Distinct in My Character

| Matthew 5:1-12

The Point:  Choose actions and attitudes that are blessed by God.

The Beatitudes:  Matthew 5:1-12.

[1]  Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. [2]  And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: [3]  "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [4]  "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. [5]  "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. [6]  "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. [7]  "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. [8]  "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. [9]  "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. [10]  "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [11]  "Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. [12]  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The Norms of the Kingdom [3-12].  Although some modern translations prefer ‘happy’ to ‘blessed’, it is a poor exchange. Those who are blessed will generally be profoundly happy; but blessedness cannot be reduced to happiness. In the Scriptures, man can bless God and God can bless man. This duality gives us a clue just what is meant. To be blessed means, fundamentally, to be approved, to find approval. When man blesses God, he is approving God. Of course, he is not doing this in some condescending manner, but rather he is eulogizing God, praising God. When God blesses man, He is approving man; and that is always an act of condescension. Since this is God’s universe there can be no higher blessing than to be approved by God. We must ask ourselves whose blessing we diligently seek. If God’s blessing means more to us than the approval of loved ones no matter how cherished, or of colleagues no matter how influential, then the beatitudes will speak to us very personally and deeply. Another observation is that the kind of blessing is not arbitrary in any of these eight beatitudes. The thing promised in each case grows supernaturally out of the character described. The blessing is always correlated with the condition. Finally, we need to notice that two of the beatitudes promise the same reward: the kingdom of heaven [3,10]. To begin and end with the same expression is a stylistic device called an ‘inclusio’. This means that everything bracketed between the two can really be included under the one theme, in this case, the kingdom of heaven.

1. Blessed are the poor in spirit [3].  What is poverty of spirit? It is surely not financial destitution or material poverty. Nor is it poverty of spiritual awareness. Still less is it poor-spiritedness, that is, a deficiency of vitality or courage. And certainly the expression does not denote poverty of Holy Spirit. The expression seems to have developed in Old Testament times. Some of the various Hebrew words for ‘poor’ can also mean ‘lowly’ or ‘humble’. Two verses in Isaiah stand close in meaning to the poverty of spirit of which Jesus speaks: 57:15 and 66:2. Poverty of spirit is the personal acknowledgment of spiritual bankruptcy. It is the conscious confession of being unworthy before God. As such, it is the deepest form of repentance. It is a confession that he is sinful and rebellious and utterly without moral virtues adequate to commend him to God. From within such a framework, poverty of spirit becomes a general confession of a man’s need for God, a humble admission of impotence without Him. Poverty of spirit is a full, honest, factual, conscious, and conscientious recognition before God of personal moral unworth. At the very outset of the Sermon on the Mount, we learn that we do not have the spiritual resources to put any of the Sermon’s precepts into practice. We cannot fulfill God’s standards ourselves. We must come to Him and acknowledge our spiritual bankruptcy, emptying ourselves of our self-righteousness, moral self-esteem, and personal vainglory. Emptied of these things we are ready for Him to fill us. Much of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount is designed to remove these self-delusions from us, and foster within us a genuine poverty of spirit. The genuineness and depth of this repentance is a prime requirement for entering into life.

2. Blessed are those who mourn [4].  This verse follows naturally from the one which precedes it. Mournfulness can be understood as the emotional counterpart to poverty of spirit. At the individual level, this mourning is a personal grief over personal sin. This is the mourning experienced by a man who begins to recognize the blackness of his sin, the more he is exposed to the purity of God. But there can also be a mourning stimulated by broader considerations. Sometimes the sin of this world, the lack of integrity, the injustice, the cruelty, the cheapness, the selfishness, all pile onto the consciousness of a sensitive man and make him weep. The Christian is to be the truest realist. He reasons that death is there, and must be faced. God is there, and will be known by all as Savior or Judge. Sin is there, and it is unspeakably ugly and black in the light of God’s purity. Eternity is there, and every living human being is rushing toward it. God’s revelation is there, and the alternatives it presents will come to pass: life or death, pardon or condemnation, heaven or hell. These are realities which will not go away. The man who lives in the light of them, and rightly assesses himself and his world in the light of them, cannot but mourn. He mourns for the sins and blasphemies of his nation. He mourns for the erosion of the very concept of truth. He mourns over the greed, the cynicism, the lack of integrity. He mourns that there are so few mourners. But he will be comforted! And what comfort. There is no comfort or joy that can compare with what God gives to those who mourn. These people exchange the sackcloth of mourning for a garment of praise, the ashes of grief for the oil of gladness. The mourner grieves over his sin because he sees how great is the offense before God; but he learns to trust Jesus as the one who has paid sin’s ransom [Mark 10:45]. One day in a new heaven and new earth, the kingdom of God will be consummated, and God Himself will wipe away all tears from the eyes of those who once mourned.

