There are, of course, two different ways to approach preaching the Sermon on the Mount. Rich as this material is, one can proceed line by line, each thought getting its own sermon. This was the approach taken by Martin Lloyd-Jones in his justly famous series of sermons on the Sermon on the Mount. He preached ten sermons on the beatitudes alone and sixty on the entire sermon. Many preachers have proved the virtue of that close study of the sermon and its every line. My own intention is to preach the sermon paragraph by paragraph, which, in my judgment, is the way in which it would have first been heard by those who privileged it was to hear this material delivered by the Lord Jesus in person. There is something to be said for the careful study of the parts, to be sure, but if the parts are rightly understood and appreciated, it is the whole that is understood and it is, after all, the whole that the Lord is after. It is the larger point that the Lord is making in these paragraphs that is his great business, not the details that prove or support or demonstrate that larger point.
Certain things bear notice at the outset. First, you will see that the formal structure of the beatitudes suggests that they end at v. 10 and that v. 11 and v. 12 are an afterthought, an expansion of the thought of the last beatitude. Not only does the form of vv. 11 and 12 differ from the previous statements, which as you can see and as your NIV editor indicates by the way in which he has set the type “they also saw” are precisely parallel in form, but the second phrase of the first beatitude and the second phrase of the last in v. 10 is precisely the same. “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven” is an inclusio indicating the beginning and the end of this list. That makes eight beatitudes, not nine.
Second, the term “Blessed” is perhaps not the best choice of translation for the Greek word that Matthew uses here or, in turn, for the Hebrew word that lies beneath it. There is a Greek word for “blessed” that denotes one whom God blesses, but it is not the word that Matthew has used here. The word used here is better translated “fortunate” or “happy,” so long as we remember we are thinking of “happy” not primarily in terms of an emotional or mental state, but rather the condition of one’s life. It is more an objective description than a subjective one. It is not a psychological description of someone’s life so much as it is a recommendation of that life. [France, 108-109] However, obviously it carries with it the thought of a deep and impregnable sense of happiness, of gladness of heart. It would be strange if people who are so fortunate should not experience some sense of that good fortune in their hearts. And so, in v. 12, we read “Rejoice and be very glad…”
Third, remember, as we said last time, this sermon was preached to the Lord’s disciples. The beatitudes are, in this way, a description of the Christian character, of the attitudes and the commitments of a Christian’s life and the attending divine favor that rests upon that life. They intentionally contrast the thinking of a Christian from that of a worldly man and the results of each different way of life. What a disciple is we find in the first half of each beatitude; what he obtains as God’s reward we find in the second. Therefore we are free to pick and choose, as if some disciples are poor in spirit and others hunger and thirst after righteousness and still others are peacemakers. Every Christian is to demonstrate all of these characteristics and in ever increasing measure. In the same way as Paul’s nine fruits of the spirit in Galatians chapter 5 so these eight qualities are to be a description of each Christian’s life.
v.3 This is poverty of spirit, he says, not material poverty, though the Lord elsewhere teaches us that the rich have a greater difficulty being poor in spirit. But there is a connection between material poverty and the poverty of spirit in this thought. The poor, the reason why this adjective is used, are precisely those who have no other recourse but their hope and trust in God. They rely upon the Lord because they know they cannot rely upon themselves. Their resources are inadequate or exhausted. Disciples of Jesus know themselves morally and spiritually destitute. That’s the idea. That’s where the Christian life begins. It is no accident that this beatitude comes first.
