Reflections on Mercy

I’ve been thinking about mercy. It’s a beautiful thing to consider, and God’s mercy is described throughout the Bible, sometimes translated as love, compassion, or pity. It is usually synonymous with forgiveness. Another beautiful word.

Grace and mercy are two sides of the same coin. Grace is when we receive something good that we don’t deserve. Mercy is when we are released from a bad consequence that we do deserve.

As I was thinking, I recalled that mercy is the theme of a famous Shakespeare speech, so I investigated. The play is “The Merchant of Venice”. The merchant’s name is Antonio and he guarantees a loan agreement that his friend makes with a Jewish moneylender called Shylock. A contract is drawn up stating that if the loan is not repaid on time Shylock will take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. After some merchant ships are lost at sea the loan defaults, and Shylock takes Antonio to court to seek justice. Portia, a wealthy heiress who has promised to marry Antonio’s friend, disguises herself as a lawyer and makes this plea to Shylock:

The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

Some critics have suggested that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock is anti-semitic. There are arguments for and against this view, but I don’t want to get into that debate. Instead I think it’s interesting to compare the ‘Old Testament’ ideas of law and justice as demonstrated by Shylock, with the ‘New Testament’ focus on grace and mercy pleaded by Portia.

You can see several scriptural references in this speech:

“It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

Matthew 5:7 (NIV)

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

“It is an attribute to God himself.”

Daniel 9:9 (NIV)

The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him.

“We do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy.”

Matthew 6:12 (NIV)

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

King David referred often to God’s mercy in his psalms, for a typical example let’s look at Psalm 6.

Psalm 6 (NIV)

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath. Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love. Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes. Away from me, all you who do evil, for the Lord has heard my weeping. The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer. All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish; they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.

I have a problem with some psalms. I find that often they will be 90% spot on with insight into my own hopes, fears, feelings and prayers, and then David will throw in a couple of lines asking for, or promising, revenge and dire consequences for his enemies. I’m uncomfortable with those lines because they don’t seem to line up with Jesus’ instruction to love your enemies. I’m sure that all of us have harboured some small yearning for revenge – or justice – at times. I just don’t like to see it expressed so bluntly in the Bible – and by a man after God’s own heart.

But when I look at scripture in totality, it seems clear to me that God wants to see forgiveness in our hearts, not vengeance. Mercy is one of those gifts that is not only lavished on us from above, but is expected from us in our relationships.

Micah 6:6-8 (NIV)

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

But should we expect mercy with ‘no strings attached?’ Is that what God promises us? No.

Proverbs 28:13 (NIV)

Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.

The one who confesses and renounces their sins will find mercy. A principle also found in first John:

1 John 1:9 (NIV)

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

Yet we know, even on a human level, it is possible to forgive someone who hasn’t confessed or repented. We’ve all done it – even non-believers. So is that true forgiveness? Is that real mercy? Or are we deluding ourselves, clothing ourselves in self-righteousness?

Thinking again about The Merchant of Venice, even after Portia pleads for mercy Shylock insists on receiving his justice, and the law cannot deny him. However, Portia then insists that Shylock sticks rigidly to the letter of his contract. He must take flesh, and not blood – if a drop of Christian blood is spilled then all of his goods will be forfeit under the law of Venice. He cannot take any more or less than one pound, or the same penalty will be due. When Shylock finally gives up his claim he is charged with threatening to kill a citizen of Venice and his sentence is death. His life is spared by the Duke, in his mercy.

We can see the parallels in our own lives, as God’s law shows us the depth of our own sin, and justice would demand a death sentence. Yet our lives our spared by the Lord, in His mercy, through the atoning sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ.

Titus 3:3-7 (NIV)

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

James 2:8-13 (NIV)

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

So why does He do it? Why does God show us such undeserved mercy? Because He said He would. Because He loves us. Because much of the time we know not what we do. And because He is giving us a reason to show the same mercy to others.

1 Timothy 1:12-16 (NIV)

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.

Amen.

How Much Can I Get Away With And Still Go To Heaven?

