“The Character of Christ: Merciful (Matthew 5:7 sermon)

Several years ago, a man and his wife were traveling on the Interstate in Florida, when their car broke down, with the next exit 40 miles away. There had been a rash of highway robberies there recently, so no one would stop to help them. They actually counted 100 cars that drove past – until they just finally stopped counting!  At last one man stopped to help – a man who could barely speak English. He helped them out, and would take no money for it when they offered, and then he just drove away. Afterwards the wife turned to her husband and said, “How do you pay somebody back for something like that?” After thinking about it, the husband said, “We can’t; but what we can do is pass along to others, 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 stranded in your sin, and He did for you what no one else would do or could do — He sent Jesus to die on the cross to pay for your sins and save you, when you totally didn’t deserve it. What can you possibly do to pay Him back?  Nothing!  We could never with our whole lives pay God back for one drop of the blood that Jesus shed to save us! But what we CAN do – and what we WILL do, if we’re really grateful for what God did for us – is pass along to others the same kind of mercy that God first showed to us.

This morning we continue our study of the 8 character qualities of Christ from Matthew 5:3-12 that God wants to build into our lives. Today we come to the 5th quality: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”


As with each of these Beatitudes, we need to define what this quality IS that God wants to build into us. We may have some preconceived ideas about what “mercy” means, but what did it actually mean in their culture, and in the New Testament. The Greeks used this word (“eleos”) to refer to the emotion one feels when they come in contact with someone in affliction — and later that came to include ACTS of help to those in need. (NIDNTTE)  The use of the word “mercy” in the New Testament is very similar to that, and it shows us that “mercy” means to “See someone’s need, to feel compassion for them in their need, and then to 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.  

Now let me show you where I got that definition. We see it the story of the Good Samaritan, in Luke 10:30-37. Most of us know this story, of how the man was beaten by robbers 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 to describe what the Good Samaritan did when he came across this man:

: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” — all these other things that he did to help him. In other words, he DID SOMETHING to take care of this man’s needs. 

But then if you look at the end, as Jesus was giving the moral of the story, 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 was: “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 this passage shows us that mercy involves 1) seeing someone’s need, 2) feeling compassion for them, and then 3) doing something to meet their need. Here is a great, Biblical definition of  what “mercy” is.  

II.  God’s Mercy to Us 

Now, when you think about it, “mercy” is exactly what we have received from God, isn’t it? It’s how we became followers of Jesus in the first place. God had MERCY on us in Jesus Christ.

This is the clear message of Ephesians 2, which tells “the story of us all.” 

Ephesians 2 begins:  

“And you were dead in your offenses and sins, 2 in which you previously walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all previously lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the rest.”

Here the Bible says were were ALL “dead” in our sins; we were all following “the prince of the power of the air” — Satan — and we were under His control. We all lived in lust and disobedience, every single one of us. We were dead spiritually, totally without hope — and we deserved God’s punishment.

But then :4 has the most amazing words: “But God”! “BUT GOD, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our wrongdoings, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come He might show the boundless riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” 

The Bible says while we were totally dead in sin, “BUT GOD” was “RICH IN MERCY”: that is, He SAW that we were dead in our trespasses and sins; He FELT “COMPASSION” for us (“for God so loved the world,” that’s why He did it) and then He DID something about it: He sent Jesus to die on the cross to save us, not by our works, but by His grace.

Our salvation — as we have talked about before — is 100%, totally based on God’s mercy. He did NOT give us what we deserve, but His grace and forgiveness — His mercy — instead.

