Listening for God's Voice
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Sermon on the Mount
1. Paradoxical People: The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (36:16) |
The location of the Sermon on the Mount is unknown, but tradition places it on the Mount of Beatitudes, at the north end of the Sea of Galilee. This is also the location of the Roman Catholic Church of the Beatitudes, built in 1938. Photo: Tor Hutchins.
1 Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them, saying:
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 sons 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." (5:1-12)
In our day teachers stand to teach, but in Jesus' day the rabbis sat, and Jesus followed in this great tradition. Crowds of eager listeners were following him, and so he sought a site that they could hear him well. Tradition places the Sermon on the Mount on a gentle hill between Capernaum and Tabgha, at the north end of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus would have had the beauty of this inland lake behind him as he taught, but all eyes were on him. Because Jesus spoke like no one they had ever heard.
Dallas Willard calls the Beatitudes of Jesus "among the literary and religious treasures of the human race ... acknowledged by almost everyone to be among the highest expressions of religious insight and moral inspiration."1
That afternoon, if afternoon it was, the hushed multitudes heard the religion of their world turned right side up for the first time in their lives. They heard something radically different than the Pharisees or scribes or anyone else was saying.
Jesus began to speak in paradoxes, in riddles, as wisdom was sometimes transmitted in ancient times. He called the poor rich, the mourners comforted, the meek as heirs of the entire earth. People listened. And as they listened they heard Jesus expound the character traits of the citizens of his new Kingdom.
Let's examine what he said and contrast it to the accepted wisdom of our own day.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (5:3)
Who are the poor in spirit? Certainly not the religious leaders. They were filled with a kind of haughty superiority over the common people. But Jesus is saying that those who aren't puffed up with their own spiritual superiority are the real possessors of the kingdom -- the spiritual zeroes, those who have struggled with life and have come up short. They are the heirs of the kingdom. (See Excursus 1, "What Is the Kingdom of Heaven?" that follows.)
Jesus' mission was "to bring good news to the poor ... to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed" (Luke 4:18). The good news, the really excellent news he proclaimed was that the kingdom was not for the morally superior but for the poor in spirit. A physician doesn't come to make the healthy well, but for those who are sick (Matthew 9:12). Jesus came for those who were aware of their own spiritual poverty and hungry for more.
What did Jesus mean when he said "Blessed are the ..."? The idea of blessing has a long and rich tradition in the Old Testament. The blessings of God begin in Genesis where God blesses the animals, and then man, saying, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it..." (Genesis 1:28).
The Hebrew equivalent is bārak, which occurs 415 times in the Old Testament. To bless in the Old Testament means "to endue with power for success, prosperity, fecundity, longevity, etc."2 The idea is of conferring or imparting something. Often this is done through the laying on of hands or the lifting of hands.3 Jesus blesses the little children, his disciples, and his Father in heaven.
The word "Beatitude" comes from the Latin root beatus, "happy," from the past participle of Latin beare, "to bless." So the word "The Beatitudes" means "The Blessings." It is only a happy coincidence of the English language that the idea of "be-attitudes" or "attitudes of being" is suggested by the word Beatitude.
In the Beatitudes Jesus explains just who are the recipients of God's blessing, that is, his favor and grace. Not those whom the world sees as successful, but those whose spirits yearn for God. They are the truly blessed ones, and the extent of their blessedness will become fully apparent at the end of the age when the superficiality of the world's standards will be exposed for what it is, and when those whose hearts belong to God are honored and judged righteous in his kingdom.
Jesus' first Beatitude is a paradox then. "How can the poor in spirit possess the kingdom?" is the riddle. The answer is this: Only those who are aware of their spiritual poverty will be seeking more. And those who seek the riches of Christ will possess his kingdom. You see this same theme in those who mourn, are meek, and who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Q1. (Matthew 5:3-11) Each Beatitude consists of two parts. What are these parts? Why do you think Jesus made each Beatitude a paradox? What is the relationship of the Beatitudes to the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23)?
