1 Tim 1:12-17 ESV | Matt 18:23-35 ESV
As we saw last week, the writer of Hebrews (Heb 12:24 ESV) was keenly aware of the availability of mercy when he stated, we have come “to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
If the blood of the first prophet to suffer, Abel, cried out from the ground for vengeance the blood of Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of all prophetic witness, cries out with far greater authority for mercy and forgiveness.
Christians, whom Paul describes as “vessels of mercy” (Rom 9:23 ESV), should naturally be aware of the disproportion between grace and judgement (Rom 5:15-19 ESV).
This James’ point, “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13 ESV).
Once “children of wrath” (Eph 2:3 ESV) under terrible divine retribution we are now those who “have received mercy” (Rom 11:30 ESV) and continue the age-long prophetic conviction that God’s nature is always to have mercy.
In this world, judgement isn’t an end in itself but a preparation for mercy. Being aware of the nearness of the mercy of God is a pulse running through the Bible. It is tied to a knowledge of God’s heart, that the judgement and destruction of the wicked gives the Lord “no pleasure”.
This awareness is especially acute in the prophets, and perhaps most blatantly in the one prophet who didn’t agree with the Lord’s preference to forgive. The book of Jonah starts with God’s call to the prophet to “preach against” Nineveh for its wickedness (Jonah 1:1-2 ESV).
As we know, Jonah immediately headed away from Nineveh, because as he later explains, “I made haste to flee… for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and who relents from sending disaster.” (Jonah 4:2 ESV).
Whilst Jeremiah is a prophet of judgement so notorious that there’s even an English word, “jeremiad”, to sum up threatening’s against evil, he is also the prophet of the endless mercies of a coming new covenant (Jer 31:2, 9, 20, 31-34 ESV).
And in his tradition come the inspired words, vs.22 “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;vs.23they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lam 3:22-23 ESV).
Amos has 8 chapters of devastation, but he knows how to cry out for God to turn from afflicting his people, successfully, “ “O Lord God, please forgive! How can Israel stand? He is so small!” ” (Amos 7:2-3, 5-6 ESV). And God did relent. Amos ends with a prophecy about a sort of super-Edenic state (Amos 9:11-15 ESV).
Then there’s Isaiah who sees a new heaven’s, and earth emerging from cosmic judgement.
Habakkuk prophesies a terrible invasion when God visits the world with pestilence, plague, fire and fury (Habakkuk 3:5-16 ESV), but his prayer ascends above the desolation, “O Lord, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O Lord, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy.” (Habakkuk 3:2 ESV). John the Baptist is at the end of this line.
I was once moved to correct a pastor who preached that John was “harsh and legalistic”. For according to the scripture John came in “the tender mercy of our God” and his message to the crowds to “ “flee from the wrath to come” ” was a God-given opportunity to repent and receive forgiveness.
All these prophets, and others, such as Moses (Ex 32:30-34 ESV), were great intercessors because they knew God full of mercy (Jer 31:20 ESV) so that he never afflicts “from his heart” (Lam 3:33 ESV)
They all knew “mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13 ESV), but none of them knew exactly how. This tension between the crushing righteous judgment of the Lord and the “wideness in God’s mercy” was resolved in the life of Jesus.
In Jesus, there is always a victory of mercy beyond judgement.
This first becomes manifest at his baptism. vs.21 “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, vs.22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”” (Luke 3:21-22 ESV).
Jesus is immersed in waters that symbolise the destructive power of God’s judgement that came with the flood of Noah to cleanse the world from evil.
His immersion is prophetic of the judgement that will engulf him on the cross. But the “well pleased” of the Father speaks of the coming triumphant joy of resurrection life.
The dove descending on Jesus, like the dove that settled upon the earth after the flood of Noah (Gen 8:6-12 ESV), symbolises mercy beyond a coming flood of judgement. Christ’s vocation is to fulfil the ministry of all the prophets, he will take away judgement and issuing in the triumphant endless mercy of his Father. the true intent of divine judgement is shown in Jesus anger at those who denied to the needy.
In Mark 3 when the Pharisees are merciless about healing on the Sabbath Jesus became angry with them (Mark 3:5 ESV). Even more clearly is his teaching in the parable of the unforgiving servant, in which the master stands for God. vs.32 “Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.vs.33And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’vs.34And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers until he should pay all his debt.vs.35So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” ” (Matt 18:32-35 ESV).
The seemingly unforgivable sin is not idolatry, murder, adultery or some other grievous act but a lack of forgiveness.
Forgiving the undeserving image God’s mercy and unconditional mercy is what human beings need to deliver them from the threat of eternal judgement.
I remember some time ago a conversation with a church worker talking whose church they were trying to reach out to the unchurched by avoiding words like “sin”. Instead, they’d use something like “darkness”.
Our tendency is to make excuses for our rebellious humanity, but being sinless Jesus could see our predicament clearly and our extreme need for mercy.
The legalistic and merciless attitude of the Pharisees directly opposed the mercy and forgiveness of God reaching out to tenderly heal the sufferings of broken people. Jesus understood the profound interconnection between mercy and forgiveness because his destiny was the cross.
The cross is the final revelation of God’s righteous wrath and his infinite mercy at the same time. The cross is the standard of the Last Judgement in its exclusion and inclusion of sinners into the kingdom of God.
To quote, “The absolute ultimate judgment of the world took place in Christ’s death….the last standard…The last judgment is behind us. The true judgment-seat of Christ, where we must all appear, is the Cross… Christ… is eternal Judge in His great work as the Crucified, a work historic yet timeless and final. In Him… the absolute condemnation … and irreversible judgment was passed upon evil. There, too, the judgment of our sins fell once for all on the Holy One and the Just. The judgment Christ exercises stands on the judgment He endured … He assumes judgment because He absorbed it. ….” (P.T. Forsyth).