Remember, Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Is theirs. It is not only that it will be theirs at some point in the future. It already is, contrary appearances notwithstanding. In the following beatitudes more emphasis will fall on the fulfillment of the future, but that future is already present in principle as the Bible so often reminds us.
v.4 The idea of mourning here is primarily that of suffering but suffering for reasons of faith. The first two beatitudes are probably drawn from or at least are influenced by Isa. 61:1-2, where both the poor and those who mourn are mentioned. They mourn not selfishly, as if their only interest were greater peace, happiness, and prosperity for themselves, but they mourn for the apparent slowness of God’s justice – to deliver them from their own sins and to bring righteousness to the world. Their mourning is on account of their loyalty to God and their desire to see his glory revealed in the world. The writer of Ps 119 says, “My eyes shed streams of tears, because men do not keep your law.” [v. 136] There is the idea and such people will have their comfort in due time.
v.5 The meek are those who are content to wait upon the Lord for the accomplishment of his will even in the teeth of disappointment and suffering. It is another term for self-effacement, for a willingness not to insist upon one’s own rights, needs or wants. The same word is used to describe the Lord’s own character later in the Gospel of Matthew in 11:29. It is not weakness as the world often thinks; it requires the greatest spiritual strength to be meek in a world like ours with hearts like ours. This beatitude is almost a direct quotation of Psalm 37:11. There in the OT the meek will inherit “the land,” by which is meant of course, the Promised Land. Here Jesus resignifies and universalizes the promise. They will receive the entire earth. God will give the meek what they did not and would not grasp for themselves.
v.6 There is a debate whether “righteousness” here should be taken to refer to social righteousness, what we would call social justice, or personal righteousness, what we would call holiness of life. In the context of the beatitudes that follow and perhaps especially in reference to 5:20, it appears more likely that Jesus here means desire for a holy life, personally. In any case, the “they will be filled” indicates that God’s grace is necessary for this righteous living; it is not a human achievement. [Morris, 99] The first four beatitudes, therefore, all in one way or another, express the disciple’s fundamental spirit of dependence upon the Lord. The beatitudes that now follow express the outworking of that spirit of dependence in the Christian’s life.
v.8 This beatitude is drawn from the famous 24th Psalm. Purity here refers to that quality of undivided loyalty to God expressing itself in every sort of moral uprightness. This purity, Jesus says, goes down to the bottom of a believer’s life and controls his attitudes and thoughts as well as his actions. It is in the heart, deep inside in the secret place of a person’s life, that most people do not expect to find, do not even think it necessary to find purity. But Jesus requires it there first of all, because out of the heart, he says, flow the issues of life. Believers already “see” God in a sense in this world, by faith – “seeing him who is invisible” as the author of Hebrews puts it – but they will “see” him literally and in a fully realized sense in the world to come.
v.9 The absence of selfish ambition which has marked the earlier beatitudes now comes to expression in a life devoted to blessing others, the merciful, the peacemakers, bringing peace to them as God has brought peace to us. The Father is a peacemaker and his children bear this resemblance to him.
v.10 Righteousness in this context is the orientation of one’s life towards God in all things, and that brings the displeasure of the world down upon his disciples. The Bible often tells us that it is inevitable that we should bear our Master’s reproach and Jesus said that if the world hated him it will certainly hate his followers also.
v.12 Remember, Matthew’s original readers were Jewish Christians, who, no doubt, were suffering severe persecution from their countrymen for their loyalty to Christ and the Way. We will hear about that in the book of Acts as you remember. Matthew expands the last beatitude, no doubt, because it has a special relevance to the situation, the circumstances of his readers. If they are being persecuted by the unbelieving in Israel, well, there’s nothing new in that. The faithful have suffered at the hands of the unfaithful in the church many times before. Persecuted Christians find themselves in good company!
No one can deny that there is, on their face, a paradoxical character to the beatitudes. They overturn our natural expectations. They combine fortune, happiness, and reward with the very things we are least likely to find fortunate, happy, or rewarding. And that, my friends, is their great point and the Lord’s great point in beginning his sermon in this memorable way. He is telling his disciples not only that their life must be very different from the life of the people around them who do not believe in him, have not embraced the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that they must think very differently than the people around them think, but that such a different life and different way of thinking, is precisely the way, and the only way, for human beings to find the happiness that they long for.
