The King Defines His Subjects


Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount – Several points to be recognized about the Sermon on the Mount.

The beginning and the ending (5:2 and 7:28) indicate that this was delivered on a single occasion. Many things spoken here also were spoken on other occasions, and some of the material recorded here is summarized, and some probably is omitted; but the text is the essence of a message preached to a single audience.

It probably is the same message to which Luke refers in Luke 6:20-49.

 “Seeing the crowds” (5:1) probably refers to one of the occasions described in 4:23-25. That is a rapid summary of many events over several weeks, if not months, which Luke then begins to arrange in groups of similar ideas.

It happened near the beginning of his ministry, but is given prominence by Matthew at this point in order to continue the theme of Jesus’ fulfilling the role of Israel as God’s Son; He has  experienced the wilderness and now must show his relation to the law both as authoritative interpreter (5:21 et al.) and fulfiller (5:17).

He does not relax the Law, but shows its pervasive spirituality as a manifestation of what it means to love God with all the heart, mind, soul and strength, and love one’s neighbor as oneself. The teachers of Israel had made it into a box of external strictures that created a path to self-righteousness.

It is a mistake to expand the meaning of this sermon too far, as if it says all that needs to be said about either ethics or the nature of Christian faith, though one may find extensive implications concerning the whole of the gospel in it. Those pithily-stated, epigrammatic puzzlers unfold into beautiful gripping doctrinal narrative in other parts of Holy Scripture. This sermon is a part of the final revelation; it sets a tone and a direction, introduces us in a striking way to the king’s calm self-confidence in his knowledge and authority, but does not eliminate the need for the great events that follow. Nor does it conflict with or make unnecessary the truths revealed by the Spirit to the apostles as they interpret the subsequent events in the ministry of Christ as prophet, priest, and king (death, burial, resurrection, commandments and post-resurrection instructions, ascension, and their instructions concerning the blessed hope of his return).

The blessedness mentioned nine times is capped with the exhortation, “Rejoice and be glad.” God has made us with the internal drive to be happy, to find a pleasure, a relationship, a status that gives delight and sustained joy to the mind. He embedded affections into human nature that cannot cease in seeking something to praise, to pull apart mentally to discover all the things that make this object of delight so excellent, something we hope will be an uninterrupted fountain of fulfillment and satisfaction. The path to such a state of fulfillment has taken an ugly turn in the fall in Eden, and our affections are skewed. A radical redirection must take place if the originally intended state of unhindered joy is to be achieved. The word “Blessed” intones the spiritual foundations of such a state of being and carries the implication that in some sense it must be bestowed. If our spirits are to rejoice in God, if our souls are to magnify the Lord, then his Spirit must work in us that which is well-pleasing to him. Malachi ended the Old Testament by reminding us that a curse hovered over all. Jesus began his ministry with a promise of blessing.

I. Verses 3-5 – The happy subjects of God’s righteous kingdom have come to an internal recognition of their need for transforming grace.

A. Poor in Spirit – They have recognized their moral bankruptcy and their spiritual deadness.

1. As we are dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1-3) and blinded by the god of this age (2 Corinthians 4:1-4) and using every human emotion for selfish and destructive purposes, we have no intrinsic moral drive for holiness. This recognition of spiritual poverty comes by a gracious intervention of the Holy Spirit (John 3:3; 16:7-11; Titus 3:4-7).

2. Note that the result attached to spiritual poverty is the same as that connected with verse 10. This indicates that if the process of spiritual recognition begins genuinely and is a saving work of the Holy Spirit, it will certainly result in perseverance and, in the end, residence in the kingdom of God—citizenship now and full privileges immediately present to the whole person, enjoyed without end when the Lord brings down the place he has prepared (John 14:2; Revelation 21:1, 2; 22:1-5).

B. Those who mourn – “Our mourning hours,” so Spurgeon wrote, ”have brought us more comfort than our days of mirth.”

1 An unaffected mourning for sin is the natural outcome of true spiritual poverty and a step that naturally follows on the path of blessed happiness. There is no greater source for mourning than the realization of our personal insults and hostility toward the Lord of grace and glory, the maker, owner, and sustainer of all things, including our own horribly misguided lives.

2. The one who continues his journey to spiritual happiness with proper sadness shall certainly have the comforts given by the Spirit’s assurance of eternal life (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

C. The meek – Meekness refers to strength under control, properly directed toward a good end. They are not autonomous, but ruled by another. They have surrendered, and they inherit the earth by this surrender.

1. When spiritual blessedness is both the source as well as the result of each of these conditions—poverty of spirit, true spiritual mourning—then submission to the legitimate authority of God will be the sure outcome. When one has recognized his rebellion as sinful and all his actions as worthy of condemnation, has come to a point of genuine sorrow for such attitudes and course of conduct, he/she gladly submits to the glorious rule of the triune God.

2. It is not the self-willed, the haughty and arrogant usurpers of the rights of God that will rule the earth, but those who have seen that all belongs to God, and that they have only what he has given them (Luke 19:11-19). They see themselves, not as owners, even of their own lives, but as stewards.

II. Verse 6 – The happy subjects of God’s righteous kingdom see the beauty of true righteousness and desire all of its markings as theirs.

A. The kingdom of which believers are subjects is a righteous kingdom. Those who do not love righteousness will not be there. “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).

1. In recognizing our own unrighteousness, we have desire for the righteousness of Christ and to be justified in his justification. (Romans 4:22-25; 1 Corinthians 1:30).  God has not dropped his requirement of perfect righteousness as that for which the reward of eternal life is given (Romans 2:12, 13). Christ’s doing of the law is the only righteousness by which we may be saved.

