Based on series of Messages preached in July-Sep 1999

"Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy" (Matthew 5:7)

The Lord is painting a vivid picture of a true saint. He is not directly telling us what we must do to be happy. He is teaching us what a true saint is like, and why the true saint, living as such, is happy.

The first beatitude speaks about poverty of spirit where the true saint realises his nothingness, unworthiness and insufficiency apart from Christ. His happiness is found outside of himself. It is found in Christ. The second beatitude teaches us that the true saint recognises his own sinful tendency and the awfulness of sin, and therefore mourns for his rebellion against God, and finds relief and happiness not only in forgiveness, but reconciliation with God. The third beatitude informs us that the true saint is meek. He has learned that true happiness is not found in having the last word in this world. The fourth beatitude insists that one in whom true life has begun must have an appetite for righteousness. It speaks of the true saint seeking and obtaining happiness in the right place and the right way.

In this fifth beatitude, a disposition of mercy is set forth as a sure sign that a person is a beneficiary of God’s mercy and so is a true child of God.

What Does Our Lord Mean?

Firstly, we must notice that our Lord is not here speaking merely aboutacts of mercy. He is not saying "Blessed are those who show mercy." If we read it that way—in fact, if you read any of the beatitudes that way—you would loose the whole message of our Lord completely. Rather, you must remember that the Lord is concerned with the disposition and attitudes of the individuals, not their actions per se. This is not to say that their actions are not important, for "every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit" (Mt 7:17a).

So then, the Lord is not speaking about giving money, food or help to the needy per se. Though commendable, these acts can be done out of compulsion, or fear, or hope of reward and recognition. This would be the case of many who work in relief and welfare organisations. They may be showing mercy, but only as their profession requires them.

What then does the Lord mean?

It is helpful for us to begin to understand what our Lord means by examining what the word ‘merciful’ means in the Bible. The word in the Greek (ejlehvmwn) occurs only twice in the New Testament (Mt 5:7 and Heb 2:17). It means ‘merciful’ and ‘sympathetic.’ The second meaning is particularly enlightening for it tells us that being merciful has to do with putting ourselves into the shoes of others and feeling with them. Hebrews 2:17 illustrates this:

"Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people."

Christ who is God became a man in order that He may be a merciful or sympathetic high priest—who understands the feelings of our infirmities and was at all points tempted like as we are and yet without sin.

The word also appears on numerous occasions in the Septuagint. And that gives us another shade of meaning, for it is sometimes used to translate the Hebrew word which means "compassion," such as in Psalm 145:8,—"The LORD is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy."

So then, to be merciful according to the Scripture is to be sympathetic, and compassionate. Thomas Watson puts it this way: "It is a melting disposition whereby we lay to heart the miseries of others and are ready on all occasions to be instrumental for their good." But that sounds suspiciously like how we would define love, is it not? So what is the difference between ‘love’ and ‘mercy’? The difference is subtle, but I think it is helpful for us to appreciate the difference to understand the beatitude accurately.

Love to our fellow man, has to do with general benevolence. This is what our Lord teaches us in Matthew 5:44-45. Note that He is not teaching us that we must love everyone equally as we love our children, or our spouse, but He is teaching us that we must be benevolent to everyone. We must not hate anyone or do ill to anyone.

Mercy, on the other hand, has to do with compassion. Notice the difference: love is benevolence, which is to be practised under all circumstance—rain or shine. Mercy is compassion, which becomes operative when someone is in need or when his life has come under the shadow of a dark cloud or a pouring rain. Mercy was what the good Samaritan demonstrated when he helped the man who fell by the wayside. Love is what Christ demonstrated when He deliberately entered Samaria to speak to the woman at the well. Thomas Watson puts it this way: "love is like a friend that visits them that are well. Mercy is like a physician that visits only them that are sick." Or to put it in modern language: Love is proactive, mercy is reactive. Love can be exercised at your own time, mercy is always urgent.

When we put it this way, you will realise that without love you fall straightaway into the category of an unbeliever for you would then not be like our Father which is in heaven who makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. But if you were without mercy, then you would descend into the category of brute beasts, for what manner of man will not help another who is in need?

So then, the disposition of mercy is absolutely essential to every born-again Christian. Anyone without mercy has no right to claim to be a Christian at all. When you remember that the beatitudes describe the work of grace in the heart of a born-again person, you will realise that this is what the Lord is teaching.

This is also what the Lord is teaching us in His parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18. You will remember how the servant owed his master 10,000 talents. The master forgave him when he pleaded for mercy. But when the servant went out, he saw his fellow servant who owed him 100 pence, and he showed no mercy to him. Therefore when his master learned about what happened, he was angry with his wicked servant and sent him to his tormentors till he was able to repay,—which is impossible. And the Lord ends the parable by saying, "So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses" (v. 35).

