1Now when He saw the crowds, He went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to Him, 2and He began to teach them, saying:
3"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
Now we come to one of the most famous and significant portions of the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount: "Now when [Jesus] saw the crowds, He went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to Him, and He began to teach them" (vss. 1-2). This sermon taught by Jesus (comprising chapters 5, 6, and 7 of the book of Matthew) represents the highest ethical teaching in the Bible. In it, Jesus speaks not only of external purity, but also of internal purity; not only of actions of the body, but also of intents of the mind; not only of righteousness and justice, but also of mercy and forgiveness. Note that, though the "crowds" followed Jesus up on the mountainside, the teachings of Jesus were directed specifically to His disciples. The "crowds" that followed Jesus up on the mountainside were the same "crowds" mentioned at the end of the previous chapter in Matt. 4:24-25. Many from these "crowds" came to Jesus specifically to be healed from various physical maladies (see Matt. 4:24). Most of them probably had never heard Jesus teach. Nevertheless, Jesus directs this teaching specifically to His disciples, not to the general "crowds". It is as if Jesus wants the crowds to hear teaching specifically directed to the disciples so that the "crowds" may get a taste of what the kingdom of heaven is like. Having just been healed, many of the "crowds" were probably enamored with Jesus for His healing powers alone. Here Jesus allows them to hear the challenging teachings of the Sermon on the Mount--challenging even for His disciples to follow and obey. These teachings are so important to us, His disciples, because they teach us what our character should be, as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Without them, "would we know what kind of people Christians ought to be? Would we know the character at which Christians ought to aim? Would we know the outward walk and inward habit of mind which become a follower of Christ?" This is our standard of conduct.
Jesus started His teaching with what we now call "the Beatitudes". The Beatitudes pronounce "blessed"ness upon the citizens of the kingdom of heaven, based upon certain characteristics of these citizens. Beginning the sermon in this way must surely have caught the attention of the listeners, as Jesus said: "Blessed... blessed... blessed..." One can imagine each of the listeners waiting expectantly to see which of the "Blesseds" applied to them.
Jesus begins: "Blessed are the poor in spirit" (vs. 3). What a strange saying? How could one who is "poor in spirit" be "blessed"? Apparently, Jesus' definition of who is "blessed" does not correspond with the world's definition. "Not the rich, the rejoicing and proud, not conquering warriors nor popular favorites, are the ["blessed"] under the Messianic reign, but these-- the poor, the mourning and meek, the peacemakers, the persecuted."
Jesus Himself answers the question as to how one who is "poor in spirit" is "blessed": "For theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (vs. 3). In other words, those who are "poor in spirit" are the ones who inherit the "kingdom of heaven". Knowing this, we certainly want to know: What does "poor in spirit" mean? Who are the "poor in spirit"? Answer: The "poor in spirit" are those who recognize their spiritual poverty; they understand that (spiritually speaking) they are bankrupt; they realize that (spiritually speaking) they are failures, and thus, they recognize their need for God's mercy and God's salvation. Theirs is "the kingdom of heaven" because they are the ones who accept Jesus' gift of salvation. No one who is not "poor in spirit" can truly accept Jesus' gift of salvation. Let me say it another way: if anyone thinks that he, by his own merits, deserves salvation, then he is rejecting the necessity of Jesus' death on the cross. Such a man is deceived, for "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). And so, it is only the "poor in spirit" who will inherit the "kingdom of heaven." This sets up a magnificent irony: only the "poor in spirit" are in a position to receive the riches of Christ.
Incidentally, notice that the promise to the "poor in spirit" is immediately realized. Jesus said: "For theirs is" (not will be) "the kingdom of heaven." Our citizenship in heaven begins the moment we are saved.
Jesus continues: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" (vs. 4). Jesus here is expanding upon the first beatitude. The "mourning" that Jesus is speaking of is the mourning of the "poor in spirit"; it is the "mourning" concerning our spiritual poverty. Now, there are some who realize that they are sinners, but they do not mourn over their sin. Many are even proud of their sin. They throw caution to the wind, saying, "Well, yes, I expect I'll be going to hell, but at least I'll go there smiling." Needless to say, those with such an attitude will not "be comforted". The one who is truly repentant mourns concerning his sin. Moreover, he also mourns concerning the sins of others. He grieves to see others stumble in sin. He does what he can to keep himself and others from sinning.
