January 19, 1997
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Matthew 5:7
It happened in the old West, or so the story goes. A prisoner was scheduled to be hanged the next day. Earlier he had been tried and convicted of murder, and now he was just a day away from execution. Off in the territorial capital, however, the governor decided to pardon the man. Instead of being hanged, the man could go free.
There was just one problem: the capital was some distance from the prison where the man was being held. At that time there were no telephones or telegraphs or other means of high-speed communication to get the news of the pardon to the prison. The pardon document had to be delivered to the prison, and unless it arrived in time, it would be too late. In just 24 hours, the noose would be placed around the criminal’s neck.
The governor asked if anyone would volunteer to take the pardon from the capital to the prison as quickly as possible. Immediately a man stepped forward. He took the pardon, leaped on his horse, and galloped away. He hurried on through the remainder of the day, and at sunset, he kept right on going. He rode all night and into the next morning. Eventually, his horse collapsed from exhaustion. Still, the man wouldn’t quit. He rushed ahead on foot. His feet began to blister and bleed. Pain stabbed at his legs. Hunger tore at his stomach. His mouth became dry and parched. His breath came in huge gasps. But still he pressed on. At last he staggered up to the prison. Had he made it in time? Yes! The condemned man was saved.
Later the man who brought the pardon was asked, “Why did you do it? Why did you go through all that and risk your life just to save a low-down murderer?” Softly the man replied, “Why did I do it? Because I, too, am a murderer who was saved by a pardon.”
That’s how it works in the kingdom of God. Why sacrifice my own comfort to serve God? Why go out of my way to help sinners who don’t deserve it? Because I am a sinner who was saved by a pardon, and I want serve my Savior and help my fellow sinners in any way I can.
Last week on this program, we looked at the first four beatitudes–the blessings Jesus announces in Matthew 5 at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
We saw that one way to summarize those four blessings would be, “Blessed are the bankrupt.” Jesus is saying that if you are poor in spirit and have nothing to offer God but your own sin; if you mourn over your sin and the pain in this sin-shattered world; if you are meek and humble before God and don’t consider yourself superior to your fellow sinners; if you hunger and thirst for God to make things right by pardoning you and changing you and transforming this world; in short, if you know your own moral bankruptcy and your absolute dependence on God’s grace, then congratulations! God’s kingdom is a blessing to you.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. After blessing the bankrupt with his riches, Jesus blesses the new life that marks them as citizens of God’s kingdom. He says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The first four beatitudes show that you don’t deserve a place in God’s kingdom, that you can’t do anything to earn his pardon, and that it’s all God’s free gift in Christ. The final four beatitudes show that once you receive God’s pardon, once Jesus gives you new life instead of death and brings you under the reign of God, you’re not the same person. You become merciful and pure in heart, a peacemaker who would rather face hardship and even persecution than dishonor God or harm others. You’re like the pardoned murderer in the story: you’re eager to serve the one who pardoned you, and you want to bring pardon and new life to your fellow sinners.
When Jesus speaks of these things, he’s not speaking of several different groups of people–some merciful, others pure, and so forth. He’s talking to one group of people–those who receive him and welcome the reign of God–and he is describing various characteristics that mark such people and the blessings that are theirs because of Jesus and through the kingdom he brings. Let’s take a closer look at each of these beatitudes.
Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” What does this mean? Well, sometimes in the Bible, mercy means having pity and helping others simply because they need help. Jesus tells a famous story about a man who was attacked by robbers. They stole everything he had, stripped him naked, and beat him savagely, leaving him half dead. First one religious official came down the road, then another, but they both walked right around the bleeding man and went on their way. Then came a Samaritan, a person of mixed race and mixed up ideas about proper religious ritual. When the Samaritan saw the wounded man lying there, says Jesus, he took pity on him. He cleaned and bandaged the man’s wounds, took him to an inn, and paid the expenses out of his own pocket (see Luke 10:30-37). That’s one way the Bible speaks of mercy: seeing someone’s distress and doing what you can to help, even if they have no claim on you and can’t repay you.
But the Bible also speaks of a kind of mercy that goes even further. This kind of mercy not only shows kindness to those who have been harmed in some way but it actually shows kindness to those who have harmed you. In other words, this kind of mercy involves forgiveness.
