Lecture: Matthew 1-5
Welcome. We finished up Mark, and as I said when I started it, what I did is use Mark to get the basic outline of Jesus life. What we will do now is spend a couple of sessions in Matthew, one in Luke and a couple in John, and pick out a couple of the special things that these other three gospels have in reference to Jesus.
Let’s pray. Father, as we look at issues of the supernatural we thank you for the faith that you have given us that we can believe that you are there, that there is something outside of the physical world. Thank you father that you do interact with history and you do interact with this world. As we look at issues of your ethics and how we are to live, may we come to some sort of comfortable position in understanding how important it is that we live a certain way, and yet also know that we have your grace and your mercy when we fail. In Jesus’s name, Amen.
As I hinted at in the prayer, we are going to look at two primary things today. First, we are going to look at the birth narratives in Matthew and especially the whole issue of the virgin birth. We have already seen how the different gospel stories of the accounts of Jesus’s birth go together, but we are going to look specifically at the issue of virgin birth. Second, we are going to look at The Beatitudes—the first part of the Sermon on the Mount—and then next week, we will try to finish up the Sermon on the Mount.
The Birth of Jesus
Turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew 1. Matthew is a gospel written specifically to Jews. There are many things in Matthew that would have only been of interest to the Jew. One of those is Matthew’s desire to show that Jesus was in fact the fulfillment of prophecy, and what the Jews were expecting was fulfilled in Jesus. That’s why Matthew starts with the genealogy because if he is going to show that Jesus is the Jewish hope, if he’s the messiah, then one of the things he has to prove right off the bat is that he is a physical descendant of king David. That is why he starts with the genealogy to get that taken care of. There is one thing that is interesting at the end of the genealogy in Matthew 1:16, and you won’t see it in the English, but it says, “and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born who is called Christ.” In the Greek, that “of whom” belongs to Mary and not to Joseph. If you were reading this in Greek it would stop you, and you would go that’s odd. Cause all the other genealogies have been tracing through the dads. You remember in Luke’s genealogy its says, “and he was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph.” Both of the genealogies in their own way raise a little flag that there is something different about Jesus, and that’s what Matthew goes on to discuss; he is setting the stage.
The Angel’s Announcement to Joseph
We then get into the story of Joseph’s dream and this is all in terms of setting the stage for who Jesus is. The angel comes and tells Joseph that his fiancé is pregnant. Understand that in that culture, the engagement was the legally binding ceremony and if you were going to break off an engagement you had to get divorced. It’s a little different than our culture. He finds out that his fiancé is pregnant; he is considering divorcing her, and then verse 20 says, “but as he considered these things, behold an angel of the LORD appeared to him in a dream saying ‘Joseph son of David,’”—that’s an important phrase isn’t, it? Joseph is in the direct lineage of David—“‘son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you will call his name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins,’” which is what the name Jesus means. “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord has spoken by the prophet,” then he quotes Isaiah 7:14, “behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”—and Matthew helps us understand a little more—“which means God with us.”
There are a lot of things going on in those few verses. Part of what the angel is doing with Joseph is trying to explain that his finance is pregnant by power of the Holy Spirit. In the process, he starts telling us of Jesus’s character, not just his existence, but critical things about his character. His purpose for coming is to save people from their sins. He is the fulfillment of the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy, where Isaiah prophesied that a virgin would have a baby. Matthew picks that up and says that is a prophecy about Jesus. Even in calling Jesus Immanuel and then emphasizing that that means he is God with us, you quickly get the idea that there is something very unusual going on with this baby, not just a virgin conception you want to call it. There is a very special function, a very special baby being born, so the stage is being set.
If you go over to Luke one, Luke does the same stuff, but he fills in the picture a little more for us. What they are trying to do is not just to say that Jesus will be born, but to tell us who Jesus is and what he is about. In Luke 1, starting in verse 31, the angel says, “behold and you shall conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will call his name Jesus. He will be great and be called the Son of the Most High” (the son of God), “and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
The angel is pointing out two additional things here that Luke tells us. The one is that Jesus is also going to be the fulfillment of the promise to king David of 2 Samuel 7:14. There, God promises David that after he dies he will raise up one of his physical decedents (hence the genealogy in Matthew), and that that descendant will sit on an eternal throne and rule there forever. So Mary is being told that her baby is going to be the fulfillment of one of the greatest promises and one of the greatest hopes in all the Old Testament. Mary is told that this baby will be the fulfillment of that prophecy, and in fact as the story goes on, Mary says to the angel, “how will this be because I am a virgin,” and the angel answers her “the Holy Spirit will one upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the child that will be born will be called holy, the son of God.”
In the birth narratives you have some very significant indications of who Jesus really was, he just wasn’t a supernatural birth, there is something else going on. It’s not just that he is a very special baby, but that there are functions that he is going to do that are even beyond him being a human.
The Virgin Birth
The reason I have emphasized this is that I need to stop for a bit and just talk a bit about the virgin birth and why its caused so much trouble in the history of church, and whether it is worth the battle. At the beginning of the last century there were a lot of debates going on about the virgin birth, and it was often held up as one of the prime examples of not being able to believe your Bible, since virgins don’t have children. It was laughed at a lot.
This comes down to the issue of presuppositions. Presuppositions are those unprovable assumptions that we all make, and we use these unprovable assumptions as a basis for other decisions that we make. Everybody has them, we all use them. One of the basic presuppositions that all people have to come to terms with is whether there is such a thing as a supernatural. In all the debate about the virgin birth the real issue was the debate about whether there can be something that is supernatural. That was the real debate.