3.  Blessed are the meek [5].  How does meekness differ from poverty of spirit? Poverty of spirit has to do with a person’s assessment of himself, especially with respect to God, while meekness has more to do with his relationship with God and with men. Meekness is not a weakness. A meek person is not necessarily indecisive or timid. Still less is meekness to be confused with mere affability. Some people are just naturally nice and easy-going. Meekness goes much deeper. Meekness is a controlled desire to see the other’s interests advance ahead of one’s own. Think of Abraham’s deference to Lot: that was meekness. The Scriptures make much of meekness, and so it is the more appalling that meekness does not characterize more of us who claim to be Christians. To the extent that meekness is practiced among us, a crassly materialistic world will oppose it. The meek man sees himself and all the others under God. Since he is poor in spirit, he does not think more highly of himself than he ought to. Therefore he is able to relate well to others. And the meek shall inherit the earth. These words constitute a devastating contradiction to the philosophical materialism so prevalent in our own day. But this blessing of inheritance is true in at least two ways. First, only the genuine meek man will be content; his ego is not so inflated that he thinks he must always have more. Besides, in Christ he already sees himself possessing everything [2 Cor. 6:10]. With this eternal perspective in view he can afford to be meek. Secondly, one day he will come into the fullness of his inheritance, when he will find the beatitude fulfilled most literally.

4. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [6].  The pursuit of righteousness is not popular even among professing Christians. Many today are prepared to seek other things: spiritual maturity, real happiness, the Spirit’s power, effective witnessing skills. But how many hunger and thirst for righteousness? This is not to argue that the other things are not desirable, but rather that they are not as basic as righteousness. It is with good reason that this is the fourth beatitude. The man marked by poverty of spirit, who grieves over sin personal and social, and approaches God and man with meekness, must also be characterized as hungry and thirsty for righteousness. He cannot get along without righteousness; it is as important to him as food and drink. The norms of the kingdom require that men and women be hungry and thirsty for righteousness. What is this righteousness which we must thus pursue? Righteousness here (and also in verses 10 and 20) means a pattern of life in conformity to God’s will. The person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, then, hunger and thirsts for conformity to God’s will. His delight is the Word of God, for where else is God’s will, to which he hungers to be conformed, so clearly set forth? He wants to be righteous, not simply because he fears God, but because righteousness has become for him the most eminently desirable thing in the world. And the result? Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. The context demands that we understand the blessing to mean “will be filled with righteousness.” The Lord gives this famished person the desires of his heart. The person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness is blessed by God, and filled; but the righteousness with which he is filled is so wonderful that he hungers and thirsts for more of it. This built-in cycle of growth is easy to understand as soon as we remember that righteousness in this text refers not to obeying some rules, but to conformity to all God’s will. The more a person pursues conformity to God’s will, the more attractive the goal becomes, and the greater the advances made.

5. Blessed are the merciful [7].  Some try to interpret this verse legalistically, as if to say that the only way to obtain mercy from God is by showing mercy to others: God’s mercy thus becomes essentially contingent to our own. But this is a failure to understand both the context and the nature of mercy. What is mercy? How does it differ from grace? The two terms are frequently synonymous; but where there is a distinction between the two, it appears that grace is a loving response when love is underserved, and mercy is a loving response prompted by the misery and helplessness of the one on whom the love is to be showered. Grace answers to the undeserving; mercy answers to the miserable. Jesus says in this beatitude that we are to be merciful. We are to be compassionate and gentle, especially toward the miserable and helpless. If we are not merciful, we will not be shown mercy. But how could the unmerciful man receive mercy? The one who is not merciful is inevitably so unaware of his own state that he thinks he needs no mercy. He cannot picture himself as miserable and wretched; so how shall God be merciful toward him? He is like the Pharisee in the temple who was unmerciful toward the wretched tax collector in the corner [Luke 18:10ff.]. By contrast, the person whose experience reflects these beatitudes is conscious of his spiritual bankruptcy, grieves over it, and hungers for righteousness. He is merciful toward the wretched because he recognizes himself to be wretched; in being merciful he is also shown mercy. The Christian, moreover, is at a midpoint. He is to forgive others because in the past Christ has already forgiven him. Simultaneously he recognizes his constant need for more forgiveness, and becomes forgiving as a result of this perspective as well. The Christian forgives because he has been forgiven; he forgives because he needs forgiveness. In precisely the same way, and for the same kind of reasons, the disciple of Jesus Christ is merciful.

6. Blessed are the pure in heart [8].  In this beatitude, our Lord confers special blessing not on the intellectually keen, nor on the emotionally pious, but on the pure in heart. In biblical imagery, the heart is the center of the entire personality. Purity of heart is the indispensable prerequisite for fellowship with God – to see God. Purity of heart must never be confused with outward conformity to rules. Because it is the heart which must be pure, this beatitude interrogates us with awkward questions like these: What do you think about when your mind slips into neutral? To what do you pay consistent allegiance? What do you want more than anything else? What and whom do you love? To what extent are your actions and words accurate reflections of what is in your heart? To what extent do your actions and words constitute a cover-up for what is in your heart? Our hearts must be pure, clean, unstained. One day, when the kingdom of heaven is consummated, when there is a new heaven and a new earth in which only righteousness dwells, when Jesus Christ Himself appears, we shall be like Him [1 John 3:2]. That is our long-range expectation, our hope. The Christian purifies himself now because pure is what he will ultimately be. His present efforts are consistent with his future hope. The pure in heart are blessed because they will see God. Although this will not be ultimately true until the new heaven and earth, yet it is also true even now. Our perception of God and His ways, as well as our fellowship with Him, depends on our purity of heart.