Both kinds of mercy–the mercy that helps the helpless, and the mercy that forgives the harmful–both kinds of mercy are found in God. He helps people in desperate need who call on him, and he also forgives people who admit their sin and his forgiveness through Jesus. God is merciful. And because he is merciful, those who count on his mercy are merciful as well.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they–and only they–will be shown mercy.” Only those who are merciful to others can be sure of receiving mercy at the final judgment. Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” He then adds, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).
In Matthew 18 Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who was settling accounts with his servants. A man was brought in who owed a monstrous debt and had no way to pay it off. The king ordered that all his property be seized and that the man and his family be sold as slaves. After the servant begged and pleaded, however, the king had pity on him and forgave him the debt.
But no sooner had the servant left the king than he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a small amount. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded the money right away. The man begged him to patient, but the unmerciful servant refused and had the man thrown in prison.
When word of this got back to the king, he was furious. He called the man in and said, “You rotten servant. I canceled all that enormous debt of yours just because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
After telling that story, Jesus adds just one line. “This,” he says, “is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
Now, is Jesus saying that we forgive others in order to earn God’s forgiveness? No, it’s not that we earn forgiveness by forgiving, or that we earn mercy by being merciful. It’s just that, under God’s reign, mercy is a package deal. You can’t live with one foot in the kingdom of mercy when it comes to your sins against God, and with the other foot in the realm of resentment and revenge when it comes to other’s people’s sins against you. Mercy is indeed a free gift and not something you earn; but it’s a gift that, once you accept it, forms the basis for God’s relation to you and for your relation to others.
That’s why Jesus declares the merciful to be so richly blessed. By being merciful, you show that you are living under God’s mercy in Christ. Your merciful attitude toward others is a sign that you have already received God’s mercy in Christ, and that you will surely receive God’s mercy at the final judgment. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
Now for the next beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once wrote a book titled, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.” That title captures the core of this beatitude. Purity of heart isn’t first of all matter of avoiding all sorts of bad things; it’s desiring the one supreme good. Purity of heart is to want one thing, to focus our attention and energy on that one thing, to relate everything in our life to that one thing, and to desire that one thing above all else. What is that one thing? To know God and live under his rule and his righteousness.
When you’re pure in heart, you focus on what God wants and what he thinks of you. You know that God sees into your heart. You’re not satisfied with being respectable on the outside. You want to be godly, a person of integrity on the inside. Your deepest desire is for God, not for the approval of other people. When you pray, it’s to get in touch with God, not to impress others with your piety. When you are kind to others, it’s to follow God’s way of love, not to get publicity for your donations or have something named after you and hear people say what a marvelous person you are. The moment you start doing things in order to impress others, says Jesus, hypocrisy starts to take over. When you start worrying about what people think rather than what God thinks, even your good deeds are corrupted.
Love of human approval is one obstacle to purity of heart. Love of money and material things is another. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns against storing up treasures on earth and tells us to store up treasures in heaven. “For,” he says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
Where is your treasure? Are you more concerned with your career or your relationship to God? Are you more focused on whether the stock market is rising or falling, or on whether God is being honored or dishonored? What do you treasure most? That’s where your heart is. And don’t think you can have it both ways. “No one can serve two masters,” says Jesus. “You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6:24).
The pure in heart want one thing: God. And they will receive their heart’s desire: they will see God face to face. In Psalm 27 David prays, “One thing I ask of this Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” That’s how you pray when you’re pure in heart. You long for God. You want be with him always. You want to know him deeply and gaze on his beauty. And your longing will be satisfied. You will look on the one you long for. You will stand in his presence and be accepted into his eternal kingdom. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Let’s move on to the next aspect of kingdom character: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” When Jesus first said this, he wasn’t the only one to talk about peacemakers. The Greeks and Romans spoke of victorious generals or a strong political rulers as “peacemakers.” (In the same vein centuries later, a certain type of gun was called the Peacemaker.) But that’s not the kind of peacemaker Jesus is talking about. He’s not talking about peace through force but through friendship. He’s not talking about peace through intimidation but through reconciliation. He’s not talking about being so powerful that you can force people to stop fighting, but about being so loving that you show people how to stop hating. True peace doesn’t just mean nobody’s killing each other. It means people are loving each other. It means wholeness, healthiness, restored relationships.
The Bible calls Jesus “the Prince of Peace.” Jesus brings peace between sinners and God. By dying for his people, Jesus turns away God’s wrath against their sin, and he also breaks down their hatred against God through such sacrificial love, thus “making peace through the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1:20). “Therefore,” says the Bible, “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). And not only does the Prince of Peace bring peace with God, he also brings peace between different people. According to the Bible, Jesus breaks down racial barriers that divide Jew from Gentile, that separate one race from another. “For he himself is our peace,” says the Scripture, “who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).