Everyone wants to be happy. The Lord Jesus understood that and began his sermon where he found every human being: longing for happiness. That longing is not wrong. God made us for that happiness and for that satisfaction and for that fulfillment of life, which is another way of saying the same thing. He put that longing for happiness within us. And the evidence that he did can be found in every single human life, in every epoch of human history, everywhere you look.
As Pascal, the great 17th century French man of letters, mathematician, philosopher and Christian, brilliantly observed,
“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”
And that is true! Think about it. The world runs, every human life moves, on the desire for happiness. As Pascal says, even its tragedies are explained by man’s lust for happiness. Even the poor man who kills himself does so because, all in all, he thinks that he will be happier dead than alive. Can we deny the power of the desire for happiness in human life?
But, the story of the world is not simply the quest for happiness, but the failure of that quest with all its attendant unhappiness, frustration, and despair. If happiness is the great question confronting mankind, then, the Bible says, its tragedy is that vast multitudes of people look for happiness where it cannot be found, seeking it in a way that is bound to produce misery instead.
Happiness is not less important for the Christian, human being that he or she is. He too seeks good fortune, she too seeks happiness of life. Indeed, Augustine was willing to say,
“If I were to ask you why you have believed in Christ, why you have become Christians, every man will truly answer, ‘for the sake of happiness.’” [Cited in D. Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 18]
And that is certainly true. And Jesus admits the truth of it when he appeals here to the desire of his disciples to be happy. But Christians, he says, look for happiness and blessing and fulfillment of life where others do not. They find it where others cannot and they will have it forever when others will end their quest in failure.
And it is this fact, this utter overturning of ordinary human expectation. This great reversal that is the great point of the beatitudes. When Jesus says in 6:8, in the middle of this sermon, “Do not be like them,” he has summarized the great point of this sermon. Over and over and over again he is going to compare the behavior, the life of his people to the life of those around them whether pagan or religious. And he going to say your life cannot be as theirs. His people are to be different, different in every important way. And he begins the sermon by saying that they are to look for their happiness in very different places than either the pagans or the falsely religious around them. They are those who believe that the true blessedness and fulfillment of life is found not only in different things than the world thinks, but in the opposite things. That point is made in many ways, too many ways for us to notice, but let me give you a few examples:
- Jesus says here that happiness and good fortune, fulfillment and satisfaction in life is to be found in sadness.
Not what we would expect a wise man to say. There is of course a kind of sadness that does not bring anyone happiness of any kind. The world knows that and Christians agree. Loss, misfortune, evil committed by one against another, sickness, disappointment – these are so much the story of human life and they make that story so dark and suck the joy out of so many lives. We all know that. And the world is sure that therefore if we must, if we are to be happy, destroy those things that make people sad. If only we could be rid of what produces sadness we could all finally be happy.
But Jesus says there is some sadness that is absolutely indispensable to happiness. And Jesus begins there. It lies at the bottom of a happy life, truly happy life. The sadness one feels when he has offended God, the sadness at the wrong in his own heart, his selfish indifference toward other people, his lack of concern for what is holy, just, and good, his violations of God’s law in heart, speech, and behavior at every turn – poverty of spirit. The sadness one feels because the world itself has rebelled against God, has suffered for that rebellion, is suffering the judgments of the Lord, the sorrow felt because so many do not know even their Maker, or rejoice in his love, or embrace his law as the true wisdom of human life – that’s mourning. This is sadness without which there can be no happiness because there can be no integrity. There can be no honesty, no true understanding. This is sadness that is the beginning of joy.
It is this kind of sadness that makes spiritually sick people well and spiritually weak people strong. It is this kind of sadness that gives life true meaning. Look, who is the gentle man, who is the humble man, the man who is understanding, kind, thoughtful, patient in his dealings with others? Who is the man who cares for others like he cares for himself? It is invariably that man who knows himself and feels himself a great sinner; the man who is frankly amazed that God should love and save a person such as he, a person like himself who has done what he has done and failed to do so much of what he ought to have done. He is a man who knows the truth about himself and feels the force of that truth and because of that has gone to the Lord Jesus Christ and has been set free by from his sin and guilt and found his peace with God. That man who is not sad about himself, who does not condemn himself for his sins, the man who is not broken hearted about the fallen world around him, is, in the nature of the case, a man who is walking through this world without a clue, without any real understanding of what is happening to him or to everyone else. And he cannot be amazed by the love of God. And he cannot be overwhelmed by the peace that is his through Jesus Christ and he cannot therefore me motivated as he must be motivated powerfully and profoundly to love others as he loves himself.
