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On the Meaning of Mercy-Concluding thoughts



Although the meaning of mercy has been the focus of this series we have discovered along the way that it is frequently accompanied by other ideas like forgiveness and reconciliation, either as part of the context or part of the definition. We saw, for example that when mercy meant propitiation (Luke 18:13) the ideas of averting God’s wrath, forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God were implicit in what propitiation meant.

Now we can add ‘longsuffering’ to the mix because it, too, often accompanies mercy in many passages. A case in point is found in Paul’s first letter to Timothy where he describes himself as a “blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man” (1 Tim. 1:13) but in spite of this he “obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.” (1Tim.1:16)

The word ‘longsuffering’ Paul uses in this verse is from makrothymia and means, in part, restraining from lashing back, especially with anger, even though repeatedly provoked and the accompanying word ‘mercy’ he uses is from eleeo meaning simply to show pity and compassion towards someone. Given this example of mercy and longsuffering used together, it seems reasonable to think that mercy often, if not always, includes longsuffering, that longsuffering often, if not always, includes mercy and that the potential for, and experience of, salvation entails both (see 2 Peter 3:9).

It is remarkable that many of the passages referencing ‘longsuffering’ (sometimes translated ‘patience’) show how God behaves towards us while, at the same time, exhorting Christians to behave the same way to each other. Paul already gave us an example of God’s longsuffering in his own life and in Ephesians Paul’s readers are exhorted to ‘walk worthy of the calling” they received, being preordained to live as Christians, with “all lowliness, and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…” (Eph. 4:1-3) Similar passages can be found in Galatians and Colossians.

Now, you would think that Christians who have already experienced the longsuffering of God would be the most likely to be patient towards others and, indeed, many are just that but only to those yet outside the Church. Some of the nastiest people I’ve known are inside the Church and rail against brothers and sisters at the slightest provocation or offense. This nastiness even carries over into their families where children, husbands, wives and so on are given no latitude at all but suffer everything except mercy and longsuffering; it is moral hypocrisy to act so contrary to the Christian calling (I have to confess to being just such a hypocrite at times). This is why I think Paul writes with such endearment and grace (the language he often uses in Greek shows this) to urge his readers to treat each other with the same grace, love and forbearance God has shown them, to not withhold from each other kindness and compassion, to not self-destruct so to speak when “when principalities and powers” all around them seek their destruction.

In His usual inimitable way, Jesus sums up the matter in Luke 6:36 where yet another word for mercy is used: “Therefore, be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” Here ‘merciful’ is translated from οἶκτος and means the expression of grief and lamentation towards someone else, including even tears and anguish. In other words, mercy is an emotional connectedness to the condition and plight of someone else; i.e. we ‘feel’ for, and with them because we remember our hopeless condition before God made things right again. When Luke 18:15 and Luke 6:36 are taken together, the connection between mercy and forgiveness emerges that we also saw with the idea of propitiation. It seems clear that this aspect of mercy, namely grief, sorrow and sympathy, compels us to forgive even when judgment and punishment seem more ‘just’.

Matt. 18:22-35 (read vv15-21 to get the full context) in one fell swoop includes all the major points we have talked about so far in this series. It is the parable of Jesus prompted by Peter’s question about how many times we are to forgive someone; His teaching is simply breathtaking.

The main character is the ‘wicked servant’ who owes his king an enormous sum of money that is impossible to ever pay back. The king orders the servant, his family and possessions to be sold for payment (v 25). Hearing this, the servant falls down before the king and asks for ‘patience’. The word is from makrothymia the same one used by Paul in 1Tim. 1:13 for ‘longsuffering’. The king responds with “compassion”, so much so that he forgives the servant the entire debt.

‘Compassion’ is translated from splanchnizomai and means literally ‘to be moved in one’s bowels’. It is used to speak of Jesus in Matt.15:32 when He saw the condition of the crowds who had followed Him for days not eating anything along the way. The image this term invokes is a person so moved by the plight of another they quite literally are bent over from the pain they feel and, therefore not unlike oiktos which we encountered just a few paragraphs ago where ‘merciful’ (Luke 6:36) meant ‘feeling’ grief and lamentation (sorrow, usually with tears) towards another. The act of forgiveness here, as in other passages where aphiemi is used, is to let go of or send away and refers most often to sin.

