Mercy, Grace, and Gratitude

June 27, 2021 Speaker: Jeff Breeding Series: The Gospel according to Luke

Passage: Luke 17:11–19

Mercy, Grace, and Gratitude

To set the stage for Luke 17, I’d like you to think with me about the OT – Psalm 116, in particular. Psalm 116 celebrates the unfailing mercy of God, and throughout the psalm, the psalmist remembers how his life was close to death. “The snares of death encompassed me,” the psalmist says. But “our God is merciful,” he remembers. It is a very moving meditation on what God has done.

Toward the end of the psalm, the psalmist asks what I consider to be the key question of his meditation – the question that connects with Luke 17. The psalmist asks, “What shall I render to the LORD for all his benefits to me?” In other words, what shall I do to honor you, God? How can I ever repay the debt that I owe you?

A few verses later, we hear his answer – “I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the LORD.” The sacrifice of thanksgiving – that is what the psalmist can render to God. He cannot pay God back. He cannot return the blessing he has received. The one thing the psalmist can do is thank God. The one thing he can do is offer from his heart the grateful praise of one who knows he has received mercy.

Our passage today in Luke 17 is a living illustration of that sacrifice of thanksgiving. Here in these verses, we witness an unlikely convert offer unexpected gratitude to an unthinkably merciful Savior. As you heard in our reading, ten lepers are cleansed by Jesus, and ten lepers go to the priest to make the necessary arrangements and sacrifices. But only one leper returns with the most important response. Only one leper returns with the sacrifice of thanksgiving. And this one leper is not a religiously observant Jew. He’s a Samaritan. It’s a stunning moment. A despised foreigner who was just moments ago ceremonially unclean – he, of all people, is the one who offers the right response to Jesus.

And that is the value of this passage, brothers and sisters. By focusing on such an unlikely figure, the Lord Jesus teaches us how we ought to respond to the mercy of God in our lives. As we witness this moment through the eyes of the Samaritan leper, we come to see, perhaps afresh, the profound mercy we have received from God. We appreciate again how compassionate Christ has been toward us. And then with that mercy fresh in our perspective, we’re moved to right response as well – the sacrifice of thanksgiving that magnifies the mercy of God in Christ.

So, here’s our plan for this morning. My aim is to stir our hearts with renewed thanksgiving for God’s mercy to us in Christ. In other words, the goal of this sermon is to increase our gratitude for the gospel. To do that, I’d like us to focus on three truths from the three movements of this scene. The first has to do with mercy and focuses on Christ. The second has to do with gratitude and focuses on the Samaritan leper. And the third has to do with faith and focuses on anyone who is hearing this passage from God’s Word. Mercy, gratitude, faith – that’s our plan.

The Powerful Mercy of the Savior

We begin, then, in vv11-14 with the Powerful Mercy of the Savior. As v11 reminds us, Jesus is still on the road to Jerusalem. He has been journeying toward the capital since chapter 9, and references to the city will increase over the next few chapters. That is not insignificant, friends. The repeated references to Jerusalem remind us that the cross is drawing ever closer. This is why Jesus has come. More than the miracles, more than the teaching, more than anything else, Jesus came to lay down his life. He came to bear the cross, and it is never far from his mind. That’s why Luke is so persistent with these travel notes. It’s not simply that Luke wants to keep us informed. It’s that he wants us to see the cross. To understand this man Jesus, you must understand him as the One who bears the cross. V11 reminds us of that. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem.

But at this point in the journey, Jesus is met by an unexpected and, for most people, unwelcome group. Notice again v12 – “And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance.” Leprosy in the Bible is used to describe a number of different skin conditions. The medical detail is not nearly as important as the social cost. To be a leper was to be an outcast. You had to live outside the community – away from your family, away from the synagogue, away from everything that once defined your life. In fact, to have leprosy was to receive a new identity – one that you did not want. Notice how these ten men are described in the passage. They’re not ten men who have leprosy. They’re ten lepers – that’s who they are, at least in the eyes of others. They are outcasts.

But these lepers are bold. They stand at a distance, as the Law required, and they cry out to Jesus. Notice their bold request, v13 – they “lifted up their voices, saying, ‘Master have mercy on us!’” Jesus, by this point, has a reputation for mighty deeds. We’ve seen that all through the Gospel, and these lepers have heard the report as well. They have heard about this man Jesus, and they believe that he is able to help them. And so, they cry out for mercy.