I just finished reading a biography of John Hay, who had one of the most remarkable careers in American history. He began as one of Abraham Lincoln’s 2 personal secretaries in the White House, and then later served three different presidents as Secretary of State, so he served from Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt, an amazing span!  But in the biography it talks about how Hay was in the room with Lincoln on what they called “Butcher’s Day”: the day when the list of soldiers was brought to Lincoln so he could sign the warrant for their execution: for falling asleep on guard duty, for running away from a battle, and other grievous military crimes which were punishable by death. But Hay wrote in his diary: “I was amused at the eagerness with which the President caught at any fact which would justify him in saving the life of a condemned soldier.” Lincoln always looked for any excuse to have mercy on a man — especially to those who had run from battle. Hay wrote that Lincoln once said: “It would frighten these poor devils too terribly to shoot them!” Several of his generals admonished him: by the strict code of the military, they should be shot — that was the law. But Lincoln didn’t give them what they deserved. Instead he saw their need, felt compassion for them, and signed their release. He gave them mercy instead of what they deserved.

And that is just what God did for us. By the strict code of God’s laws, we should all be sentenced to eternal condemnation, for our sins against Him. But like President Lincoln, God is merciful. Ephesians 2 says He is “rich in mercy.” He saw us in our need, felt compassion for us, and did something for us by having Christ die on the cross to atone for our sins. So now, if we will repent of our sins, and ask Him to save us, God WILL forgive us. He WILL save us. He WILL show mercy to us. He is a God who is RICH in mercy! If you have never received that mercy, ask Him to save you right now. He WILL see your need; He WILL feel compassion for you; He WILL do something about it — and save YOU RIGHT NOW! He is rich in mercy.

III. Jesus’ Example of Mercy

So God showed us His mercy for salvation in Jesus Christ. And Jesus, when He came to earth to die for our sins, also lived out, over and over in specific situations in His life, the definition of mercy we saw earlier – in fact, I first got this definition from observing it in Jesus’ life in the Gospels. Notice at how many times the Gospels say that Jesus “saw needs, “felt compassion,” and did something for people’s needs;

— 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 told the story of the Prodigal Son, He said 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.”  

There are more examples with similar language throughout the Gospels; these are just some of the more exact matches.  But all of these examples have these three same elements in common: Jesus “saw,” He “felt compassion,” and then He did something to meet someone’s need. Jesus lived out mercy in His life with people wherever He went.

IV. Imitating Jesus’ Example of Mercy

As disciples of Jesus, we are to follow in His steps. We are to show mercy to others, as He has shown mercy to US. We continue to see here the “flow” of these Beatitudes from one to the other: since we have had our hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness satisfied by His mercy — now WE turn around and show that same mercy we have received, to those around us. Just like this verse says, those who receive mercy, will SHOW mercy.  So how, specifically, do we do that? Just as Jesus “saw,” “felt compassion,” and “did something” to meet needs; so we will do the same: we will SEE the needs of people around us; FEEL compassion for them; and then DO something about to help them. Let’s look at these 3, remembering that it takes ALL THREE steps to be “merciful” Biblically. And we can FAIL to imitate Jesus if we fall short on any of these 3 steps:

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 notice their need. This is what Jesus was SO good at. He always saw the needs that people had: “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.  

This should challenge us too, to LOOK AROUND. To “SEE” the needs that are around us. A lot of us fail here, because “seeing,” we don’t really “see.”

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes & the Blanched Soldier, a Mr. M. James Dodd, unknown to Holmes, sits down before him in his office. Holmes says to the man:

“‘(You are) From South Africa, sir, I perceive.’

‘Yes, sir,’ he answered, with some surprise.

‘Imperial Yeomanry, I fancy.’


‘Middlesex Corps, no doubt.’

‘That is so. Mr. Holmes, you are a wizard.’

Holmes says: “I smiled at his bewildered expression. ‘When a gentleman of virile appearance enters my room with such tan on his face as an English sun could never give, and with his handkerchief in his sleeve instead of in his pocket, it is not difficult to place him. You wear a short beard, which shows that you were not a regular. You have the cut of a riding-man. As to Middlesex (corps), your card has already shown me that you are stockbroker from Throckmorton Street. What other regiment would you join?’