Differing Positions on the Supernatural
There are two positions that people take on the supernatural. First, some people believe in the closed system. There are different names for it; one is materialists. That doesn’t mean they like to amass a lot of material goods, it means they only believe in the material world. There are different names for it, but there are many people who believe in what’s called a closed system. What that means is that any effect that you see, anything that is caused, will be caused by something which itself is within this closed system. Anything that happens, that you can see (that’s the effect), is caused by something else that you can see. It’s a closed system in that all causes and all effects exist within an observable system. So if someone appears to have died and comes back to life, that’s the effect. The cause for that has to be something like a doctor, or the body’s amazing regenerative powers. The effect and the cause have to be together.
The best example I know of this is panspermia; have you been following this at all? That’s a real word; I didn’t make it up. One of the two men that discovered the double helix that unlocked the DNA code and got a Nobel prize for it, is a devout atheist. He came to the conclusion that evolution is impossible because there simply are not the chemicals present in this globe to create DNA. He said it is mathematically and scientifically impossible. Creation is the effect, so where does he go for a cause? Because he is an atheist, he can’t go outside of the real world that he believe is a closed system, so he believes that aliens populated the earth. Of course, he is being consistent, but his presuppositions are that there is closed system; there are no causes outside of this world that we could experience. Since it’s impossible for DNA to be produced in the evolutionary myth, obviously aliens started the human race. That is the closed system. It is important to understand this as you talk to people and relate to people. If there is an effect, if something happens, what caused it is still within the observable reality.
The opposite is obviously an open system. And the open system is a presuppositionalist that believes in the existence of the supernatural—that there can be a cause who is outside of creation, we call him God, and he can come into creation and come into history and do whatever he so chooses. One of the most famous examples was given by C. S. Lewis. I don’t remember the details, but it was a fish bowl with a couple of fish in it, and they thought that the fish bowl was their whole world. They believed in a closed system. They understood the water and the rocks so they had a handle on everything. One day a little boy walked by and threw something into the fish bowl and they couldn’t handle it. Because here was a rock or something, an effect, and they couldn’t explain where it came from, so they probably just ignored it.
Those are the closed and open systems, and as you deal with people on the supernatural, please realize that they have made a basic presupposition decision. They either believe the universe reality is open or it’s closed. Let me give you just a couple of conclusions on this whole thing. (1) Both require faith. I think that’s the most helpful way to talk to someone who believes in a closed system. “I don’t believe in God. For every effect there is a natural cause.” You say, “Prove it,” and they can’t because all presuppositions are faith based. So they are going to have to believe that there is nothing outside of the observable reality. They can’t prove it. I mean it’s absolutely impossible, and that probably is a helpful way to talk with them. The way I like to do it is not always helpful, but I just say “I don’t have enough faith to believe in a closed system.” When I see what’s going on in the world, I don’t have enough faith to believe that there is not a God. I think that atheism is a phenomenally faith based system and I don’t have that much faith. If you ever get in discussions, all people’s basic philosophical, religious assumptions require faith, none of them are provable.
Second, all the questions between closed and open is about which best explains reality. Like I said, you can’t prove God, you can’t prove Jesus died for your sins, but on the other hand in order to become a Christian, you don’t have to put your brain on the shelf. Christianity makes sense. I don’t believe it because it makes sense, but I’m thankful that it does make sense. Which system, closed or open explains the presence of good and evil? How do you explain the presence of good and evil in reality? How to you explain that people who do these amazingly sacrificial acts to help one another, but on the other hand there are always about thirty wars going on somewhere in the world? Vicious genocide in at least someplace is always going on. How do you explain the existence of meaning in life? How do you explain the that fact that there is something in the open system, in God, where our longing for our sense of purpose and fulfillment is found not within reality, but outside of reality in God? How do explain people’s sense of reality? I’m doing a bit on arguments for the existence of God. How do you explain the mere fact of existence? How do you explain the apparent design there is in all creation? Evolution by definition is destructive, not constructive, and yet everywhere you look in creation there is design. So there is a whole list of those kinds of questions that you can go through, but the question is, of a closed system and an open system, which one best explains reality? I obviously think that an open system does.
The Importance of Believing the Virgin Birth
Let’s get back to the virgin birth, and ask the question, is believing in the virgin birth really important? Is this one of those things you should believe, or is it a secondary thing? At the beginning of the last century, it was attacked by liberals; the evangelical churches’ reaction was to make a list of fundamentals—basic fundamental doctrines that all Christians must believe—and the virgin birth was one of them. Tet the liberals and the secularists would look at that and say, “that thing doesn’t happen, miracles are not believable.” You can even see this in the RSV translation and this was probably the one translation that caused the RSV the more grief than anything else when they translated Isaiah 7:14 “and a young woman shall conceive and bear a child.” And there are probably several things that went into that translation, but one was a question of the possibility of the miraculous.
I think this is important this is not a secondary doctrine. Matthew and Luke make a big deal about it; there has got be a reason for that. As you go through the history of the church, the creeds made a big deal of the virgin birth—the apostle’s creed for example. Our own creed, our own statement of faith that we use, likewise makes a big deal out of it. I think it is important, so the question is, why? What is the significance of the virgin birth?
Let me give you at least three reasons why it is important to believe in the virgin birth. First is that the Bible says miracles happen. The virgin birth is an example of a miracle, it is an example of a supernatural event, of a cause being outside of the circle of the effect. Why pick on this miracle? There are many in Scripture. As my mom likes to say, can God not do what a man can do? Now the Bible says that miracles happen and this is a miracle that is important. The Bible says they can happen.
Second, and this is related, but it’s a little different, it’s related to truthfulness. The Bible says that the birth of Jesus was a miracle, so if you don’t believe in the virgin birth then the Bible is no longer truthful. If somebody has trouble believing in the virgin birth, what they are having trouble with is the believability and the truthfulness of the Bible, and so you want to be very careful about that.