That dubious motto is emblazoned on a notice above my mother’s toilet. I think I’d be happier to see it flushed into the sewers, as it always makes for irritating reading. I suppose that before I was saved I could see the funny side, but no longer.

“Saved.” That’s the word on my mind, because I was taken aback, utterly astonished in fact, a few days ago, when my best friend announced that “being saved isn’t enough to get you into heaven.” I was shaken because I thought we were in general agreement in most matters of faith, and certainly on such fundamental principles, but what she was saying was completely wrong to my mind. For some time I was unable to even articulate my argument against her proposition. It was just too obvious to even need an explanation.

Of course, things are rarely if ever that obvious, otherwise disagreements and misunderstandings would be far less common in this world. I’m pleased to say that a couple of days later when we talked about what we each meant, we found the common ground I had hoped for.

The crux of my friend’s point was this: that if you say you are saved, but there is no evidence of it in your life – no change in your attitude to sin, no desire to preach the gospel, no change in your behaviour – then what you are saying is worthless. This is effectively the same as saying “faith without works is dead.”

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe – and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:13-26 NKJV)

This is true. When you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord – and Saviour – you are changed, and you have a new desire to follow Him and imitate Him. The Holy Spirit dwells in you and you listen to His voice. His seed is sown in you and you bear fruit.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)

My own argument was coming from the other side, discounting works because in themselves they don’t save us.

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:4-10)

And further to this, I don’t believe that you can ‘lose’ your salvation. I believe it is assured, in the words of Jesus.

“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.” (John 10:27-28)

The words of my Lord Jesus make very clear, and very simple, how I get to heaven.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)

That is salvation. The only question is, when somebody says they believe in Jesus Christ, do they actually mean it? Do they actually believe in Him in their hearts? If they do then their salvation, and their eternal life with Him in heaven, is guaranteed. At the same time they will show evidence of Christ in them during the remainder of their earthly life.

None of us reach perfection, but we seek it. We run the race of faith, and though we stumble we keep running, like a toddler running to his Daddy. We just want to please Him, and abide with Him. And the real joy is we know that we will – and that we do.

A Commentary on Paul’s Epistle to Philemon

Yesterday evening it was my privilege to lead our small group in a study of the book of Philemon. I must have read the book a couple of times before, when I’ve completed Bible reading plans, but it hadn’t stuck in my mind, so when I started preparing for the small group study it was like the first time. And I admit that after my first read-through I thought “Is that it? What is this book saying that can’t be found elsewhere? What was the point of including this as canon?” But then as I read the text more carefully, and the accompanying commentaries, I saw depths of meaning that impressed me greatly. I know that many of my brothers in Christ felt the same yesterday, so today I want to talk about the book – in my own words as much as I can, but leaning heavily on commentaries such as the NKJV Study Bible, Reformation Study Bible, and the IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Many of these resources can be accessed freely on Bible Gateway. I am also indebted to my friends who offered their own insights, some of which weren’t found in any of the experts’ notes, but which are equally valid in my eyes. I will include the full text of the book from the American Standard Version, which is in the public domain worldwide.

The Epistle To Philemon

1 – Background Information

There is some debate amongst scholars regarding the time and place where the Epistle to Philemon was written. The general consensus is that it was written by the apostle Paul around 60AD from prison in Rome. It should be understood that the form of prison Paul was subjected to at this time was more like house arrest – see Acts 28:16. So he would have been able to receive visitors, including a man called Onesimus, a slave who had escaped from his master, Philemon.

At that time in Roman society a usual punishment for a runaway slave was death. However, Onesimus converted to Christianity through Paul’s ministry, as Philemon had also done previously, and Paul urges Onesimus to return to his master, sending with him this letter in which he requests that Philemon accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ.

