Mercy Marks God and His Children (v. 36)
Mercy His Loving Heart
We face two main obstacles in fulfilling our Lord’s command to be merciful. The first is that we forget that “God is love” and that it is by his mercies that we are not consumed (1 John 4:8; Lam. 3:22). Although we should be amazed by his love for us sinners, we forget it, doubt it, and quench its wonder by worldliness. Then our love grows cold and our hearts proud. There is a certain presumption against which we must constantly fight – the temptation to forget God’s great love for us in Christ, how unlovable and depraved we are by nature, and that his love is our life. Nothing but constant and fresh views of God’s love in his Son, regular consideration of our Savior’s love-born sufferings on the cross, and gratitude for the ten thousand gifts of his love that he daily lavishes upon us will keep our hearts humbled by his great mercy. But second, we are in a war with sin, Satan, and the world of wicked men, and the pressures of our warfare press so firmly that we shrink back from loving those who hate and vilify us. To be merciful in this context is one of the Christian disciple’s greatest challenges. We have all found that loving our friends and showing mercy to our brothers and sisters in the church is sufficiently difficult! Few of us are very constant in love toward those who love us, but here the context is to show mercy to our enemies, forgive them when they condemn us, and give when men take from us our goods, peace, and reputation for Jesus’ sake. May the Spirit of God renew us in the image of our Savior!
Mercy His Compassion and Covenant
There are many mercy counterfeits sneaking around in the church, and it is little wonder that many cringe whenever they hear that we ought to show mercy. Does that mean, as some say, that we should never confront sin and must get our moral marching orders from the world? That we should affirm their sinful decisions? Thus, many believe that mercy requires us to accept other people’s moral and faith decisions as authentic for them, however much we may think they contradict Scripture. Who are we to judge, after all? Mercy in our day has become sentiment, the ascendance of personal feeling over the authority of God’s word, and vilification of any person or doctrine that disturbs my good feelings about myself or my relationship with God. If this is mercy, then God would have to let us go to hell without ever challenging our self-worship. It is because God is merciful that he disturbs and destroys our sinful delusions and confronts us with the truth about ourselves before his holiness. Nevertheless, many have adopted ideas of mercy that reflect the intense moral relativism and screaming narcissism of our age.
While affirming that our Father is merciful, we should guard against making any aspect of his character absolute. He is also wrathful and takes vengeance upon his enemies. God is just and will not leave the guilty unpunished (Ex. 34:5-6), and we may not assume that in God some of his qualities are more absolute or dominant than others. God is what he is – perfectly just and wise, perfectly loving and righteous, in all times and ways. His magnificence, personal unity, and constancy are beyond our comprehension! But our Lord is telling us what our dominant attitudes must be, and they must be like our Father’s. Toward his fallen creatures and especially toward his people, love and mercy are his heart. He delights in mercy (Mic. 7:18). It is nowhere said in Scripture that he delights in wrath. This does not pit his love against his justice, or his mercy against his righteousness. It is to say that toward his creatures (v. 35), he is kind and patient and generous, and this is to be our heart toward all men. It matters not that they treat us meanly or unjustly; God is merciful to his enemies, and we must be merciful to our enemies, those who treat us badly because we are Christians, and try to do them good for Jesus’ sake. Perhaps we should stop trying to play the master theologians to justify our hatred and simply wonder that God withholds his righteous wrath and justice so that his enemies receive daily tokens of his kindness. He is compassionate toward those who hate him. He will one day judge the impenitent, and the redeemed universe will celebrate his holiness and righteousness. But we are not yet at that day, and in time and space, God’s covenant is mercy and peace to his people. He is longsuffering toward even his enemies, that they might be led to repentance and because he takes no delight in the death of the wicked.