Jesus says the meek will inherit the earth. The world thinks the meek will get nothing. They are weak. Others will run roughshod over them. But it is not so. For the meek, for those who sorrow for their sins, who see themselves unworthy therefore are willing to love, respect and care for others. Those people are the strong as it turns out at last because they have found their strength in Jesus Christ. The proud may have their day. Alexander the Great had the world before him at 33 years of age. But their day is short. He died the same year. The one the world calls Alexander the Great, the Bible calls a he-goat. A short day followed by everlasting night.
The world says there is too much sadness about. The Lord says that what is wanting in the very first place, what is most necessary, is that there be a certain kind of sadness, the kind that breaks a proud heart and leads it to Christ and a life of self-renouncing love.
- Or, Jesus says that happiness and good fortune, satisfaction and fulfillment of life is to be found in failure.
Not so the world. Happiness lies in success, so we are told on every hand. The more successful at one thing or another, the happier we will be. Misery lasts as long as does the hunger and the thirst. But it is not so. We are as successful as any people has ever been as the world has always measured success, and in the way the world can measure success, and we are certainly no happier and we are apparently quite a bit less happy than generations of people who have gone before us. We are as a people in the modern world living proof that success and happiness do not go together.
It is the admission of failure, it is the fact of failure, it is the hunger and thirst that is sustained by failure that makes for honest living. Christians are not different from non-Christians, in the first place, because they live so much better than unbelievers do. They do live better and the rest of the sermon is going to talk about the way in which faith in Jesus Christ must make for a better life. But Jesus starts the sermon here with the greatest, deepest difference between Christians and non-Christians namely the Christian’s sense of having failed to succeed. It is in this sense of failure that God’s blessing and true happiness are found.
“Happy are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” Think about that statement. We do not ordinarily admire the hungry man, the thirsty man. We do not want to be like the hungry man and the thirsty man. We want to be like the person who has a large meal set before him and is no longer hungry, no longer thirsty. Jesus says people who hunger and thirst for things obviously demonstrate that they do not yet have the things they seek. They are longing and thirsting for what they know they do not yet possess. To the world, hungering and thirsting are the unhappy part of life, justified only because they may lead finally to fulfillment. Hungering and thirsting for money or pleasure may get you some of both, but money and pleasure are short-lived and they are weak in themselves and they cannot give people the happiness that they seek and long for. Such things cannot fill the emptiness of the human heart. Hungering and thirsting for money, or fame, or pleasure, or power therefore is something like a thirsty man in the desert who strangely finds himself hungering for sun and sand. When he has what he wishes for he will be hungry and thirsty still.
But that is the way the world thinks. My happiness depends upon my gaining pleasure, power, fame, money, even love. And here Jesus says that true and lasting happiness, capital “H” happiness of a life consists in the seeking after righteousness. A man who hungers and thirsts for a holy life – even though he never comes near to satisfying his hunger or slaking his thirst, not in this life – is a man whose heart and whose life are pointed in the right direction, the direction that leads to God and God’s love and to heaven. A man who hungers for what God loves is someone who will have God’s favor upon his life. A man who is conscious of his failure to live a Christ-like life and remains determined to do all that he can to live as God would have him live, a man whose disappointed ambition remains all his life to be all everything that Christ deserves for him to be, a man whose days and nights are marked by a raging never satisfied appetite for holiness, that, Jesus says, is the happy man, a fortunate man, a blessed man. The world does not understand this. Believe me it does not. The pain of dieting is only justified by relative immediate loss of weight. But the world cannot see the end, cannot see what the man gets who hungers and thirsts for righteousness all his life long.
