Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.
We all have a basic idea of what wisdom is, even if the first example to come to mind is a humorous one. It has to do with applying knowledge and experience in a sound manner. The Bible has a lot to say about wisdom and its importance. Part of what it says involves clarifying that God’s wisdom is not the same as worldly wisdom. James writes,
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by his good conduct that his deeds are done in gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t boast and don’t lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, sensual, and demonic. (James 3:13-15, WEB)
There is a wisdom that comes “from above” — from God — and there’s a wisdom that does not. James defines the wisdom from above in another verse, which we’ll come back to later. We need to be careful which wisdom we practice and what type of wisdom we praise.
Wisdom of Men vs. Gift of God
Paul also speaks of the difference between “wisdom of men” and the wisdom from above. One is about clever, persuasive arguments. The other is about truth.
My speech and my preaching were not in persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith wouldn’t stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. We speak wisdom, however, among those who are full grown, yet a wisdom not of this world nor of the rulers of this world who are coming to nothing. But we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the wisdom that has been hidden, which God foreordained before the worlds for our glory (1 Cor. 2:4-7, WEB)
God’s wisdom is something precious, something hidden from people who don’t know Him. Once we do know Him, though, this wisdom is available for the asking.
Mercy is an outward action. We can see this clearly when we think of how God shows mercy to us. He pours out mercy on us though we’ve done nothing to deserve His forgiveness and compassion. Jesus died for us. The Father provides for us. They alleviate the consequences of our sins. Their mercy is active and changes things in the lives of people who come to Them for help and relationship.
What about our mercy? I think sometimes we expect God’s mercy to be active yet think it’s okay for ours to be more passive. We mercifully forgive others on the inside (mostly) and don’t take action against them, so that’s good enough. We feel compassion for those in distress, and that’s a kind of mercy, right? We don’t really have to do any merciful acts to be considered merciful, do we? After all, God’s more concerned with what’s inside us than what we’re actually doing.
While God does look on our hearts, if our hearts are in the right place that should motivate us to take certain actions, including deeds of righteousness and mercy. Belief, repentance, and salvation are only the first steps in our walks with God. We’re to enter covenant with Him and start becoming like him. An integral part of this is learning to be merciful as God is merciful.
Mercy Starts With God
In Greek, the type of mercy we’re discussing is elos (G1656). There are other words for feelings of pity or compassion. Elos involves acting on those feelings. Spiros Zodhiates explains it in contrast to “charis (5485) which is God’s free grace and gift displayed in the forgiveness of sins as offered to men in their guilt. God’s mercy (elos) is extended for the alleviation of the consequences of sin.” Mercy is applied grace. It is passing over deserved punishment. It is reaching out to relieve suffering. It is active loving kindness, corresponding to the Hebrew word chesed which we talked about last week.
But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4-6, WEB)
God’s mercy prompts Him to take life-changing, life-saving action. We can’t apply mercy at the same level God does, but we need to learn how to be merciful in the same way that He is.
A Word for Mercy in Action
The word eleemosune (G1654) refers to actions of mercy. It’s the things we do when motivated by elos. The King James Version translated it “alms” and the concept has come to mean charitable giving in much the same way that the Hebrew word for righteousness, tzedakah, is equated with righteous giving. Originally, though, it was not just about giving money although that was definitely included.
This word is used to describe Tabitha’s “acts of mercy” and Cornelius’ “gifts to the needy” that have “gone up for a memorial before God” (Acts 9:36; 10:4, WEB). Also in Acts, Luke records the story of a lame man who sat in the door of the temple each day “to ask gifts for the needy,” or “alms” (Acts 3:2). When Peter saw this he said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have, that I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk!” (v. 6). Peter didn’t have money but he still gave a gift of mercy.
Another example of mercy in action is found in the parable of the Good Samaritan. You can read it in Luke 10:25-37. A lawyer asked Jesus who qualified as his neighbor for the command “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus answered by telling the story of a Jewish man who was left for dead by robbers. A priest and a Levite passed him by, “but a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion” and helped the man. When Jesus asked this lawyer which of the three who encountered the injured man “‘seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?’ He said, ‘He who showed mercy on him.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.'”
So speak and so do, as men who are to be judged by a law of freedom. For judgment is without mercy to him who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:12-13, WEB)
God wants to show mercy and we should too. We should delight in loving kindness, as He does (Jer. 9:24). Twice in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus speaks out against those who don’t understand what it means when God says, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13; 12:7). His Jewish audience would have known He was quoting Hosea, where God laments Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant (Hos. 6:1-7).
God is not satisfied with obedience only when we feel like giving it or only in the areas we want to surrender to Him. He wants an ongoing, heart-transforming relationship with us as we seek to become more like Him and embrace our Godly identity. And that includes desiring and showing mercy.
The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:17-18, WEB)
This is a partial description of how God’s personality, character, and mind work, which means it’s also a list of character traits we should develop as people who follow him. And it includes being “full of mercy.” Let us be wise, godly people who learn to actively show mercy through our actions as well as by having feelings of compassion.