Mercy His Children’s Heart
Throughout the earlier parts of his sermon, our Lord is describing the character of those who are part of his kingdom – humble, teachable, merciful, forgiving, sorrowful over their sins and hungry for righteousness. Matthew gives a longer record of our Lord’s telling us the way we are to love one another, and then he concludes that portion with 5:48, which is the likely parallel with this verse: “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Luke brings out the primary “perfection” or “consummation,” as the word group telos often implies – mercy, a compassionate and forgiving heart toward one’s enemies. It is not surprising that Luke would emphasize this truth about God in his Gentile context. The early believers were often misunderstood and despised for their non-aggressiveness, willingness to forgive personal insult and injury, and peace-seeking ways. These were very different from the “anger, wrath, and malice” that tore apart the Gentile world. But these traits of love were very much like the way our Father treats even his enemies – willing to forgive, patient in bearing injury, -- and like our Savior, when he was in the hands of his accusers and tormentors. God’s love, the love that saved the world, the love we are to model, was shown to his enemies (Rom. 5:8-10). This is the disciples defining mark, his badge of honor, the fruit of his renewed nature.
Divine love, patience, forbearance, and meekness are thus the character of true saints, disciples, and heirs of God’s kingdom – for this is our Father’s heart toward his enemies as savingly exemplified in our Lord Jesus. And he thus taught us that mercy – love, compassion, doing good to those who hate us, patient endurance of wrongs, slow to anger – are the condition of our receiving mercy – “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” “But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses” is the great warning to an unmerciful heart (Mark 11:26). The cross satisfied justice, and if we may speak thus, gave God a holy amnesia concerning our sins, so that he no longer holds them against us (2 Sam. 12:13; Ps. 65:3; Jer. 33:8), forgets them (Heb. 8:12), blots them out (Isa. 43:25), and buries them in the depths of the ocean (Mic. 7:19). And this same mercy, because it is personally and irresistibly transforming (Rom. 12:1-2), begets a like mercy in us – the ability to be like God in burying and forgetting the offenses that others commit against us. Mercy is one of the most beautiful family traits of God’s household.
Mercy Curbs Judgmentalism without Tolerating Sin (v. 37)
Beware a Condemning Spirit
“Judge not” is the fruit of a merciful spirit. It is the opposite of a critical, harsh, fault-finding, never-happy attitude about others. Because “judge not” is one of the favorite hiding places of sinners and wolves, we must affirm the necessity of making moral judgment – our Lord commanded us to do so – “Judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24). This requires a standard of judgment, which is God’s word alone – “What do the Scriptures say” was our Lord’s and his apostles’ final and all-sufficient arbiter of truth and error (Luke 10:26; John 10:35; Rom. 4:3; 2 Pet. 1:19). “The Scriptures cannot be broken.” Therefore, personal feeling and experience are under Scripture; Scripture can and often does condemn and rebuke our “bad” and sinful feelings – yes, our personal feelings can be bad – we often feel good about sin and badly about righteousness. The prohibition to judge also requires that we recognize the existence of “light and darkness, Christ and Satan” (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1), so that we maintain a careful distinction and moral line. If “judge not” is absolute, then the cross of our Savior must finally be rejected, for God judged his Son in our place so that we would not be condemned. The cross is not divine authorization for “anything now goes” but a call to “perfect holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).
What Goes Around Comes Around
As children of light, we are therefore required to make moral judgments, for ourselves and for others. The apostle said positively that we are to judge those “inside,” meaning in the church, for we have made a common pledge to walk in obedience to God. If anything, we are to judge one another much more carefully than those in the world (1 Cor. 5:9-13), for we profess to know Jesus Christ and to walk in his light. Therefore, we must be willing to be held accountable to our profession, faithfully confront and seek to restore those that stray (Gal. 6:1), meekly receive correction for our many faults. This is the great challenge of mercy, is it not? That we confront with charity and patience and meekness. That we pour out our heart with the rebuke or encouragement, and that we make judgments not as judges but as forgiven sinners who are conscious of the great debt against God’s majestic holiness that we have been forgiven. And on the other side, when we have to receive correction, we fight against getting our back up, pouting, or letting our pride destroy us, but rather how much we stand in need of constant correction from the Lord. Clothed with this humility (1 Pet. 5:5), we shall not so much think of how poorly a brother confronted us, but how loving it was for him to do so. Because there is so much pride, our Lord says that the way we judge and condemn others is the measure of how they will treat us – mercy begets mercy, harshness begets harshness, pride begets pride.
