Jesus: Show Mercy, Receive Mercy

Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matt. 5:7 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Our tension with God is never more obvious than when we need to model ourselves after his mercy. Mercy is mentioned about 30 times in the Old Testament and all but 4 times it is God’s mercy that is in view (Guelich 1982, 88). We understand this point intuitively because Christ died on the cross for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3). Christ’s atonement is a debt that we can never repay. So we will fall short no matter how hard we try and we are certainly not always in the mood even to try.

Mercy appears in many word forms in scripture, but the form used in this beatitude is used nowhere else. Merciful (ἐλεήμων) means “being concerned about people in their need, merciful, sympathetic, compassionate” (BDAG 2487). It has the same root as compassion (ἐλεημοσύνη) and mercy (ἔλεος). The word, forgiveness or to forgive (ἀφίημι), is closely related. In a real sense, mercy and forgiveness are two sides of the same coin [1], as the Psalmist writes:

“Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD!” (Ps. 25:6-7)

The importance that Jesus placed on mercy shows up both in his repeated use of the term and the reciprocal form that he uses it in (France 1985,110). Jesus uses the word, mercy, in these verses:

  • “Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice [2]. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:13) [3]
  • “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Matt. 23:23)
  • And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt. 18:33)

Some of Jesus’ closely related phrases are actually better known:

  • “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 7:12)
  • “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matt. 6:12)

Whether it is the Golden Rule or part of the Lord’s Prayer, clearly mercy is God’s signature character trait [4], as we read during the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod. 34:4-7 ESV)

The reciprocal form of this beatitude makes it very convicting. We do not earn mercy by being merciful, but if mercy is God’s signature character trait, then we recognize His presence and blessing when we offer it and experience it.

Being created in the image of God, we identify ourselves as Christians when we reflect God’s mercy to those around us.

[1] See: Guelich (1982, 88).

[2] Hosea 6:6.

[3] Also: Matthew 12:7.

[4] “Mercy is a central biblical theme, because in God’s great mercy he does not give humans what they deserve, rather, he gives to them what they do not deserve…” (Wilkins 2004, 208)


Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

France, R.T. 1985. Matthew. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Wilkins, Michael J. 2004. The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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