2. In fleeing to find a saving cover in the righteousness of Christ, we also nurse a desire to reflect that righteousness in our own conduct and attitudes. The subject of the kingdom does not merely dabble in a knowledge of righteousness, dislike the experience, and turn from it as the apostates of 2 Peter 2:21, 22. Having seen righteousness in its beauty, particularly in the obedience of Christ to the will of his Father, we abandon everything in order to have it (Philippians 3:7-11; Psalm 119:7, 20, 40, 62, 75, 106, 123, 142, 160).

B.  The increasing love for righteousness found in this life by conversion never finds a resting place here. Only when the saint is free of the battles with the world, the flesh, and the devil will he find himself satisfied [note Paul’s desire in Philippians 3 to attain the resurrection from the dead]. He will, however, be thoroughly satisfied when he is conformed to Christ in the resurrection.

III. Verses 7-9 – The happy subjects of God’s righteous kingdom see themselves in a different relation to the world.

A. Children of wrath have been brought to the kingdom by mercy and will receive all its benefits from that same mercy. They will, therefore, therefore be merciful to others. We are to “show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray” but God saved us “according to his own mercy” (Titus 3:3, 5). While we were “by nature children of wrath . . . God, being rich in mercy . . . made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:3, 4).

B. Verse 8 – The pure in heart shall see God.

1. Verses 7 and 9 point to attitudes that we must exhibit in order to have a redemptive influence on the world. This verse shows us that we must not be absorbed by the world if we would have a clear view of God. We must be so heavenly minded, that we can do some earthly good.

2. When the eyes of our soul are not overwhelmed with the things of the world, the beauty imperishable, undefiled, and eternal of the triune God becomes our goal. With “minds set on earthly things” all that can be expected is destruction (Philippians 3:19).

3. When we “love not the world, neither the things that are in the world,” we also know and yearn for the time when “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” That hope cleans out all the garbage that hinders the true knowledge of God for “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 2:15; 3:2, 3). David prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).

C. Peacemakers recognize the amazing grace of reconciliation.

1. Having been at enmity with God, and having been restored, not merely to a relationship of peace but of sonship, makes the child of God work for situations of reconciliation. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.” (Colossians 3:15). “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:13, 14). The one for whom peace is made implores others to find that peace. “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; . . . “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:18, 20).

2. If we are reconcilers, we are “sons of God” in the sense, not only of adoption, but of sharing his nature as the God of peace. “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely; . . . Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way; . . . Practice these things [thinking about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent] and the God of peace will be with you” (1 Thessalonians 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 3:16; Philippians 4:9). Though the pursuit of peace is a good in itself, the most lasting and relevant work for peace comes from gospel presentation.

3. These statements of spiritual blessing were clearly in the mind of James when he wrote, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:17, 18) Note that in both, peace follows purity. We can not cry “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Spurgeon: “First pure, then peaceable: this is God’s order and it should be ours.”

IV. Verses 10-12 – The happy subjects of God’s righteous kingdom are viewed by the world in terms of reproach

A. Sons of God hunger and thirst for righteousness; but the idea of true righteousness is hated by the world, especially when it is proclaimed as uniquely present in the gospel alone. This idea of the exclusivity of Christ and the way of salvation by him as the righteous one brings reproach, ridicule, accusations of narrowness, bigotry, and even physical persecution.

B. Those, however, who have preferred that righteousness to anything in the world, who have counted all as loss for the sake of knowing Christ are those who possess the kingdom. Their company stems from Abraham through John the Baptist and embraces all the martyrs who loved not their lives even to the death.

V. Verses 13-16 – The happy subjects of God’s righteous kingdom, in spite of the world’s resistance and hatred, constitute the preserving and revealing principle in this present darkness.

A. Salt of the Earth – God tolerates this present world only because sprinkled throughout are his people, those who have been called and those yet to be called. His coming is delayed in any generation only because there are yet others to be called from that generation unto salvation. (2 Peter 3:8-13).

1. The savor of salt, if lost, cannot be regained; a mark of perseverance, therefore, is the continuation in truth and holiness in the face of error and overwhelming corruption.

2. Non-savory salt is good for nothing and will be thrown out. Those who do not persevere in their preference of heaven over the things of this world will be of no good for either earth or heaven.(Colossians 1:21-23).

B. Light of The World – Once we were darkness but now we are light in the Lord (Ephesians 5:8)

1. Two illustrations – both of these indicate the incongruity of a Christian failing to push back the darkness by his convictions and life. A city on a hill cannot be hid; a lamp is not lit to be hidden but to be lifted up and shed light. Even so will subjects of God’s righteous kingdom shed the light of righteousness by word and conduct in his sphere of work.

2. Your light shines.

Jesus defined one’s light as his good works. This includes positive actions done for the benefit of others and living in such a way as reflects holiness.

The result of this, even if it provokes hostility, is the glory of God on the day of visitation.

Paul prayed for the Philippians that they might be “pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (1:10, 11).

Peter knew that holy living would only gain the opposition and ridicule of this present world of darkness but would bring God glory on “the day of visitation” (1 Pete 2:11, 12). He taught that through constancy in prayer, actions of love, sincere hospitality, and use of all the gifts that God had supplied for edifying the church God would be “glorified through Jesus Christ,” for “to him belong glory and dominion forever and ever.”

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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