James Edward Oglethorpe was a general in the British Army and became a member of their Parliament in 1722. While there, he presided over a committee that brought much needed prison reforms to England. His experience gave him the idea of founding a new colony in North America where the poor and destitute could start fresh, and where religious freedom was allowed. So, in 1733 he secured the charter for a new colony, and came to North America. Oglethorpe founded the town of Savannah, in what is now the state of Georgia, where he later served as governor.
General Oglethorpe was a very strict and disciplined man. On one occasion, the Methodist preacher, John Wesley, visited him. During their discussion the general mentioned an incident involving a man who had so angered him. Oglethorpe said, “I shall never forgive him. I never forgive and I never forget—“ to which Wesley quickly replied: “Then I hope, sir, you never sin!”
Evidently, Wesley recalled the Lord’s 5th Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Jesus meant that people who are merciful and forgiving, will be treated with mercy and forgiveness.
Mercy is the inward feeling of compassion at the suffering or misery of another. It touches the heart, enabling the merciful one to feel sympathy for the suffering one. The merciful will compassionately move to relieve the affliction of the sufferer.
The concept of mercy fills Scripture from the Garden of Eden, where God provided for the sinful first pair (Genesis 3:21), to the last chapter in the Bible, where God invites all to “come…take the water of life without cost” (Revelation 22:17). God is a God of mercy that, for us, results in forgiveness, pardon, and soul salvation. He says, “For I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12). Even the prodigal prophet knew God was merciful, for he wrote, “You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4:2).
Since God is merciful to His people, He expects His people to be merciful with others. The recipient of unlimited mercy should become the dispenser of extravagant mercy. Christians compassionately forgive others because God has leniently forgiven them. Believers are to “put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” as they “bear with one another and forgive each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone: just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you” (Colossians 3:12, 13).
Mercy is an integral part of the Christian life and character. Second century preacher, John Chrysostom said: “Mercy imitates God and disappoints Satan.”
Jesus promised happiness or blessedness to all who are merciful. So, what does that look like in life?
The Meaning of Mercy
Mercy was a rare commodity in Jesus’ day. Among the religious, Pharisees were often judgmental and rarely merciful. In society, most viewed acts of mercy as signs of weakness. One popular Roman philosopher called mercy the “disease of the soul.”
However, Jesus was the perfect example of mercy fleshed-out. He constantly reached out to heal the sick, restore hearing and sight, and even raised the dead to life. Hated tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners felt welcome with Him and found in Him full forgiveness and mercy. Jesus is described as a “merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God” so He could make perfect “reconciliation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).
When Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful,” He was portraying His followers as givers, not takers. True disciples of Christ are merciful—not critical. They are concerned about feeding the hungry, comforting the bereaved, accepting the rejected, forgiving the offender, and standing beside the lonely. And above all, God promises blessing to the merciful.
The Practice of Mercy
In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, he quotes Jesus commanding His followers to, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). It is not enough to feel sympathy or compassion for others, Christians must show mercy, through outward, physical actions.
James brings this truth home by writing: “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” (James 2:15, 16).
The words of John are even more convicting: “Whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:17, 18).
Jesus plainly taught His followers to practice mercy when He gave the parable of the Good Samaritan. Of all who passed by the man in need on the Jericho Road, it was the despised Samaritan who was a true “neighbor” and manifested compassion in mercy (Luke 10:25-37).
The Results of Mercy
Not all who have received mercy show mercy to others. But this lack of response carries a high price: “For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Jesus taught this truth in the parable of the unmerciful debtor (Matthew 18:23-35). Though the master of a slave graciously forgave his enormous debt, the pardoned slave showed no mercy as he demanded a small debt be repaid from a fellow slave. The debt of the unmerciful slave was reinstated.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful…for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Because we have received mercy—we should show mercy to others. When we do, we are blessed: “The merciful man does good to his own soul” (Proverbs 11:17).
Salvation and heaven itself is a result of God’s mercy. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us” (Titus 3:5). As we rejoice in accepting God’s mercy—let us be quick to forgive and dispense mercy to any who sin against us, because: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”