Text: Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus of Nazareth first burst into the public limelight his message, in a nutshell, was, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’. What was he expecting people to do?
There is no better place to turn for answers to questions like these than the Sermon on the Mount. Here, the Master himself describes in more detail than anywhere else the attitudes, behaviour and character of the Christian disciple.
And it all begins, not with the issuing of instructions, but with the pronouncement of blessing. There are people who the world would consider to be unfortunate, pitiable even, but who are favoured by God and are therefore to be congratulated and envied. They are the luckiest people in the world.
The 8 beatitudes do not describe 8 different types of person. They are not a pick-list of 8 options. We are not a liberty to choose which one we would like to specialise in. They are, rather, an 8-fold character study of the Christian disciple.
As we quickly review them together, I invite you to ask yourself, “To what extent does this describe me?”
Do I have an attitude of dependence on God? The world says, ‘Happy are the self-sufficient’, but even Jesus declared, ‘By myself I can do nothing.’ No wonder, then, that he declares, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
Do I know what it is to grieve over the things that grieve God – the godlessness of a nation, the oppression of the weak, as well as my own personal shortcomings? The world says, ‘happy are those who make light of everything.’ But the same Jesus who wept over Jerusalem’s wasted opportunities says, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’
Am I prepared to sacrifice my own rights in order that others might benefit? Do I practice gentleness and patience? Do I seek to return evil with good? The world says, “Stand up for your rights.” But the same Jesus who claimed, “I am gentle and humble in heart,” tells us, ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.’
Do I long to see God’s standards honoured and applied in every area of life? The world says, ‘pleasure, leisure and treasure are to be desired above all else.’ But the same Jesus who said, “It is proper for us to fulfil all righteousness,” says, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.’
How do I react when others wrong me? The world says, ‘At all costs, get even.’ But Jesus, who prayed for the forgiveness of his murders, says, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.’
To what extent do my words and actions reveal, or mask, what is in my heart? Do I have moral integrity? The world says, ‘think, feel and act as you like – just make sure you don’t get caught.’ But Jesus, whom even the demons recognised as ‘the Holy One of God’, says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.’
Could I be descibed as a peacemaker, rather than a troublemaker? I may never have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But at home, at work, at church – am I a calming influence, a reconciler? The world says, ‘Let’s fight over this.’ But Jesus, the Prince of Peace says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.’
What am I willing to suffer for God’s kingdom? I may not be in danger of being killed for my faith, but am I willing to be mocked, ridiculed, for Jesus’ sake? The world says, “Anything for an easy life.” But Jesus, who suffered death itself that we might have life, says, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
That’s the summary. Now a few further words of explanation and application.
We have already seen that the beatitudes run against the tide of popular opinion. They tell us that the experiences we are most anxious to avoid, are often the very ones which promote our bliss. And yet we shouldn’t be too surprised. Those who first heard Jesus utter these sayings should have realised that he was saying nothing that wasn’t already taught in their scriptures, the Old Testament. And every decent person today knows deep down that what our Lord is doing here is not turning the world upside down, but turning it the right way up again.
Did you notice that many of the rewards are in the future tense? ‘Theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ – that’s in the present tense. But ‘they will be comforted’ – ‘they will inherit the earth’ – ‘they will be filled’, and so on, are all in the future tense. This underlines once again the tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’. God never leaves us without more cause of joy than sorrow; but the best is yet to come. We can see this in the most notorious of the beatitudes – ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.’ The meek person is learning, like Paul, to be content whatever his earthly circumstances. And he looks forward with eager expectation to the new heaven and the new earth, the home of righteousness.
Did you notice the ‘kingdom of heaven sandwich’? There is a reference to the kingdom in the first and last of the beatitudes. This acts as a pair of brackets, or bookends, indicating that everything between them is also about God’s kingdom. The beatitudes, then, are about the way things are in the kingdom of heaven. This is how it is when God is ruling in our hearts and lives. There is no way of belonging to God and enjoying the benefits of his kingdom except by accepting his values and standards.
But notice again that Jesus does not say, ‘You ought to do this and you ought to do that.’ It is true that, a number of these beatitudes do imply definite choice and determined effort on our part (peacemaking, for example). But the beatitudes are not about being good enough for God. The qualities of character mentioned here are, to a very large extent, the effects or by-products of something else. And that something else is a living relationship with God in Christ. Having recognised our spiritual poverty, we accept his free offer of life, and then learn day by day to love what he loves and desire what he desires.