Course: 52 Major Stories of the Bible
Early on in Jesus’ ministry he went up on a mountain and there he preached his most famous of all sermons, what we call the ''Sermon on the Mount.'' The language of the Sermon on the Mount has permeated the English language, even when people do not know where the language comes from, we talk about “turning the other cheek,” or we talk about “the Lord’s Prayer.” These are all things that have come out of three chapters in Matthew, chapters 5, 6, and 7. John Stott’s book on the Sermon on the Mount is one of the best books I have ever read, and this is how he starts the book: “The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best known part of the teachings of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood and certainly it is the least obeyed.”
The Sermon on the Mount begins with what we call the 8 Beatitudes; Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn. The word “beatitude” is from the Latin word for “blessed” and it is the first word in each of these eight statements. It is important to understand up front that the primary meaning of this word, of the word “blessed” or the word “beatitude.” Its primary meaning is not subjective; the word does not mean “happy”, despite some modern translations. People who are blessed by God may be happy, but they are not necessarily happy in terms of outward grinning, smiling, and that kind of stuff. The basic meaning of the word “blessed” is objective. It is concrete and to be blessed means to find approval and in this context, find approval from God. In other words, the Beatitudes are the message of how you and I can find approval with God and then how that blessedness lives itself out day in and day out of our lives. We may be happy, but that is not the issued. The issue is are we blessed, are we approved by God?
Related to God
Blessed are the Poor in Spirit
The first one starts, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” What does it mean to be poor in spirit? It means to recognize our inability to be approved by God on our own. It is the recognition of our inability to be approved by God on our own. To be poor in spirit is to say there is nothing that I can do about my sin. There is nothing that I can do about my separateness from God. To be poor in spirit is to recognize that you and I are spiritually bankrupt, that we come to God with nothing in our hands to deserve forgiveness or salvation. Stott’s quotes the old song, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to your cross I cling, naked come to thee for dress, helpless, look to you for grace, foul I to the fountain fly [which is Jesus], wash me Savior or I die.” That is what spiritual poverty is all about. It is the opposite of self-sufficiency. It is, in fact, Christ-sufficiency. So Jesus starts by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” blessed are those who understand they have nothing in their hands but they come to God spiritually bankrupt, not deserving anything. This poverty of spirit is the fundamental characteristic of every disciple. You notice that it is listed first, which is very important because it is out of this one Beatitude that all the other Beatitudes and the whole Sermon on the Mount flows. This is the anchor of the Sermon; this is what the whole Sermon is all about. What does it mean to be poor in spirit? It is the fundamental characteristic of every disciple of Jesus Christ. Every person who becomes a disciple of Jesus Christ does so, first of all, by understanding that they have nothing to offer Him and if they never come to that point, if they think they can bargain for their salvation, if they think they can help God save them, if they think that they deserve it in some way then they have never become a disciple of Jesus Christ. Because it all begins with poverty of spirit, with saying, “I am spiritually bankrupt. I do not have anything to offer.” Blessed are the poor in spirit, and then the promise is that theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven, theirs is the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is God’s rule in and over creation. The Kingdom of God is God’s rule in and over my life, and when He is ruling in my life, then I am truly blessed. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Consequences of “Poor in Spirit”
Having given this central affirmation, Jesus starts pulling out the supernatural, if you will, consequences of what it means to be poor in spirit. One writer calls the Beatitudes a “golden chain” where every link is another beatitude hooked into the previous one and drawing out from it and together they form a golden chain.