Note that the blessing associated with this beatitude is a future blessing: "For they will be comforted." As long as we live in our fallen bodies, sin will accompany us, and so our mourning will not cease.
Jesus next teaches: "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth" (vs. 5). There is some confusion concerning what it means to be "meek". "Meek"ness is looked down upon, even by some Christians, because they confuse "meekness" with "weakness". Leon Morris explains what "meek"ness is, and clears up this confusion: "Meekness is not to be confused with weakness: the meek are not simply submissive because they lack the resources to be anything else. Meekness is quite compatible with great strength and ability as humans measure strength, but whatever strength or weakness the meek person has is accompanied by humility and a genuine dependence on God. True meekness may be a quality of the strong, those who could assert themselves but choose not to do so. The strong who qualify for this blessing are the strong who decline to domineer." And so we see, meekness is not synonymous with weakness, rather, meekness is the proper use (and constraint) of strength. And surely, how could those who are "poor in spirit", who acknowledge their spiritual bankruptcy, be anything but "meek"? Those who properly acknowledge their dependence upon God for salvation will reflect this acknowledgement in their lives. They will not display a brash, arrogant attitude, as they mourn for their sin. Rather, their poverty of spirit will act itself out in life through "meek"ness.
The reward promised to the "meek" is that "they will inherit the earth." This certainly must have surprised Jesus' listeners. It was (and is) the prevailing opinion that the strong, aggressive, victorious warrior will control the earth. And so, how will it be that the "meek...will inherit the earth"? It is true that, in the end, a strong warrior will conquer the earth. That warrior will be none other than the Commander of the Army of the Lord, the Captain of the Heavenly Hosts, Jesus Christ. Through His victory, the "meek...will inherit the earth".
Jesus continues: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled" (vs. 6). Naturally those who "mourn" over their own sin and the sins of the world will also "hunger and thirst for righteousness". The promise associated with this beatitude is that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness "will be filled". In general, our hunger for food, our thirst for water, our passions for fleshly desires are never satisfied. As Solomon tells us: "All man's efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied" (Eccl. 6:7). However, Jesus promises that those who "hunger and thirst for righteousness...will be filled." This is the only kind of "hunger and thirst" that will be "filled".
Next, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy" (vs. 7). In the trait of being "merciful", we again have a characteristic that is related to the characteristic stated in the first beatitude, that of being "poor in spirit". As one recognizes his own spiritual bankruptcy, he also recognizes his own need for the mercy of God. Those who recognize their need for mercy would be hypocritical if they themselves did not show mercy to others. One who is not "merciful" must not truly be "poor in spirit", must not truly recognize his need for the mercy of God. Thus, Jesus here ties the blessing of being "shown mercy" to the character trait of being "merciful". In the same way, one who is not "merciful" will not be "shown mercy". For this reason, we must all be careful to err on the side of mercy. Do not be too quick to judge others, but rather show them mercy and lead them lovingly to a knowledge of the truth.
Then next, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God" (vs. 8). A "pure heart" implies pure motives. It implies good deeds done out of love, not out of a necessity to please God. Purity of heart is difficult to achieve. We need the help of God in this, so we should pray (as David did): "Create in me a pure heart, O God" (Ps. 51:10). The blessing received by the "pure in heart" will be that "they will see God". This should be one of our greatest desires. This was the greatest desire of David. He prayed: "One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek Him in his temple" (Psalm 27:4).
Jesus continues: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God" (vs. 9). Many of the listeners of Jesus' sermon did not expect the Messiah to say something like this. Many of the Jews of the time were expecting a "warrior Messiah", a Messiah who would come and wage war upon the Romans. So, they were probably surprised, and disappointed, to hear the Messiah to say: "Blessed are the peacemakers." Nevertheless, this statement reflects the heart of God. God hates strife. Among the "six things the LORD hates" enumerated in Prov. 6:16 are: "...hands that shed innocent blood... and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers." The Messiah (contrary to the expectation of the Jews) was prophesied to be "the Prince of Peace" (Isa. 9:6). At the birth of Jesus, the angels declared: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men" (Luke 2:14). So it is no surprise, since God loves peace and hates strife, that the blessing that "peacemakers" will receive is that "they will be called sons of God." "Peacemakers" follow in the steps of God, who sent His Son to bring peace between God and man, and man and man.
