“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”—Matthew 5:7
It’s fascinating how the virtues in the Beatitudes are balanced with the promise that attends them. There tends to be a relationship between the virtue and the reward that is to be given to those who demonstrate that virtue. Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness are promised that they will be satisfied. Those who mourn are promised comfort. Those who are meek—that is, those willing to accept the providence that they have in this world—will inherit the earth.
In verse 7, there is the same kind of proportionality between virtue and promise: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” This is both comforting and frightening. It is not an unusual teaching from Jesus; He taught this sort of thing frequently. Even in the Lord’s Prayer, we are taught to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12), and later in the Sermon on the Mount, we’re told that the same measure by which we are merciful to others is the measure we can expect God to be merciful to us (Matt. 7:2). This is frightening because we tend not to be as merciful toward others as God is toward us.
Jesus illustrates the link between showing and receiving mercy in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:23–35). A man was indebted to his master for more than he could ever possibly pay, and so he begged his master for mercy. His master had pity and forgave the debt. But then the servant turned right around and demanded from another man what he was owed, a very small amount of money. In this parable, Jesus shows the incongruity of receiving a tremendous amount of divine mercy while being miserly in dispensing grace and mercy on a human level. The promise of mercy is often linked to the command to be merciful—and we who have received the greatest mercy from God are the ones who should be the most merciful toward others.
In the gospel of John, we find the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11). The Pharisees took this woman in her total shame and embarrassment and dragged her into the temple. Their concern in this encounter had nothing to do with their zeal to maintain the purity of the law of Moses; they only wanted to trap Jesus, and this woman was just a pawn. Under Old Testament law, adultery was a capital offense, punishable by stoning, to be administered by the religious authorities. But the Israel of Jesus’ day was a conquered nation, occupied by Rome. One of the things that the Romans imposed upon conquered nations was Roman jurisprudence with respect to capital crimes: only Roman authorities could issue the death sentence and carry out an execution.
Here’s the trap: if Jesus were to say that the woman should be killed in order to uphold the Mosaic law, then the Pharisees would go to the Roman authorities and say that He was disobeying Roman law regarding capital punishment. But if He were to say not to execute her, He would be setting aside the commandments of the Jewish law, and the Pharisees would denounce Him as a heretic.
At first, Jesus didn’t respond. Instead, He started writing in the dust. John doesn’t tell us what He wrote. Then He said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (8:7). Then He stooped down and wrote on the ground again. One by one, beginning with the oldest, the crowd dispersed.
It’s significant what Jesus did next. The woman had sinned, and Jewish law said to kill her, but Roman law said the Jews couldn’t kill her. The Son of Man had more authority than Moses and more than the emperor of Rome; if He wanted to execute this woman, He had the authority under God to do it. He did not ignore the Mosaic law. He agreed that her offense was a capital crime. And He appointed her executioner: “him who is without sin.” Was there anyone in that group who was without sin? There was one: Christ Himself. He had the authority and the power to execute that woman, and He didn’t do it.
In the end, Jesus was left alone with the woman. He said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” (v. 10). And she said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (v. 11). He did not declare her innocent or tell her not to feel guilty. There had been real sin, and Jesus didn’t treat that sin lightly. But He addressed her with dignity and treated her with gentleness, kindness, and sensitivity. She was broken and humbled before Christ. He didn’t give her justice; He gave her mercy.
There are many occasions when we quickly, abruptly, unthinkingly reach for the stone pile, forgetting that we are not without sin. Jesus was without sin, but instead of administering justice to this woman, He administered mercy. This story is a microcosm of how we all are in the presence of God, because we have all committed adultery in the sight of God. By worshiping other gods, we have betrayed our Beloved. The church is the bride of Christ, and the church is an adulterer.
The only way we can hope to stay in His presence is if He deals with us in the same way He dealt with that woman. He was merciful, and it’s because of His mercy that we can live at all. It’s by the grace of God that we continue to breathe in this world. That’s why Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” It should be easy for us to be merciful, because we live every moment of our lives on the basis of God’s mercy.
R. C. Sproul, How Can I Be Blessed?, First edition., vol. 24, The Crucial Questions Series (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust: A Division of Ligonier Ministries, 2016),