Credit:Pitiphat Kanjanamukda

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (Matthew 5:7) “What a searching statement that is!” wrote Dr Lloyd-Jones about the first half of this next beatitude, “What a test of each one of us, of our whole standing and of our profession of the Christian faith!”4 Are we merciful? If not, has our faith in Jesus made any difference to our character?

“Mercy” seems a short, simple, everyday word, occurring hundreds of times in most English translations of the Bible. Yet its meaning stretches wide and deep. Just as in English there are other words similar to “mercy”, such as “compassion”, “forgiveness” and “grace”, so it is in the Hebrew of the Old Testament, where several different words are translated in English as “mercy”. The standard Hebrew word for mercy is rachamim, which also means “wombs”, indicating protection, provision and the unwavering love of a mother for her baby. (Jesus probably used a similar word in Aramaic, when He spoke the fifth beatitude.) This thought brings us to hesed (or chesed), the active, steadfast love of our covenant-keeping God. Indeed, hesed is sometimes translated “mercy”, for example, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). Mercy is an intrinsic part of hesed love.

New Testament Greek also has several words translated in English as “mercy” but the standard one is eleos, used here in Matthew 5:7. The same word occurs when Jesus quotes God’s words in Hosea 6:6 about desiring mercy, not sacrifice (Matthew 9:13; 12:7). It also occurs in the story of the two blind men seeking to be healed, who cry out to Jesus “Have mercy on us” (Matthew 20:30-31) and when Jesus rebukes those who tithed their spices and herbs but had not done “justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).

The basic meaning of the English word “mercy” is kindness towards someone over whom you have power. Mercy involves compassion or pity, yet it is more because mercy includes action as well as a sympathetic feeling. The blind men were asking Jesus to do something for them. Mercy was something which the spice-tithers should have been doing, not merely feeling merciful.

Mercy includes forgiveness, that great distinctive of Christianity which sets our faith apart from all other world religions in which revenge and retaliation are typically permitted, sometimes even commanded as a duty. But this is not so in the faith founded by the Lord Jesus who “when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten” (1 Peter 2:23, NKJV).

Instead we have “the blessed retaliations of the kingdom of God”.5 For example,

If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
(Proverbs 25:21; Romans 12:20)
If anyone slaps you on the right cheek,
turn to them the other cheek also. And
if anyone wants to sue you and take
your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
(Matthew 5:39-40)

There is a beautiful illustration in Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son, whose wronged father “retaliated” by running out to hug and kiss him and then ordering the best clothes, jewellery and a feast for him (Luke 15:11-24).

Mercy is a key aspect of the character of God. When the LORD showed His glory to Moses the two characteristics that He mentioned were His graciousness and His mercy (Exodus 33:19, AV). When He proclaimed His Name to Moses, as they stood together on Mount Sinai, He said, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious…

(Exodus 34:6, AV). It is interesting to note that the place established by the LORD for meeting with Moses has traditionally been called in English the “mercy seat”. This was a cover of pure gold made to go over the ark of the covenant, that is, the wooden chest containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 25:17-22). The literal name of the cover was the “propitiatory shelter” or the “propitiation place”, translated in some Bible versions as “atonement cover”. The mercy seat was not only where God appeared but also where the high priest sprinkled blood once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1-16) so that his sins and the sins of the whole community could be forgiven.

The greatest example of God’s mercy to us is the giving of His Son. He loved the world with an active hesed love, a love that performs merciful actions. Giving His Son was His act of mercy to save us (John 3:16).

Although God is full of mercy, it is the opposite for human beings. Mercy and forgiveness do not seem to come naturally to us. Without the Holy Spirit’s help, we tend to want to “get our own back” and to seek revenge or at least to seek what we might describe to ourselves as justice, or reparations/compensation, or asserting our rights. That is why it is so important to measure ourselves against this beatitude as a test of the reality of our Christian faith. Mercy is part of the righteousness that the fourth beatitude tells us should be our fervent desire. A naturally forgiving spirit is rare, so, if we find that we do now have a forgiving spirit, we can rejoice at this work of God in our lives. When we are merciful, not vindictive, in our day-to-day activities, when we are kind to our enemies in their distress, it is a sign that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Since God combines grace and mercy when He describes Himself, let us consider where those two qualities overlap and where they are different. The New Testament Greek word for grace, charis, means a favour given freely, without receiving anything in return. As Christians we think immediately of God’s forgiveness of our sins (Romans 3:24), but humans can also show grace to each other (Acts 2:47; 25:3). God’s grace is a response to human sin, but His mercy is a response to human misery or indeed to the misery of any other part of his creation (Job 38:41). Richard Chenevix Trench has pointed out that in God’s purposes for salvation,

the grace must go before
the mercy, the χάρις [charis]
must go before and make way
for the ἔλεος [eleos]. It is true
that the same persons are
the subjects of both, being at once
the guilty and the miserable;
yet the righteousness of God,
which it is just as necessary
should be maintained as his love,
demands that the guilt should be done
away, before the misery can be assuaged;
only the forgiven may be blessed. He must
pardon, before He can heal; men must be
justified before they can be sanctified.

As humans can be gracious to each other, so we can be merciful to each other (Luke 6:36) and forgiving to each other (Colossians 3:13).

Although all humans, made in God’s image, are capable of being gracious, merciful and forgiving, our relationship with God should mean that we Christians display these qualities to a greater extent. The more we realise the depth of God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness to us, the easier it is to show grace, mercy and forgiveness to those who have injured or offended us. This goes way beyond recognising that someone may have had a headache on the day they shouted at us unfairly, or been influenced by a distressing experience in the past, or suffer from a mental illness. We recognise that ultimately they have been duped by the world, the flesh and the devil, as we ourselves have surely been duped in the past. Through their hurtful words or deeds, they have been the victims of Satan and his unwitting tools. But they do not understand the situation in spiritual terms and, in that sense, are not responsible for their actions. We therefore feel compassion for them, especially if we see them eaten up with bitterness and anger.

We forgive them in our hearts, and, as we have opportunity, we do practical acts of mercy for them, including praying that God will forgive them (Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60). It may be that our mercy is not recognised as such by the recipients of it. They may see our merciful action to them as a sign of weakness or an admission the Lord knows and understands.

Despite the work of the Holy Spirit, we will not become perfect in mercy here on earth. If we were to be judged on how merciful we are, none of us would reach heaven. But it is by grace we are saved; we do not win our salvation by our good actions (Ephesians 2:8-9). God will show mercy to us on the Day of Judgement because of our repentant and trusting attitude, our humble realisation that we are spiritually destitute and helpless (as we saw in the first beatitude).

So the promise at the end of the fifth beatitude, that mercy will be given to the merciful, must be understood in the same way as praying to be forgiven “as we have forgiven” others (Matthew 6:12). If we are merciful and forgiving to others, it is primarily the result of our realisation that God is merciful and forgiving to us. We already know that we shall receive His mercy on the Day of Judgement, for Jesus has died to take away our sins, and therefore we are merciful to others.

God calls us to be merciful, and this is the ultimate test of whether we are growing in Christ-likeness

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo is the International Director of Barnabas Fund and the Executive Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.