7. Blessed are the peacemakers [9].  This beatitude does not hold out a blessing to the peaceful, nor to those who yearn for peace, but to the peacemakers. The good news of Jesus Christ is the greatest peacemaking message, and the Christian who shares his faith is, fundamentally, a harbinger of peace, a peacemaker. Yet there is nothing in the context to argue that in Matthew 5:9 Jesus is restricting Himself to gospel peacemaking. Rather, the disciple of Jesus Christ must be a peacemaker in the broadest sense of the term. The Christian’s role as peacemaker extends not only to spreading the gospel, but to lessening tensions, seeking solutions, ensuring that communication is understood. Peacemakers are blessed because they will be called sons of God. The peacemaker’s reward is that he will be called a son of God. He reflects his heavenly Father’s wonderful peacemaking character.

8. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake [10].  The blessing of this final beatitude is restricted to those who suffer persecution because of righteousness. The believers described in this passage are those determined to live as Jesus lived. Persecution can take many forms; it need not be limited to the rigorous variety experienced by our fellow-believers in certain repressive countries. The reward for being persecuted because of righteousness is the kingdom of heaven. In other words, this beatitude serves as a test for all the beatitudes. Just as a person must be poor in spirit to enter the kingdom [5:3], so will he be persecuted because of righteousness if he is to enter the kingdom. This final beatitude becomes one of the most searching of all of them, and binds up the rest; for if the disciple of Jesus never experiences any persecution at all, it may fairly be asked where righteousness is being displayed in his life. If there is no righteousness, no conformity to God’s will, how shall he enter the kingdom? This basic principle reappears again and again in the New Testament. The Christian lives in a sinful world; therefore if he exhibits genuine, transparent righteousness he will be rejected by many. Genuine righteousness condemns people by implication, small wonder that people often lash out in retaliation. Christ’s disciples by their righteous living thus divide men: men are either repelled or drawn to our precious Savior [see John 15:18-20]. This eighth beatitude is so important that Jesus expands it, making it more pointed by changing the third-person form of the beatitudes to the direct address of second person [11-12]. Besides the impact of the direct discourse, this expansion of the eighth beatitude affords three important insights. First, persecution is explicitly broadened to include insults and spoken malice. It cannot be limited to physical opposition or torture. Second, the phrase for righteousness’ sake [10] Jesus now parallels with on my account [11]. This confirms that the righteousness of life that is in view is in imitation of Jesus. Simultaneously, it so identifies the disciple of Jesus with the practice of Jesus’ righteousness that there is no place for professed allegiance to Jesus that is not full of righteousness. Third, there is an open command to rejoice and be glad when suffering under persecution of this type because your reward is great in heaven [12]. Jesus’ disciples, then, must determine their values from the perspective of eternity, convinced that their light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison [2 Cor. 4:17]. They have aligned themselves with the prophets who were persecuted before them, and thereby testify that in every age God’s people are under the gun. Far from being a depressing prospect, their suffering under persecution, which has been prompted by their righteousness, becomes a triumphant sign that the kingdom is theirs.”  [Carson, pp. 16-30]. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What is the meaning of blessed and kingdom of heaven in the Beatitudes?

2.         For the eight beatitudes in 5:3-12, make two parallel lists. In one list write down the eight character traits (poor in spirit, mourn, meek, etc.) and in the other list write down the eight blessings or promises (kingdom of heaven, comfort, inherit the earth, etc.). Now focus on the meaning of the terms in each list. Then, next, focus on the relationship between the character trait and the promised blessing. For example, what is the relationship between poor in spirit and kingdom of heaven? Why does Jesus connect these two terms? Why is kingdom of heaven the blessing for both verse 3 and verse 10? What is the relationship between being poor in spirit and being persecuted for your faith?

3.         Why does the eighth beatitude contain two blessings and expands to three verses? Why does Jesus connect persecution with rejoicing? What key limitation does Jesus place on the type of persecution that produces rejoicing?

4.         Studying the Sermon on the Mount can be a devastating experience. It exposes the depth of our sin and the shallowness of our commitment. But the pain it inflicts is meant to heal, not destroy, us. Because the Sermon is meant to drive us to Christ. It is only in His strength, and not in our own, that we can incorporate the qualities listed in the beatitudes into our own lives. Think about what changes you need to make in the way you think and the way you live your life in light of the beatitudes. And pray continually for the Spirit to enable you to make these changes.

References:

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, D. A. Carson, Global Christian Publishers.

The Sermon on the Mount, Sinclair Ferguson, Banner of Truth.

The Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, John Stott, Inter Varsity.