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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.

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Biblical mercy is much broader than mere physical acts of charity or development for the materially poor.

Mercy seeks to alleviate not only suffering from physical brokenness, but also all forms of spiritual, mental, emotional, and relational brokenness because of sin. In this video, you’ll learn how to:

  • Explain why the church is the most effective mercy ministry under heaven
  • Recognize how mercy ministry reflects the mercy God shows us in Christ
  • Teach how church mercy ministry is a sign and instrument of God’s kingdom
  • Defend how the ultimate goal of mercy is the worship of Jesus as King
  • Understand why mercy ministry is an act of service in worship to God
  • Determine best contextualized practices for your church mercy ministries

This brief video (7:47) will help you see how mercy opens the hearts of broken people to receive the gospel.

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The Ministry of Mercy

In Luke 10, Jesus responds to an expert in God’s law who was trying to trap him into saying something derogatory about Scripture. The man asks Jesus, “What shall we do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers by asking him a question: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”

The man responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replies, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” Jesus responds to the religious leader’s trap by putting him in a trap to show that he and the Jewish leaders are the ones who don’t keep God’s law to love God and their neighbors well.

“Trying to justify himself,” the man attempts to trap Jesus again with another question, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds this time with his famous story of the Good Samaritan:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passUped by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” Luke 10:30-37

Jesus is teaching that someone who truly loves God and others is like this Good Samaritan who is willing to give up his plans and risk his safety to provide costly, personal care to a total stranger of another social class and race. When Jesus tells us to “go and do likewise” he’s calling us to show our love for God and others by how we love those without housing, money, health care, etc.

We’re facing a serious problem today. Never has there been a time in history when there have been more churches and more professing Christians. And yet despite the remarkable spread of Christianity, spiritual darkness, cultural, and societal decay are reaching unprecedented levels.

Even where the church is growing most rapidly (in Asia, Africa and Latin America) the results are often inch-deep, mile-wide forms of Christianity with little or no true, lasting transformation of individuals, families and cultures. As a result, violence, poverty, disease, and gross injustice are on the rise around the world and in our communities.

Most of Christianity in our day has lost sight of its historic roots by often proclaiming a pragmatic, privatized, prosperity gospel that rarely results in: 1) authentic Christian conversions, 2) holistic discipleship, and 2) societal transformation. As a result, the Church of Jesus Christ is slowly losing its transforming influence on the world at large.

According to Scripture, the only ultimate hope for the world is found in a very foolish-sounding story called the Good News of Jesus Christ. It’s the Good News that 2000 years ago God’s kingdom entered our world in a new way through the person and work of Jesus to restore God’s fallen humanity and creation—as far as the curse is found.

This is the Good News that the Father’s creation, ruined by humanity’s sin, is now being redeemed by Christ and renewed by His Holy Spirit into the Kingdom of God. This is the Good News that through the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, God has given him authority to form a New Humanity on earth made up of his people from every tribe, tongue, and nation who will repent, believe in, and follow Jesus Christ.

The Bible calls this New Humanity the Church through which the ascended King Jesus continues his ministry of word and deed on the earth today until he returns to make all things new. After Jesus revealed himself as the promised King, he promised, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

The church is the primary means God uses to carry out his purposes on earth today and the only institution on earth Jesus promises to build and bless for the sake of the world. This is why the Apostle Paul’s ministry was not merely to proclaim the gospel in evangelism, strengthen Christians in discipleship, and care for the poor. His ultimate goal was always planting churches that would continue these essential ministries for generations after he was gone.

Paul writes, “God’s intent is that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realm.” (Eph 3:10). This is why church planting is the most effective evangelistic, discipleship, and mercy methodology under heaven.

History has proven that when churches flourish, people and societies flourish. When followers of Jesus gather every week for worship, preaching, prayer, and fellowship, they are renewed as they experience a foretaste of the kingdom to come.

When they leave, they scatter like salt and light into all their individual spheres of public life, where they evangelize the lost, serve the poor, and stand against all forms of injustice, bearing witness to the glory of their future home.

Our special focus in this course is on developing the church’s ministry of mercy to the poor, not only outside the church, but especially inside the church. Paul writes, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith (Gal 6:10).”

A strong mercy ministry is necessary in every church no matter what socio- economic group makes up the church or the community. Biblical mercy is much broader than mere physical acts of charity or development for the materially poor. It seeks to alleviate not only suffering from physical brokenness, but all forms of spiritual, mental, emotional, and relational brokenness.

Since the church is the most effective mercy ministry method under heaven, the best thing we can do for the poor is to help establish a healthy, gospel-centered church in their midst to evangelize and disciple them out of poverty. In our next video, we’ll learn some key marks of mercy that can help individuals and churches be more biblical and effective in ministries of mercy.

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Mercy Course!

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develop churches that transform lives and communities.
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