What is mercy, friends? It is the expression of compassion. It is a loving kind of pity – not that makes a person feel small or insignificant, but pity that enters into the person’s need in order to bring relief. But here’s the most important feature. Mercy is unexpected and unearned. You cannot show mercy out of obligation. You can only show mercy to the undeserving. You could even put it more strongly. Mercy can only be shown to those who have no ability to pay you back. Undeserved love – unexpected kindness – unearned compassion – friends, that is mercy according to the Bible.

So, when these lepers ask Christ for mercy, they are expressing, on some level, their dependence on the Lord for what they do not deserve. They are confessing to Jesus, “We cannot help ourselves! We are desperate, but we have nothing to offer you!” And in that sense, they believe that Jesus is greater than their leprosy. They believe that the power of Christ is greater than the depth of their need. They cry out for mercy, asking Jesus to heal them.

And Jesus responds. Notice the powerful mercy that is quietly displayed in v14 – “When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed.” Friends, there are two important things that happen in v14. For one, Jesus displays his submission to the Law. The Law of Moses required that a priest verify a person’s recovery from leprosy. Leviticus 13 contains the prescription, and it was the priest’s responsibility to verify a recovery. So, by sending the men to the priests, Jesus demonstrates his submission to the Law. He follows the Word of God.

But at the same time in v14, Jesus also displays his superiority to the Law. The lepers are cleansed as they go, Luke writes. In other words, it wasn’t the priest who cleansed them; it was Jesus. It wasn’t a sacrifice that provided the mercy; it was Jesus. Jesus does what the Law could not – he cleanses those who cannot cleanse themselves. Jesus shows mercy where the Law could not. The Law could provide protection against the spread of leprosy, but the Law could not cleanse leprosy. Jesus, on the other hand, cleanses the unclean. His mercy is not only available; it is powerful and able to heal.

And this brings us to the takeaway, friends. You might think that vv11-14 are calling us to be merciful like Jesus. “Be like Jesus,” we might say. “Be merciful to those in need.” And while that response is not wrong, it is also not the takeaway at this point. The call is not to be merciful like Jesus. No, the call is to recognize Jesus’ mercy to you, a sinner. Do you see it, brothers and sisters? This is a picture of Christ’s heart for sinners. We too were unclean and hopeless apart from Christ. We too were outcasts in God’s sight, separated from him in our sin. And yet, with powerful mercy, Christ has cleansed us by his word. Christ has shown compassion to us and given us the undeserved love of his gospel.

Think of that wonderful reversal that Paul describes in Ephesians 2. We were dead in our sins and trespasses, hopeless on our own. “But God,” Paul says, “being rich in” what? Mercy. God, being rich in mercy because of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive together with Christ. Those ten lepers are not simply a picture of Christ cleansing the ceremonially unclean. They’re also a reminder of God’s heart for sinners in the gospel. He cleanses those who cannot cleanse themselves. He saves those whose only hope is the mercy of God in Christ.

So, be encouraged, brothers and sisters. Whatever sin you bring to Christ, his mercy is powerful enough to cleanse you. No sin is too great for the mercy of God in Christ. The lepers of Luke 17 show us the powerful mercy of the Savior.

The Grateful Praise of the Redeemed

How should we respond? When we taste this powerful mercy of the Savior, what should we do? That’s where we turn next. In vv15-16, we see the Grateful Praise of the Redeemed.

One leper returns, Luke tells us, and he returns armed with the right perspective. Notice v15 – “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.” So, this man recognizes what has occurred. God has healed him. You can imagine the moment. Perhaps he looked down at his hands as he walked the road to Jerusalem and saw that his skin was now clear. Maybe he realized that his steps no longer hurt, or that his flesh no longer cracked with shots of pain. We don’t know precisely when, but at some point, as the man recognized that his body restored, he saw the truth. Only God could do such a thing. God had cleansed him. And so, the man turns back, praising God as he looks for Jesus.