But what does the Scripture say? “God satisfies him who is thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things.” [Ps. 107:9]
You see the point. You see how these beatitudes utterly overturn a worldly way of thinking and a worldly idea of happiness, prosperity, good fortune. They do so because the world leaves God and Christ and their approval and their blessing and their favor out of account. The man or woman who has faith in Christ, however, sees everything in terms of God’s will, God’s love, God’s favor, God’s blessing, God’s promise, God’s future. These are things you cannot see with the eye of the body, which is why the world cannot make sense of the beatitudes. Only faith sees these things. But they are the real things, the lasting things and they are the only things, Jesus says, that can truly satisfy a human being’s hunger for happiness both in this world and in that which is to come.
This is so much so, Christ adds, that if because you are loyal to me the world strips you of everything the world counts dear – your freedom, your living, your life itself – you can rejoice and be exceeding glad because your loyalty to me will have an everlasting reward. The world does not, cannot see any of this because it judges by sight and it cannot see the next world, it cannot see the Father’s smile, it cannot see the judgment seat of Jesus Christ. It cannot see the joy, the everlasting joy upon the heads of those who are already in heaven with Christ. But Christians see all of these things and so they judge their happiness in utterly contrary ways than does the world.
Perhaps no one ever hated humility, gentleness and meekness such as they are expressed in the beatitudes more than Friedrich Nietzsche. Though he was the son and grandson of Lutheran pastors, he rejected Christianity in his student days and became the arch-enemy of Christianity in his own day and, really, the representative unbeliever of the 20th century. His book The anti-Christ is his most violent anti-Christian polemic and was written in 1888, the year before he went mad.
In that book he defines as “good” what we might say today as happy, capital “H”, objectively happy. He defines as good all that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man, and defines “bad” as “all that proceeds from weakness.” In answer to his own question: “What is more harmful than any vice?” he replied, “Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak – that is, Christianity.” Christianity, in Nietzsche’s view was a religion of pity instead of power. “Nothing in our unhealthy modernity,” he said, “is more unhealthy than Christian pity.” The Christian God he despised as the God of the sick and the weak, a conception, he said, from which everything strong, brave, masterful, and proud had been eliminated. Christianity, he thought, as did Hitler after him, was humanity’s greatest misfortune. “I condemn Christianity,” he wrote. “…it has made of every value a disvalue.” Give the German philosopher credit. He got Jesus’ point, a great deal better than many others, more polite, have got his point. Christianity turns the values of the world upside down. It utterly rejects them and repudiates them and replaces them with their opposite. To be a Christian is to reject the world’s system of values and to abandon the world’s understanding of what happiness is and where it comes from. No one will ever figure out Christianity or Jesus Christ or sympathize with him who does not see the unseen God and the unseen world and the unseen future. Nietzsche did not see the unseen and he was only more honest than most in his dismissal of Christ’s own view of human life. And his madness but was a perfect demonstration of where worldly values, however politely described, must eventually lead.
The world boasts of its triumph and success and Christians mourn its rebellion against God and its inevitable reckoning with God. The world seeks pleasure and satisfaction in its own ways and Christians see that for all the merry-making on board the ship is sinking. The world dreams of progress and power, of accomplishments that will make man happy, and Christians meditate on the Second Coming, the Last Judgment, and the coming of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. No wonder the world finds Christians strange and is not a little offended by their attitude. We are the world’s wet blanket. No wonder Christians find themselves strangers in this world they share with those who do not believe.
Such an utter reversal of values, of understand, of commitment is absolutely basic to biblical religion. The ways of God will always seem upside down to the world for he exalts the humble and brings down the proud, he calls the first last and the last first, he sends the rich away empty handed and lavishes his gifts upon the poor. In sum, here in these beatitudes, Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, congratulates those whom the world most pities, or despises, and calls them, and them only, the truly happy ones. [Much of the last section from Stott, Christian Counter-Culture, 54-56]