Third, and I think most importantly, the significance of the virgin birth lies in what we call Christology. Christology is our understanding of who Jesus is, the study of Christ. The birth narratives base a lot of their teaching of Christology, and who Jesus is on the fact that he did not have an earthly father. So you have some very important teachings. For example, is Jesus the Son of God? I mean if he is the son of Joseph than he can’t be the Son of God (that would be how the argument would go). How can Jesus sit on David’s throne forever, if he is merely a human being? How can a human being save us from our sins? If Jesus had an earthly mother and father, then how can Jesus be God with us? And so you can go through the things you learn about Jesus that the angels tell Joseph and Mary, and you realize that it is very important theologically that we believe in the virgin birth, because then he is the son of God and he is not just a human being.
I think that while all those reasons are important, but I think the third reason is most important. If you don’t believe in the virgin birth you’ve lost a lot of Christology, a lot of who Jesus is. These are great passages to go to if you are talking to someone and you are trying to explain who Jesus is. Say “Let’s go see what the angels said.” It’s neat that a lot of people still know the Christmas carols and they know the stories, and this would be an interesting place to take someone to say, “This is who the Bible says Jesus is,” and you are in passage that’s familiar.
Student Question: Without the virgin birth we are dead in our sins and we will never be forgiven.
Response: Yes, that’s why it is so important. Jesus is the Son of God; he is God with us. Because he is the Son of God, he can save us from our sins, that the meaning of the word “Jesus.” If he is not the Son of God, then all of that goes away because humans can’t save humans.
The Doctrine of the Incarnation
Fully God and Fully Human
The other major biblical doctrine that comes up in this whole thing of the virgin birth is the doctrine of the incarnation and this is a great time to talk about it. The incarnation, the becoming flesh, is the doctrine that Jesus was fully God and fully human at the same time. The incarnation is the doctrine that Jesus was fully God and yet he became fully human, and he existed fully God and fully human at the same time, and in fact he still is fully God and fully human, interceding for us before the throne. The doctrine of the incarnation is not that Jesus was half God and half human, it’s not two ways of looking at the same person. Just like in the doctrine of the trinity, ultimately all analogies fail as you try to think of how Jesus could be 100% God and 100% man at the same time. Our statement of faith for the institute says that “God the Son is fully God and fully human without confusion or mixture.” All that’s saying is he stayed fully God and fully human they weren’t somehow blended, so he was less than fully God and less than fully human, but the two natures existed, “without confusion or mixture conceived by the Holy Spirit and born by the virgin Mary.” That’s the doctrine of the incarnation. The church has never found a way really to describe it, they have talked about it, but there is no analogy or anything like that.
We have already seen discussion that Jesus was fully God; we did some of that when we looked at Mark. When we go into John we will spend more time on Christ’s divinity. What the birth narratives are about is to try to teach us that Jesus was unlike any other human being. He was fully God, but also that he was born. He had a mother her name was Mary, and he is fully God. One of the strongest verses on this is John 1:14: “The word became flesh and dwelt among us,” actually “tabernacled among us,” and the word that John uses for flesh is the meat that’s hanging off your bones—the most basic fundamental word that he could come up with. Scripture teaches that Jesus was fully God, but it also teaches that he was fully human, born of Mary and that is the doctrine of the incarnation.
The Importance of Believing in the Incarnation
Let me ask you those two questions. Is believing in the incarnation really important? Yes, otherwise I wouldn’t be spending so much time on it. Let me take a step back though. Understand that the doctrine of the incarnation is a theological formation. It is nothing that is explicitly stated in Scripture. This is a hand out on the council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, which settled this issue on Jesus’s incarnation as fully God and fully man. It’s interesting to read what they are saying, and then at the top of the table it shows you what they are speaking against.
This is one of those balancing acts that the church historically has struggled with. They want to fall on the idea that he is more God than he is human, or he is more human than he is God. The council of Chalcedon just said, we don’t understand it, but we believe that both are completely true. For example, there was a heresy called Docetism that says he only appeared to be human, so the council said, no he is perfect in manhood, truly man, of a reasonable, and the word used to mean rational, soul and body, consubstantial with us according to the manhood. In other words, he is just like us. Then there was a heresy called Adoptionism, where he is a human being who was adopted at his baptism when the Spirit came down, and when he died the Spirit left and the human cried out, “my god my god whey have you forsaken me?” The Adoptionists couldn’t believe, or didn’t want to believe that God could die. Against that, the council of Chalcedon said “no he is perfect in his Godhood, he is truly God.” There are a few other ones that are interesting to read. What the church did was that since there are no words to describe the fusion of fully God and fully human, rather, they fully asserted both and said the both exist. Here is some of the historical information if you want to see it.
It’s interesting in the theologies to read how they worked to get around this confusion. For example, what some theologies will do is, say “as to his human nature he was tired, but as to his divine nature he is omnipotent. As to his human nature he was no longer going to be in the world, as to his divine nature he is omnipresent, he is both creator and he is creation.” So the theologies struggle with how to describe this fully God and fully human. It is a mystery, and mystery lies at the heart of most of our basic beliefs, doesn’t it. My nephew David, he is a pastor now, but when he was about 5, he was one of these little kids that had to understand anything. He was very meticulous; he was like Tyler my son. And I was in seminary and my sister lived within driving distance, so every weekend I would go down and fill up my stomach and make it through the next week without eating and then go down the next weekend. I was down there one weekend and Davey, I think he was five years old, came to me and asked, “Uncle Bill, Jesus is God, right?” and I thought, “Oh my goodness, here it comes.” “Yes Davey, Jesus is fully God.” “Well, Jesus was a man too right?” “Yes, that’s right Davey.” I wish you knew my nephew because he started shaking and clenching his fist and starting jumping and going, “No, that can’t be!” because he couldn’t process it; he couldn’t put it together. I’m standing there watching my nephew have a fit, and then it struck me. They have a dog named Bengie; I said, “David, do you understand Bengie?” he said, “yes, uncle Bill.” “Tell me about him.” “He’s a dog, he eats food, he drinks too much.” “Do you think Bengie understands you?” “Well I guess a little.” “Well do you think Bengie understands everything about you?” “Uncle Bill of course not, he’s a do….” And stopped mid-word because he got the analogy. Bengie was a dog and he could not understand Davey because Davey was a boy. In the same way, you and I are part of creation, God is the creator, and we should not expect to understand everything. That is where faith comes in. I say all of that all as a background of this whole doctrine of incarnation. It is a mystery and it is an expected mystery.