2 – The Greeting

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved and fellow-worker,

and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in thy house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

We should first note that Paul refers to himself immediately as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. This is a motif that will be repeated many times throughout the short letter. In fact he is both a prisoner of Christ in a spiritual sense, and for Christ in the physical. He mentions Timothy who is with him, and then addresses Philemon. Many of Paul’s letters are written to church communities as a whole, and indeed he does mention the church here, but the letter is in fact a very direct and personal one, and the intended audience is Philemon. Philemon is a wealthy man, a Roman citizen and slave-owner in the city of Colossae. His house is large enough to host a church (we do not know how large the church is). Of the other individuals mentioned in the greeting, it is believed that Apphia is Philemon’s wife, and Archippus may be their son. Archippus is likely the pastor of the church. Paul’s greeting – “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” – is quite standard for him, but nevertheless it is deeply reassuring, and a verse that is worth meditating on often. It includes the Greek charos, or grace, and the Jewish eirene shalom, or peace, and so articulates that both Greeks and Jews are welcome in the Lord’s family.

3 – Paul’s Thanksgiving and Prayer

I thank my God always, making mention of thee in my prayers,

hearing of thy love, and of the faith which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all the saints;

Paul thanks God for Philemon. He knows that he is a man of great faith and love, and these are the qualities to which he will appeal later in his letter. His prayer here is an encouragement to Philemon.

that the fellowship of thy faith may become effectual, in the knowledge of every good thing which is in you, unto Christ.

For I had much joy and comfort in thy love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through thee, brother.

The word fellowship, sometimes translated partnership, is the Greek koinonia, referring to a community with a common and vital shared faith; and the word translated knowledge, or understanding, is epignosis – a knowledge acquired by experience. Through living a Christian life, we can attain a deeper knowledge of Christ. Another interesting word Paul uses here is translated most often as heart(s). The word is splanchna, which actually means guts. This expresses well the visceral nature of the compassion stirred in the people of God by Philemon. The word splanchna is used twice more in later verses.

4 – Paul’s Plea for Onesimus

Wherefore, though I have all boldness in Christ to enjoin thee that which is befitting,

yet for love’s sake I rather beseech, being such a one as Paul the aged, and now a prisoner also of Christ Jesus:

Paul now says that he could command Philemon to do what is right in God’s eyes. But he will not command, instead, in love, he appeals, he requests. There is a subtle sting in the tale of this request though. Paul refers to himself not only as a prisoner again, but as an old man, Paul the aged. The culture of that time is one where the request of an elderly man should be granted or the person denying it would be shamed. This is not the last time that Paul will use both a carrot and a stick in his approach to the slave-master.

10 I beseech thee for my child, whom I have begotten in my bonds, Onesimus,

11 who once was unprofitable to thee, but now is profitable to thee and to me:

Finally, Onesimus is brought into the plea. Notice that he is not referred to as Philemon’s slave, but as Paul’s child. This is of utmost importance. As the man responsible, through God’s grace, for Onesimus’s conversion, Paul is his spiritual father. The same could be said of Paul’s relationship to Philemon, so in a very real sense, Paul is saying that the two are brothers. Paul also uses a pun in verse 11. The name Onesimus means usefulbeneficial or profitable. As a slave who has escaped from his master, and possibly stolen from him too, Onesimus had certainly shown himself to be unprofitable. But now he is a new creation in Christ and can live up to his name.

Scholars have some disagreement around the name of Onesimus. On the one hand, some suggest that he acquired the name after his conversion, as Saul acquired Paul. However others note that Onesimus is actually quite a common name for Roman slaves, so it is likely that it is the one he was born with, or at least given at a much earlier date. But whatever the truth of his name’s origin, there is no doubt about its aptness.

We can see echoes of Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son in the way Onesimus is intending to return to Philemon. Paul wants him to be received with joy, as we will read later.

Onesimus’s usefulness is expanded upon as Paul continues.

12 whom I have sent back to thee in his own person, that is, my very heart:

13 whom I would fain have kept with me, that in thy behalf he might minister unto me in the bonds of the gospel:

Paul describes Onesimus as his very heart, his splanchna. He would like to have kept him rather than return him to Philemon, because he has been so compassionate and encouraging to Paul. It is clear that Onesimus has qualities that will be of great benefit to the church.

14 but without thy mind I would do nothing; that thy goodness should not be as of necessity, but of free will.