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."(5:4)
Here's another riddle: How can those who mourn be comforted? Who is mourning? The poor in spirit. Those who feel distanced from God. The hurt and oppressed. The ones in pain who feel alone. They mourn. And Jesus offers them comfort, comfort with his own blessing and warmth and healing and salvation.
But sometimes believers mourn, too. Jesus mourned over the fate of those who turn away from him to their own empty philosophies of life.
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate." (Matthew 23:37-38)
We mourn when we see degradation and unrighteousness and injustice around us. We cannot afford to become inured to it, or accepting of sin. We must grieve inwardly or be untrue to the values of our Master. Ezekiel's vision recalls God's command to a man clothed in linen with a writing kit at his side:
"Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it." (Ezekiel 9:3-4)
Sometimes we weep over the delay in justice, as did the martyrs in John's Revelation:
"How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (Rev. 6:10)
But the ultimate and final comfort will come at the end. We are given this promise, and this promise we hold onto:
"He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. I am making everything new!" (Revelation 21:4-5)
What is the answer to this riddle of the mourners being blessed by comfort? We mourn in our emptiness and purposelessness and pain, and are comforted by Jesus' salvation and the presence of his Spirit. We mourn with Jesus, too, and are comforted by his Return and the consummation of his Reign.
Q2. (Matthew 5:3-4) Why is it necessary to be aware of your spiritual poverty before you can become a Christian? What kind of mourning is necessary for a person to become a Christian? What kind of mourning is a common experience of Christians? (See Isaiah 61:2-3; Ezekiel 9:4.)
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." (5:5)
Few hymnals today include Charles Wesley's famous song,
Gentle Jesus meek and mild,
Look upon a little child
Pity my simplicity,
Teach me, Lord, to come to Thee.4
But it seems to reflect a common view of Jesus and Christians. In a word: wimpy. Blessed are the wimpy, for they will inherit the earth? I don't think so.
The word translated "meek" is Greek praüs, meaning "'pertaining to not being overly impressed by a sense of one's self-importance, gentle, humble, considerate, meek' in the older favorable sense." This is confusing for us, since English has two definitions for "meek": (1) "enduring injury with patience and without resentment, mild," and (2) "deficient in spirit and courage, submissive."5
Jesus didn't mean "blessed are the deficient in courage." Rather, he meant "enduring injury with patience and without resentment." Jesus uses the word praüs to describe himself in Matthew 11:29: "... For I am gentle (NIV; KJV "meek") and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." Do you see Jesus as lacking courage? Is he submissive to those who tried to shut him up? No.
But Jesus was gentle, humble, and considerate. He cared about people and the way he treated them reflected this love. In Paul's list of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), we see this quality in the character traits "patience, kindness, goodness" and the word itself is used: "gentleness" (NIV) or "meekness" (KJV).
But those in the world who want to make something of themselves don't value meekness. Instead they push themselves in front of others, promote themselves, and climb the ladder to success over the bodies of their fellows. Get ahead, that's the way to inherit the earth.
And herein lies the paradox. The meek, not the proud, will inherit the earth. That is because the King embodies love at its highest, courage at its greatest, humbling himself to the lowest, in order to save to the uttermost those who are lost.
The world doesn't understand such a King, nor does it understand Jesus. It is attracted to Jesus, but it finally rejects his way as impractical. "I'll do it myself," they promise. "I'll pull myself up by my own bootstraps. I'll be captain of my soul, and no one will tell me what to do." The antithesis of meekness. And here is the riddle. Those who trust in themselves rather than God will be left with nothing, blessing-less, while the meek, the humble, the trusters-in-God, will inherit the earth and God's blessing. How much we actually believe this will be clearly reflected in the decisions we make and in the way we live.
Q3. (Matthew 5:5) How does this sort of gentleness contrast with the world's ideal? How is humility important to Christlikeness?
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." (5:6)
A fourth characteristic of citizens of the Kingdom is an intense hunger and thirst for righteousness. What kind of righteousness? Moral perfection? That doesn't exist this side of heaven, does it? What kind of a silly pie-in-the-sky attitude on which to base one's life! Real success, they say, comes from a situational ethics which bends when it needs to in order to reach goals that are important. That's the way to the top.
