This morning we continue our study in the gospel of Matthew. We’ve come to the Sermon on the Mount, and we’re looking at the opening passage, called the Beatitudes, where Jesus tells us about the behaviors and blessings that characterize those who are devoted to Him.
Matthew 5:1 And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. 2 Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
We turn our attention this morning to the fifth and sixth beatitudes, those dealing with mercy and purity of heart.
We begin as we have done before by defining our terms, because mercy is one those ideas that is kind of squishy in the minds of many people. It sounds like a good thing, we have a favorable reaction when we hear the word, but how does mercy differ from compassion? Or grace? Is it something you show or something you do? What does it mean to be merciful and what kind of mercy will those who are merciful receive?
One way to define mercy is: pity plus action to relieve misery. It’s more than just sympathy. You don’t simply feel bad for the person; you do something to help.
You see someone in need so you stop what you’re doing, take from what you have, and help the other person. This is the story of the Good Samaritan – he saw someone in need, someone who had been assaulted and robbed, and he stopped what he was doing and went to help a stranger, someone he had never met, someone he had no obligation to. And then, he took the injured the man to a place where he could rest and heal and the Samaritan paid the bill. He showed mercy.
Jesus commends that example to us – He says we should be merciful like this – it’s the concept of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you were in need you would want someone to show mercy, to come to you and help.
But not only does Jesus commend the example to us, He demonstrates it for us. When you read through the gospels, the biographies of Jesus, you find people in need coming to Jesus all the time saying “have mercy on me.” They knew they were in need, and they thought He could help, so they asked for mercy and He showed it time and time again. If you are in need today, I want to encourage you – come to God and ask for mercy. The Psalms tell us He is, “merciful and gracious, Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.” (Ps 103:8)
This compassionate, giving, helping side of mercy is often extended to victims of crime or disaster, or those with injuries or illnesses. Something from the outside has smashed into their life and they need assistance. They need more than pity; they need pity plus action. They need mercy.
But there is another side of mercy, which applies to people who have brought a situation upon themselves. This is the side of mercy which is concerned primarily with forgiveness and clemency. You have done wrong. You are at fault. And punishment is due. But instead of receiving what you deserve, you receive something lesser or nothing at all. You receive mercy.
Friends, if you have to choose between the two, this is one you want. You can endure all kinds of physical discomfort, suffering or inconvenience. You can endure an injury or illness or physical poverty, the loss of a job, loss of reputation or status. But you cannot endure the penalty that is due to a guilty soul.
This is why one of the most important things for us to know about God is that He is merciful. God is holy, and we are not. We do things we should not do, and we don’t do things we should. Even when we try really, really hard, we can’t always do or stop doing the things that we hope for, and in the process we break God’s rules or we come short of His standards. If God were fair, none of us would ever measure up.
And God knows that, so, in mercy, He stoops down to us. But He doesn’t have to! You have to understand that. God doesn’t have to come down to you.
If you see some bright and shiny thing out there in the world, something you absolutely fall in love with and have to have, no merchant is under any obligation to lower the price to where you can actually afford it. No one has to make the phone you want at the price you want. No one has to make the car you want at the price you want. Or the boots, or the jeans, or the golf clubs, or whatever it is you want. No one has to lower their price to something you can afford just so you can have what you want.
And, God doesn’t have to help you achieve innocence. He doesn’t owe you forgiveness or mercy. But, in Christ, He grants it to you because He wants to, because He is kind, and merciful, and benevolent to those who will acknowledge their guilt and sin and shame and come to Him for cleansing.
Did you know that? Did you know that God can actually wash your life clean? Where else are you going to go to launder your soul? Where are you going to go to get the stains out of your heart? We’ll talk about it more later, but you need to know, God can, and God will, cleanse anyone who comes to Him, because He is merciful.
And He has always been. When Adam and Eve sinned against Him for the very first time, He could have just wiped them out right then and there. But He didn’t. He showed mercy. He provided a temporary covering for their bodies and promised an eventual covering for their souls. He sent them out of the Garden of Eden, but gave them promises and hope for the future.
And through the years He showed mercy to their descendants, to people like Isaac and Jacob and later Moses and the nation of Israel. These people had favor with God, but it was always something He gave, never something they earned.
In fact, when God gave Moses the instructions for how to build a place of worship, how to build the tabernacle, He told Moses to build the Ark of the Covenant – a box, carried on poles, that would contain the Ten Commandments and other symbols of God’s relationship with the people.
The Ark was supposed to have two carved angels mounted on the lid and it was to be kept in the Holy of Holies, an inner sanctuary in the tabernacle where only the high priest could go and even He could only go in one day each year. But between the two angels, there was something called the mercy seat. And God said (Ex 25:22) “there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat.”
The positioning was important, and instructive. In the ark were the Ten Commandments, symbols of God’s law for the people – the list of behaviors that no one can actually keep. But above them, keeping the lid on them, was a seat of mercy as a throne of God. James provides a summary that many Christians are familiar with:
James 2:13 … Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Friends, this is absolutely essential stuff for you to know. Absolutely essential. Because we get a little confused on what mercy is. Our thinking gets a little squishy here, and if we are not rigorous in our thinking we blend leniency with mercy and the two are not the same.
