them in :16 is very instructive. He said, “YOU give them something to eat”!
This is a pretty good word for a lot of us. Too often we see a need, and maybe we feel badly for someone – but we do not do anything about it. OR sometimes, like the disciples, our “doing something about it” is pointing someone ELSE to do something about it: “Bro. Shawn, so-and-so has a need” – and that can be legitimate, sometimes “doing something about it” may involve getting the right person plugged into helping them; there is a place for that. But sometimes that can be a copout. Sometimes – and perhaps most often – God wants YOU to “do something” about it! Here in Matthew 14, Jesus didn’t want His disciples to “slough” the needs of the people off on someone else; He wanted them to do something about it themselves.
When I was serving in Louisiana we had 6 associate staff members, and as a result I delegated a lot of responsibilities to those ministers. I had a marvelous associate pastor, and several good associate ministers that I trusted, and depended on a lot. One day we had a need that came up in a person our church, and my first thought was, I need to tell Jack or Ray to do something about that – and all of the sudden the conviction came: why don’t YOU take care of it?! (Just like Jesus was saying to the disciples: “YOU give them something to eat!”) — and I did.
Maybe it is that way with you today. Maybe there is a situation for which you have been thinking “You know, someone ought to do something to help this person.” But God is saying to you today: you have seen the need, you feel compassion for them; YOU do something about it! “You give them something to eat”! YOU show mercy on them like I have shown on you!
EXPRESSIONS OF MERCY
I think a good question to ask is, what KIND of mercy-showing was Jesus involved in? Or, in what direction should our mercy be channeled? Some people, when they think of mercy, may think of giving money to someone who needs it (that is at the root of the word “elemos” which is translated “mercy” here. Many charitable institutions are called “elemosunary” institutions, which term is derived from this word) or of giving food to the homeless at a shelter, or doing disaster relief. And these can all be valid expressions of mercy. But if you study the merciful acts of Jesus, in which He “felt, compassion and did something” – you can see His mercy took several forms:
1) His mercy was evangelistic. In the example of the Rich Young Ruler, it says that Jesus looked at him, felt a love for him – and then told him how he could have eternal life. This is the most important direction that mercy can take: all our physical needs are temporary; but salvation is eternal — so the single most merciful thing you can do is to tell someone how they can know the Lord.
2) Jesus’ mercy was also instructive: the verse we saw in Mark 6:34 says that Jesus saw the multitude, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd – and He began to teach them many things.” In this case, Jesus’ “mercy” took the form of teaching people who were like scattered sheep, things that would help them.
3) Jesus’ mercy also took the form of caring acts: we are perhaps most familiar with these: He saw and felt compassion and healed the blind man; He saw and felt compassion and raised the woman’s son from the dead; He saw and felt compassion and fed the multitude who had no food – and so on.
Jesus’ merciful acts involved evangelistic, teaching and caring acts: I like to summarize that as reaching, teaching, and caring … again a good model for us personally, and for all of our ministries! As you and I seek to express mercy in Jesus’ name, we it can take forms of evangelism – showing people the mercy that God has for us in Jesus Christ; teaching – instructing them in Biblical ways which will help them; and other caring acts of meeting their needs in Jesus’ name.
Is there someone who comes to your mind right now, upon whom God would have you show mercy in Jesus’ name: someone you need to share Christ with? Someone you should teach or disciple in some way? Someone whose physical needs you should meet? You are probably better at one of these expressions of mercy than others: maybe instructive, or evangelistic, or caring – but we should all seek to be balanced in our expressions, just as Jesus modeled for us.
THE CHRISTIAN AND MERCY
Of all people in the world, the follower of Jesus Christ should be especially quick to show mercy: because we know that we have already RECEIVED mercy from the Lord that we didn’t deserve.
The first part of Ephesians 2 describes how before we knew Christ we were “dead in (our) trespasses and sins”, and “were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” But then it goes on to say, “BUT GOD, being rich in MERCY, because of the great love with which He loved us, made us alive together with Christ.” And it goes on to say in those famous :8-9, “By grace you have been saved through faith … it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast. The Bible makes it clear: God did not save us because we were good; God saved us because He had mercy on us: “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
The genuine Christian person knows this, and so he or she is ready to show mercy to others, because they know that God has had mercy on them. That’s the point of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18, where the slave owes his master an incredible sum of money, and the master forgives him. But then he went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a few days wages, and seized him, and threw him into prison, and when he cried out for mercy, he would NOT. So when the master of that first slave found him, he rebuked him and said, “Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?” — and he handed him to the torturers. That slave showed that he had no gratitude or understanding of the mercy that had been shown to him — because he did not show that same mercy to his brother.
And it is the same way with the Christian. If you truly recognize that you are not saved by your goodness, or your good works, but only by God’s mercy in Jesus, then you will be the FIRST to show mercy on someone else. That couple on the highway in Florida, they are going to be the FIRST people to stop on the highway and help somebody, because they know what it is like to be helpless in that situation and to find mercy. It is the same with the Christian. We know what it is like to be shown mercy when we didn’t deserve it — that’s what God did for us — so we are the FIRST to show mercy to others for their sins, or for the needs they have in their lives.
This applies in a number of ways:
A) A Christian person will be ready to forgive others’ sins, because that is what God did for them, and they are ready to share the same mercy they have received with others. The church should be the last place in the world you should ever find a “self-righteous” or a “holier than thou” attitude. Every member of the church has, in order to be saved, first had to admit that they were a sinner, who couldn’t save themselves, and whose only hope of heaven is that Jesus had mercy on them. How then could we as Christians possibly ever “look down” on anyone else’s sin? We have already admitted that we are sinners ourselves — how can we look down on someone else who has done the same? Now, that doesn’t mean that we lose all sense of discretion, or that we never call something a “sin” — but it does mean that we don’t harshly condemn people for their sins: we know have committed sins too!