And then something remarkable happens. It is one of those moments in the Gospels that is easy to overlook but is often full of significance. As the man praises God, he falls down at Jesus’ feet. Listen again, v16 – “and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan.” Friends, the connection between v15 and v16 is part of the mystery of the gospel. Do you see the connection? V15, the man is praising God, and then v16, the man gives thanks to Jesus. The connection is that God is working in and through Jesus. This Samaritan leper sees what so many in Israel refuse to see. He sees that Jesus is the One through whom God’s kingdom is coming. This is God’s Anointed One – the Samaritan sees that truth.

Now, at this point, someone might say, “But Jeff, there were miracles like this in the OT, and nobody made such a close connection between a prophet and God. Elisha, for example, cleansed Namaan of his leprosy, and nobody suggested that Elisha was the unique Anointed One sent from God. So, what makes Jesus unique?” That’s an excellent question. Let’s take that story from Elisha’s ministry as an example. I just read it in my Bible plan this week, so it’s fresh on my mind.

2 King 5 is the passage. Namaan the Syrian general is afflicted with leprosy, and he goes to see Elisha, the man of God in Israel. Elisha prescribes healing for Namaan. Do you remember how? Elisha told him to dip in the Jordan River seven times. Namaan begrudgingly did so, and he was healed. In God’s providence, the river was the mechanism of divine healing.

But what happens here in Luke 17? Jesus doesn’t use a river. Jesus uses his word. With only his command, Jesus heals the lepers. Do you see the difference, friends? The OT prophets mediated God’s power; Jesus embodies God’s power. The OT prophets spoke God’s word; Jesus is God’s Word made Flesh, for us and for our salvation. That’s why the progression from v15 to v16 is so significant. Praise to God and thanks to Jesus – it’s a stunning confession of the truth. Jesus receives what rightly belongs only to God. How is that possible? Because Jesus is God in the flesh.

This confession is all the more stunning considering who makes it. Luke is clear, v16 – “Now he was a Samaritan.” Jews hated Samaritans, considering them heretical deviants from the true faith. In fact, most Jews would go out of their way to avoid Samaritans all together. And yet, here we have a Samaritan offering the right response to Jesus. What the Pharisees won’t see, the Samaritan sees. What so many in Israel won’t do, the Samaritan does.

Friends, that is a reminder that God’s kingdom often comes in surprising ways. If you were writing the story of Jesus’ ministry, you would not pick Samaritans and tax collectors and outcasts as the exemplary figures. But that’s the kingdom of God, isn’t it? It comes in surprising ways. Indeed, everything about the kingdom is upside down. How do you save your life? By losing it. How do you demonstrate greatness? By becoming a servant. How do you attain riches? By enduring earthly loss for heavenly treasure. How is death defeated? Through death. How is the Son of God revealed in his glory? Through the shame of his cross. Everything about the kingdom of God is upside down from the ways of this world.

And so, it is in this passage. A Samaritan, of all people, is the one who returns with grateful praise to God in Christ. Brothers and sisters, this is more than a neat literary feature. It’s actually intended to get your attention. When this surprising Samaritan returns with gratitude, it should cause us to ask, “Am I grateful? Do I display the same kind of thankful praise to God that this Samaritan did?” That’s the effect of the text. It is so unexpected, we are disarmed and led to the Spirit-intended moment of reflection – “What about my heart? What about my response? Am I am grateful to God?”

And here’s the reality, friends. We can’t make ourselves feel gratitude. It’s not something you can simply conjure up. Gratitude grows the more we see the depth of our need combined with the grace of God in Christ. Grateful Christians are often those who are most acquainted with their sin, with their need for a Savior. Grateful Christians are often those who have spent hours in God’s Word, marveling at the fact that Christ would lay aside his glory in order to enter the muck and mire of our fallen world. And he didn’t just enter our world, friends. He took on our flesh. He knew our weakness, and then he bore our sin at the cross. Gratitude springs from the soil of a heart steeped in the gospel.

The reality is we need the gospel far more than we realize. My sin before God is far worse than I have ever imagined. My hopelessness was far deeper than anything I have conceived. And that means Christ’s grace is far more amazing than I have yet seen. His mercy is more, as we like to sing – not just more than my sin – praise God that is true! His mercy is more than I have yet tasted. Friends, you go deep in that kind of gospel reflection, and watch how much gratitude grows in your heart.

So, let’s take this exhortation from an unlikely Samaritan. His example is a challenge to us to see the true depth of Christ’s mercy to sinners like us. And in seeing that mercy, we bow with thanks.