Note that the Lord is not teaching us that unless we forgive others we cannot be forgiven—as if forgiving others is the main criteria for our forgiveness. If that be the case none of us can be saved, for none of us can forgive perfectly. Neither is he saying that a Christian will lose his salvation if he fails to show mercy, for once a person is adopted as a child of God, the Father will not disown him. He is saying, rather, that if you are not merciful, it is possible that you are not a Christian.

Ultimately, if God rejects anyone as the master did his unmerciful servant, it must be that he had not been adopted as a child in the first place. An unmerciful person, proves himself to be ungrateful towards God for mercy bestowed on him, and so demonstrates that he is not a recipient of divine mercy in the first place.

Someone may object: In that case, why does the Lord say, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy"? Why does He use the future "shall obtain mercy"? Why does He not say, "Those who have obtained mercy are blessed and shall be merciful"? Well, the answer is that though we may be sure of our salvation, we must never be carelessly presumptuous of it. We are still to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Thus, Paul commending the merciful Onesiphorus, prayed that "The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day" (2 Tim 1:18a, cf. Jude 21). The story is told of how at the deathbed of Thomas Hooker, the New England Puritan, a visitor seeking to console him said, "Sir, you are going to receive the reward of your labor." Without hesitation, Hooker replied, "Brother, I am going to receive mercy!" That, dear friends, ought to be our attitude.

So then, if we would receive mercy when we meet the Lord, we must be merciful in this life. But the question is: "Am I being merciful?" "Do I have the disposition of compassion and sympathy?" "Does my disposition display itself in acts of mercy and are therefore for real?" We know that none of us can be perfectly merciful and not fail to demonstrate mercy at one time or another. But can we be said to be merciful and so stand out from the rest of the world, especially when mercy is challenged by factors such as money, time, and prestige that the world seeks after.

Am I Being Merciful?

We have defined being merciful as being actively compassionate and sympathetic to others in need. In this regard it is helpful for us to see how we fare by examining three aspects in which we may show mercy to another, namely (1) to his temporal welfare; (2) to his name; (3) to his eternal welfare.

Showing mercy in regard to another’s temporal welfare

Although being merciful has to do primarily with our disposition, our disposition must be translated to works. Thus John teaches us: "My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth" (1Jn 3:18). And James more specifically reminds us:

"If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?" (Jas 2:15-16).

This idea is so simple that it hardly needs to be explained. If you see someone in need, and you are able to help, but instead of helping, you tell the person, "I’ll pray for you." Then clearly, you are not being merciful, whatever you may say.

A poor American pastor once told me of how during one of his sermons, he hinted at the hardship that his family was experiencing. At the end of the service, many people came to shake his hand. Most did not even notice his reference to his family situation. But some noticed, and when they shook his hand, they whispered in his ears "we’ll pray for you, pastor." Finally a poor old man, came up to him, and shook his hand without saying a word. But as the pastor shook his hand, he felt a crumbled note. It was not a big sum, but that act of mercy touched the heart of the poor pastor. He learnt a lesson of mercy—and so did I when he related it to me.

While liberals, Catholics and many Christian welfare groups are in danger of ignoring the spiritual needs of others, evangelical Christians are in danger of ignoring their physical needs. We have a tendency to think that so long as we give the Gospel, or we pray for a person, we have done our job. Not so, dear friends. Being merciful involves a melting disposition of compassion and sympathy upon the estate of others, so that when we know they are in need and we are able to provide for their needs, we will be moved to give of our substance. Augustine has well said "Give those things to the poor which you cannot keep that you may receive those things which you cannot loose." One of the things you cannot loose is everlasting joy.

Showing mercy in regard to another’s name

The second way in which we may be merciful to others is to show mercy to their name. "A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches" (Prov 22:1a), says Solomon. Showing love to a person’s name involves our not misreporting, not evil-speaking, not slandering another person’s name. In other words, showing love involves not damaging a person’s reputation. But what is showing mercy to a person’s name?

That naturally involves a person whose name has already been damaged or is in danger of being damaged. It involves defending a person whose name is being slandered as well as not taking up and passing on a gossip about someone.