"No wide-eyed, eager, wholesome, innocent Sunday school teacher for me. No sir!" says Professor Harold Hill in "The Music Man." The world makes fun of those who desire to do what is right, to tell the truth, to seek real justice. Those whose ideals get in the way of success are mocked. Those who refuse to compromise, even to their detriment, are scorned.
But the way to heaven is not the same path as the road to worldly success. Jesus offers a blessing to those who seek righteousness with all their heart, who thirst for it. And he promises that they will be filled with it.
What a strange and wonderful promise: Those who seek righteousness will find it; those who thirst for righteousness will be filled to the brim with it.
The fulfillment of this blessing, of course, is not by human effort. That was epitomized by the law-keeping of the Pharisees that failed to touch the human heart. The fulfillment, of course, is the blessing of the Kingdom itself, the presence and powerful working of God's Spirit within his people.
You may hate yourself for your sin and long to be righteous. Desire it, ache for it. And Jesus promises you that you will receive that righteousness. What a blessing! It is a costly blessing, to be sure. The way God extends this righteousness to you is by offering you his own in exchange for yours:
"For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God." (1 Peter 3:18)
How can those who despise true righteousness receive this blessing? This Beatitude, like the others, requires a change of heart to receive it.
Q4. (Matthew 5:6) How can an intense desire for righteousness put you at odds with the world? What sort of righteousness is Jesus talking about, do you think? What promise are we given in this Beatitude?
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." (5:7)
On January 26, 1999 in St. Louis, Pope John Paul II entreated the Governor of Missouri, Mel Carnahan, a Baptist, to spare the life of a convicted triple murderer. Not because he was innocent, the Pope argued, but because "the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil." The Governor commuted the sentence in deference to this man of God.
While I might disagree with the Pope on capital punishment, my heart is with him in extending mercy, for he represents a Christ celebrated not for harshness and vindictiveness, but for mercy. On the cross, Jesus prayed, "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Could you or I have said that? Could we have felt it and said it? Jesus did. In Pilate he saw the extremity of grasping -- selfish power grasping. In the Pharisees he observed a pious hypocrisy and in the soldiers the callous disregard for human life -- men who crucified him and then gambled for his clothing as he hung gasping for breath above them on the cross. Above all that pettiness and evil he extended forgiveness.
The powers that be in this world do not admire mercy. They admire passionless, difficult decisions that get the job done. They admire ruthlessness. And if they don't really admire it in others, they excuse their own practice of it as a show of strength of character and resolve.
Do we Christians really love mercy? Don't we instead offer judgment in the place of love and condemnation in the place of grace? Showing mercy does not mean that we condone evil.
Seeking to expose Jesus' characteristic mercy, his enemies brought a trembling young woman, caught in the act of adultery, into the temple and flung her before Jesus. "Stone her," they shouted.
Jesus knelt and wrote in the dirt that covered the temple courtyard. Then he looked up and said, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." Soon, her accusers -- and Jesus' accusers -- had disappeared (John 7:53-8:11). His telling question struck them. They knew they had sinned; how could they condemn?
We believers know of our own sin, and that only God's mercy saves us, and so we extend this mercy to others. Mercy is a banner of glory. Mercy is a badge of honor. Mercy is good news to a guilt-ridden, neurotic world that desperately needs to hear one in Authority say, "Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more" (John 8:11).
This kind of mercy scarcely fits the world's ideal of strength, no more than do the other Beatitudes. But in this riddle we find the gospel: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy." The merciful are the ones who are aware of their own need and of God's mercy to them. It is no wonder that Jesus incorporates this joining of mercy-giving and mercy-receiving into his model prayer: "Forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12). Jesus' way knows nothing of condemning forgivees, only of forgiveness. In acting like God ourselves, we receive God's blessing.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." (5:8)
Is there any such thing as purity of heart? we ask. Perhaps in a young child. No, even babies learn in their infancy to manipulate and bend the wills of others to their way. Those who would be great have long since left purity of heart and departed with expediency on their arm. Is purity of heart even to be desired?