The Christian Always Willing to Forgive
Within our Christian relations in home and church, mercy means that we are always willing and ready to forgive, before and after we are asked, however many times we are asked (Matt. 18:22), however senselessly our brothers and sisters sin against us. We can surely confront repeated sins and wickedness within our spheres of knowledge and responsibility, and if our hearts are humbled and filled with the mind of Christ, our words will be with grace, seasoned with salt, wisely knowing how to answer each one – not because we are so smart but because of Christ in us by the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:16; Phil. 4:6). We should forgive even before we are asked – remember that forgiveness is related to but distinct from reconciliation. On your part, you can forgive and hold nothing against someone, being willing at any time to work for peace in the relationship. It may be, however, that disagreements require more time and added grace before full reconciliation or peace is achieved, even where there is a merciful spirit at work. Mercy and forgiveness cannot be tied to formulas and easy solutions. But never can a Christian be merciful and hold a grudge (Col. 2:13-14) or refuse to forgive. Toward those who sin against us in the world, since they are blind and cannot see the truth until God quickens them, we must follow our Savior and forgive our enemies even if they are crucifying us. This mercy honors God, who is merciful and kind to his enemies, and gives a testimony to his gospel that will not be forgotten through the long ages of eternity.
Mercy Gives and Gives (v. 38)
Mercy a Fountain of Generosity
This command to give is not the way to get rich by tithing but a continuation of the mercy theme. Remember that God “causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). He loves his enemies and does them good (Luke 6:35). In other words, his mercy is far more than “sustenance level,” as if he occasionally throws out a few crumbs. He gives and gives. He gives while men are blaspheming him; he gave his Son when we were his enemies. His mercy saved us, and now his mercy is our model for the way we treat others. We give and give – forgive and forgive, do good when evil is done to us, keeping praying for our enemies when they curse us. Abundance is promised for mercy, although it may not always be material wealth but like treatment. Do we want to be forgiven when we sin? Seventy times seven? Would we have our brothers be gentle in their rebukes toward us? Then, we must manifest the spirit of meekness when we rebuke. Do we want the world to treat us harshly? Speak of Jesus with a hateful, know-it-all attitude, or act like everyone’s judge, and the world will not listen. The darkness hates the light, but we should give hatred at least pause – like Jesus healing Malchus in Gethsemane or drawing Pilate’s attention heavenward even while he was being so rudely and unjustly treated.
Measure by Mercy
To be merciful in this way, give when it hurts and we receive nothing but blows in return, this depends upon a new and heavenly nature. It is pointless and ultimately frustrating to try and be merciful unless you have tasted that the Lord is gracious. Mercy is very personal, as this entire sermon is. It cannot be reduced to principles and formulas and ritual – the heart has to be changed by mercy and gripped by God’s mercy in Christ before we can show mercy, for example, to our children, giving correction again and again without becoming angry or impatient – remembering how patient the Lord has been with us, and that our parental instruction is shaping a soul for an eternal destiny of peace or judgment. Parents must drink deeply of God’s mercy and keep drinking. So must spouses, for this is the human relationship in which there is widest opportunity to do good or to make someone miserable. Mercy and giving must be extended again and again, without thought of return. And then, whether you are being confronted or doing the confronting, you must do so patiently and often without immediate resolution. But is this not the way we are? When the Lord rebukes us, we are slow to turn, but he waits and loves and encourages us.
He is so full of pity. Strange and overwhelming for the Lord Jesus to make his Father, his Father, the model for our mercy! He is so high and exalted, how can we ever hope to be like him? But he is near in love – John 3:16 – and his love has lifted us! His mercy will continue to transform us, so that we can begin to put on the meekness and gentleness of Christ, forgive as we have been forgiven, and love as brothers. This is not because we are sweet people by nature but because Jesus Christ has changed our nature by the power of his Spirit. He has chosen us to be ambassadors of his mercy, urging men to be reconciled to God, by the gospel we share and the mercy we show to those who hate us.