To get back to the point, is it important to believe in the incarnation? Yes, if you want to be a Christian. This is one those pieces of answering, “What is the minimum it takes to get to Heaven?” In the book of 1 John 4, he is speaking against the Docetists, who said Jesus was God and he only appeared to be human, but he really wasn’t flesh. John writes, “My beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they be of God, for many false prophets have gone out in the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit” (and by spirit he mean person) “that does not confess Jesus” (does not confess that Jesus has come in the flesh) “is not from God,” in fact this is the spirit of the anti-Christ, to deny the full humanity of Jesus Christ.
I remember a few years ago reading this and I remember changing how I shared salvation with people. I used to say, you have to believe that Jesus’s death on the cross paid the penalty for your sins and obviously that’s not enough. You have to believe that he is fully god and fully human, and this is one of those passages that pushed me to change how I present the gospel. You have to believe that he is fully human. Elsewhere in Romans 10, you have to be able to confess that he is God, that he is Lord, that he is Yahweh. You have a belief in the incarnation being part of the offer for salivation. Therefore, yes, it is rather important.
The Significance of the Incarnation
What is the significant of the incarnation? There is another area in which its significance is paramount, and that is the doctrine of the atonement, and we have talked about that. The only way for Jesus’s death on the cross to have paid the penalty for my sins was that he was fully human. The passage is Hebrews 2:17, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of people.” He had to be made like his brothers, human beings, if he was to be our propitiation, our sacrifice of atonement. Evidently, there is something in the mind of God, that for the sacrifice to be effective, it had to be a human sacrifice for human sins. That’s why the author of Hebrews in 10:4 says that the blood of bulls and goats never took away sins. In other words, the death of a non-human ultimately cannot forgive human sins, it has to be a human being. The doctrine of the incarnation is important in the offer of salvation, so the doctrine of the incarnation is important for how we share our faith and the doctrine of the incarnation is important as we struggle to understand the atonement.
The other place that we are going to touch on the incarnation is when we get to Philippians chapter 2. There is a translation that talks about Jesus emptying himself. Some people argue that he emptied himself of his divinity when he was born, and the problem is that he can’t, because he is God and he can’t cease being God. Philippians 2 is probably more accurately translated, “that he gave himself.” Most evangelicals believe that what happened in the incarnation is that Jesus gave up the independent exercise of his divine power, that he didn’t cease being God, but he didn’t rely on the fact that he was God to do anything. Everything that he did, his sinless life, his miracles was all done through the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s the general way that people now are looking at it. He gave up the independent exercise of his divinity, he stayed God, and that’s why you have passages like, when he goes into Galilee and he was surprised at their lack of faith, and he was not able to do many miracles there. He couldn’t do many miracles because of the people’s lack of faith. Now how can that be true of God? Well it can only be true of God is if he is living by the power of the Spirit and in the Spirit, the ability to do miracles is tied in with faith. Anyway, we’ll look at those when we get there.
The Sermon on the Mount
Jesus was born, then there are stories of his early life, the coming of John the Baptist, his coming into ministry, and his choosing of the disciples, and then you get to Matthew 5. This is the most famous sermon of any sermon that has ever been or will ever be preached. This is known as the Sermon on the Mount because they were up on a mountain at the time when Jesus did it. It is a fascinating three chapters. Even the language of the Sermon on the Mount has infiltrated everywhere that English is spoken, well, anywhere any language is spoken. It’s interesting to hear someone claiming to be a non-Christian using Christian language. Have you heard that? I remember having one particular non-Christian friend in college talking about, “hanging them as high as Heman.” I said, “Do you know who Heman is? It’s in the Bible, in the Book of Esther.” He said, “Oh really?”
By way of introduction, there are quite few books written on the Sermon on the Mount. Carson’s book The Sermon on the Mount, catchy title, is a very good short discussion on the Sermon on the Mount. He also wrote the commentary on Matthew in the expositors Bible commentary and that is very good as well. John Stott’s book called Christian Counterculture is probably the best, because he gets beyond the text to application I have really enjoyed this book, Christian Counterculture, which is the essence of the Sermon on the Mount, the message of the Sermon on the Mount. And in terms of commentaries, these are some commentaries on Matthew: Craig Blomberg’s commentary in the New American Commentary is a very good one. Kent Hughes has a whole commentary series called Preaching the Word. They are sermons done by expository preachers. Kent did most of the New Testament, but this is a series of sermons on the Sermon on the Mount and very good. Then, if you want a really good middle of the road commentary, Robert Mounce, my father wrote a good one in the New International Biblical Commentary. These are very good resources on the Sermon on the Mount.