The Son of God is the Prince of Peace, and those who follow in his steps as peacemakers will also be called sons of God. A peacemaker is always seeking ways to break down barriers and bring about reconciliation. This begins in your own personal relationships with other people. Scripture says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).
Jesus goes so far as to say that if you’re in a place of worship, ready to give your offering, and there remember that your brother has something against you, drop your gift right there. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer the gift. Also, says Jesus, don’t get tangled up in nasty lawsuits and court battles. Do everything you can to settle the matter before it ever reaches the court (Matthew 5:23-25).
As a peacemaker, you work for peace in matters that affect you personally, and you also do what you can to bring peace to others. You seek peace and unity within the church of Christ. You try to bring God’s peace to those who don’t yet know Christ by introducing them to Jesus and sharing the gospel with them. And you also seek for peace and reconciliation in society by working to right the wrongs and break down the barriers of hostility. When you do this, you show that you are God’s child, and on the final day, you will indeed be called a child of God by your heavenly Father.
Ironically, though, peacemakers don’t just make peace; they also make enemies. Peacemakers will be called sons of God, but remember what happened the Prince of Peace, the only begotten Son of God: he was crucified. That’s how the world treats peacemakers, people of kingdom character.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a man of peace. He rejected violence; he refused to use force; he worked tirelessly for true peace between racial groups and for a healing of the wounds of injustice. But this man of peace was slandered, beaten, imprisoned, and finally murdered. How can such things be?
Well, Jesus tells us. Right after he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he goes on to say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” If your citizenship is in God’s kingdom, then the kingdoms of this world will oppose you. The sinful world feels threatened by righteousness, and it attacks people of kingdom character.
If you oppose the killing of helpless unborn children, you are labeled an extremist. If you support the death of these babies through abortion, the world calls you a moderate.
If you say that Jesus is the only way to God, you are a fanatic. If you say that there are many ways to God (and thus call Jesus a liar), you are called tolerant.
If you challenge dishonest practices in your company, they call you a troublemaker. If you go along with the evil and help cover it up, they call you a team player.
In some parts of the world, if you stand for Christ at all, you are considered an enemy of the people. If you reject Christ and oppose the Christian faith, however, you are a loyal citizen.
When you’re persecuted because of righteousness, says Jesus, congratulations! It’s proof that you’re in God’s kingdom and under his reign. Jesus adds, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
In other words, don’t be depressed and discouraged by opposition. Don’t sulk or try to retaliate. Celebrate instead! Why should you celebrate? Well, for one thing, there’s a great reward waiting for you in heaven. And for another, you’re in great company: the prophets of God also faced opposition. So rejoice! Rejoice that you can join the noble company of the prophets; rejoice that you can share in the suffering of Christ; and rejoice that heavenly rewards await you.
When people oppose you because of your relationship to Jesus, don’t let it get you down. In fact, if nobody ever opposes you, then you’ve got a problem. “Woe to you,” says Jesus, “when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). Obviously, you shouldn’t go around trying to make enemies. There’s no blessing in making enemies by being stupid or nasty or obnoxious. But if you are true to your Lord, if you follow the way of righteousness, then expect to face opposition, and expect also to receive the blessings that Jesus promises.
What a marvel these beatitudes are! What a splendid picture Jesus paints in just a few sentences! Merciful toward other sinners, yet determined to be pure yourself; eager to bring peace and reconciliation, yet willing to suffer persecution and personal attacks. That’s what kingdom character looks like. No one but Jesus combines all these qualities perfectly, but all of us who belong to Jesus are moving in the direction he has marked out for us. In response to his grace, and through his help, we have at least the beginnings of his kingdom character.
And along with this rich array of character traits comes a marvelous outpouring of blessings. In the first beatitude Jesus announces that the poor in spirit are citizens of God’s kingdom, and in the final beatitude for the persecuted, he says again: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” All blessings begin and end with that: the kingdom of heaven. Within that kingdom, under God’s gracious reign in Christ, the blessings flow freely. There is comfort, a rich inheritance, fullness and complete satisfaction, unbounded mercy, direct vision of God, and being called children of the heavenly Father. No wonder the Bible calls it good news!
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.