Some of us have had our names slandered, and know how painful it is. But sadly, we are slow to learn how to curb our own tongue that we may not slander others. I speak from my own experience. A few years ago, I was in a bookshop in London, which was operated by a retired minister. In the course of our conversation, the subject of family worship came up; and the owner of the shop told me that a well-known Baptist minister did not believe in having family worship. When I heard it, I was very surprised, and I asked him, "Are you sure?" And he said, "Yes, very sure." Now, then, I took his word for it. A couple of days later, I was having a conversation with two other ministers, and again some peculiarities about the Baptist minister’s teaching came up. Well, since they were talking about him I contributed a juicy piece too. I told them I had just heard that he did not believe in family worship. I told them that I had not verified it, but I told it to them anyway. Providentially, a few days later, I met the chief steward of the church where the Baptist minister labours. This man ought to know! And he told me: His pastordoes believe in family worship! What he does not believe in is having two or more families worshipping together without the presence of a minister of the Word. Now, that is a world of a difference between what I heard and told about him. What had I done? I felt myself turning tomato red. I had not shown mercy to the good name of the minister. I had then sinned against God.

I spent the afternoon calling up the bookshop owner to tell him of his error, and then writing to the two ministers to apologise for my evil-speaking.

Now, then, dear brethren, have you also been guilty of not showing mercy to the good name of anyone? Do repent and correct your fault as much as possible. And bear in mind that being merciful to the name of others involves not propagating gossips about others. "A froward [perverse] man soweth strife: and a whisperer [gossiper] separateth chief friends" (Prov 16:28). I had to learn it the hard way. I hope you will also learn a lesson here.

May the Lord grant us repentance and a heart of mercy for the good name of one another.

Showing mercy in regard to another’s spiritual welfare

Being merciful will also involve a melting disposition of compassion and sympathy with brethren who are straying from the Lord and for the souls of men who are perishing in their sin. This involves not only praying for someone we know to be living in sin, but also, exhorting, instructing, warning and rebuking if necessary. Solomon says, "Open rebuke is better than secret love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful" (Prov 27:5-6). Now, we must be careful not to take Solomon as saying that we must always rebuke openly. No, no; sometimes rebuke is simply not in order. For example, the apostle says: "Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father" (1Tm 5:1). What Solomon is saying, then, is that we must not ignore the faults of someone we love. If we are truly merciful to the person we love, we will seek to help him to correct the fault. This may involve admonishment, entreaty, correction, etc. A wife, who knows that her husband is sinning against the Lord and would not entreat him, is herself sinning against the Lord and not showing love, not to mention mercy. A father who does not spank and correct his child though he is wilfully disobedient is guilty also of lack of mercy for his child (see Prov 23:13-14). Likewise a Christian employee who refuses to warn his unbelieving colleagues against the wrath to come or to tell them of salvation in Christ is simply not being merciful towards his colleagues.


True mercy is constrained by the love of Christ and overflows out of a heart of gratitude to the Lord. Such as have experienced the mercy of God in Christ will be merciful, and their disposition of mercy will be manifested in their lives spontaneously.

This was what our Lord highlights in the parable of the Sheep and Goat in Matthew 25. Notice how those who are commended by the Lord did not even realise that they were doing anything special: "Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink?" they inquire (v. 37). Their testimony contrasts sharply with the hypocrites whom our Lord condemns—who did not show mercy and did not even feel remorse about their lack of compassion. Their testimony also contrasts sharply with the professing believers who love to parade their good works and acts of mercy before man (cf. Mt 6:2).

Are you merciful brothers and sisters in Christ? If you truly appreciate the great mercy that God has shown you in Christ, you will be merciful. Are you merciful? Are you known to be merciful to others? Does your relationship with others manifest a disposition of compassion and sympathy? If not, will you not humble yourself before the Lord and again acknowledge that you do not deserve His great mercy. And as you do so, pray that the Lord will enlarge your heart that you may weep with those who weep. And more practically, will you not seek to do good to someone in need today? Is there someone in need? Do not say I am unable to help. Remember how the Lord looks not on the smallness of the widow’s mites, but on the largeness of her heart. Being merciful is not about being a philanthropist. It is about care and compassion flowing from a heart melted by grace and enlarged by the experience of having obtained mercy for Christ’s sake.

—JJ Lim


(A Welsh conversation, or sayings)

As I motored up the M4 to London on December 11th, I saw through the windscreen a great flock of birds high in the sky. My car followed a concrete route; their wings took them on an invisible, intuitive and inherited passageway through the heavens. These are the last migratory days when birds assemble in vast numbers, and remove from our winter to a warmer climate and a better country.

This provoked me to think that we, as Christians, are doing something similar. Whether we belong to a small or a large church, we too, are part of a great migratory company, an innumerable company. Our journey is taking us to a better country, and that not by instinct, but by faith. We know that a forerunner has gone before us from earth to Heaven, and we follow in His footsteps. The way is invisible to sense, but has substance through faith, and the Voice tells us, "Where I am there shall ye be also." Faith has a homing instinct. It will unerringly take us from whence it came.

—Jeff O’Neil