Letting someone get away with something is not mercy. It is not mercy to just pretend something didn’t happen. It is not mercy to let your kids get away with bad behavior just because you don’t feel like imposing discipline or following up with your threat. That might be laziness, it might be weakness, you might just be a softy at heart. But that’s not mercy so don’t try to spiritualize it and pat your self on the back. It won’t sit right in your soul.
Mercy requires judgment. Mercy requires justice and justice must always come first. This is what makes mercy so powerful: you go through the process of seeing the guilt. You see the wrong that was done, you accept responsibility, you understand the penalty that is deserved, you understand that it SHOULD come, you stand there accused, guilty, condemned, none of your defenses or excuses or explanations could hold up. You are guilty. You are culpable. You deserve what comes next. But it doesn’t come. Mercy rushes in instead.
Friends, you cannot appreciate mercy unless you have felt guilt or shame first. This is why the tax collector was able to stand in the Temple, beating his chest, and pray “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13). He understood his true condition. He understood what he deserved, he saw himself for what he truly was and instead of trying to talk his way out of it, he begged for mercy.
That’s a really, really, good prayer. That’s a prayer you can pray. It’s a prayer we all need to pray – “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
And He will. But not at the expense of justice. God doesn’t just roll His eyes at our conduct and as if to say, “Whatever, come on.” and then pretend like it didn’t happen. No, He calls our sin, sin. And He expects us to do the same. But, here is the marvelous power of the cross: Jesus, who was fully righteous, innocent in every way, suffered the wrath of God for us. Jesus went to the cross to satisfy justice. And now God is able to look at our lives, look at the way we blow it, or miss it, or mess it all up and say, “All of your guilt and inadequacy is charged against the account of Jesus, and it has been paid for in full.” Justice is done.
But then, we receive mercy. It’s what Martin Luther called “the great exchange.” Jesus takes our shame and guilt and incompetence, and we receive His perfection and innocence, we put on the robes of His righteousness. God looks at us and sees His Son. Justice is done, and mercy flows – all at the cross of Christ.
Every single human being will stand before God one day and be judged. And in that moment, you will either try to explain away your guilt and misdeeds, or you will confess them but plead the cross of Christ. Justice will be done – the sin will be sentenced, but will you have to pay it yourself, or will you be pardoned through the blood of Christ while mercy escorts you into the Heavenly Gates?
It’s an important question to answer.
And it affects the here and now. Because if you know this is what God has done for you, you should be motivated to do this for others, to show the mercy you have received. That happens when you take action to help those who are suffering, to reduce the misery and discomfort of those who have had things happen to them. And that it happens when you show forgiveness and grace to those who have blown it, AFTER you call their sin by name so justice can be done.
But, we have said this before regarding each of the beatitudes and we must say it again – this is not naturally occurring behavior. The mercy Jesus is speaking of is not just part of your personality profile. You can’t confuse being soft or tender-hearted with being merciful in this sense. You need to be fired up; you need to seethe at injustice and all the wrong that happens in the world. But then show mercy anyway because this is what God demands of all of us.
Jesus tells this terrible story of a man who was forgiven a huge debt that he could never repay, but then later is caught demanding a lesser sum from someone who owed him. And when word got back to the man who had forgiven the larger debt, he had the man thrown in jail for being so vindictive. The point Jesus was making was: how can you receive mercy and then not show it yourself?
So we make this simple observation again: the fact that we are called to show mercy means we will be wronged. I can’t show mercy unless mercy is an option, and it’s not an option unless I have been wronged. Don’t expect a perfect life. Don’t expect an easy life. But expect that God will do for you exactly what He is calling you to do for others. So come, receive His mercy, and show it to others.
We move on to the next beatitude:
Matthew 5:8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
What we just said about mercy applies here as well – this is not a natural human behavior. No one has a pure heart by birth. And you know that’s true because every cute little baby will cry and fuss and scream to get their way. They don’t care about you; they don’t care about how tired you are or how much you want to sleep. They’re hungry or agitated and they want attention now! And as they grow, your precious little toddler will begin testing your boundaries. He or she will hear you say no, understand exactly what you’re talking about, look you in the eyes and do the opposite of what you just said.
How can that be? How can such a small child be so defiant? Well, it was the prophet Jeremiah who wrote:
Jer 17:9 “The heart is deceitful above all things,
And desperately wicked;
Who can know it?
Every one of us has a sin-soaked heart. We are full of selfishness and self-interest even if we believe we’re generally a “good person.” You may think you’re “good” but are you actually pure?
That’s God’s standard.
We all tend to have some things we make excuses and allowances for in our lives. Things we know aren’t right, but we explain them away or just don’t talk or think about them. That’s not purity.
Next week, we will have a bride walk down the aisle of this very room. Now, I haven’t seen her dress, but I can only imagine it is beautiful. Who knows how many other dresses she looked at before choosing this one? It will be stunning, no doubt. And though I can’t be sure, it would be reasonable to believe it’s white. Right now it’s probably hanging in a closet somewhere under a plastic covering to protect it, or maybe hanging somewhere ‘safe’ to air out and make sure it doesn’t get any wrinkles.