Mr. Dodd said:  ’You see everything.’

Holmes responded: ’I SEE no more than you, but I have trained myself to NOTICE what I see.’”  (The Complete Sherlock Holmes, p. 959)

That’s a pretty good word for many of us as God’s people today. Too many of us would have to admit that we just walk by so many people and situations — “seeing” them in a sense, but not really NOTICING the needs that are right before our eyes. And the thing is, if you don’t first see the need, then there is no possibility that you will feel compassion for what you didn’t really notice; and there is really no way you’ll ever DO anything about it if you didn’t notice it either. See, you’ll never get to steps 2 & 3 of Biblical mercy, if you don’t get step 1: We have to learn to see needs.  

We need to learn to look at people, and situations, with Jesus’ eyes: with eyes of compassion. Too many of us look at people with a “critical eye” instead: we’re looking to to see if they are attractive to us; or if there is something “incorrect” about them; something we need to criticize about them: instead of noticing their NEED like Jesus would! 

This is such a crucial point. You will never never feel compassion, and you will never do anything about someone’s need, if you don’t SEE that need first. If you do NOTHING else as a result of this message this morning, perhaps the best response you can have would be just to pray: “Lord, help me to SEE the needs of people around me, like You do!”  


Some of us fail on this second point: the problem is not that we don’t see the need, but that we don’t feel compassion for what we see. In the story of the Good Samaritan, :32 says the Levite “saw him, and passed by on the other side.” The problem of the Levite wasn’t that he did not “see” – it flat out says HE SAW HIM! — but he didn’t feel compassion enough to do anything about what he saw. 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 have the compassion for them like you should, when you do see them.

Dane Ortlund wrote about an encounter he had on the streets of Bangalore India:  “I had just finished preaching at a church in town and was waiting for my ride to arrive. Immediately outside the church grounds was an older man, apparently homeless, sitting in a large cardboard box. His clothes were tattered and dirty. He was missing several teeth. And what was immediately most distressing was his hands. Most of his fingers were partially eaten away. He was a leper. What happened in my heart in that moment? My fallen, prone-to-wander heart? Compassion. A little, anyway. But it was tepid compassion. The fall has ruined me, all of me, including my emotions. Fallen emotions not only sinfully OVERreact; they also sinfully UNDER react. Why was my heart so cool toward this miserable gentleman? Because I am a sinner.” He said, “Sin restrained my emotions of compassion.” He admitted that although he SAW this man, he didn’t FEEL for him like he should have. 

Then he said: what would it have been like for JESUS to look on a man like that? Jesus was “a sinless man with fully functioning emotions.” He said Jesus would have had “perfect, unfiltered compassion, rising up within Him; perfect pity.” “That is what Jesus felt.”

Ortlund reminds us that it’s our SIN that keeps us from caring, even about the situations in life that we DO see. SO many of us would have to admit: I’m more like that Levite in that story, or more like Dane Ortlund, than I am like Jesus. Even when I DO see people in need, my heart isn’t moved for them like it should be.

So again, we need to pray: Lord work in my heart. Break my heart for what breaks Yours. Make me like You — that is what this whole study is all about; becoming like Christ in our character. We need to ask Him to do that in us.

But one thing that can help, is remembering what JESUS did for US. Thank God He didn’t just see our need, and not care. He saw, and felt deeply for us, and loved us — and it moved Him to come and help us. Let’s do for others what Jesus did for us: HE showed mercy to us; now let’s show that same mercy to others. That’s what this Beatitude is all about.

3) But we also need to remember that it’s not really “mercy,” Biblically, until you fulfill the 3rd point, and 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 even that we don’t feel badly about it; we do. But unless you DO something about it, you haven’t really exercised Biblical mercy. A lot of people misunderstand this; they think that because they agonize over someone’s need, that they are merciful. They think, “Oh, I’m so merciful; I feel so badly about people’s needs; I just cry for them.” But actually, that’s not being merciful, is it? Biblical mercy does not just “see and feel” about someone’s need; it DOES SOMETHING ABOUT IT!  

