The word “mercy” is thrown around a lot. It’s seen by many as just another church-y word, similar to grace, compassion, or forgiveness. When we think about the word mercy, images of a courtroom may come to mind. We think of people begging for mercy or forgiveness for something that they’ve done wrong. But is this the way God intended for us to understand mercy?

What is Mercy?

Biblically, showing mercy to others is so much more than forgiving someone else for an offense. Eliamosuna, the Greek word for merciful, presents a much wider definition of the word. “We think of mercy so much in terms of forgiveness in salvation, but it is really a much broader term,” writes pastor and author John MacArthur in The Only Way to Happiness: The Beatitudes. “It goes beyond compassion. It goes beyond sympathy. It means sympathy and compassion in action toward anyone in need.” He continues: 

“...the real eliamonsuna is not the weak sympathy that carnal selfishness feels but never does anything about. It is not that false mercy that indulges its own flesh in salving of conscience by giving tokenism. It is not the silent, passive pity that never seems to help in a tangible way. It is genuine compassion with a pure, unselfish motive that reaches out to help...Mercy is infinitely bigger than just forgiveness.” (p.133-135)

While mercy certainly shows up in Scripture as a noun, it is perhaps more commonly found as a verb. In Matthew 6, for example, it’s used to describe almsgiving, the act of giving financially to the poor and downtrodden. MacArthur notes that one Hebrew synonym for this action is chesed, which means “to have mercy on, to succor the afflicted, to give help to the wretched, and to rescue the miserable.” In fact, he says, “anything you do that is of benefit to someone in need is mercy” (p.133).

We also see mercy on full display in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. John Piper writes that this passage shows us that biblical mercy “sees distress,” “responds internally with a heart of compassion or pity toward a person in distress,” “responds externally with a practical effort to relieve the distress,” and “acts even when the person in distress is an enemy.”

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