"Lord, have mercy!" "Lord, have mercy on me!" "Mercy me!" Occasionally, people use these phrases when they sincerely recognize a need for God's mercy, but more often they are used as expletives, exhibiting surprise or astonishment. Even more popular, "Oh my God!" is used so flippantly that it has lost any true meaning and is a continual affront to Him.
This series has shown how the Pharisees substituted their ideas of how life should be lived in place of what God considers "weightier matters." They had perverted judgment by concentrating on self. My money, my house, my reputation, my power, my morals became their religion. Someone else's money, house or reputation was only important to them as it affected their own standing. It was truly a "me" generation.
Is Pharisaism extinct or does it flourish today? Our legislators make laws by the thousands for the masses while providing as many loopholes as possible for themselves! Like the Pharisee, modern man defines proper lifestyle according to his own wishes, hardly considering any instruction from God. This carries over into the next weighty matter Christ castigated the Pharisees for abandoning: mercy.
As in judgment, in which we tend to appreciate a verdict only when it is in our favor, so it is with mercy. We desire mercy when we have been caught with our hand in the cookie jar. Sometimes, we hear people say, "God have mercy on your soul!" However, it is often a put-down based on a critical evaluation of the other's state of guilt, not a sincere desire for mercy on him.
Law and Grace
Why is mercy so weighty? Those who teach "grace only" apart from the law do not even see a need for mercy, since, to them, grace cancels any need for mercy. By their definition, mercy is automatic once they are "saved"! In theory, they can breeze through a "happy, happy, joy, joy" life with no fear of eternal consequences.
If that were true, why did Christ not make "grace" one of the weighty matters and leave out mercy? The Pharisees believed in keeping the law perfectly and being saved as a result. Modern Christianity teaches the law is done away, and all they need is saving grace, given when they "accept the Lord." Neither of these opposing approaches will work!
Mercy and grace are first cousins, if not fraternal twins. They work similarly. When a person murders, he is normally convicted and given a heavy prison sentence. (Capital punishment is more in line with God's way of thinking, considering biblical teaching. Under the New Covenant, those who crucify Christ afresh and do not repent merit eternal death). The person committed the crime. He must pay. That is legal, lawful and just. Proper judgment has been rendered.
Yet the possibility always exists that the governor or president might, for whatever reason, extend a pardon. The prisoner is released under mercy or unmerited pardon, and the judicial penalty for that crime is forever removed. Since he is now living under undeserved mercy or grace, is he free to commit the same crime again with no penalty? No, if he falls from grace or mercy by murdering again, he falls under the penalty of the law again. He must suffer incarceration for the new crime unless he can somehow wrangle another pardon.
Thus, law and grace or mercy cannot be separated; it cannot be law or grace, but law and grace. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). All of us need pardon we do not deserve. Grace is unmerited pardon and the good will of God. Like a president or governor in the above example, God revokes it when we set our course on sin. We return to His good graces when we repent sufficiently to change His attitude toward us. He is not beyond chastening us to ensure that we do repent. In that way, chastening us is a wonderful expression of His love because, if we truly repent from the heart and ask for forgiveness, He cannot refuse, for He is love and His mercy endures forever!
Pharisee or Publican?
The Pharisees perverted judgment by considering their desires ahead of others to the point of stealing widows' homes. Mercy never entered their minds—even for themselves, for they felt they needed none. As Christ noted, they would stand in the Temple, proclaiming their righteousness to God and man, while demeaning the publican, who would not so much as raise his face to God, praying "God be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:9-14).
When we honestly and squarely face our faults and weaknesses, we probably sympathize with the publican needing mercy, recognizing a great gulf between God's holiness and our own pitiful spiritual prowess. On the other hand, in actual living we may fall into the Pharisee's category without even realizing it.
Certainly we would never publicly proclaim our righteousness in church! Yet it is so easy—almost impossible not to—put someone else down; to cluck sagely at his foibles; to tarnish his reputation; to criticize his attitudes; appearance, family, doctrine, social standing or job; or to laugh at his crazy theology if it does not jive with ours. We do these things in church! Maybe not in a public speech, but we do this in front of one or several brethren. This lifts us unmercifully above another brother, deriding his faults, laughing at his calamities, rather than "supporting the weak."
Is there a difference between this and the "classic" Pharisee? In either instance, we lift ourselves above another, esteeming our outlook or approach better than his—and saying so! In our ego and vanity, we do not consider—or even worse, may not care!—how merciless and devastating this can be on our brother when it filters back to him. And eventually, it does.