Blessed are those who mourn
The second link in that golden chain is the second Beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” This is not salvation by sorrow--there is no such thing. You can be as sorry for your sins as you want and you are not “in” the Kingdom of God. There is no such thing as “salvation by sorrow,” and it is not even salvation or entering into the Kingdom by simply acknowledging sin; rather, when we understand our spiritual poverty, when we understand our spiritual bankruptcy, it should move us to tears, to mourning and our confession of our emptiness must move into contrition, to deep sorrow, to repentance. That is what “mourning” is. It is not just saying “Yeah.” It is not just acknowledging the fact, but it is with an understanding in my spiritual bankruptcy that the only thing that can happen is that I have to be moved to mourn over my lack of spiritual wealth in and of myself. When I think of mourning, I think of James 4:8-9, where James says, “Cleanse your hearts you sinners and purify your hearts you double minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.” That is what Biblical mourning looks like. That is what it looks like when you move from confession to contrition, and the promise is, "Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. The good news of this second link in the golden chain is that there is an end to spiritual emptiness and that brokenness can move to wholeness. You do not have to live in the brokenness; you do not have to live in the mourning. Now, you do not get there by fluffy preaching that wants you to feel good about yourself even when you are a mess; rather, it is God who leads us through our brokenness, through our mourning and He leads us into wholeness, into comfort. “Blessed are those who mourn because of their spiritual poverty, for God will comfort them.” If you and I are not fully comforted, perhaps it is because you and I have not fully mourned. I am reminded of that passage in Romans 7:24, where Paul has been talking about some of the ongoing sin in his life and how frustrating it is and he says “the very things I want to do I don’t do and the things I don’t want to do I keep doing them” and finally it is like he grabs his head and shakes and he says, “Wretched man that I am, who is going to deliver me from this body of death?” You see, that is biblical mourning. And then he answers himself and he says, “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ.” There is the sense in which total comfort will not be ours until we are in Heaven, yet the Beatitude promises that even right here and now there is comfort for those who mourn. There is wholeness for those who are moving through their brokenness. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Blessed are the weak
The next link in the chain is “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” You see, the person who recognizes that they are spiritually bankrupt to the point of mourning and weeping and being broken over it is not going to be proud and arrogant, are they? Neither will they be a doormat. Rather, they will be a meek person. Again, the basic meaning of a “meek” person is someone who has an accurate assessment of who he or she is. A meek person is one who knows who they are. John Stotts says, “meekness is essentially a true view of ones self expressing itself in attitude and conduct with respect to others. The man who is truly meek is the one who is truly amazed that God and man can think of him[self] as well they do and treat him as well as they do.” You see, a person who is meek sees a sinner and he says “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” You see, it is the opposite of meekness that says, “Thank you God, that I am not like the sinner.” The meek person sees the sinner and says, “except for the grace of God, that would be me.” For those who are meek, for those who understand who they are because of their spiritual bankruptcy and because of their mourning, the promise is that they “will inherit the earth.” The exact opposite of what you would expect to happen with a meek person, right? Normally we think of meekness as a doormat, and so the meek person is the person who gets nowhere. But Jesus says that it is the meek who will inherit the earth. The Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, really all of the New Testament is counter-cultural. It is the exact opposite of what the world says. So Jesus says the first are going to be last and the greatest are going to be the least. Do not come to be served but to serve. It is why John Stott's book is entitled “Christian Counter-Culture”. It is why Hughes’ latest book is called “Set Apart,” because we are to be different. Blessed are the meek, blessed are those who understand in Christ Jesus who they are, because it is those who will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
Jesus then moves to the fourth chain and says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” As the meek look at themselves, as they understand who they are, they understand that they have no righteousness in and of themselves. They understand that if they are going to be righteous, if they are going to be made right with God, it is God who can make them righteous. It is going to require God give them His righteousness, so instead of asserting myself and saying, “well, I am going to do this and do that and I am going to earn my salvation, I am going to earn favor with God.” Those who are truly poor in spirit will hunger and thirst not for their own righteousness because they have none, but they will hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness. The promise is that they “shall be satisfied.” I think of verses like Psalm 107:9. Speaking of God it says, “For He satisfies the longing soul and the hungry soul He fills with good things.” Or John 6:35 where Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me shall not hunger and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” This is the satisfaction that our King holds out to us. He is the King and we are as His disciples in His Kingdom. The promise is that if you and I