Interpreting the Sermon on the Mount
We have to spend a little bit of time talking about how we are going to approach the sermon, because you can’t just read it like any other narrative or any other teaching. It’s a very unusual piece of literature. How do you approach the Sermon on the Mount? The technical term is hermeneutics—how you go about understanding something. I will just start by saying that this sermon is very difficult. Every time you think you have a grasp on something, you generally will find there is something else there. It keeps going deeper and deeper in application. John Stott writes, “The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best known part of the teaching of Jesus though arguably it is the least understood and certainly it is the least obeyed.” Kent Hughes, in his The Sermon on the Mount quotes something from C. S. Lewis. Someone had criticized Lewis that he didn’t care much for the Sermon on the Mount. This is Lewis’s rejoinder. He says “as to caring for the Sermon on the Mount, if caring for it means liking or enjoying, I suppose no one cares for it, who could like being knocked flat on his face by a sledge hammer. I can hardly imagine a deadlier spiritual condition than that of a man who can read that passage with tranquil pleasure.” I think that is really true. We know the words, but when you start struggling with it to understand it and apply it there is a lot more there than meets the eyes.
The first reason the sermon is so difficult is that Jesus speaks in absolutes. I mean this sermon is black and white. “Cut off your hand if it causes you to sin.” “You must be perfect, as your Heavenly father is perfect,” Matthew 6:48. I know that if we were honest, a lot of times when we see stuff like that we go well I can’t do that so why should I even try? I think that’s a large response to the Sermon on the Mount. He speaks in absolutes.
The second thing is the ethical requirements in the sermon for how you and I are supposed to live are extremely high, even apparently impossible or seemingly contradicted elsewhere—contradicted elsewhere in a sermon or contradicted by Jesus or contradicted by Paul or sometimes contradicted by common sense. There is this struggle as you work through the Sermon on the Mount, if you are really honest with it, of what to do you do with these ethics? For example, is it possible to always live as a doormat, always turning the other cheek? You know there is the old joke hit me once, hit me twice, and after that its my turn. I only got two cheeks and its obviously what Jesus isn’t saying, but are we really supposed to just be beaten up constantly? He says, “Go pray in your closet,” Matthew 6:6, and then he goes and prays publicly in the garden with his disciples. I thought you just said don’t pray publicly Jesus. He says don’t judge, and then near the end of this life he has this tremendous woes passage where he judges and brings down God’s curses and condemnation on the pastors of the day. He says in the sermon, “turn the other cheek,” and then later on he is going to tell the scribes he called them a bunch of whitewashed tombs, a walking defilement. You know that is passing judgment on someone. In terms of common sense, does your hand cause you to sin? “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” “Well my hands have never cause me to sin, so I have never cut them off. My heart causes me to sin.” You see what I am saying; you start looking at this and you start saying, what is going on? It’s not simple it’s not easily understood your first pass through it.
Already, but Not Yet
I think there are three basic solutions to how you approach this and I’m going to probably say some things that are going to shock you little, but when you take these things into consideration, you can’t just read the sermon at surface value and move on. What are the solutions to this problems? First, and this is really key to all of the Christian ethic, and that is the idea of already, but not yet. Remember, we talked about this? We talked about how the kingdom of God had come, but not in its fulfillment. It has come: Jesus says, “if I by the finger of God cast out demons, then you know that the kingdom of God is come in your midst.” Yet there is a sense in which the kingdom of God has not yet come in its fullness, but that waits for Jesus second return. There is this conflict that the kingdom being present, but yet not really, not fully. You and I have to live in this in-between time—this tension of the kingdom of God having come, but not in its fullness. This is actually why I talked about that because I wanted to start getting you ready. You and I live in that tension as we try to live out our lives with the kingdom of God present in us, and yet knowing that in all its fullness it hasn’t arrived yet. There is a tension that happens. For example, you and I are saints, we are holy ones, we are called saints, but we don’t live like saints. We should strive to live by God’s strength to be saints, realizing we will never achieve it here and now, but we will someday. That’s the best illustration I know of the already not yet. You and I are saints even though we don’t live act like it. We should strive to live like saints knowing we are never going to achieve it, but someday we will achieve it when the kingdom of God comes in its fullness and sin is removed. When I talk about the already and not yet, it is that tension that is all the way through the Bible and we are going to see this over and over and over again. There is a tension between who were are in Christ and how we are called to live knowing that we are going to fail, but we still strive towards it because we know that’s what pleases God and someday that’s how we will live. This is the tension that all Christians live in. That explains a whole lot of what is going to go on in the Sermon on the Mount. You’ll see it as we work through it.
Secondly, as we go through the sermon, it is really important to give the teachings their full force, but not be simplistic. We have to allow these words to carry the meaning they have, but as we look at it, it’s easy to be simplistic. For example, for a long time I really objected when people’s names were put on buildings. I went to a school where if you gave enough money you could have your name on an office. Unfortunately, no one gave money for the furnishings of my office so I didn’t have to have the, named honorary desk stamped on my door. I just hated it, because the Bible says don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing. How can you possibly be obedient to that and give five million dollars to a building and get your name on it? I am going to tell you that that is a simplistic way to look at it.
For example, is it better to lose a hand and go to Heaven, then to go to Hell with two hands? You know we say, “but cutting off my hands isn’t going to stop me from sinning, I will sin with my feet.” Yes, I understand that, but it is better to go maimed to Heaven then whole to Hell. Yes, and see what happens and it’s what I mentioned earlier, because the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount is so difficult, there is such a temptation to say, “I just won’t do it at all.” But it is better to be maimed in Heaven than whole in Hell. It is better not to retaliate. The kingdom of God does belong to those who are poor in spirit. Yet Jesus says, “Go pray in private,” and then the very next chapter he is going to say, “Here’s how you pray, ‘Our Father,’” what, are these a bunch of people in your closet? No, this is community prayer. “But Jesus you just said don’t pray in public?” He would say, “Come on, don’t be so simplistic, listen to the whole picture of what I am saying.” You will hear this as I struggle through these three chapters. We have to let these words carry force, but we can’t be simplistic in how we understated them.
