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The Marks of Mercy
When God created the world everything was perfect. Humanity and creation flourished according to God’s original design. But Evil entered the world through a real villain, Satan—who enticed humanity to sin.
Then something horrible happened. God’s paradise on earth was lost. All of humanity and creation came under the just curse of God. Our broken relationship with God resulted in brokenness in all our vital relationships of life, producing poverty, disease, violence and injustice. This is why things are not the way they’re supposed to be.
But the good news is that God, in his mercy, entered our broken world in the person and work of Jesus Christ to redeem and restore fallen humanity and creation.
This good news is that our just God has shown us his mercy in Christ and calls us, as his image bearers, to reflect his mercy in our broken world. Our awareness of God’s astonishing mercy toward us in Jesus Christ is meant to be our driving motivation to be channels of his mercy in the church and the world.
In the Old Testament, there are a cluster of Hebrew words that are often translated as “mercy” depending on their context in the Scriptures. These words refer to God’s enduring love and steadfast loyalty to his people. Probably the chief Hebrew term is hesed (ֶח ֶסד ) referring to God’s covenant “lovingkindness.”
The New Testament echoes these Old Testament concepts and points us to the greatest display of God’s mercy in the person and work of Jesus Christ and the salvation God offers to the world through him. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes mercy as an essential mark of all those who are truly in his kingdom, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matt 5:7)
In the Gospels we see Jesus strongly reprimanding the religious leaders of his day for emphasizing all kinds of religious activities but neglecting mercy. Quoting the prophet Hosea, Jesus tells them, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt 9:13)
In Paul’s writings, he refers to the heirs of salvation in Christ as “vessels of mercy.” (Rom 9:23) He describes his privilege of being in gospel ministry as a display of God’s mercy (2 Cor 4:1). And he refers to mercy as a common blessing of one believer to another (2 Tim 1:16, 18) and often includes the hope of mercy in the opening greetings of his letters (1 Tim 1:2, 2 Tim 1:2).
So, what is a biblical understanding of mercy? Let’s look at four key marks of mercy found in Scripture:
1. Mercy is an attribute of God we are to reflect
First, mercy is an attribute of God he reveals to us in Jesus Christ that we are to reflect. Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36). The Apostle Paul calls us to “be imitators of God” (Eph 5:1) and be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (Rom 8:29). And just as mercy is not only what God does but who he is, so mercy is not only what we do, but who we are.
2. Mercy is the alleviation of suffering from broken relationships
Second, the essence of mercy is the alleviation of human suffering caused by the Fall of humanity into sin. Because of sin, mankind’s relationship with God was broken, causing all man’s other vital relationships for life and joy to be broken – including our relationships with ourselves, others, and creation.
The Scriptures teach that all the brokenness in the world is merely a symptom of the deeper problem of brokenness in these four relationships that lie at the heart of the human condition. As a result of sin, humanity is under God’s curse and our perfect world is now corrupt and broken, not just spiritually, but also socially, culturally, economically, and politically.
This is why there is so much suffering, poverty, disease, violence, and injustice in the world. And this is why the world is in such desperate need of God’s mercy to help alleviate this suffering and bring restoration of these broken relationships according to God’s design.
Although the focus of biblical mercy should be on helping alleviate human suffering in all mankind’s broken relationships, the Scriptures make clear that there is no act of mercy as great helping restore people’s broken relationship with God through Jesus Christ. No suffering can compare to eternal suffering in hell.
3. Mercy is the integration of word and deed
Therefore, biblical mercy includes the integration of word and deed, helping to meet both the spiritual and physical needs of people. Although we must acknowledge the priority of evangelism as a word-ministry, sometimes people are suffering so much physically they can’t hear your words until they experience your deeds of mercy.
Every person is created by God as a whole being with a soul and a body. In the resurrection of Jesus and the coming final resurrection of all his followers we learn that God restores humanity in both soul and body. Therefore, our ministries of word and deed should be seen as two sides of the same coin that often need to be held in tension in mercy ministry.
4. Mercy is a mark of true spirituality
Finally, the Bible presents the ministry of mercy as a vital mark of true spirituality. In Micah 6:8 the prophet describes the kind of spirituality the Lord requires of his people to please him, saying:
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
The word translated “kindness” is the Hebrew word hesed (ֶח ֶסד ) that can also be translated as covenant lovingkindness or mercy. Here God commands us not just to show mercy but to love mercy as the Lord loves mercy. This means we are not only to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, a warm welcome to the stranger, clothes to the naked, and visits to the sick and imprisoned. We are also to love and take great delight in doing these things.
Notice in this verse that true spirituality always manifests itself in two ways: outwardly and inwardly. Outwardly it’s revealed by doing justice and loving mercy. And inwardly it’s revealed by walking humbly with God.
The New Testament also teaches that true spirituality always reveals itself outwardly and inwardly. In James 1:27 we find a very clear description of true spirituality. James calls it “religion that is pure and undefiled before God” when he writes:
Religion that is pure and undefiled
before God the Father is this:
to visit orphans and widows in their affliction,
and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
Notice again the outward and inward marks of what God considers true spirituality and how the outward acts are again mentioned first. The outward acts are visiting orphans and widows in their distress. And the inward acts are keeping oneself unstained from the world. Like the Prophet Micah before him, the Apostle James presents us with the ministry of mercy as a vital mark of true spirituality.