Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Matthew 5:7
The real Jesus continues to surprise us. He does not say what we expect a Bible-believing preacher to say – and he was a Bible-believing preacher. But he doesn’t say, “Blessed are the staunch. Congratulations to the strict who hold the line against the bad people. The real heroes around here never give an inch. What we need more of in the world today are hard-core radicals who have the guts to call sinners out. As we see standards falling everywhere, what we don’t need is more mercy toward the people responsible for this mess.” Jesus always honored the Bible. And the Bible calls sin “sin.” But he understood that the deepest message of the Bible is the mercy of God for those who deserve the wrath of God. He stood firm for that message. And he sealed his testimony with his blood. We look at the cross and we see there a man of infinite mercy dying for the sins of others. Mercy is not glib. Mercy is not easy. That’s why it’s so beautiful in this merciless world. Mercy is from beyond this world. God wants us to bless this city by being merciful to the undeserving. That is what no one expects. It is what everyone needs.
Blessed are the merciful
Long before they were merciful, God was merciful to them. Our lives restart with the mercy of God. The gospel opens our eyes to see, “I’ve been far worse to God than anyone has been to me, and he was merciful. How can I refuse to be merciful?” The mercy of God makes us merciful too. His mercy toward us creates a culture of mercy among us and toward everyone. We long for everyone to be forgiven and restored and set free and alive again in Christ. And when Jesus sees that spirit of mercy in us, he rejoices. He says, “Blessed are you! You’re a church I can use!”
Back in verse 5 Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” How is mercy different from meekness? The difference is this. The meek respond passively to an injustice. They don’t retaliate. The merciful respond actively to an injustice. They forgive and restore and re-create the shalom that’s been destroyed. Every one of us has been wronged. In this world, it’s inevitable. The human heart is cruel. And the religious human heart can be the worst of all, because religious people absolutize their cause as God’s cause. Until the Lord returns and his kingdom is the lead culture over the entire world – and that is the future of this world – but until we’re there, we can expect to be mistreated.
What then is the meekness Jesus loves to see in us? A willingness to absorb injustice without hitting back, because God didn’t hit us back at the cross. What is the mercy he loves to see in us? A willingness to forgive the unforgiveable and treat the offender as a friend to be won back, because God forgave the unforgiveable in us and won us back. The gospel is the only power that can take people who have been wronged and can’t stop being angry about it, but Jesus makes them both meek and merciful. When Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17), this change is what he meant – harsh religious people becoming beautiful merciful people. Could there be anything more wonderful?
We pray for a new visitation of God upon our city. When God comes down and lays hold of our city, I believe it will be, more than anything else, an outpouring of mercy for the guilty. Picture in your mind Berlin in 1945, at the end of World War II. We’ve all seen pictures in history books. Think of the rubble and wreckage – the bombed out remains of a once magnificent city. Do you see? Spiritually and relationally and emotionally and theologically and morally, that’s us in Nashville today – people who have sinned and been sinned against and the destruction is everywhere we look.
But where is the mercy? Where is the divine power to restore? Only the mercy of God, coming down through the gospel, can give us all the better future we long for. The real Jesus did not come down into this world to hold out against the guilty. He did not come to settle a score. He did not come with a burning sense of wrong. Jesus said, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, for I came not to call the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). What you want is what you are, at the deepest core of your being. And Jesus said he wanted mercy. And here is what he’s saying to us today. It’s the merciful he will use to spread his mercy. If we are willing to serve him in this way, we ourselves will experience more mercy. It is not easy to forgive. There is nothing more costly than to forgive. It wasn’t easy for God. There was a cross. But mercy is the power that brings down the kingdom of heaven.
What does it mean to forgive someone who has wronged you? It doesn’t mean you trivialize the wrong. It doesn’t mean you sweep it under the rug. It doesn’t mean you put nice words on what God says is wrong. But here’s what forgiveness does mean. To forgive is to set aside the justice you’re entitled to, in order to restore the offender. Someone wrongs you and harms you and diminishes your future. That person owes you now. They ought to back up and make the whole situation right again, the way it was before. You have a right to that. They owe you that. It’s why Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts” (Matthew 6:12).
A sin creates indebtedness, a relational deficit. But forgiveness chooses not to collect on the debt. Forgiveness says something like this: “You owe me. God says you do. But what I’m saying is, you’re free and clear. God wants me to pay your debt, the way he paid my debt. My life is different now because of what you took from me. But you don’t have to give it back. I accept the damage, and I’m trusting God that his power will rest upon me now even more greatly. My life story has been changed by your wrong, but it was changed long ago and far more deeply by the wrongs God forgave in me. He even allowed you to mistreat me, so that I could become living proof of his mercy to you, if you’ll receive it. But I choose mercy and not sacrifice. I’m not holding this against you. I’m not going to remind you of this. I’m not going to complain about this to others. You’re free, and I hope your new life is filled with God’s blessing.” That’s how mercy thinks. It’s how God thinks. And the Lord will take every one of us to that place. When you say Yes to his mercy, many people will respond with humility and they’ll be changed forever. Some will think you’re being condescending, and they will use it as further evidence against you. But Jesus will say, “Blessed are you!”