The Concern is the Heart
Third, Jesus is more interested in my attitude; he is more interested in my whole hearted commitment. That is what the sermon is about. Being pure and undefiled, wholly his, wholly committed that he is our sovereign, that he is our king. He talks a lot about actions, but part of the key as we talk about these actions, these things we are to do and things we are not to do, they are the response out of this wholehearted commitment that Jesus is commanding. I know that this is a lot up front, but you are going to see this as we work through.
Introduction to the Beatitudes
Let’s jump into The Beatitudes, which is verses 2 through 12. I have a few things to say in introduction to The Beatitudes, the other material was introduction to the sermon, this is introduction to The Beatitudes. What is the relationship of The Beatitudes to the rest of the sermon? Is it just the beginning or is there something more going on? I believe that verse 3 is the key for the entire Sermon on the Mount. I think Jesus gives the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven,” and then in the following seven beatitudes, he spells out what that’s means. Then what I think happens is those beatitudes become the kernel and then the rest of the Sermon on the Mount is trying to explain what The Beatitudes are saying. That’s why I am going to spend so much time on The Beatitudes, so that as we go through the rest of the sermon, I am going to keep going back to The Beatitudes. I will say, “This is a practical application, for example, of beatitude four.” Verse 3, the first beatitude, is the key; the seven other beatitudes help us understand what it means to be poor in spirit, then the rest of the sermon explains what all The Beatitudes as a whole are about. I think that is the structure of everything.
By the way the word beatitude is from a Latin word meaning blessed. The Beatitudes are those sayings where Jesus says “blessed are,” so that’s where we get the word beatitude. Blessed does not mean happy; that’s not what the word blessed is talking about. Blessed people are not always happy people. Blessed people are not always smiling. Blessed does not mean happy. At its most fundamental level, to be blessed means that you have found approval. That’s what the word means. If a person is pronounced blessed, it means you have found approval. In this context, it means you have found approval from God. What the sermon is all about is how to have God’s approval—how to be in the right relationship with God. When these beatitudes say “blessed are,” the question is, do you want to be in a right relationship with God? That’s what The Beatitudes are telling us about. Let’s just work our way through them.
Verse 3: Blessed are the Poor in Spirit
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” I am going to break my discussion on all these beatitudes into a definition and a promise, because that’s what Jesus is doing. He’s making a blessed statement and then he is saying, here is my promise, here are the consequences, if you are blessed. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” This is the fundamental characteristic of a disciple without which nothing else in the sermon works. If you don’t get this, nothing else works in the whole sermon.
To be poor in spirit means you recognize your inability to be approved by God on your own. It means, I don’t have anything to earn favor with God. I don’t have anything to hold up to God and say “here you owe me.” Being poor in spirit is recognizing that we are not able to be approved by God on our own; we are not able to earn Gods approval. Now, this doesn’t mean that I have to believe that I’m worthless. Carson writes, “This is a confession that I am sinful and rebellious and utterly without moral virtues adequate to commend myself to God.” Elsewhere he says “Being poor in spirit is the deepest form of repentance.” It means you understand you are impoverished, that you have nothing to offer God. The promise is that if you come to this repentance, if you understand that “nothing in my hand I bring,” as the hymn says, then ours is the kingdom of God; we will inherit the kingdom of God. Now, we are probably more familiar with how Paul says the same thing. Paul says that salvation is by God’s grace and mercy. Paul says that justification is by faith. These are all Paul’s terms for explaining the same thing. We’re are not made right with God, we are not justified because we can earn it or because we can do good things, we are we are justified by our faith believing that Jesus did it on the cross. That’s Pauls’ way of saying, “blessed are the poor in spirit.”
Verse 4: Blessed are Those who Mourn
The second beatitude is “blessed are those who mourn.” I think what Jesus is doing is he is talking about a personal assessment of those who understand that they are poor in spirit. What do you do when you realized you have nothing to offer God? What do you do when you understand that you are totally impoverished before God? You mourn. Now this is not people who are just sorry, this is people who mourn before God as they recognize their spiritual bankruptcy and perhaps the spiritual bankruptcy of the world around them. It’s in response to when you understand that you have nothing to bring to God, then you mourn. The promise is that those who mourn over their spiritual bankruptcy, “they shall be comforted.” You have always got to watch for passives in the NT. This is what we call a divine passive, because the person doing the comforting is God. In other words, there is an end to the spiritual emptiness of a sinner, that God will satisfy those inner longings created by an awareness that we are not living as we were designed to live.
Verse 5: Blessed are the Meek
While “blessed are those who mourn” is a personal assessment, “blessed are the meek” is an assessment of what we think of ourselves in relationship to other people. A person who mourns over his spiritual poverty is not going to at the same time assert himself in pride and arrogance over another person will he or will she? That’s just doesn’t to happen. That is, if you truly understand your spiritual bankruptcy, if you are mourning your spiritual condition, then you are not going to be asserting yourselves in pride and arrogance over someone else. That’s why when problems happen in a church and you get self-aggrandizement, you wonder, “Don’t you understand who you are in Christ? I mean how can you assert yourself in pride and arrogance when you have nothing, at all.”
Now we are not talking about being a doormat when we are talking about being meek, but we are talking about people who are mourning over their spiritual bankruptcy and have made a deliberate decision to not insist on their own rights, but to put other people first. It is what Paul is talking about in Philippians 2, “Count one another more significant than yourself.” See if I were to assert myself over you that you would be an indication that I don’t really understand how messed up I am. Likewise, when we understand our spiritual bankruptcy, we mourn over it, and it produces in us a meekness; a willingness to value the other person and put the other persons needs ahead of your own.