Now, in v 33 the king upbraids this servant for being so callous towards another who owed money (a pittance compared to what was forgiven) and asks why the servant didn’t have compassion on the debtor just as he had received from the king. Here the word used for ‘compassion’ is not splanchizomai but eleeo translated most of the time as ‘mercy’; i.e. pity and compassion as we have seen from earlier studies.

I know all of this might be a bit confusing, but the point is that profound connections exist between the ideas of mercy, compassion, longsuffering, forgiveness and propitiation. They are different words but their underlying meanings blend together to give us a magnificent picture of what mercy really means, that it is God’s attitude towards us and it is what we can expect when we come “Into the Presence”.

We have seen in this series thus far, then, that mercy begins with God, finds its fullest expression in Jesus our ‘merciful High Priest’ and now that is to be reciprocated by His people towards others. What prompted the Publican to cry out to Jesus was because he was a sinner in need of mercy and we learned that forgiveness was part of propititation. Luke 6:36 tells us to “be merciful just as your Father also is merciful” and the conclusion of the parable we are looking at here is clear: we will receive our deserved judgment from God if we fail to forgive others and that mercy is a part and parcel of such forgiveness. This echoes what Jesus said recorded earlier in Matthew that if we forgive we will be forgiven and if we don’t we won’t. (Matt. 6:14-15) It seems safe to say from all this that mercy can only really be mercy in all its nuances when it is reciprocated by the one receiving it in the first place. It is a circle that begins with God, embraces the sinner, the sinner embraces others all beginning again with God and the circle of reciprocity continues. And at the center of it all is this: the mercy we have received compels us to forgive others.

Reciprocity-we simply give back what we have received and continue to receive, an inexhaustible fountain of mercy and grace, forgiveness and reconciliation. What kind of hardness of heart and callousness must one have to deny anyone what we have been freely given? Yet, as this parable suggests, it is all too common, so much so, in fact, that such a stern warning is given and more than once.

A truth often spoken of but seldom embraced is that WE are priests (Rev. 1: 4-6) unto God and our function is the same-to minister the grace and mercy we receive from God to all needing it, seeking it, and asking for it from those standing right in front of us at church, at home and on the street. There is a temptation to think after being a Christian for a while that maybe we aren’t so bad after all, that there was actually something desirable about us that compelled God to want to adopt us into His family. We can, if we’re not careful, be more like the Pharisee than the Publican because of our familiarity with grace, forgiveness and all the rest. One sure sign we have gone too far is being unable or unwilling to give to others what we have received from God through Jesus, our High Priest who in utter selflessness gave us our true selves as children of God, redeemed, cleansed, sanctified and soon to be glorified.

May God have mercy on us all. Amen



On the Meaning of Mercy

Lord, have mercy on us.

  Christ, have mercy on us.

Lord, have mercy on us.


 O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me.

O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me.

O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, grant me your peace.


Some of you will recognize these as liturgical lines from the worship in many churches, the Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican for example. What fascinates, and spiritually moves me are the constant references to mercy in their services and devotional works (like the Anglican Book of Common Prayer). It is a word I hardly ever hear more freewheeling, less structured non-denomination churches; grace, forgiveness, love, redemption, salvation and the likes are spoken of in abundance but mercy, not so much. Are we missing something important by neglecting this word and all it means? The many references to mercy in the Bible along with the theology behind the term make me think we are. It is certainly worth exploring and you’re invited to come along, Bible in hand and heart open to what God will say to us.

This study, by the way, is a small contribution to diminishing the dumbness targeted in the two blogs “Dumb Christianity”. I figured I should do something besides just harp on it. In fact, I am considering starting a new blog featuring just Biblical and theological studies that will be more lengthy and complicated than a regular blog. I would like all of you who follow this blog to give me your reaction to this idea. This installment you’re reading is an example of what the new one might be like.