The mercy he’s thinking of in this Beatitude is mercy in judgment. And he isn’t thinking of acts of mercy. He is thinking of a whole disposition, an attitude, a bias at all times. It’s a new gospel-tilt in all our thoughts, inclining us to make generous allowances for human sin. He is not saying sin is no big deal. Jesus never said that. He shed his blood because that’s how horrible our sin is. But he is calling us to create an environment of gospel + safety + time, where anyone can grow and change. That’s how we can be the kingdom of heaven advancing mercy in an angry world. That’s how we get back to the real Jesus.
I’ll ramp it up further. The Lord is not saying, “Blessed are those who forgive now and then.” He is not saying, “Blessed are those who forgive frequently.” He is not even saying, “Blessed are those who go a long way with mercy, but they still decide for themselves when it would take them too far and demand too much and they draw a line.” No, what Jesus rejoices to see in us is that we’re repenting of a lack of mercy toward guilty people. That’s when he can see that the kingdom of heaven is really getting through – when our whole personalities are more and more flavored with his mercy. This is a big part of what it means to be a Christian. If we could take a poll and invite people to fill in this blank: “To be a Christian in America today means ________________” – how many people would fill it in with “mercy for the guilty”? But that’s what the real Jesus would say.
Whitney Houston died recently. She could sing, and she could sin. The only difference between Whitney Houston and me is that I can’t sing. In her last public performance she sang “Jesus loves me.” I posted the YouTube video on my blog. One commenter said this:
It’s difficult for me to understand the reason for this post on a Christian blog. Are we to understand that Ms. Houston is being portrayed here as a Christian lady worthy of emulation? Evidently her lifestyle was hardly one of a Christian role model, and her death has been attributed to the effects of drugs and alcohol. Please help me comprehend this addition to your ministry on this blog.
I understood the commenter to be saying, “Ray, Christians shouldn’t give credibility to sinful people. We should be saying how wrong they are.” So here’s how I replied:
Thanks. I am not making a statement about her. She is making a statement about Jesus — that he loves her, that the Bible tells her so, that she is weak but he is strong. A weak person can sing that with credibility. Only a weak person can.
That commenter didn’t respond. But I was touched when another commenter added this:
Ray, how breaking it was to read your reply. Tears streamed down my face as my shock settled and the truth was absorbed. Finally.
The Bible tells us that Jesus loves weak, evil people, which is all of us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17). The deepest truth in all the Bible, the only truth that can change our families and our communities and our entire city, is God’s mercy for the guilty. That is what God wants us to say to the Whitney Houstons of this world – and before it’s too late. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful.”
For they shall receive mercy
This is conditional, isn’t it? “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Do you want to receive mercy from God and others? Be merciful. That’s what the Beatitude is saying. Conditionality is embedded in what the Lord is saying here. So we might be wondering, “Is the Lord saying we have to earn God’s mercy? Is he even saying we can earn God’s mercy?” No. He says, “They shall receive mercy.” He doesn’t say, “They shall receive their due.” We cannot deserve God’s mercy by being merciful. How can we ever deserve mercy? But grace, being as gracious as grace can be, is conditional.
The key is this. The conditions of grace are not meritorious in nature. By meeting the condition, we don’t become worthy. We never leverage blessing out of God. He blesses only the undeserving. And that’s the condition. Are we undeserving enough to be merciful? Being a desperate sinner who has squandered all credibility with God and can only beg for his mercy – that’s the condition. And that is the place of God’s blessing.
The grace of God does not say to us, “You don’t have to change.” The grace of God says to us, “You don’t have to deserve this.” God is not a cosmic Blessing Machine that works automatically. God is a Father, and he wants us, right down to our hearts. His grace does not sweep all conditions aside. His grace sweeps all deservings aside, if we’ll open up. The grace of God is moving our way right now. Let’s move with the grace of God. Let’s be open. It’s all he asks.
Jesus said, “To the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance” (Matthew 13:12). That’s how it works. To him who has, by grace, will more be given, by grace. So, what is your next step as you move forward with God? Someone has wronged you. Someone needs your mercy. God has been wildly good to you. Someone needs you to be wildly good to them. Who is that person? What are you going to do about it, for Jesus’ sake? When that person harmed you, he or she also empowered you, because you are the only person on the face of the earth who can forgive that harm. You are not a victim. You have power. You have authority over the person who wronged you. Use your power. Use your authority to set them free. And if you can’t make yourself merciful, go back to God’s mercy for you. Think about the worst thing you’ve ever done to him. He has forgiven you. He really has. It’s why the Bible says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian whose family rescued Jews during World War 2. They were betrayed and arrested. Corrie and her sister Betsy were sent to a Nazi concentration camp. Betsy died there, which broke Corrie’s heart. But Corrie’s life was spared because of a clerical error. Several years after the war, she was speaking on the subject of forgiveness at a Christian meeting. After the meeting, one of her former prison guards, one of the worst, appeared out of the crowd and approached her. He had become a Christian. And suddenly there he was, with his hand outstretched, asking her, “Will you forgive me?” The sufferings he had inflicted were real. Corrie’s anguish was not her own hyper-sensitivity. The wrong was monstrous. The loss could never be recovered in all this life. And now he’s standing there and asking her, “Will you forgive me?” Later Corrie wrote:
I stood there with coldness clutching my heart…. I prayed, “Jesus, help me!” Woodenly, mechanically I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me, and I experienced an incredible thing. The current started in my shoulder, raced down into my arms and sprang into our clutched hands. Then this warm reconciliation seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother,” I cried with my whole heart. For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard, the former prisoner. I have never known the love of God so intensely as I did in that moment.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”