15 For perhaps he was therefore parted from thee for a season, that thou shouldest have him for ever;

16 no longer as a servant, but more than a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much rather to thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Here, the appeal is made explicit. Again Paul refuses to coerce Philemon, instead insisting that the decision must be made by his free will. Verse 15 recalls Genesis 50:20, where the evil plans of Joseph’s brothers were used for good by God. There is a definite suggestion in the word translated perhaps, which is tacha, used sometimes in Jewish literature to introduce a divine explanation. Also in this verse, Paul compares the temporal nature of Onesimus’s disobedience and escape with the eternal bond he and Philemon will share in Christ. The bond is described beautifully in verse 16.

17 If then thou countest me a partner, receive him as myself.

Paul emphasises here that Onesimus is an equal to both him and Philemon, and that Philemon should receive him as such.

At this point it is worth recalling James 2 and the truth that faith without works is dead. Paul has extolled Philemon for his faith, but it is necessary for that faith to be put into action. The idea of accepting a runaway slave back as a brother is so utterly counter-cultural in Roman society, that it could have wide-reaching ramifications in the whole community. It is hard for us to imagine how difficult it would be for Philemon to grant Paul’s request. But what an amazing example of Christian forgiveness and restoration it would demonstrate.

18 But if he hath wronged thee at all, or oweth thee aught, put that to mine account;

19 I Paul write it with mine own hand, I will repay it: that I say not unto thee that thou owest to me even thine own self besides.

And as an amazing example of Christ-mindedness, these verses are hard to top. Just as Christ who was without sin, became sin for us and paid the price for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), so Paul offers to pay all that Philemon may be owed for Onesimus’s past sin. he is determined that Onesimus’s account should be cleared and that he should be accepted as a new man. The last half of verse 19 can be read in many ways. It sounds like a veiled threat, that Philemon owes Paul his very self. But is it not true that as Christian brothers and sisters we do indeed owe everything to each other? We should be willing to make any sacrifice – greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).

20 Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my heart in Christ.

21 Having confidence in thine obedience I write unto thee, knowing that thou wilt do even beyond what I say.

Paul speaks of the joy Philemon’s right response will give him. We must remember that Paul is imprisoned. As encouraging as his letters are to their recipients, and as strong as Paul’s faith is, there must be times when his spirit weakens. He must have both good and bad days, and he needs encouragement to lift his spirit, just as we all do from time to time. What an encouragement it will be to Paul, for Philemon to receive Onesimus as his beloved brother. And Paul is so confident that this will happen – even more than he asks. There could be no reason for Paul to use that phrase except that he utterly believes it to be true. This is the final confirmation of Paul’s trust in Philemon’s faith and love.

22 But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I hope that through your prayers I shall be granted unto you.

But just in case Philemon is in any doubt of his own ability to grant Paul’s request, here we have a last push from the apostle. Asking for a guest room to be prepared, because he hopes to be released from prison, and will visit to see how everything has turned out.

5 – Farewell

23 Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus, saluteth thee;

24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow-workers.

25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

Paul ends his letter with greetings from fellow Christians who are with him in Rome, and a graceful benediction. As an aside, it is sad to note that Demas, who is mentioned here amongst the fellow workers, later abandoned Paul after he found that he ‘loved the world’, see 2 Timothy 4.

6 – Epilogue

The survival of this letter and other evidence suggests that Onesimus did indeed deliver it to Philemon and was accepted by him. His ultimate fate is not certain, but it is possible that he is the same Onesimus who later became bishop of Ephesus.

The Epistle to Philemon was used by both sides in the abolitionist debate of the 18th to 19th centuries, wrongly in my mind because Paul does not make judgements on either side. One thing is clear in this and other writings of his, though, and that is that he expects slaves to be treated as equal human beings, with respect and compassion, and that is certainly not the way they were treated in the Western slave trade at that time, or in modern slavery that continues today in India and elsewhere. We should always consider scripture through the lens of the culture it is being written in, and in this respect Paul is a radical thinker by any measure.

But this letter is not about slavery, it is about relationships. It is about forgiveness and restoration. It is about faith and love. It is about doing what is right for our Lord Jesus Christ when the world around us wants us to do the opposite.