There are several Greek words translated as ‘mercy’ in the Bible. The one we are concerned with in this part of the study is found in Luke 18:9-14 (read the parable for the full impact) and specifically in verse 13:

 “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13 italics mine NASB)

This parable contrasts the self-righteousness of a Jewish religious leader with someone who knows what he really is, a sinner needing the mercy of God.

The Greek word translated ‘merciful’ in v13 is hilaskomai which is used only here and Hebrews 9:5. It means primarily propitiation and as a verb used here is literally be propitiated. It is also used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) where it is translated ‘propitiary’ (Exodus 25:17 for one example of many) and in the NKJV and NASB it’s translated ‘mercy-seat’. Both renderings refer to that part of the Ark of the Covenant (the gold covering between the cherubim) where the blood of the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement was to be sprinkled thereby covering over the sins of Israel, hence propitiation.



Because Jesus used this word hilaskomai for ‘mercy’ instead of the more common eleeo He reveals that propitiation (more on this word later) is the basis for the mercy shown by someone having the authority, the means and the justification to be angry towards and execute judgment against a guilty party. In both the Old and New Covenant God is the offended party, sin is the violation, the sinner is the guilty party, wrath is His attitude towards sin and the sinner, and death the punishment. It is each of us and all of us, the whole human race, who need this mercy, or propitiation. What has changed from the Old to the New are the High Priest and the Sacrifice, Jesus being both in this New Covenant. The obvious connection between  Luke 18:13 and Hebrews 9, and v5 in particular, become profound in light of the Old Testament sacrificial system outlined in Hebrews, but more on this later. For now consider this: the significance, and even the possibility, of ‘mercy’ designated by any of the other Greek words so translated are based on this one, hilaskomai.

Another observation I think is interesting is the use of the article “a” sinner (NKJV) and “the” sinner (NASB) in v13. It is the same article (singular) in both Greek texts, Byzantine for the NKJV and Alexandrian for the NASB yet the translators used different renderings. Rather than trying to decide which one is more accurate, I think both are revealing and both ‘correct’. Taking the NKJV first what is emphasized by “a” sinner is the personal aspect of sin. The Publican recognizes that he, personally is a sinner and in need of mercy apart from anyone else. The NASB “the” sinner on the other hand could denote his being one instance of all sinners and requiring mercy; i.e. a sinner among all sinners. So, even though the article is singular, it could indicate sin ensconced in a single person, or in a person that is part of a single race of persons; i.e. generically. The point is that both renderings apply to the condition of human beings who need propitiation before God.

Note that while the Publican admits his personal culpability in sin and the race of which he is part the Pharisee views everyone but himself as a sinner. This attitude has two fatal components found in Luke 18:9 at the introduction to the parable itself: “And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt.” The first is they trust only in themselves and their own worthiness, not God. Since trust is an essential part of faith, to not trust is to be faithless or unfaithful and without faith it is impossible to please God. The second is having contempt for others who are measured against their own inflated self-worth. The word contempt (NASB and ‘despise’ NKJV) is to “regard as nothing” or treating people as though they are invisible, insignificant, and anonymous. The word is used again in Luke 23:11 where Jesus Himself, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is treated with contempt and gives us a picture of what it is like.

The point I want to make here is that there are many sins but self-righteousness seems to be at the top of the heap and I think for this reason. You well know that the Ten Commandments have two parts. The first four have to do with God and the rest with other people. Self righteousness breaks all the commandments by first replacing God with the idol of self (1-4) and, second, by treating others as if they don’t even exist evidenced by stealing from them, lying to or about them, coveting what they have, destroying their relationships, or murdering them (5-10).

The most dangerous thing about a self-righteous people, and Christians can be very, very self-righteous, is failing to see their need for mercy and, therefore, unable to grant it either. This should give us pause to consider how we treat each other as Christians and how we treat those outside the faith. Is it with mercy or do we just ignore people because we think ourselves so….righteous? Something to think about.

Well, the stage is set for our next study. Since propitiation is the underlying meaning of mercy in these verses, we’ll ‘unpack’ this word and its use in other important passages. For now, dear Christian, know that mercy is available to us all when, as did the publican, we humbly admit to the Lord our desperate need.

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