In Matthew 14, right after 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. But notice Jesus’ response to them in :16. He said, “YOU give them something to eat”!  

I love that verse, because it is a word that many of us need to hear. Too often we see a need, and maybe we feel badly for someone – but we don’t DO anything about it. OR sometimes, like the disciples, our “doing something about it” is to tell someone ELSE to do something about it. We say, “the pastor should do something about this!” or “the deacons should do something about this” – and often there IS a legitimate place for getting  the right person or group involved that can help.  But we also have to admit: sometimes that can be a copout, can’t it? The truth is, often we just don’t care enough to be involved personally. Sometimes – and maybe more often than we’d like to admit – God just wants YOU to “do something” about it! Here in Matthew 14, Jesus told His disciples not to “slough off” the people’s needs off to someone else. He said, “YOU give them something to eat.” YOU show them mercy. YOU do something about yourself.    

As a pastor I often do a lot of delegating: I might see something that I think Kyle should do, or that Scott should do, or that is appropriate for the building committee or the benevolence committee to handle — and that’s appropriate; I’m so grateful for all these good people and their willingness to serve through these ministries. And we should use the organizations we have in place for ministry. But every so often the Lord will just nudge me, like Jesus did His disciples here, and say, “YOU do this. YOU take care of it. YOU show them mercy. YOU do something about it.”

And maybe there is a situation you’re aware of today, and you’ve been thinking, “Someone ought to do something to help this person, or to take care of this situation.” But God is saying to you today just as surely as He did to His disciples that day: “YOU give them something to eat!”  YOU’RE the one who’s seen the need; YOU feel compassion about it — now YOU do something about it!  The fact is, He may have brought this situation before you, for the very purpose of giving you an opportunity to become more like Christ: to see the need, to feel compassion, and to DO something about it. You show them mercy, just like God first showed mercy to YOU!


See, that’s the whole point of this Beatitude: we’re being merciful to others, because GOD was first merciful to US. And we show that we have truly received God’s mercy, when we show that same mercy to others. And if we don’t show God’s mercy to others, it may be the best sign that we have never really received it ourselves.

That was the point of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18, where a slave owes his master an incredible sum of money, and the master just forgives him for it all! But then that same slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a few days wages, but when his friend cried out for mercy, he would NOT show him mercy, but threw him into prison until he should pay it all back. When the master of that first slave heard this, he scolded 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 by his lack of mercy to his fellow slave, that he had no gratitude; he had no comprehension of the immense mercy that his master had been willing to show to him. 

THAT is why we as Christians should be the FIRST to show anyone mercy — because we know we are only saved by the mercy of God. Just like that couple on the highway in Florida are going to be the FIRST ones to stop and help anybody, because they know what it is like to need mercy — that’s how it should be with us as Christians. If we really know what it’s like to receive God’s mercy, we’ll be the FIRST ones to show mercy to others:  

— we’ll be the first to forgive someone’s sins, because we know God has first forgiven ours.

— we’ll be the first ones to “see and feel compassion and DO something” for someone’s needs — because we know that is exactly what God did for us!   And when we DO show mercy to others, we know it’s no big “feather in our cap” for doing it, either — no, we’re just passing along to others, the same mercy that God has already shown us first.  It’s just what Jesus says here: ”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 way short of Biblical mercy in our dealings with others. 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 to FEEL compassion for those with needs.  3) And some of us do see needs, and feel for people, but our prayer needs to be: God, show me what you want ME to do about this particular need. Maybe He’s laying a particular person or need on your heart this morning, even as you pray, that He wants you to do something about. 

— Or maybe you would say, before I can learn to show mercy others, I first need mercy MYSELF from God. I need to ask Jesus to have mercy on me, and save me, and be my Lord & Savior …

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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