It’s like I wrote on my blog a couple of weeks ago about Cam Newton & Peyton Manning. They both disappointed a lot of people in the aftermath of the Super Bowl. And most of us would agree that what each of them did was wrong. But here’s the thing: we’ve ALL done things that were wrong. Those two guys just had the experience of having their indiscretions broadcast on national television for millions of people to see. I’m pretty glad that MY worst moments aren’t shown on tv, aren’t you? That’s the attitude we should have as Christians: we ought to be the first ones to show mercy to others, because we have already been shown mercy ourselves.
B) A Christian person will also be ready to help someone in need, because God helps THEM in their need, and they are quick to want to share that same kind of mercy with others. So they are ready to “see,” and “feel compassion” and “DO something” about people’s needs, because that is what God did for them.
I just read an amazing book by Rodney Stark entitled: The Triumph of Christianity. In it he debunks a number of false ideas about Christianity throughout history. I’ll share some of those some time, or you can read my review of it on shawnethomas.com. But one section of the book that was really poignant was when the plague came to Rome, and all the pagan priests fled for their lives, but the Christians stayed and ministered to people. They weren’t afraid to die from the plague, because they knew they had eternal life in Christ. And because they actively took care of the sick people, instead of just throwing them out on the street to die the way the pagans did, the people they tended had a much higher cure rate. But it is significant that it was the Christians who stayed to show mercy on others, the way that GOD first had mercy on them. That kind of mercy should mark our lives today as well. We should be quick to show mercy and help others, because God first had mercy on us.
C) The Christian person is also ready to allow God to build this quality into their life through their circumstances.
We have talked repeatedly about the fact that Romans 8:28-29 refers to the fact that God causes all things to work together for His good purpose, which is specifically that He wants us to be “conformed to the image of His Son.” God causes and allows events to come into our lives to help build the quality of mercy into us.
One of these times in my life was was what Cheryl & I used to call the “dark year” of our lives — until we had several more! I had just graduated from seminary, and we had also just had our first baby, and I had no full-time job, and we had not heard from a church yet about serving. Of course, virtually every DAY my prayer was that God would open the door for a full-time church for me. Well, as I shared before, God showed me in His word that part of what He was doing in my life was building these character qualities of Christ into me in a greater way during that year. And so I began to study Matthew 5:3-12 to learn more about the character qualities of Christ. When I came to this 5th one, the Lord really spoke to my heart: was I being merciful to others in this time? Here I was, feeling sorry for myself because I was poor, and I didn’t have a job, and I didn’t have a church, and all these things I was praying for myself – but He put this on my heart – and I can almost hear that “still small voice” in my mind to this day, asking: “What about Craig?” Craig was one of my best friends in seminary, who went to church with us. He had also graduated, a semester BEFORE I did, and he still hadn’t gone to a church yet either. And “what about Clay?” – another friend of mine who was in the very same circumstance. Both of these good friends of mine were in the same situation that I was – but where were my prayers for THEM?! I was so caught up in MY problems, MY needs, MY prayers, that I wasn’t really praying actively for them! God really spoke to my heart that day about seeing and feeling compassion and doing something for the needs of others, not just myself – and I began that day to pray for those other guys the same way that I was praying for myself. This was really the beginning of my ministry in prayer for other pastors and ministers which I have continued to this day. Now, every Sunday as I pray for myself, and for our church, I also pray for dozens of other pastors and ministers and churches in the same way. Whatever verse God lays on my heart to pray for me, and for our church that day, I pray for them. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy”! May God give ME the same mercies that I am praying for others! But God used of one of the most difficult episodes of my life to begin build this quality of mercy, and intercession, into my life, really for the very first time.
Maybe you are in a trial, or difficulty, today, and maybe you would admit that, as is natural for us, your focus has all been on yourself. You’ve been praying, “Lord help me; Lord have mercy on me.” And it’s ok to ask God to show mercy on you, and to help you. But maybe God has something even more for your life right now than just delivering you out of this trial? Maybe He is using this situation in your life to break your heart, to help you understand the needs of other people, to give you a compassion and a sympathy for others. Maybe God wants to do something more than just “get you out” of this circumstance. Maybe He wants you to “get something” out of it. And what He wants you to get out of it, is to have a Christ-like mercy built into your life, so that better than ever before you will “see”, and “feel compassion”, and “do something” about the needs around you, so that this verse really becomes true for you: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
— As we bow our heads, some of us might admit to God that we have fallen short of Biblical mercy. Ask Him during this prayer time to help you 1) SEE needs around you. This is the place to start. 2) Others of us need to ask Him to break our hearts over what we see, and actually FEEL compassion for those with needs. 3) And some of us do see, and feel, but our prayer needs to be: God, show ME what you want ME to do about this particular need.
— Or maybe as we’ve talked about how mercy takes action, God has laid a person or a situation on your heart, and you know He is saying to you: “YOU take care of that” — then spend this prayer time asking God to help you do what He is telling you to do for that person/situation.
— Many of us ought to come to the altar and pray for someone whose need is on our heart.
— Or maybe you would say, I have never really received mercy from God in Jesus Christ, and before I can learn to help others, I first need help MYSELF from God. I need Jesus as my Savior. I’d love to visit with you about that if you’ll come and share what’s on your heart with me this morning …