The Love and Mercy of God Part Three
Previously we examined characteristics of God’s mercy or lovingkindness as revealed in the Old Testament. Now we will focus on God’s mercy in the New Testament.
New Testament Key Words for God’s Mercy
God’s mercy is expressed through three clusters of Greek words. The first cluster has as its base the Greek word eleos, which refers to the “emotion roused by contact with an affliction which comes undeservedly on someone else. There is in it an element of fear that this can happen”; therefore, there is “sympathy” for the victim.1
When Jewish scholars produced the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek prior to Christ’s birth, they usually used eleos for the Hebrew word hesed.2 Hesed was the key Old Testament word for God’s mercy or lovingkindness. (See this series in the September/October 2011 issue of Israel My Glory.)
Examining all the New Testament passages that use eleos prompts the conclusion that, although it is the key word for God’s mercy, it can also refer to “the sense of ‘pity’ or ‘sympathy’” and “can include ‘loving-kindness’ in general.”3
The base word of the second cluster is oiktirmos. It communicates “pity, mercy, compassion.”4
The third cluster’s base is splagxnon. In ancient Greek it referred to “the bowels” as “the seat of the emotions.” In modern Western literature, “the heart” replaces “the bowels” as “the seat and source of love, sympathy, and mercy”; thus the expression the merciful heart.5 Splagxnon is “a pointed term for personal love,”6 referring to the heart that is focused on a specific object of love.
The Relationship of God’s Love to His Mercy
The Bible reveals that God’s love prompted His mercy in both Old and New Testament times. The apostle Paul wrote,
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 (Eph. 2:4–6).
The root meaning of the word translated “rich” means “to be filled.”7 Because God’s love for people is so great, even when they are unsaved, He is filled with mercy toward them.
God’s Mercy As Expressed Through Eleos
In the New Testament, God’s eleos mercy “is often thought of as in the original OT sense of ‘faithfulness,’ i.e., the gracious faithfulness of God.”8
God’s Sovereign Authority Over the Administration of His Eleos Mercy. Shortly after God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, He brought them to Mount Sinai. There He established the Mosaic Law Covenant with them (Ex. 19— 24). Through that covenant He entered into a unique relationship with them that guaranteed the fulfillment of the promises He had made earlier to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through the Abrahamic Covenant.
While at Mount Sinai, the Israelites seriously violated the Mosaic Law Covenant by making a golden calf to worship as a false god, thereby angering God (Ex. 32:1–10).
God could have destroyed them and been unfaithful to the everlasting commitment He had made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their biological descendants through the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 13:14–15; 15:13–21; 17:7–8, 19; 28:10–15; 35:9–12). But in order to be faithful to that commitment, God sovereignly determined to give mercy, rather than judgment, to the people of Israel.
The situation demonstrated clearly a divine principle that God expressed later to Moses: “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy” (Rom. 9:15; cf. Ex. 33:19). The apostle Paul rendered the following conclusion: “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy” (Rom. 9:16). Paul thus indicated that God’s mercy is not prompted by human determination or effort. It is determined exclusively by God’s sovereign authority.
God’s Eleos Mercy Related to the Births of the Messiah and His Forerunner. For many centuries the Israelites were oppressed by Gentile powers: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. Through Old Testament prophets, God revealed that, in the future, He would free the Jewish people from Gentile bondage; and He would do so through a promised Messiah. The Messiah would be a biological descendant of King David (Isa. 11:1), be born of a virgin (7:14), and be God’s Son (9:6; Ps. 2:7). He would have an Elijah-like forerunner (Mal. 4:5–6), crush Gentile rule (Ps. 2:8–9; Dan. 2:44–45; Zech. 14:1–4, 12–15), and sit on the throne of David to govern the world (Ps. 72:8–11, 17; Isa. 2:1–4; 9:6–7; 11:1–5).
The New Testament records the fact that God faithfully gave the Israelites the promised Messiah and His Elijahlike forerunner as acts of mercy.
God sent the angel Gabriel to elderly Zacharias, a priest of Israel, to tell him his elderly wife, Elizabeth, would give birth to a son named John. John would be “great in the sight of the Lord” and “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Lk. 1:15). He would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” and would “go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah” (vv. 16–17).
Several months later God sent the angel Gabriel to a young Jewish woman named Mary (Hebrew, Miriam), who was related to Elizabeth. Mary was a virgin (vv. 26–27). Gabriel told her she had found favor with God and He would supernaturally cause conception to take place in her womb. As a result, she would give birth to a holy son who would be called the Son of God and would have the name of Jesus (Hebrew, Yeshua, meaning “salvation.”) In addition, God will give Him “the throne of His father David” (v. 32), He will reign over “the house of Jacob” forever, and of His Kingdom there will be no end (v. 33). (See Luke 3:23–31.)
Mary recognized the favor God bestowed on her was associated with His mercy. She declared,
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever (1:46–55).
When Elizabeth gave birth to John, “her neighbors and relatives heard how the Lord had shown great mercy to her”; and “they rejoiced with her” (v. 58).
In light of what God did to bring the promised Messiah and His forerunner to Israel through the virgin Mary and her relative Elizabeth, the Holy Spirit filled Zacharias, the forerunner’s father, and enabled him to prophesy the following message:
Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, who have been since the world began, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, to perform the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to our father Abraham: to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (vv. 68–79).
- Rudolf Bultmann, “eleos,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (hereafter cited as TDNT), ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans./ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, translated from Theologisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 2:477.
- Ibid., 479.
- Ibid., 483.
- William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, eds./trans., “oiktirmos,” A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (1952: translation and adaptation of Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-Deutsches Worterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der ubrigen urchristlichen Literatur, 4th ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 564.
- Ibid., “splagxnon,” 770.
- Helmut Koster, “splagxnon,” TDNT, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, trans./ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 7:556.
- Friedrich Hauck and Wilhelm Kasch, “pluotos,” TDNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 6:319.
- Bultmann, “eleos,” TDNT, 2:483.