God’s Word greatly comforts those of us who believe in Christ. Simultaneously, we must admit that certain passages are frightening when we ponder their implications. Consider the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21–35, for example. In verse 35, Jesus says we will be condemned if we do not forgive those who sin against us and ask for mercy.
This passage is scary because we recognize how inconsistently we show mercy to others. We expect mercy from other people, but we hold grudges against those who wrong us. We forget that willingness to forgive others their trespasses is a sure sign of a forgiven heart that rests in Jesus alone for salvation (6:14–15).
Thanks be to God, for He shows mercy to us when we are not merciful to others. When we turn to Him in faith and repentance, He showers us with mercy. And when we are merciful to others in Jesus’ name, He tells us in today’s passage, we receive mercy from the Lord (5:7).
But what does it mean to show mercy? We turn to John 7:53–8:11 for the answer. In this passage, the scribes and the Pharisees test Jesus by using the woman caught in adultery. At first glance, our Lord appears to be in a no-win situation. If Christ explicitly agrees that the woman deserves death, the Pharisees can complain to the Roman authorities who prohibit first-century Judea from imposing the death penalty for such crimes. Essentially, they can accuse Jesus of sedition. But if He denies that death by stoning is the maximum penalty for adultery under the Mosaic law (Lev. 20:10), the Pharisees can charge Him with heresy for denying the Law.
Jesus’ response is fascinating. He agrees that execution is a proper sentence on the woman, for He never says, “You are wrong to think she deserves death.” Agreeing with the would-be executioners that the woman deserves death, He appoints the executioners — those who are without sin (John 8:7–8). None of the other men meet this bar, and so they turn away one by one (v. 9).
There is one man there without sin, however — the God-man Christ Jesus. Yet He shows mercy. Though it would be right for Him to execute her, Jesus does not do so. Instead of giving her justice on the spot, He gives her mercy (vv. 10–11).
Mercy does not deny that wrong has been done or make light of sin. Instead, mercy is forgiveness and patience extended to someone despite the fact that the person deserves only justice. This is an important principle in a day when many confuse mercy with winking at justice and righteousness. Let us never ignore justice, but may we also be quick to show mercy to those who have sinned against us and ask for our forgiveness.