Also, note this: Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers", not "Blessed are the peace-keepers". Those who are blessed are those who actively go out and make peace. To be a "peacemaker" is much more than just letting things slide and ruffling as few feathers as possible. To be a "peacemaker" is to (as David exhorted) "seek peace and pursue it" (Ps. 34:14).
In the last of the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches: "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (vs. 10). One certainly does not consider someone who is "persecuted" to be blessed. Certainly, in his present state, the one who is being "persecuted" is not "blessed", and so Jesus is teaching us not to judge "blessed"ness necessarily by the circumstances of our present state. We must have an eternal view of things, and understand that our trials and afflictions here on earth are not a gauge of how blessed we are, but rather are stepping stones in our Christian growth on the path toward the true "blessed"ness described in these Beatitudes. It was important that Jesus teach His disciples to have this eternal view of things, for they all were to experience great persecution for their faith in Him. John Calvin describes the importance of teaching the early disciples to have an eternal view of things:
"We know that it is not only the common crowd, but the philosophers also, who are caught in this error: that the happy man is he who, relieved from all troubles, in possession of all he asks, leads a happy and quiet life. Virtually every man judges happiness by his present state. So Christ, to accustom His men to bear the cross, corrects the common idea that those are the happy ones, who, according to the flesh, have it all good and prosperous. For clearly it is impossible for them to submit mildly to the yoke when there are pains and insults to be borne, if they assume that endurance is not the way of the life of blessedness. There is only one consolation by which the sharpness of the cross and all other evils are mitigated, even made sweet, and that is for us to be assured that we have blessing in the very midst of our miseries, for our endurance is blessed by the Lord, and a happier outcome will soon ensue. I admit that this doctrine is far from the general opinion, but it should be the philosophy of Christ's disciples, that they may set their happiness beyond this world, and above the desire of the flesh."
The early Christians, who underwent much persecution, no doubt treasured these teachings of Jesus, and were able to bear their great afflictions because of this promised blessing of Jesus.
Significantly, the blessing promised to those who are "persecuted because of righteousness" is the same as the one in first Beatitude: "Theirs is the kingdom of heaven." It seems to me that Jesus envelops all of the Beatitudes with the same blessing as if to say that all of the character traits described--being poor in spirit, mourning over sin, being meek, thirsting after righteousness, being merciful, being pure in heart, being peacemakers, being persecuted because of righteousness--I say, it is as if Jesus is saying that all of these character traits should apply to all citizens of the kingdom of heaven. So it is not a matter of picking one of the Beatitudes and saying, "Oh, that one applies to me." No, we should strive that all of the character traits set forth in these sayings apply to us. As we have seen, these character traits are all closely related to each other anyway, each of them naturally flowing (in a way) out of the first one, that of being "poor in spirit". Once one is "poor in spirit" (that is, once he acknowledges his spiritual poverty), he will naturally "mourn" for his sin, he will naturally be "meek" through the knowledge of his own spiritual bankruptcy, he will "thirst for righteousness" in an effort to change his state of spiritual poverty, he will be "merciful" to others as he realizes his own need for mercy, etc.
Perhaps because the last Beatitude was the most difficult to grasp, Jesus expanded upon it, lest He be misunderstood: "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me" (vs. 11). Jesus expands upon the last Beatitude as if to say, "Yes, when I said `persecuted', I really meant `persecuted'!" Note that, as if to bring the point home, Jesus switches to the second person and speaks directly to His disciples: "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you..."
Jesus adds: "Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way, they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (vs. 12). So, Jesus not only tells us that "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness", but He also expects us to act as if we are "Blessed", for He says we are to "Rejoice and be glad." This, needless to say, is very difficult. It is one thing to intellectually acknowledge that, yes, eventually those who are persecuted will be blessed; it is quite another thing to act as if we are blessed for our persecution, and actually "Rejoice and be glad." Jesus reminds us that the greatest men of God were persecuted: "For in the same way, they persecuted the prophets who were before you." Peter expands on this idea: "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you" (I Peter 4:12-14). Peter not only preached this attitude, he practiced it. In Jerusalem, Peter was brought before the Sanhedrin, arrested because the Sadducees were jealous of the success of his ministry (see Acts 5:12ff). After Peter preached Christ to the Sanhedrin, they rewarded him by having him flogged (see Acts 5:40). Peter's response to all this: "The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name" (Acts 5:41).