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Life of Christ (1996-1998)


Matthew 5:1-12

It has struck any number of scholars (and me, independently) how much the Beatitudes resemble the Old Testament Psalms known as Psalms of Ascent (which are found starting with Psalm 120). These Psalms were sung as the priests went up the steps of the Temple, or so it is assumed. The picture is compelling, that we as Christians ascent through these steps, these beatitudes (the word means “blessed”) as we rise to maturity in the faith. So let’s look at the picture:


It is convenient then to consider these steps in order.

(Mat 5:3 NIV) "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We begin, as we should, with the heart. Being “poor in spirit” deals with the inner man, the heart. It is first and foremost a recognition that pride is not right, and that recognition proceeds from a recognition of who God is. The point is best seen in reverse. When you see a strutting, arrogant man who is sure of his own abilities, a man who says, “I can handle anything,” you see a man “rich in spirit.” Such a man cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven -- for he does not recognize the King of Heaven.

Humility, therefore, is the uniquely Christian virtue, for it says that you must know God -- and therefore you will be humble. Indeed, you must be humble to the point of believing like a little child.[1] What could possibly induce us to do that?

Reward. We see God promise us the rewards of humility in two ways:

·         For those in trouble, we see a relief from the hand of the Almighty.[2]

·         For those not, we see God lifting us up.[3]

But this is the beginning step. Note one thing: it is made in imitation of our Lord, who humbled himself to the Cross for us. Each of these steps will see us imitating our master.

(Mat 5:4 NIV) Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Where being poor in spirit is internal, mourning is external. It may reflect that poverty of spirit, but it is definitely external. Its main function is to produce repentance:

(2 Cor 7:10 NIV) Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.

There are other reasons that we must mourn, that we must experience sorrow:

·         We mourn so that we may comfort others.[4]

·         More importantly, we mourn so that He may comfort us. Think about it: are you truly friends with someone until you have shared sorrow?

·         Ultimately, our mourning will be turned to joy at his return.[5]

Did our Lord mourn? Was He a man of sorrows, as portrayed in the Old Testament? Two instances come to mind: he wept over the grave of Lazarus[6], and most significantly, he wept over the city of Jerusalem.[7]

(Mat 5:5 NIV) Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Meekness is a concept not well understood. The root of meekness is in obedient love. The Greeks defined it as controlled power -- the balance point between power displayed in rage and power ignored by apathy. A classic example of the concept is shown by David in his response to Shimei at the time of Absalom’s revolt.[8]

Meekness is described as a fruit of the Spirit,[9] and this is rightly so -- for the primary issue with meekness is one of trust. If we trust God to bring righteousness, then we are not so concerned with grasping it for ourselves -- and we can then devote ourselves to others. Even our Lord was meek, not testifying (bragging?) about himself.[10]

(Mat 5:6 NIV) Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

The first thing to notice here is the phrase, “hunger and thirst.” It is a phrase of supreme activeness; try reading the verse substituting the word “want” in place of that phrase, and see how weak it appears. That is the desire for righteousness that we are to have. Pontius Pilate desired righteousness too -- until it got risky.

More than that, this is right desiring, not just right doing. Again, this goes to the heart.

There is also a prophetic aspect to this from the Old Testament[11] in which the thirsting of the land is quenched by the overflowing Spirit. Its fulfillment, at least in part, is found in the Living Water.[12]

Do we see this hunger and thirst in our Lord’s life? What about the cleansing of the Temple?[13]

(Mat 5:7 NIV) Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

For the first time we now have a “blessed” in which we can see something outside our own attitudes, for mercy must be shown to someone other than ourselves. It still involves me personally (that is to say, in some sense I am the aggrieved before I show mercy).

In the Old Testament sense of the word, it is not limited to forgiveness, but includes what we would now consider charity.[14] It also includes what we would now consider social justice, which is powerfully preached in the Old Testament.[15]

In the New Testament, the word is most commonly associated with forgiveness, as in the parable of the Unmerciful Servant.[16] It is quite clear in the New Testament that we are not forgiven except as we forgive those who offend us (as is stated in the Lord’s Prayer).

There is a sense in which we can combine these two, but it will not be too popular with Orange County Republicans. We can provide charity to those who have brought about their situation (whether poverty by sloth or disease by sexual sin) by their own actions. We can be forgiving (in the New Testament sense) and charitable (in the Old Testament sense). If they offend us by being homeless beggars or AIDS patients, surely we can forgive them what is their own fault.

For this is in imitation of God:

(Mat 5:44-45 NIV) But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, {45} that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

and again,

(Luke 6:31-36 NIV) Do to others as you would have them do to you. {32} "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. {33} And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. {34} And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full. {35} But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. {36} Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

(And herein is my main argument with Newt Gingrich).

(Mat 5:8 NIV) Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Do recall the distinction between innocence and purity: innocence knows no better (or worse); purity chooses righteousness.

Indeed, only the pure can see God -- this is clear from Isaiah’s reaction to seeing God in a vision.[17] More than that, the pure life is the only instrument suitable for seeing God. If you are pure, you will see God as he is -- pure and righteous. But if you are not, you will form the image of God in your own image -- shrewd.[18] Sometimes what you see depends upon how you look. To the pure, all things are pure[19] -- and all things belong to God.

(Mat 5:9 NIV) Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

Being merciful means that I am in some sense today offended. Being a peacemaker is something quite different; it means that I’m helping in something which is none of my business.

One area in which we need to be peacemakers is within the church. It is clear that the unity of the church depends upon peace in the church[20], and that we are to make significant sacrifices and tolerate great variations in the cause of that peace.[21]

Is this in imitation of our Lord? Certainly, for he is our peace -- the peace between us and God.[22]

(Mat 5:10 NIV) Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

It is hard for us to picture persecution as a good or “blessed” thing. But as the Scripture points out, they persecuted the prophets -- and the prophets will receive great reward. God is just; he will reward the persecuted as well when he comes.

More than the prophets, in this we are imitators of our Lord and God. Indeed, the servant cannot be above his master.[23]

So what is our reaction to be?

(James 1:2-4 NIV) Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, {3} because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. {4} Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus comes full circle. The reward for those who are persecuted is exactly the same as for the poor in spirit. The reward for the beginning is the same as for the end -- the kingdom of heaven.[24] I suggest to you that this is no coincidence, but rather that these steps must all be completed to reach the temple of God -- a temple which Christ will portray in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.

[1] Matthew 18:1-3 (little children come unto him)

[2] II Chronicles 7:14, “If my people...”

[3] James 4:10, “Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord,...”

[4] 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

[5] Revelation 2:14

[6] John 11:35

[7] Matthew 23:37

[8] 2 Samuel 16:5-13

[9] Galatians 5:23

[10] John 5:31

[11] See, for example, Isaiah 44:3

[12] John 4:14

[13] John 2:17

[14] See, for example, Proverbs 19:17, who lends to the Lord...

[15] Most brilliantly, perhaps, in Isaiah 58:6-12

[16] Matthew 18:23-35

[17] Isaiah 6, where the angel touched his mouth with a coal.

[18] Psalm 18:25-26

[19] Titus 1:15-16

[20] See, for example, Romans 12

[21] See, for example, Romans 14.

[22] Ephesians 2:13-14

[23] John 15:20

[24] See Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.

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