Chickens in a barnyard will peck at a sore on another chicken until the sore becomes a hole. The pecking continues until the hole grows so large that it exposes the innards. It goes on until the innards are pecked apart, and the victim dies. The chicken is literally eaten alive! Though morbid, this is very real and happens daily in barnyards across the country.
Similarly, we can peck at someone until they expire spiritually, leaving "our splinter group," the church entirely and possibly God completely. We can swagger on in our "superiority," having pigeon-holed that person as "never converted," "always has been a little kooky," "never really fit in here" or "sure does get offended easily." Is there no penalty for such treatment?
In Hosea 4:1 God indicts end-time Israel and the church, as spiritual Israel, because "there is no truth or mercy or knowledge of God in the land." He promises, "I will destroy your mother" [the church] for this (verse 5). It is that serious!
Colossians 3:12-13 gives a different picture of our responsibility to a brother:
Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.
What a verseful! If the entire church of God could keep this verse in its spirit and attitude, we would take a major step toward unity!
The King James version says "bowels of mercies" rather than "tender mercies," implying a feeling of deep-down emotion. We should feel so tenderly and strongly toward others that our very insides react! We speak of having "gut feelings"—usually misgivings or doubts about someone. God wishes us to have this same depth of emotion toward others, but positively.
Paul instructs us to have the mind of God (Philippians 2:5). How important is mercy to Him? Cruden's Complete Concordance, under "endureth forever," lists God's eternal attributes: righteousness, praise, truth, judgments, name, word and mercy. We know that God often uses repetition for emphasis and importance. The times the Bible repeats "His mercy endures forever" eclipses many times over any of the other categories. In Psalm 136 alone, He repeats it 26 times and four times in Psalm 118:1-4! None of the other attributes are mentioned in this way more than three times in the whole Bible!
Psalm 30:5 says His anger endures but a moment, but God's mercy endures forever! Conversely, humans tend to show momentary mercy and hold lifelong grudges!
Mercy and Truth
Interestingly, God links mercy and truth on several occasions:
» "Mercy and truth have met together" (Psalm 85:10).
» "Let not mercy and truth forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart, and so find favor and high esteem in the sight of God and man" (Proverbs 3:3-4).
» "In mercy and truth atonement is provided for iniquity" (Proverbs 16:6).
» "Mercy and truth preserve the king" (Proverbs 20:28).
» "In mercy the throne will be established; and One will sit on it in truth, in the tabernacle of David" (Isaiah 16:5).
Why do mercy and truth go together? We can find an answer by stringing together a short series of verses:
» God gives His Spirit "to those who obey Him" (Acts 5:32).
» "Your word is truth" (John 17:17).
» "Those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24).
» ". . . the word of the truth of the gospel . . . is bringing forth fruit, as it is also among you since the day you heard and knew the grace of God in truth" (Colossians 1:5-6).
» In the Ten Commandments—which Christ said we must obey if we are to enter the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:17)—God states He will show "mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments" (Exodus 20:6).
Mercy and/or grace cannot be separated from truth and obedience to the law! Paul was right! We should not sin that "grace may abound!" (Romans 6:1). "God forbid!" he says. If we expect to continue in God's mercy and grace, we must cease from sin. Otherwise, we fall from grace (Galatians 5:4). Fortunately, as Paul explains in the context, we do not need to have kept the law perfectly, nor can we count on perfect obedience to it for salvation, but God is of a ready mind to give mercy to those who repent.
God says in Romans 9:15, "I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy." He reserves for Himself the choice of deciding to whom He will show mercy! We have all sinned and need mercy, but God ponders the heart and attitude. Apart from the explicit penalty of each transgression, God can choose to show mercy at His own discretion.
A parent does the same with a child. Sometimes, he decides to chasten, and at other times, to show mercy. Which, in each instance, is best for the child and those around him over the long haul? Truth and wisdom are critical.
Leaning Toward Mercy
Understanding our frame, God leans toward mercy. Three times He repeats, "I will have mercy and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; 12:7).
He gets personal about it as well. In Matthew 5:7, Jesus names mercy as one of the primary beatitudes, or "attitudes to be in": "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." Here, in a very personal and positive setting, we begin to see mercy's cause-and-effect principle: Show mercy and you will obtain mercy.