That the Last Judgement is completed in Jesus (cf. John 5:24 ESV) is a remarkably potent truth that was once impressed on my heart in a highly unusual way.
Arriving at Uluru by a car late in the afternoon, when night fell I was strongly directed by the Spirit to go and pray alone facing the Rock.
As I walked onwards, I could sense that demonic powers were watching, as the site is an ancient centre for Indigenous spirituality, and more recently the New Age. I could sense in the Spirit that many other Christians had prayed at the site before me and that some of them had prayed cursing instead of a blessing (Luke 6:28 ESV).
Arriving in sight of the Rock I found myself not praying, but repeatedly proclaiming to the spiritual world, “Judgement has been taken away.” In Christ, there is no more judgement. because the fullness of God’s mercy has already been expressed in him.
JUDGEMENT AND MERCY
The writers of the New Testament have a sharp and deep understanding of the mercy of God. As “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” Paul received mercy in an outpouring of grace to make known the unlimited mercies of God (1 Tim 1:12-17 ESV).
And so he extols the wealth of God’s mercy; “you… were by nature children of wrath… But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace, you have been saved” (Eph 2:1-5 ESV).
And there are many other verses that highlight divine mercy. But it’s the structure of the book of Romans that expounds the impetus of mercy for the Christian life; Romans shows that all God’s purposes, including his judgments, have his saving mercy in mind for humanity.
At the end of a very long argument beginning with how God in wrath hands all people over to the consequences of their sins, (Rom 1:18-32 ESV especially vv. 24, 26, 28), Paul concludes with, “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” (Rom 11:32 ESV).
This scripture is a tremendous encouragement to us in those times when the wickedness of the world threatens to depress us. With an inclusive understanding of the wideness of God’s mercy Paul goes on to exhort his readers, “I appeal to you, therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Rom 12:1 ESV).
Gratitude for the judgement removing mercies of predestination, adoption, justification, sanctification and so on that Paul has presented throughout Romans motivates Christian living. Periodically throughout Church history moves of God have been propelled by a revelation of this limitless mercy.
Tormented by a guilty conscience Luther went on an impassioned quest to find a merciful God. In his own words, “At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I turned to… the following words: “In it [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ ”
There I began to understand the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous live through a gift of God, namely by faith.
And this is the meaning: The righteousness of God which is revealed by the gospel is passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith… Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
Luther’s is an individual example, but as we see the strong hand of God coming heavier and heavier on our nation the Lord’s purpose is to intensify humility in all our hearts so that we might receive a revelation of both the necessity and availability of his mercy.
I believe that at the moment, an atmosphere of “cheap grace” in the churches is stifling such a revelation.
The letter of Jude combines communicates the sort of presence we need today, “But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” (Jude 1:20-23 ESV).
Jude’s confidence in the readiness of the Lord to show mercy is based on the revealed character of Christ, once judged for us and now coming back as Judge.
The mixture of fear and mercy before an imminent coming fiery judgment contrasts with prevalent church attitudes today where the sins of the flesh are either treated legalistically, the very opposite of mercy or treated as mere “mistakes”.
What we need instead is a revelation of the seriousness of sin settled once for all through the blood of the cross. This brings us to the topic of the Last Judgement.
“judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:13 ESV) is a theme that echoes throughout scripture.
We are in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, which were destroyed, not just for sexual depravity but for “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezek 16:48-50 ESV).
Hard as it may be to absorb, the prophetic parable of the sheep and the goats teaches that those who don’t feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and imprisoned are sent into “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:31-46 ESV).
There is a wideness in God’s mercy, but it cannot encompass the stubbornly merciless whose hardness of heart is a sign that they don’t have the love of God abiding in them (1 John 3:17 ESV). At the End the time for mercy is past. (Rev 14:9-11 ESV).
It has been argued that there are four stages of a society’s progressive descent into judgement, hardness, darkness , being handed over by God and public shamelessness.
If this is an accurate assessment our culture has reached the final stage.
A worldly society suffers under intensifying judgement so that scripture appeals to the Church, “ “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues”.
If we would avoid partaking of the judgement the world draws down on itself we must live radically different lives. Here’s an example.
The so-called Mother Teresa of Cairo, Mamma Maggie, was a wealthy university professor educating the elite. Then one day she visited “garbage city” where thousands of Coptic Christians recycle rubbish in an environment without clean water, schools, healthcare and a high infant mortality rate. Overpowered and nauseated she fled to a dark room asking God if he was a God of mercy and of love, how could he let this happen?
She says, “Later I felt that he was saying that it was my turn to do something about it.” Since then she has started St Stephen’s School and charity with 90 centres in Egypt that have assisted tens of thousands of needy people. Where do we see men and women suffering in need of God’s mercy, and what is he asking us to do about it?
Grace and mercy in time of need (Heb 4:16 ESV) are ours for in Christ we are vessels of mercy who can confidently ask God to bring pour forth mercy through own lives. As Daniel in exile knew that the Lord would show mercy on account of his prayers (Dan 9:9 ESV) and as Jesus in his petitions in Gethsemane had faith for a coming mercy beyond a time of judgement, through the gospel this can be our expectation.
The Lord will not abandon his people in this hour.
MESSAGE, DELIVERED: Date 16th June 2019 Location: Alive@5
Author: Dr. John Yates
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