hunger and thirst after His righteousness, then you and I will be satisfied. And if you hunger and your hunger is not satisfied, and if you thirst and your thirst is not satisfied, if He is not your greatest joy and if Jesus is not your deepest delight, then perhaps it is because we have only nibbled and sipped on his righteousness instead of hungering and thirsting for his righteousness. The image in Psalm 52 is so powerful. “As a deer pants for water, so my soul pants for you, O LORD.” It is the picture of a deer being chased through the woods by a hunter, relentlessly running to the point it is almost ready to die if it does not get something to drink. Even with all the danger involved with being hunted it has to stop and it has to drink. It has to take in water. As the deer longs, pants for water, so my soul pants for You, so my soul hungers and thirsts for your righteousness. I wonder how many of us hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness? I wonder how many of us nibble and sip at it instead. We sing “Knowing you Jesus, there is no greater thing.” And I wonder how much we really believe that. It is especially in the combination of the first and the fourth beatitude that you have a beautifully clear expression of the essence of the Gospel. It starts by being poor in spirit, that there is nothing in my hand that I can bring to God that will deserve me being saved. And you look at that and the person who is not a disciple of Jesus Christ has to be driven to his knees, because the person has to stop saying, “Well, I can do this and God will let me into Heaven.” Or “I am not as bad as the other person, so somehow that gets me into Heaven.” But when, especially, the non-believer, the non-disciple looks at the first Beatitude, it has to drive the person to his knees in recognition that there is nothing in their hands. I often talk about the ABC’s. It is to ''Admit'' you are a sinner; admit that you are separated from God, that your sin has separated you from God and there is nothing in your hand that you can bring. And then ''Believe'' that Jesus’ death on the cross paid the penalty for your sins, which is the 4th Beatitude, blessed are those who seek for God’s righteousness, a righteousness that was made available through Jesus’ death on the cross, that can be freely given to all who are impoverished of spirit. It is just another way of expressing the Gospel. Impoverished in spirit and therefore hungering and thirsting not for our righteousness but for the righteousness that comes from the cross and what Jesus Christ has done for you and for me.
Relate to Others
Jesus finishes the first half of the Beatitudes and most of them have been focused on the disciple and how one relates to God. The second half of the Beatitudes changes focus to how you and I relate to other people. In other words, if you understand your poverty of spirit, it has driven you to mourn and wail, you have come to an accurate assessment of who you are, that you are meek and therefore you are hungering not after your own righteousness, of which there is none, but that of Jesus Christ. Then how are you going to relate to other people?
Blessed are the merciful
The 5th link in the golden chain says, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.” Mercy is simply compassion for people who are in need. If we understand our own spiritual bankruptcy, then how can we not but extend mercy to others and in the extending of mercy to other people, we find that both from God and from other people it is given back to us. If you and I respond to people in arrogance and in anger and not with mercy, then we probably have not yet come to grips with our own poverty and God’s righteousness. “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”
Blessed are the pure in heart
“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” The word “pure” in its most basic level means “undivided” or “unmixed.” It is the opposite of hypocrisy, the opposite of being two-faced. Jesus is saying blessed are those whose loyalty to their King is undivided, who are wholly committed to the King; fully devoted disciples. They are “pure,” in other words. They are not giving some of their time to the world and some of their time to God, but they are pure and undivided in their loyalty to the King. In just the next chapter, in Matthew 6:24, Jesus is going to say, “No one can serve two masters for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” God and the material world. We try though, do we not? There is something inside us that wants our loyalty, wants our heart to be divided. Some of it to God and some of it I am going to keep back for myself. But you know, it is interesting. There is no promise to see God if you are a part-time disciple. There is no promise to see God if you are some-time committed disciple of Jesus Christ. It is “Blessed are those who are pure in heart, for they [no one else] they will see God.”
Blessed are the peacemakers
Jesus moves on to the 7th link in the chair. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” You see, if a person is merciful; if a person is pure, if he is a fully devoted disciple of Jesus, he is not going to pursue violence, but rather, he or she will share in the character of their King and so they will be his son or his daughter and God is a God of peace and his children are peacemakers. Now this is not, obviously, peace at all costs. There are certain things that we have to do that upset the peace; sin, theology, different standards that we are called to. But I think Jesus is talking about the same thing that Paul is saying in Romans 12. In verse 18, where Paul tells the Roman church, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” There will be times where there will not be peace, but as far as it depends upon us, we are called in the fact that we are merciful and the fact that we are pure in our heart, that we will be characterized as being “peacemakers.” Ultimately, no matter how hard you and I try to be peacemakers, there will be points in time where peace is not going to happen and that is what the 8th and the final Beatitude is all about.
