One of the things we discussed in last week’s post about a Christian’s role in seeing justice done was that there are very few situations where God says it’s okay for us to judge other people. There’s an important reason for that which we only just touched on last week. It’s that justice and the application of judgement belong to God. We are to become like Him, yes, but there are certain roles that He does not share with us, at least not yet.
Paul says that one day the saints will judge the world and even angels. We’re not there yet, though there are certain situations where we can practice such as settling disputes in the church or discerning when there’s a sin being committed (1 Cor. 5:1-5, 11-13; 6:1-3). We’re not entrusted with final judgement, though, nor with the execution of justice or vengeance. In fact, we’re instructed to step aside and let God handle it whenever we’re tempted to take any vengeful action.
Judged by the Word of God
Back in Deuteronomy, Moses told Israel not to show partiality in judgement or be afraid of judging fairly (no matter what other people think) “for the judgement is God’s” (Deut. 1:17 all scriptures from the WEB translation). Judgement belongs to God, and He cares a great deal about seeing justice done properly. That’s one of the main reasons “You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality. You shall not take a bribe” (Deut. 16:19). Of course, these instructions were given to handle legal disputes in a nation where God’s law was the standard of government. We now live in nations with secular law systems and most of us aren’t involved in that. But the principles still apply. God cares about justice done rightly, and His definition of “rightly” might not always match with our human impulses. Read more →
In his epistle, James describes “the wisdom that is from above” as “first pure, then peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (James 3:17, WEB). We’ve looked at those first four traits in previous posts, and now we come to study merciful wisdom.
Mercy, loving kindness, and compassion are key traits of our God, who is the source of true wisdom. (Language note: the Hebrew and Greek words translated “mercy” are also frequently translated as “kindness,” or more rarely a related word such as compassion or goodness.) If we want to be like God, then we also need to learn kindness and mercy. And we must use them wisely, as He does.
Consider the Loving Kindness
The end of Psalm 107 says, “Whoever is wise will pay attention to these things. They will consider the loving kindnesses of Yahweh” (Ps. 107; 43, WEB). Since we’re studying wisdom and loving kindness/mercy, this psalm seems like a good place to start.
Psalm 107 begins, “Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good, for his loving kindness endures forever.” A similar phrase echoes throughout the Psalm: “Let them praise Yahweh for his loving kindness, for his wonderful deeds to the children of men!” (Ps. 107:8, 15, 21, 31). In between, we’re given reasons for this praise and illustrations of the Lord’s loving kindness. Read more →
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 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.
How do you think of God’s forgiveness? So you see it as a finite resource; something that He gives you once but if you mess-up too badly that’s it? Do you see it as something He gives continually so that no matter what you do He’ll cover it up for you?
We tend to error in one of those two directions when we think of forgiveness. We might see our sins as too big for God to forgive, or ourselves as worth to little for Him to bother. Or we might think that since He forgives and loves us, He’ll keep ignoring our sins no matter how bad they might be even if we don’t bother to repent again. Neither one is true.
What if we instead saw forgiveness as an incredible gift that’s freely given and always available, yet is also a gift with certain conditions attached?
Most of us don’t like the idea of conditional gifts, especially if we’re coming from a Western cultural mindset. We might even resent the idea that something freely given might come with an expectation that we’ll respond in a certain way. However, the Bible does speak of things we must do if we want to be forgiven. Let’s take a look at them.
Repent and Commit
The first thing to do if you want forgiveness is ask. We receive forgiveness after we repent of our past sins and come to Jesus. Forgiveness is not initiated by us — it is an act of rich grace available because of the death of Jesus (Eph. 1:3-7; Col. 1:14; 2:13). There is a participation aspect, though.
John the baptist came “preaching the baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Peter reaffirms this process in Acts 2:38, saying we must “repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.” God doesn’t impose forgiveness on people who don’t want it. He gives it to those who turn to Him and ask. Read more →
Lamentations is a depressing little book, at least on first glance. It’s composed of 5 poems of mourning that were once part of the book of Jeremiah, but were then isolated so they’d be easier to read in public. Traditionally, the Jewish people read Lamentations each year on Tish B’av, a fast day commemorating the destructions of the temple in 586 BC and 70 AD.
The first poem speaks of sorrow, weeping, misery, and desolation that has come upon Israel. Jeremiah describes the Lord as righteous for bringing such punishment to those who rebelled. The second poem is about the Lord fighting against Israel as an enemy. As a result, there is weeping, misery, and no comfort.
The fourth poem recounts more horrors that happened because of Israel’s sin. It talks about persecutions and punishment brought on them by the anger of the Lord. The fifth poem cries out to God to remember His people, recounting the punishments they’ve already suffered for their iniquities. It ends by talking about God forgetting and rejecting Israel, begging Him not to do so forever.
We now know that God answered this last prayer. He didn’t forget His people or cast them off forever. In fact, God the Father sent God the Son to die in our place and redeem us. The Word became flesh and brought about reconciliation between God and man as our Passover sacrifice.
Even without this perspective, though, Jeremiah was able to have a surprisingly hopeful outlook in the midst of incredibly difficult situations. In the third poem, nestled right in the middle of Lamentations, we find a determination to continue believing in the Lord’s goodness no matter what comes. That’s an outlook we would all do well to imitate. Read more →