How do you think this bride-to-be would respond if she suddenly found a black ink stain on that dress?
Oh, not a huge one, something small. And nothing on the front, just maybe something on the side or the back.
How big of a flaw like that do you think she would be willing to overlook? How much could she dismiss as no big deal?
If she is like most brides, the answer would be: none at all. She’s not willing to tolerate ANY stains on her dress. She wants something absolutely pure.
Well, what about our hearts? How many black spots can be found in us? How much impurity are you willing to accept? How much do you think God will accept? What kind of bride would go spilling ink on her own dress? And yet that is exactly what we do when we allow impurity into our lives. When we drink from the filth of this world, when we allow images, or movies, or websites or songs or events into our lives. We get black spots on our souls and obscure our own vision of God.
Do you ever consider the fact that your personal sins nailed Jesus to the Cross? It wasn’t just the collective sins of mankind, but yours, or mine, alone, were enough. Do you realize that others are now in hell and will remain there forever, for the very same sins you’ve committed because they died in their impurity and never found cleansing in Christ?
So, why would you go back to the things of this world? Why would you go running after the things you are so tempted by, the things you think are so funny, the things you think are so intriguing or things you’re so curious about? Christian, flee from these things. Turn away from, throw out, destroy, anything in your life that is assaulting your purity and obscuring your ability to see God.
Is it possible that you are praying for guidance, looking for answers, needing God to show up in your life in a specific way and you can’t see or hear Him because of some impurity that you have brought into yourself?
Do you find yourself, right now, today, desiring to be closer to God, to see more of Him, or is your impurity making you lukewarm, so that it’s honestly not that big of a deal to you, it’s not something you’re really concerned about? If that’s you, if that describes you, if you’re not really feeling the weight of all of this – my friend, I have to ask the question: how do you know you’re saved?
Remember, the behaviors Jesus puts forward here in the beatitudes are the behaviors that He is developing in all those who follow Him. This is what we are all headed toward. Every day of our Christian life we are progressing in poverty of spirit, in mourning & meekness, growing increasingly hungry and thirsty for righteousness, showing mercy, desiring purity, making peace and passing through persecution for it all until we arrive on eternity’s shore.
Is this the desire you find in your own heart? Do you WANT to be pure? Paul explains the gospel to Titus like this:
Titus 3:4 … when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, … according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Friend, do you need to receive the mercy of God today? Do you need to be washed, regenerated, and renewed by the Holy Spirit? He will pour all of this out on you abundantly through Jesus Christ. And it never runs out. There is no stain in your life that God cannot remove, there is no impurity that He cannot forgive, heal, and cover. But will you bring your heart to Him and ask Him to treat it? And what might you see if you pursue purity over popularity or passion or pornography?
Matthew 5:8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
I want to point out something very important here. The blessing is promised to those who are pure in heart. That means pure in your desires. Pure in your wants. Pure in your plans and goals and the direction of your life. Pure in what you focus on.
But let’s address something very important. Some of you have spent a season or an entire career working in law enforcement, or the military, or the intelligence field, or in medicine, or you have grown up around things you wish you had never seen or experienced. You have impurities and scars in your mind and they infect your thoughts and your dreams at night. You see things, you remember things, that you wish you could forget. Things you wish had never happened or you had never been exposed to.
And here is where I want to say again: this beatitude is speaking about the pure in heart. You have spots of sickness and darkness in your mind, yes. But are they in your heart? Don’t confuse the two.
As I have been studying this passage this week I believe God wants me to communicate to you that He does not hold you accountable for what you have endured.
There is a difference between seeking out things that will feed your flesh and lead you away from God and being polluted by the things of this world because of the evil that exists here.
And you need to know that there is a cleansing that we put on – we put on the righteousness of Christ, we wrap it around us. But there is also a cleansing that comes from within. God has the ability to drive things out of us. Can you imagine the hands of Christ reaching down into the folds of your brain and gently washing away all the junk, wiping out the control it has had over you? It can happen. There is no impurity that God cannot get out. And there is a difference between the things you have taken into yourself and the things that have splashed onto you from the outside.
This fallen world full of sin needs homicide detectives, we need narcotics officers, we need intel analysts and sensor operators, we need trigger-pullers and emergency room nurses, we need counselors and prosecutors and polygraph operators. And if that is what God has called you to be, you’re going to get some filth spewed on you. I’m sorry about that.
But I’m also grateful that you do what you do. I want my family to know you’re there, pushing back against the darkness of this world, picking up the pieces when things are shattered. I want to rest at night knowing that God has put you there as part of the flotation device that keeps us all from going under.
And God wants you to know, there’s a difference between the impurities that splash up on you in the course of following Him and the filth you get on yourself by indulging your selfish desires.
Matthew 5:8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
You will see Him in His creation, you will see Him in His Word, you will see Him in the life of Christ, you will see Him here in the church – His body, and one day you will see Him face to face.
In the very last chapter of the Bible we find this description of Heaven:
Rev 22:3 And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. 4 They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. 5 There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever.