The start of Jesus' teaching opens with a series of statements about attitudes which are explained. These are attitudes Jesus' disciples should have.
The start of Jesus' teaching opens with a series of statements about attitudes which are explained. These are attitudes Jesus' disciples should have.
Hello and welcome to Series 4, Episode 2, and we're going to study 'The Beatitudes' from the Sermon on the Mount.
Introduction and Recap
This is the second episode in the Sermon on the Mount series which started at the beginning of Series 4 and goes all the way through. In our last episode, we gave some introductory comments about the Sermon on the Mount and looked at the distinctive material that Luke gives us, the 'Blessings and Woes' section in Luke 6, and now we turn to the Sermon on the Mount as presented by Matthew - and this will be the basis of our studies for the rest of Series 4. As I explained in the last episode, we've got different material when we come to the Sermon on the Mount. We've had a lot of narrative, a lot of storytelling in Jesus' public ministry in Galilee and then we've had the gathering of his disciples and the appointment of the twelve Apostles but now we're beginning to find out in more detail what being a disciple really means: what does it mean to follow Jesus in terms of lifestyle, morality, ethics, attitudes and response to the environment, and people, around us when sometimes they're in opposition to the Christian faith?
Our focus today is on attitudes, the Beatitudes - as this section is called at the beginning of Matthew 5. We're going to read Matthew 5: 1 - 12. Billy Graham called the Beatitudes the ‘beautiful attitudes’ and that's a good way to think of them. Here Jesus describes the sort of attitudes that represent Christian discipleship and I'm only going to spend a very short time on each one. We could spend a great deal of time, in fact, we could have an episode on each one, as you'll quickly see when we study them, but I'm going to give you an overview and invite you to reflect on them as a group and reflect on this as a single teaching, which is how Jesus gave it.
Before reading them, I want to comment on the word that Jesus uses frequently here: 'blessed'. What does this word blessed mean? Some translations translate it ‘happy’ - but that's not really strong enough. To be blessed means to have within yourself all the conditions of true joy and fulfilment in life - that's my definition of the Greek word that lies behind our English translation, blessed. It's not about simple happiness; it's about being in the right relationship with God, in the right attitude to God, in a way that you can receive his blessings and the benefits of following him most effectively. Objectively speaking, it's a good thing to follow the Beatitudes and experience the blessings that God brings. Last time we read the first couple of verses, which provided the introduction from Mathew's point of view and we compared it to Luke's introduction. We saw that it's the same event - looking at it from two slightly different perspectives. Let's read those verses again but then we're going to study the Beatitudes themselves:
‘1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them...3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. 11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”’Matthew 5:1-12, NIV
We're going to go through each of these sayings separately and just try and understand the core meaning.
Poor in Spirit - Desperate Spiritually
‘“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”’ The idea of being poor in spirit means a sense of extreme need, extreme poverty, extreme desperation and urgency. It's not about material poverty, it's about an inner spiritual bankruptcy and need and desperation. It's people who are spiritually desperate that are being described here. If you're poor in spirit that means you know you've got no resources; you know that you have not worked out the meaning of life; you know that you've made a lot of mistakes; you know that you're a sinner; you know that there's guilt in your life; you know that you've fallen short of God's standards; and you know that you're very independent. All those kinds of things represent being poor in spirit - but it's an awareness of how desperate that is and how much you need help. If you're that desperate, Jesus says you'll receive the Kingdom of Heaven. In other words, that's a condition of entry into the Kingdom of Heaven because you will come to Christ; you'll be desperate and you'll say, “I need salvation.” You'll be as desperate as some of the people we've already described in early episodes (and more that we'll see later on) who, when they came to Jesus with a physical need, were so desperate that they just threw themselves down on the floor before him, or they knelt before him, and they pleaded with him to help them. They were desperate and it's those who are desperate about their life and realise how broken their life is and how much pride there is within them who find the Kingdom of Heaven; those people are the candidates for God's salvation. His mercy reaches them as they cry out to Christ for salvation.
Mourning - Brokenheartedness
‘“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”’ This is a related saying and this mourning is probably not concerning just difficult life circumstances; it probably doesn't mean depression, or remorse, or sadness, or pessimism. This mourning is a spiritual brokenheartedness over sin; it's what Paul calls in 2 Corinthians 7: 10,
‘Godly sorrow(which)brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.’ ‘Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.’2 Corinthians 7:10, NIV
There is a state of mind that sometimes we're in, following being poor in spirit, where we are deeply, deeply grieving over what we have done in our lives. Many criminals experience that when they are found guilty in court, or they reflect on their lives, but ordinary people - we know how broken and how wasted our lives can be. I've had many conversations with people who've become Christians later on in their life - in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s perhaps - and their greatest regret is how much of their life they've wasted - so many years without Christ, so many years of selfishness or rather second-rate life, living for themselves, making terrible mistakes, hurting other people. ‘“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”’ Isn't that wonderful? In salvation, mourning for our sin brings comfort and Paul alludes to this in that same verse: ‘it leaves no regret.’ There's no regret about repentance; there's a wonderful sense of the burden lifted and our hearts filled with joy and our inner lives being rebuilt.
Meekness - Self Control
Thirdly, ‘“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”’ Meekness is not weakness or mildness. Meekness is strength held in check; controlled energy, the human forcefulness of character held under control. That's what meekness is - it's self-control. In the Old Testament, Moses (in Numbers 12: 3) is described as the humblest (or meekest) man on the face of the earth and the occasion was when his leadership was being challenged by Aaron and Miriam - those close to him. He was being severely provoked and yet he didn't overreact; he didn't become defensive; and he didn't become selfishly angry. He allowed God to resolve the issue and he was described as the humblest (or meekest) man on the face of the earth. Jesus exemplified that meekness. He was incredibly strong! Such a strong character, so much divine strength within him through the power of the Holy Spirit, and yet he didn't force himself upon people. When he was provoked by opposition, criticism, persecution - even dying on the cross - he showed what we would describe here as meekness: force held in check, controlled energy. Those people who have this quality are described as ‘inheriting the earth.’ In other words, they are going in the future, eternal age to be those who enjoy all of creation - maybe have responsibility over that creation as a New Heaven and a New Earth is brought forth. In other words, self-control concerning the forcefulness of your character and your emotions will yield a reward in the future. This is a really important beatitude because self-control concerning our emotions is one of the hardest battles for us to fight. Many of you will recognise how your emotions get the better of you as you're provoked in different situations and yet here, in the Beatitudes, you're encouraged in an attitude of meekness, of self-control, to control your emotional responses.
Hunger and Thirst - a Sense of Urgency
‘“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”’ I only learnt, really, what thirst was when travelling in the Middle East some 35 years ago: running out of water while travelling through the countryside, looking urgently for the next place where I could find a drink of water. Many of you, in different parts of the world, will know what urgent thirst is. There's a sense of desperation and urgency if you don't have drinking water available. There's a sense of urgency if you don't have enough food to eat. Those who are seeking righteousness - being right with God - with a sense of urgency will be filled with his presence, with his Holy Spirit, with an inner spiritual satisfaction, with a sense of fulfilment in finding his will. This is a wonderful truth: discipleship is about wanting, urgently, to find the will of God in our lives. It should be a regular and daily concern (it certainly is for me) to know what things does God want me to do? What things do you not want me to do? To pray about these things, to take a note of the things that you feel he's calling you to do and to follow it through. There should be a sense of urgency, a hunger and a thirst to get right with God and to follow his way in our lives. If you haven't got that sense of urgency, I would encourage you to ask God to give you it. Hunger and thirst for righteousness and you will be filled.
Mercy - Compassion Plus Action
‘“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”’ Already in Series 3, we've seen this topic of mercy in Jesus' teaching. If you read those episodes, you'll remember that when Jesus called Matthew the tax collector from his tax booth (or office) on the side of the road and he said, “follow me.” Then Matthew gathered his friends together and Jesus was criticised by the Pharisees for relating to people who weren't respected in society (the shady business community and tax collectors). Jesus said, ‘“You need to find out what I desire mercy not sacrifice”’ means. Later on in Matthew 12, we find when the Pharisees criticised Jesus' disciples for eating grains of corn that they picked from the fields on the sabbath day, Jesus comes again and quotes from the prophet Hosea 6: 6 ‘“I desire mercy not sacrifice.”’ Jesus has already been teaching about mercy: an attitude of grace and kindness and generosity towards other people. Even if we don't really think they're worthy, even if our social prejudices and our personal opinions are against those kind of people and situations - we should be merciful. Here, that theme of mercy is taken forward and we'll see it reappearing again in the Gospel narratives on a number of different occasions. A definition of mercy that you might find helpful: mercy is compassion plus action. It's not what you feel, it's what you do about what you feel that makes you a merciful person. Feelings are important, that sense of concern for others in need is the starting point; but mercy leads to action. We need to be merciful to people in need.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, which we'll study in due course, gives a very vivid example of being merciful to someone in need, someone who'd been beaten up and was lying on the side of the road as if they were dead. We also need to be merciful to people close to us - our families. This can be really complicated. Families can hurt us; families can be divided; there can be deep rifts, there can be hostilities, jealousies, and all sorts of negative things going on in families and yet mercy is needed if we're Christian disciples. Forgiveness. In particular, mercy is expressed by forgiving others. As Jesus teaches in the Lord's prayer, which we'll study in Series 4, in due course, we ask God to forgive us as we forgive those who have sinned against us. Forgiveness is one of the central themes of Christian discipleship, it's part of mercy and we'll study it in more detail in other contexts. Forgiveness is very important; when we forgive other people it doesn't mean they're let off, it doesn't mean that what they did wasn't wrong - sometimes very hurtful and very serious. What forgiveness means, is that we allow God to be the judge of those sins and those actions and we take away the right to judge other people. We put, as it were, the cross of Jesus in the centre of our thinking and we remember that we were forgiven a lot more than we're being asked to forgive others. That's a really important perspective that changes everything: we've been forgiven a lot more, we've been shown mercy, can we not show mercy to others through forgiveness? Forgiveness is unilateral: that is you do it on your own side - whatever the response of the other person, or lack of response, and of course if they've died, they can't respond anyway. The response of the other person isn't part of the package; forgiveness is unilateral and it's unequivocal. In other words, it's a decision that you don't change your mind about; it's something that you decide to do. This is a very big and difficult topic to discuss. We'll spend more time on it in other contexts, but it's part of this beatitude - it's part of this call to be merciful because God has shown mercy to us.
Pure in Heart - a Right Relationship With God
‘“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”’ The pure in heart are those who have a good, right relationship with God - nothing getting in the way, no unconfessed sin. They're sincere; they're open; they're honest; and they're spiritually clean; those who have a purity of heart, and the promise is, here, that they will see God. This means that they will feel God's presence more vividly in this life and, in that sense, they will ‘see God.’ They will see him at work; they'll feel him; they'll have joy in his presence, because there is no sin hindering the relationship.
Peacemaker - Reconciler
‘“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called (sons) of God.”’ A peacemaker here is not an appeaser, not a pacifist, not a peace-lover, not a popular person or even a placid, quiet person. No, a peacemaker is a reconciler: someone who actively tries to help people be reconciled to one another, working to bring people together based on truth, and they'll be called sons of God. The peacemaking quality of God is reflected within themselves. As they make peace between people, they're reflecting God's broader intention to make peace with humanity through Christ. I wonder whether you're a peacemaker? It's something that I always try to be, to find a way of reconciling differences. It's not always easy and not always successful, but peacemakers work to do that, whatever the circumstances.
Finally, ‘“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. 11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”’ Jesus is quite clear here - as we saw in Luke 6 with the 'Blessings and Woes' in the last episode - that persecution is likely to occur and people are likely to experience it. He expected that to happen for his first disciples in the first generation and, indeed, that is what happened (we see some examples of it told to us in the New Testament) and he expected it to be a pattern of his Church. Persecution doesn't mean failure, it doesn't mean anything bad about us - quite to the contrary! Persecution basically means that there's something within us that challenges the community around. Persecution is inevitable, but it comes in different degrees; it can be very mild opposition or it can be something very severe. We're not to retaliate or be self pitying; we are to rejoice with a kind of miraculous joy. That's an amazing miracle of the Christian life - it's hard to explain until you experience it - that when opposition comes, sometimes it produces a tremendous joy: a sense of being in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. We rejoice because Jesus also experienced rejection and we're identifying with him and also, verse 12, we rejoice because our reward will be great in heaven and our faith will be found to be genuine if we are persecuted because of our faith.
As I said at the beginning of this episode, these are just some brief comments on some very profound statements that Jesus makes. He's talking about the inner attitudes of disciples - Billy Graham called them the ‘beautiful attitudes.’ I want to encourage you to grow in the beautiful attitudes of Christian discipleship, which are very contrary to other social attitudes that exist in your society and mine - things that people aspire to be. As we conclude this episode, my reflection to you would be suggesting a personal application. One of the best ways you can use the teaching that we've shared today is to go away, read the Beatitudes through again and identify one, in particular, that speaks to you, that you feel you want to work on, that maybe the Holy Spirit is drawing your attention to, and why not reflect on it every day for a week? Pray about it, read it again, and ask the Lord to help you to move more in the direction of exhibiting the beautiful attitudes that Jesus called his disciples to have.