The Clear Call to Saving Faith

That brings us to the end. The final truth from this text is in vv17-19, where we see the Clear Call to Saving Faith. Jesus himself emphasizes the surprising nature of what just happened. Notice his question in v17 –“Then Jesus answered, ‘Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?’” Jesus is right, isn’t he? There were ten cleansed, and yet the other nine have not returned. Why not? Well, Luke doesn’t tell us, but their absence is striking. It again highlights the grateful praise of the Samaritan.

Jesus highlights that as well, v18 – “Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Friends, in the flow of Luke’s Gospel, this is a rebuke to Israel and her spiritual leadership. Chapter after chapter, this is what we’ve witnessed. Many in Israel reject Jesus, and that rejection is fiercest among the religious leadership. They don’t have eyes to see and ears to hear. So, by asking this question, Jesus is not trying to put down Samaritans. He’s rebuking the nation of Israel. The Samaritan is the foil that highlights Israel’s blindness.

And therefore, God is doing something new in and through Jesus. He’s preparing a new covenant that will gather together people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. In that sense, the question of v18 lifts our eyes to see the bigger picture of what God is doing in Christ.

And that’s important, brothers and sisters. What an encouraging reminder this is that the purpose of God cannot be stopped. The Pharisees may reject Jesus, but God’s plan cannot be thwarted. He will gather his people to himself. God will fulfill his purpose for the Messiah. Like God said of the Messiah in Psalm 2, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage.” God’s purpose cannot be stopped – not by Satan, not by Rome, and not even by unbelief. God’s kingdom will come, and Christ will reign. This unlikely Samaritan reminds us of that.

And so, Jesus closes by commending the Samaritan for his faith. V19 – “And he said to him, ‘Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.’” Now, remember ten lepers were cleansed, but only this one has returned. Is Jesus saying that the other nine did not have true faith? Is Jesus saying the Samaritan truly believes, whereas the other nine did not? Well, yes, that is how we ought to take this verse. The phrase here in v19 is the same phrase that was used back in chapter 7 with the woman whose sins were forgiven. Jesus said to her, “Your faith has saved you.” Here, Jesus says “your faith has made you well,” but it is the same exact phrase.

In other words, the Samaritan leper, by faith, saw more than the other nine. He trusted Jesus in a way that they did not. For the other nine, it appears that healing was their highest desire, and once that was achieved, they were content. But for the Samaritan, the healing was used by God to open his eyes to the truth about this man Jesus. And seeing that truth, by grace, the Samaritan believed.

And so, we are reminded here that merely being acquainted with Jesus is not the same as trusting Jesus with saving faith. You may even derive some benefit from Jesus – some pearl of wisdom from his Word, for example, that helps you in life. But that is not the same as trusting him with your eternal soul. That is not the same as casting yourself on his mercy – not just for physical healing, but salvation and eternal life.

That is the call that we end with this morning. You may be here this morning, and you may consider yourself well acquainted with Jesus – you go to church, you know the Bible stories, you consider yourself a good person who tries to do what is right. But friend, that is not saving faith. Saving faith is a gift from God that banks everything on Christ and on Christ alone. Saving faith confesses, “I am a sinner who deserves hell, and I cannot save myself. Jesus, have mercy on me!”

So, if you are not a Christian this morning – if you are not repenting of your sin and trusting in Christ – consider the testimony of this unlikely convert in Luke 17. Christ is merciful and mighty to save. His mercy and grace cannot be stopped – not by Satan and not by sin. He will redeem his people, and he stands ready to receive those trust in his name. Won’t you trust him this morning? Saving faith leads to grateful praise, and God’s Word is calling you this morning to trust in Jesus Christ.

What can we render to God for all his benefits? What sacrifice can we return to him? There’s nothing we can do to pay him back. In fact, it would lessen his glory if we could. Instead, like the psalmist in Psalm 116 and like the Samaritan in this passage, we can offer to God our sacrifice of thanksgiving. The Savior’s mercy is powerful – able to cleanse the worst of sinners. The redeemed heart is a grateful heart – praising God for his mercy in Christ. And the faith that saves is more than acquaintance – it is complete confidence in Christ alone.

May our lives be marked by the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and through that thanksgiving, may God be glorified in his Son and through his Spirit. Amen, let’s pray.

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