I didn’t get to read the book until recently because I was distracted by other new releases, some of which I had advance reader copies to review, and I was waiting for a library to buy it. I finally got a copy through an inter-library loan program and eagerly sat down to read. Unfortunately, while this book contains some really good content, I felt like it was too much about Curt Landry and not enough about its stated purpose of helping people understand how the Jewish roots of Christianity can transform their faith.
Our Forgotten Heritage
When Jesus arrived here on earth (or Yeshua, to use His Hebrew name), He didn’t come to bring a new religion. Yeshua came as the next stage in God’s plan which He’d laid out from the foundation of the world. What we now call Christianity has its roots in the faith of the ancient Israeli people and the Jews of Jesus’ time. Though this phrasing is mine, this is one of the main arguments of Landry’s book and it’s the part I found most fascinating.
“I am Yahweh who exercises loving kindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for I delight in these things,” says Yahweh.
I quoted this scripture from Jeremiah 9:24 in last week’s post and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. God defines Himself by using these three concepts and says He delights in them. If they’re that important to Him, then they should be important to us.
I feel like we talk fairly often about the fact that God balances justice/judgement and mercy/loving kindness. But sometime we’re puzzled about how exactly that works. Back in Medieval times, theologians wondered how a God of judgement and justice could also be one of mercy. Now we ask how a God of love and mercy could also be one of judgement. I think taking God’s characteristic righteousness into account — as well as studying the Hebrew word meanings — can help answer those questions.
We in the Christian churches today often start with the New Testament when trying to understand a concept. It can be useful, though, to start with the Old Testament because that’s the foundation the New Testament writers built on. In Hebrew, words for justice, judgement, government, and ordinances are all interconnected in the root word shapat (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, entry 2443).
We tend to think of judgement/justice as a judicial concept. In Hebrew thought, though, the functions of government were’t divided as we so often do today. The primary meaning “of shapat is to exercise the process of government” in any realm or any form.
When the Bible speaks of God’s judgement or justice it’s also referencing all aspects of His government, not simply judicial laws. To quote TWOT again, “although the ancients knew full well what law … was, they did not think of themselves as ruled by laws rather than by men … The centering of the law, rulership, government in a man was deeply ingrained.” Apply that concept to God, and the notion of justice has to do with Him as the center of true law, rulership, and government. He is the source of real authority and has the absolute right to rule as He chooses.
I’ve been reading a book called Reclaiming Our Forgotten Heritage by Curty Landry and one of his comments about what we’re supposed to “seek first” caught my eye. This book is about how understanding the Jewish roots of Christianity can transform your faith. It’s amazing to me how much we can miss when we read the Bible in English with a Western cultural mindset. And it’s equally amazing how much it can deepen our understanding of God and His ways to dive-in to the roots of our faith.
One of the things Landry talks about is how our interpretation of words and stories in the Bible can change based on whether we approach them through a Western philosophical lens or a first-century Jewish one. An example is how we see the word “righteousness” in Matthew 6:33.
When we read “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” we in the Western world tend to think this means we have to be righteous in the sense of being a “law-abiding citizen” of heaven. But a Jewish person listening to Jesus would have thought of the Hebrew concept of tzedakah, which changes how you interpret this verse. Let’s take a look at that.
Righteousness in Hebrew
Tzedakah is about justice, righteousness, and truthfulness (Brown, Driver, Briggs lexicon, entry H6666). It’s associated with God’s fairness and is also tied to acts of charity and giving. At my Messianic congregation, this word is written on the box where we put tithes and offerings because tzedakahis so closely connected with righteous giving.
In his article “God’s Kind of Righteousness,” Lois Tverberg points out that “tzedakah means more than just legal correctness – it refers to covenantal faithfulness, often resulting in rescuing those in distress and showing mercy to sinners.” It’s quite a bit different than what most of us think of when we think “righteousness,” but it’s very much in line with God’s character.
In Revelation, the church in Laodicea received a warning and correction from Jesus that had to do with how they saw themselves.
To the angel of the assembly in Laodicea write: “The Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of God’s creation, says these things: ‘I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing;’ and don’t know that you are the wretched one, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.'” (Rev. 3:14-17, all scripture references from WEB translation)
The things that the Laodiceans didn’t know about themselves were a threat to their spiritual position in Christ. He threatens to vomit them out of Him if they are not zealous to repent (Rev. 3:19). That’s pretty serious, and we can learn from His advice to them how to avoid similar mistakes.
Those who see the letters in Revelation as pictures of eras in the church tend to agree that we are currently living in the Laodicean era. And even if that’s not the case, those who “have an ear” are still instructed to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 3:22). If we, like the Laodiceans, are ignorant of about our true spiritual condition then we need to heed this warning to wake up to the truth and change how we’re living.
Wretched and Miserable
Jesus starts out by telling the people who think they’re okay that they are in fact “wretched and miserable.” It reminds me of what Paul said in one of his letters: “let him who thinks he stands be careful that he doesn’t fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). Each of the words translated “wretched” and “miserable” are only used one other place in the Greek New Testament.
What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me out of the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord! So then with the mind, I myself serve God’s law, but with the flesh, sin’s law. There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who don’t walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 7:24-8:1)
Paul’s mindset was completely different than the Laodiceans. He knew he was in a wretched state and the only solution was to turn to Jesus for deliverance. This is reflected in his use of the word for miserable/pitiable as well. Read more →