Yes. Yes, we must answer, when we look at Jesus. Purity of heart for him was not a naive ignorance of lust, corruption, and evil. He knew what it was: a single-eyed devotion to his Father. His purity consisted in serving his Father fully and always -- purity of heart with courage, purity of heart when in danger for his life. We see purity of heart in Jesus.
Jesus' promise in this Beatitude is that the pure in heart will be blessed with the ability to see and know and discern God himself. Those whose lives are filled with compromise and conformity, lust and licentiousness cannot see God. They cannot know him.
None of us can, for that matter. Since we all have a flawed heart, we must reach out to God himself to purify our hearts and cleanse them.
When the prophet Isaiah was called in the year King Uzziah died, he says, "I saw the Lord, seated on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple." He cries out, "Woe to me. I am ruined. For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."
Then he tells of an angel who brought a live coal from the altar, touched his lips with it, and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for" (Isaiah 6:1-7).
God is able to purge the corruption of our hearts and make them pure again. And, like Isaiah, give us that holy vision of God. The Book of Revelation closes with the promise of intimacy with God: "They will see his face!" (Revelation 22:4).
And so purity of heart is an earmark of Jesus' disciples. Not perfection -- yet. But hearts cleansed and made pure by Christ himself. And hearts that actively seek that purity that allows an intimacy with the Lord. Jesus' disciples are men and women, boys and girls, who prefer closeness to God to the allurements of sin. And he promises, "They will see God."
Q5. (Matthew 5:8) Why can people with a pure heart see, know, and discern God? Why can't "chronic" sinners see God? How do we obtain the pure or clean heart that Jesus describes?
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God." (5:9)
Jesus offers still another riddle about peacemakers. How can a peacemaker be called a son of God? he asks.
Picture in your mind a movie Western. On the porch in front of the Sheriff's office sits a lawman, caressing his six-shooter.
"What's that?" he's asked.
"Why that's my Peacemaker, son," he replies.
Strange, how our society seeks to twist peacemaking into violence. Peacemaking is always risky, never easy, and we shy away from it. The worldly wise never take the risks inherent with peacemaking. They reject the peace of sharing with the violence of taking, and forcing those around them into their own mold.
Police officers know that intervening in cases of domestic violence is the most dangerous part of their everyday responsibility. But they do it anyway and are known as Peace Officers. In 1995 Yitzhak Rabin, then Prime Minister of Israel, was murdered for peacemaking. He dared to extend his hand across the jagged breach between the embattled Israelis and the oppressed Palestinians, and he was killed for it by one of his own countrymen.
Peacemakers are an endangered breed. But Jesus says, cryptically, in this Beatitude, that "they will be called sons of God." Why? Because the Only Begotten Son of God, was the quintessential Peacemaker, the Prince of Peace, placing his own life in jeopardy to reconcile us to God. His hands were stretched out dangerously wide on the cross, his shoulders ached, as he held God's hand in one and man's hand in the other, and brought them together in his own body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24).
And so Jesus calls us, too, to be peacemakers, reconcilers. Yes, it will be costly. We will be misunderstood and despised by many. Jesus was. But we will be doing God's work and God will reward us.
And so Jesus' riddle about the messy task of peacemaking is answered in the profound promise, "they will be called sons of God." What a character profile to live up to!
"10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
12Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (5:10-12)
Why are the Beatitudes so beloved if they are so difficult? Here's another riddle, harder to understand than those that preceded it: the persecuted are the blessed ones. This seems to run in the face of logic!
Yes, Jesus says. Though they are discriminated against and attacked by men, yet God will bless them for remaining true to the righteous living that they stand for. They refuse to back down in the face of threats because they are sold out to God and God will honor them for it. They may have earned the hatred and malice of men, but they have earned the favor of God himself for their courage and he will reward them with possession of the kingdom of heaven.
