What You Are Before God
Matthew 5:3-12 (focal vv3-5)
Everybody who has ever heard of Jesus Christ, and knows anything at all about his teaching, are surely familiar with the beatitudes with which the Sermon on the Mount begins. ‘Their simplicity of word and profundity of thought have attracted each generation of Christians.’ The more we study their implications, the more seems to remain unexplored. As Stott noted, ‘Their wealth is inexhaustible. We cannot plumb their depths.’ Bruce declared, ‘We are near heaven here.’
Over the next few Sundays, we will consider each beatitude separately; however, it would be helpful to address several general questions about them which should be asked. For that help we will turn to John Stott’s study on the Sermon on the Mount. Below, I will draw some highlights from his treatment of the questions.
The people described
The beatitudes set forth the balanced and varied character of Christian people. He rightly concludes:
“These are not eight separate and distinct groups of disciples, some of whom are meek, while others are merciful and yet others are called upon to endure persecution. They are rather eight qualities of the same group who at one and the same time are meek and merciful, poor in spirit and pure in heart, mourning and hungry, peacemakers and persecuted.”
Further, the group exhibiting these marks is not an elite set of spiritual Christians. ‘On the contrary, the beatitudes are Christ’s own specification of what every Christian ought to be.’ All these qualities are to characterize all his followers. Just as the ninefold fruit of the Spirit which Paul lists is to ripen in every Christian character, so the eight beatitudes which Christ speaks describe his ideal for every citizen of God’s Kingdom. Unlike the gifts of the Spirit which he distributes to different members of Christ’s body in order to equip them for different kinds of service, the same Spirit is concerned to work all these Christian graces in us all. There is no escape from our responsibility to covet them all.
The qualities commended
It is probably well-known that Luke’s version of the sermon omits here the word ‘spirit.’ And because of that a debate has arisen as to what kind of poverty Jesus is referring to: Was it spiritual poverty or material poverty? And not a few today – particularly those who do not hold to the reliability of Scripture – want to say one or the other were wrong. But that is to sadly misunderstand Scripture. Anyone with a knowledge of the Old Testament will be able to tell us that the Old Testament concept of poverty includes both material and spiritual poverty.
In the Old Testament the poor is almost a technical term for a particular group of people. For instance, in Ps. 40:17, the author describes himself as ‘poor and needy,’ and asks the Lord to remember him and deliver him. Similar statements elsewhere underline the fact that to be poor is to be weak and helpless, to be dispossessed and to lack the resources to defend and save oneself. The poor are the needy and the captives who ‘seek God’ as their only refuge and salvation (Ps. 69:32-33). They are the bankrupt of this world, who know themselves to be so, and who therefore trust in the Lord as their only hope of protection and deliverance.
The poverty and hunger to which Jesus refers in the beatitudes are clearly spiritual states. It is the ‘poor in spirit’ and ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ whom Jesus declares blessed. Again, Stott concludes in a helpful way as he writes:
“It is safe to deduce from this that the other qualities [Jesus] mentions are spiritual also. It is true that the Aramaic word Jesus used may have been simply ‘poor’, as in Luke’s version. But then ‘the poor’, God’s poor, were already a clearly defined group in the Old Testament, and Matthew will have been correct to translate ‘poor in spirit’. For ‘the poor’ were not so much the poverty stricken as the pious who – partly because they were needy, downtrodden, oppressed or in other ways afflicted – had put their faith and hope in God.”
The blessing promised
What is the blessing? The second half of each beatitude elucidates it. They possess the Kingdom of heaven and they inherit the earth. The mourners are comforted and the hungry are satisfied. They receive mercy, they see God, they are called the sons of God. Their heavenly reward is great. And all these blessings belong together. Just as the eight qualities describe every Christian (at least in the ideal), so the eight blessings are given to every Christian. The eight qualities together constitute the responsibilities, and the eight blessings the privileges, of being a citizen of God’s Kingdom. This is what the enjoyment of God’s rule means.
A couple of final questions concerning the blessings must also be answered briefly here and more fully in the sermons following. First, are these blessings present or future? The promises of Jesus in the beatitudes have both a present and a future fulfilment. ‘We enjoy the first fruits now; the full harvest is yet to come.’
A further question about the blessings Jesus promised cannot be avoided. Do the beatitudes teach a doctrine of salvation by human merit and good works, which is incompatible with the gospel? For instance, does not Jesus state clearly that the merciful will obtain mercy and the pure in heart will see God? And does not this imply that it is by showing mercy that we win mercy and by becoming pure in heart that we attain the vision of God? Some attempt to argue this. Yet they fail in their argument.
How, then, can we explain the expressions which Jesus used in the beatitudes, indeed his whole emphasis in the Sermon on righteousness? Here, we will conclude with Stott’s words:
“The correct answer seems to be that the Sermon on the Mount as a kind of ‘new law’, like the old law, has two divine purposes, both of which Luther himself clearly understood. First, it shows the non-Christian that he cannot please God by himself (because he cannot obey the law) and so directs him to Christ to be justified. Secondly, it shows the Christian who has been to Christ for justification how to live so as to please God. More simply, as both the Reformers and the Puritans used to summarize it, the law sends us to Christ to be justified, and Christ sends us back to the law to be sanctified.”
I am eagerly anticipating this spiritual journey with you as we learn together what the Kingdom life looks like. Please pray for our series and for our church as we grow in Christ. Grace and peace to you.