The promise to the meek is that, “They will inherit the earth,” which would be the exact opposite of what the world says right? The world would say that if you’re going to be meek, you aren’t going to get anything. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, survival of the fittest, and I’m going to climb over anyone I need to to get to the top of the ladder, and they think that’s how they are going to inherit the world, but in fact we know it is those who are meek that shall inherit the earth. This is where Stott’s title is so good, Christian Counter Culture. You can take almost anything the world values and turn it upside down and it’s right. I mean very few things has the world gotten right, but certainly if this area of meekness they have gotten wrong. This is why Jesus says things like, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” There’s this flip-flop that happens in the kingdom of God. Those who are meek who will in fact inherit the earth. Meekness leads us to the fourth beatitude.
Verse 6: Blessed are Those who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness
Rather than pursuing ourselves, a meek person is not going to pursue themselves because they are spiritually bankrupt. Rather than pursuing ourselves, we pursue God as the source of righteousness. That we hunger and thirst not for our own righteousness in the sense that we can somehow earn it, but we are spiritually bankrupt, so we are hungering and thirsting for God’s righteousness—for God to make us right; for God to bring us into a right relationship with him.
The hunger and thirst reminds me of Psalm 42, “As a deer pants for water, so my soul pants for you, O God.” As a deer who is being hunted and is running and running and yet has to stop and have something to drink or it will die, so also if we truly did understand our spiritual bankruptcy, if were really did live lives of mourning and being meek then what we are going to do is stop looking inside of us for the answer and start looking more outside of us. That means we will be turning to God as saying, “Righteousness is with you and I hunger and I thirst for your righteousness.” It is those people, think of the image of the deer in Psalm 42, who will be satisfied. There is a feast that can satisfy even the deepest spiritual hunger. It is why Jesus said, “I am the bread of life whoever comes to me shall not hunger, whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” In other words, there is something satisfying about Jesus.
Verse 7: Blessed are the Merciful
We move on to the fifth beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful,” and again listen to the sequence as we have gone through The Beatitudes. As we see our own spiritual poverty, as we mourn our over our natural condition, and as we seek God’s righteousness, how can we but be merciful to those around us? Do you see how these all fit together? It’s when I don’t understand my own spiritually poverty, it’s when I think that I am worth saving, it is that road that leads to arrogance and selfishness, and self-centered living. But if we truly understand our spiritual poverty, if we are hungering and thirsting for God’s righteousness, then as we mix with other people, then we will treat them with mercy. When someone doesn’t treat someone with mercy, you wonder which of the following beatitudes do they not really understand? But those who are merciful, “they shall receive mercy.” You and I will be treated by God in a sense, in accordance with how we have treated others. This is not salvation by works; it is simply saying that new creatures behave in a new way. You know the message in Matthew 25, where Jesus welcomes some people into his rest, and the reason is “because you were merciful; you clothed the naked, you fed the hungry, you visited people in prison, and as you did that you did it to me. You extended mercy so I will extend mercy to you as well at judgment day.” Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. This then makes you wonder when someone is not known for his mercy what he will be shown? We move on to the sixth beatitude.
Verse 8: Blessed are the Pure in Heart
In terms of definition, to be pure means to be undivided, it means to be unmixed, right? I think what Jesus is saying here is that in the deepest places of our heart, we must be fully committed to our king. We must be pure, we must be undivided, this is what he demands of us. We must be undivided in our devotion to him, after all, we are seeking his righteousness. Why would we try to throw something of ourselves in with it? The subjects of the kingdom of God are totally committed, totally loyal to their king.
Can you feel the already but not yet tension? Blessed are the pure in heart, but are any of us pure in heart? Do we want to be pure? Do any of us think that we are going to be pure before we die? But should we not still strive for being pure? See that’s the already but not yet tension that is all throughout this passage. It is those who are pure in heart who will see God. Do you want to see God? Than you heart needs to be pure.
Along with the Mark 8 passage that we talked about several weeks back, “if you want to be my follower, you have to deny yourself take up your cross and follow me,” The Beatitudes have also had the biggest impact on my life. That’s why I talk all the time about being fully devoted disciples. It’s because there is no part-time discipleship in The Beatitudes—it doesn’t exist. I don’t want to be simplistic, but I want to give words their full force. This is a hard thing, but this is what Jesus requires of us; it is what he wants of us, and it’s what our regenerate nature wants. We want to be pure and we will strive to be pure, knowing that we will fail, and knowing there is forgiveness. We will strive for purity because that’s what our God wants, and someday we will be pure.
I was just telling Robin the other day, I may live to regret these words, but I don’t want to die unexpectedly. It’s interesting that 150 years ago dying unexpectedly was a horrible thing because everybody wanted to get their house in order. Now we want to die quickly so we don’t hurt, and that’s been a huge culture shift over the last 150 years, but I want to go into Heaven with my eyes open because I want to feel, I want to be cognizant of sin being stripped out of every cell of my body. It is only going to happen once in eternity and I want to be fully engaged when it’s happening. I want to know what it’s like for the first time to be pure. I am going to strive as hard as I can by God’s power to get there, as close as I can, but I know it’s just going to feel like just layers and layers of dirt being pulled out of my body when I am finally pure, but I will strive for it until I die. Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.
Verse 9: Blessed are the Peacemakers
If you are truly meek, if you are truly merciful, if you are pure, you will not pursue violence, will you? Its kind like if you are following this sequence, you get to this point and its like, “Of course I’m not going to seek conflict with my brothers and sisters; I’m going to seek peace.” This was mom’s favorite verse she quoted when I was growing up, plus that other one from proverbs, that how beautiful it is when brothers dwell together in harmony. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and the promise is that “they shall be called sons of God.” Now they are not sons of God in the sense that Jesus is the Son of God, and they are not sons of God in the sense that they are male (don’t worry, you ladies will stay female). It just reflects ancient inheritance language where the male child inherited the estate. In Christ, men and women together inherit the promises of God and are his children. “Blessed are the peacemakers” for they shall receive the inheritance that God has promised to his children, “They will be sons of God.”