Sometimes it's difficult to see the glory in persecution. It is bigoted. It is ugly. It is unfair and unfounded. We suffer shame and pain for what we stand for and wonder if it is ultimately worth it. Yes, shouts Jesus, it is worth it. Look at it for what it is: The reward for conformity to the world's shabby political correctness is shame. And the reward for standing for righteousness is an eternal one. There is no comparing the two. How can we doubt? Yet sometimes we do. We begin to understand when we look at our Master who marked the path clearly before us.
"Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (Hebrews 12:2-3)
The Blessing of the Persecuted (5:10) moves quickly to the Blessing of Those who are Insulted and Falsely Maligned because of Jesus (5:11). This is probably an example of Hebrew parallelism, where verse 10 and verse 11 state the same truth in slightly different words.
Jesus concludes this string of blessings with another amazing declaration:
"Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven." (5:12)
How can we rejoice in the hot breath of slander? How can we be glad in the face of evil? By looking beyond it to the goal. Men and women of character have always done this. They have endured the pain of the moment for the fulfillment of the promise. I know that this is roundly derided as "pie in the sky when you die, by-and-by." But the principle of delayed gratification is grounded by experience in both the physical and spiritual realms.
Jesus tells us to look at what they are saying and laugh. Not at our tormentors, but in the glory of God that we anticipate. We are to laugh the laugh of faith. And now he tells us why. "For in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." And in our pain we begin to understand.
We are blessed when we are persecuted, because persecution means that we have been seen. That we have been heard. That our actions have been taken note of by the powers that be and have made their mark. That we have done something right enough, for a change, to deserve persecution -- something that puts us in the same class as the prophets whom Jesus so honored for their faith and courage. Something that puts us in the same class as Jesus himself, who suffered persecution.
What an audacious statement, that we might be in a class with Jesus himself! But that is the point of his statement. We are blessed when we are persecuted in that we receive a prophet's reward. No, we have not been elevated here by our own blind and selfish zeal. But by God's grace we are enabled to enjoy a wonderful privilege, to be counted among the choice ones of God. Paul was once a persecutor, but now he counted it an immense privilege to share in "the fellowship of Christ's sufferings" (Philippians 3:10), to "fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions" (Colossians 1:24).
We in America are largely ignorant of this fellowship of Christ's sufferings. But our brothers and sisters in India and Saudi Arabia and China know that blessing and that fellowship, for they have not backed down in the face of persecution and insult, of threat, and of death itself.
Q6. (Matthew 5:10-12) Why should we rejoice when we are persecuted? What keeps this from being some kind of sick masochism, or finding pleasure in pain? Why is the blessing "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" appropriate for the persecuted?
Sermon on the Mount: The Jesus Manifesto is available in paperback and ebook formats
The key to the riddle of the Blessings is found in the Holy Spirit whom Jesus gives to those who seek his forgiveness and pledge allegiance to him. For it is in this Spirit alone, not effort, even valiant effort by the best of people, that we can fulfill these Conditions and Blessings. But with the Spirit of Jesus within us, literally, we can and must live out these Beatitudes as a testimony to our world of the Living Christ. God grant us the surrender to Him and the teachability that can make it so. Amen.
Father, give us the continual desire to seek you with all our hearts. Fill us with your Spirit. Build your character within us, so that you will be pleased and that these Conditions and Blessings may be fulfilled in us. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.
- Willard, Divine Conspiracy, p. 98.
- John N. Oswalt, bārak, TWOT #285.
- See my article on "Lifting Hands in Worship," Paraclete, Winter 1986, pp. 4-8, http://www.joyfulheart.com/scholar/hands.htm
- Charles Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (1742).
- Praüs, BDAG 861.
In-depth Bible study books
You can purchase one of Dr. Wilson's complete Bible studies in PDF, Kindle, or paperback format.
- Listening for God's Voice
- 1, 2, and 3 John
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter & Jude
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians
- 1 & 2 Timothy
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
- Christmas Incarnation
- Colossians and Philemon
- David, Life of
- Glorious Kingdom, The
- Great Prayers of the Bible
- Jacob, Life of
- Jesus and the Kingdom of God
- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
- John's Gospel
- Lamb of God
- Lord's Supper
- Luke's Gospel
- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
- Names and Titles of Jesus
- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