Christ drew this principle from the attitude the unchangeable God has always maintained. Speaking of Him, the twin quotes from Psalm 18:25 and II Samuel 22:26 echo the beatitude: "With the merciful You will show Yourself merciful."
Not only is God of the mind to be merciful, He expects it of us, even requires it of us. Notice how the tenor of Micah 6:8 becomes more intense, though remaining positive: "He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" This moves from a simple cause-and-effect principle to an absolute requirement.
We need to examine Matthew 18 in this light. With mercy and forgiveness in mind, Christ outlines His instruction on how to deal with those who sin against us. We show mercy by not escalating the problem beyond the sinning individual, if possible. Discuss it with him alone! We are not to bandy about anyone's sins. Doing so only makes it more difficult for the offender to swallow his pride and repent, for, by admitting his wrong, he is "losing face" with many who know the story. The object—never forget—is to gain our brother, not to gain vengeance or vindication for ourselves.
If the offender does not listen, then we are to take one or two other witnesses. Again, if at all possible, we should keep the situation from escalating beyond that. Do we like our transgressions spread all over the church? Only in extreme intransigence should we take the problem to the whole brotherhood, or to the ministry as their administrative representatives.
After this step-by-step instruction, Christ underlines the thought by showing that we should forgive—show mercy and extend grace—even up to 490 times a day to the same person (verses 21-22)! In other words, like God, our mercy should endure forever, since 490 times a day means "infinitely." It is almost impossible to offend that many times in such a limited period, especially if connected with real repentance.
Jesus then relates the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant who, though forgiven of enormous debt, threw a fellow servant in jail for not repaying a pittance. Christ then gives a stern warning: If you are merciless to your brother, expect like treatment from your heavenly Father. So, not only is mercy a good idea, God requires it, and severe penalties will fall upon us if we refuse to extend it.
James makes it even more emphatic! "For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13). The apostle links the fair and impartial judgment of God directly with mercy or grace, for one without the other spells death for every sinner.
Frequently, we may state our willingness to forgive a brother or sister—but "only if they apologize!" What magnanimous largesse! What unassailable righteousness! "If they grovel, I will deign to forgive." No, what sickening, superior patronization! Mercy or grace need not always be contingent on the offender's apology or repentance.
Did not Christ ask His Father to forgive his assassins, "for they do not know what they do" (Luke 23:34)? This was not some minor social infraction or everyday offense in life, but the crime of the ages! They were certainly of no mind to repent or feel any remorse, yet He willingly turned the other cheek, taking every despicable sin of all mankind on Himself in abject humility without a whisper of protest!
Have we come to this point yet? Hardly.
Do we still mercilessly assassinate Herbert Armstrong for "allowing harsh government?" Because the ministry failed us (Ezekiel 34), do we still look with hardened, jaundiced eyes at those who are at work trying to rectify those wrongs, real or imagined? Are we still distrustful, dubious and resentful? Time may indeed wound all "heels," but does not necessarily heal all wounds. Sometimes we have to take the bull by the horns consciously, deliberately and unequivocally, and enforce mercy—demand it of ourselves. God requires it of us. But it does not usually come easily.
Hurts between the sheep and shepherds immediately come to mind, as they are among the greatest relationship problems in the greater church of God today. Many have simply written off the ministry. Period. The same is often true of brother-to-brother relationships. Husbands and wives recognize a need to be merciful to each other, but in the heat of battle, even they sometimes bring up supposedly forgiven transgressions from umpteen years past. This is often done in the most heartlessly cruel, merciless, emotionally destructive manner they can conjure. In their anger, they seek to hurt.
Though we may technically understand the dire consequences of our unforgiving attitudes toward others, we must never allow ourselves to treat others in any way other than how we want to be treated (Luke 6:31). This is especially urgent considering the potential consequences to our eternal judgment and possibilities for mercy. Matthew 25:34-46 illustrates that Christ takes very personally how we treat every human being—not just those we like. His judgment is commensurate to our treatment.
When Jesus Christ returns in glory, the expression "Oh, my God!" might, for once, be used righteously in total astonishment at the actual appearing of God in glory. "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!" might also be exclaimed in utter sincerity and knee-knocking need.
Our hope of receiving mercy from Christ is in direct proportion to how we have treated others. Eternal life or eternal death hinges on Christ's response. "He who follows righteousness and mercy finds life, righteousness and honor" (Proverbs 21:21). What a truly weighty matter!
Next month we will examine "faith" or "fidelity," the last of the weighty matters of Matthew 23:23.