Verses 10-12: Blessed are Those who are Persecuted for Righteousness’s sake”
Finally, number eight. Does anyone like the eighth beatitude? I don’t. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” Notice he has gone full circle, he is back to how you receive the kingdom of God, the same promise in the first beatitude. Then he probably says, “that’s probably pretty hard for you to fathom isn’t it, in fact you may not be sure that you heard me correctly, let me repeat myself: Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all sorts of evil against you falsely of my account.” In other words, when you are persecuted because you are a Christian. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in Heaven.”
“No thanks, God, I’ve got a big enough reward in Heaven, I’d like to have a little less pain right here.” “No. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in Heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” If you, as a child of God, live in the power of the kingdom of God, you will be living a countercultural life and you will be persecuted, period end of discussion. George Verwer says in one of his books that if you are in ministry and you are not being persecuted, there is something wrong. If you are being persecuted, it’s a sign that you are at the gates of Hell and the kingdom of God is advancing forcibly and Satan’s really unhappy with you.
Persecution is not a bad thing; it is a good thing. There are many verses that talk about this. In John 15:18-19, Jesus is talking about the fact that they hated him and they are going to hate his followers. Romans 8:16-17 is actually a very strong passage; let me read it. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. If children then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him, in order that we may also be glorified with him.” There is a connection between our being children of God and glorification and receiving our inheritance; it is all dependent upon our suffering with him. That’s a pretty strong connection, isn’t it? This is what Paul says to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:12, that whoever seeks to live a godly life will be persecuted. In Philippians 1:29, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him, but also have lots of money and fast cars and beautiful houses.” There are churches that preach that right? Actually, it says, “That for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him, but also suffer for his sake.” It has been granted, the privilege has been given to us to suffer for the sake of Christ. Blessed are you when you are persecuted for righteousness’s sake because you are living God’s righteousness. Because you are living in relationship with him, you are blessed; yours is the kingdom of God and your reward is great in Heaven. Being a Christian is counter cultural isn’t it?
Call to Action
The Salt of the Earth
In conclusion that’s the point that he is going to make in verses 13-16, and we will close with this. Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” Salt can’t chemically lose its flavor. Salt gets diluted with other things. They use salt to preserve meat and if you dilute the salt it no longer preserves the meat. Jesus is saying, you are the salt of the earth, you are different. You are one of the preserving agencies of culture and of people’s lives and so if you live in a counter cultural way, you’ll be living as salt. If you are not living as salt, if you are not preserving society, if you are not stopping spiritual decay, to extend the metaphor, what good are you? I guess you are good for nothing, but to be thrown out and have people walk on you.
He is talking about how counter cultural our lives are supposed to be, and that is why the biggest fear that I have for the American modern church is that statistically we are no different than the rest of the world. The highest divorce rate is among evangelical Christians in the south. The lowest is in New England. There is no statistical difference. When groups of pastors and youth pastors go into motels, the amount of X-rated movies that are watched goes up. Ask any convention center. Everywhere you go they will say, “Yes, it happens every time.” We as the church have ceased being salt and we are hence simply being trampled over, but if we are going to live as Christians, we are going to be counter cultural.
The Light of the World
Life in the kingdom is not only counter cultural, but it is public. Verse 14 says, “You are the light of the world, a city set on a hill cannot be hid, nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand and it gives light to all in the house.” The whole point of having a light is that it illuminates. Just like a city with all its lights on when it’s up in a hill, you can’t hide it, so also you and I are to be the light of the world. In verse 16 Jesus explains it: “In the same way let your light shine before others, so they may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in Heaven.” The whole point of being a light is to let it shine. I will resist breaking into the nursery rhyme, “This little light of mine.” Our lives as kingdom people are to be lived out so others can see our good works, in other words, the types of things that The Beatitudes lead us to do. Then, as a result of being blessed, we will glorify not ourselves, but will glorify God.
Finally, Jesus wants wholehearted commitment. There is no self-reliance and there is no part-time Christianity in The Beatitudes, is there? It doesn’t fit. What Jesus wants is wholehearted commitment, and it start with the preaching of the word, recognition of sin, and with people coming to a full awareness that they have nothing to offer God in exchange for their soul; absolutely nothing. That’s most people’s stopping point, isn’t it? They are not willing to admit that they have nothing, but we come and we say, “God I have nothing, I am spiritual bankrupt, it leads me to tears, I mourn over my lack of goodness in and of myself.” Rather then, pursue God’s righteousness and all the effects that it has in our lives, whether it be mercy, or being pure in heart or peacemakers or suffering persecution for Christ’s name.
I took a long time in The Beatitudes, because they are pivotal in my life, they are pivotal in the Sermon on the Mount, and they are pivotal for all of the Christian ethic. If we can get these eight things right, almost everything else just flows naturally. These are things to be grappled with; they are not easily understood.
Let’s pray. Father we stand a little bit amazed a little bit frightened as we see the extent to which you have called us. But Father, may there not be any pride in our hearts. May we understand that no matter what we can achieve on a human level, it is nothing on your level. That we are, completely and totally apart from the work of Christ, bankrupt. Father may we mourn over our sin, may we not excuse it, but may we be offended by it, may we hate it. May it drive us to you; may it drive us to your righteousness; may it drive us to the righteousness of your Son that he earned and that he imparts to us on the cross. Father, may these deep convictions spread out through our lives. May we be meek, not asserting ourselves, but valuing others as more significant. May we be peacemakers; may our hearts be pure, and someday Father, they will be pure, and we look forward to that day. In Jesus’s name. Amen.