Blessed are those who are persecuted
In verse 10, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Probably knowing that that is a very difficult pill to swallow, Jesus adds a commentary, ”Blessed are you [who are approved of God] when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely, on my account, [this is not persecution because you are a jerk. This is persecution because you are a pure in heart disciple of Jesus Christ.] “Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in Heaven for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” No matter how hard you try to live at peace there will be some who will not live at peace with you! As you live out your life as a wholly devoted disciple of Jesus Christ, a son and a daughter of the King, it will inevitably result in persecution and in conflict. It is stated nowhere more clearly than in John, starting at verse 15:18, Jesus says to his disciples, “If the world hates you know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world the world would love you as its own, but because you are not of the world [counter-culture] but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word I said to you, a servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me they will also persecute you.” Then he adds the promise, ”but if they kept my word they will also keep yours.” John Stott says, “Rejoice and be glad! We are not to retaliate like an unbeliever, nor to sulk like a child [when we are persecuted] nor to lick our wounds in self-pity like a dog, nor just to grin and bear it like a stoic, still left to pretend we enjoy it like a masochist. What then? We are to rejoice as a Christian should rejoice and even to “leap for joy”. Why so? Well partly because Jesus added “Your reward is great in Heaven”. We may lose everything on earth but we shall inherit everything in heaven. Partly because persecution is a token of genuineness, a certificate of Christian authenticity, but the major reason why we should rejoice is because we are suffering, he said, “on my account,” on account of our loyalty to Him and to His standards of truth and righteousness. Certainly the apostles learned this lesson well for having been beaten and threatened by the Sanhedrin “they left the presence of the Council rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for His name.” They knew, as we should, that “wounds and hurts are metals of honor.” Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Oh that this church would be come known as a persecuted church. Not that we are a church with good worship. Not a church where “oh the Bible is preached,” but a church that is composed of people who recognize that we are spiritually bankrupt and have nothing to offer God in and of ourselves. People whose bankruptcy has pushed them to mourn and to wail over their sin and the sin in this world. A church that is meek, that understands who they are in Christ Jesus, that hungers and thirsts for His righteousness, and then out of these convictions to be a church that we move to live in a counter-cultural way as fully devoted disciples of Jesus Christ which can only end in one thing, which is persecution. Oh that we would become a biblical church and be persecuted for our faith because everyone who looks at us knows the “this world is not my home and we are just passing through.” Does this sound too difficult to do on your own? The answer is yes. It is, in fact, impossible to do on your own. It would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for anyone to save themselves. That is why Jesus has already said to Nicodemus, “Unless you are born again you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” That is the only way that you and I can fully recognize our spiritual poverty, is for God to do a work in our heart and to make us aware of that. A way in which we end up admitting our sins, admitting our separateness from God and then through the work of God’s Spirit in our lives, He draws us to himself to help us believe that Jesus’ death on the cross DID pay the penalty for our sins as he empowers us to seek his righteousness and then that same Spirit calls us to live in a counter-cultural way as we live out our lives, sons and daughters of the King of the Kingdom. Oh that we would be that kind of church.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3).
- Are you truly willing to be counter-cultural? Are you willing to come out from among the people and be different? What would stop you?
- Define “poor in spirit” in your own words. What does it look like in day-to-day living?
- In your own life, how does the first beatitude show itself to be fundamental, basic, to all you do?
- Give examples of the difference between confession and contrition.
- What does “hungering” and “thirsting” after God’s righteousness look like in daily living? Are you satisfied in God? Are you nibbling and sipping?
- Think of some situations in your daily life where you are called to be a peacemaker, but you are struggled knowing whether it was peace at all costs.
- What would motivate you to “rejoice and be glad” when you are persecuted because of your hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness? What might this look like, practically?