Last week in the sermon “Who Heard the Greatest Sermon Ever Preached” (available in this archive) we discussed the setting for the Sermon on the Mount. We noticed the mixed crowd of Jews and Gentiles who were following Him. When Jesus saw these crowds, he went up on the mount to sit down and teach His disciples. We couldn’t be sure if only the twelve heard the sermon or whether the whole crowd. But we also noticed that it does not matter in the sense that the eleven would be sent out after Jesus’ resurrection to proclaim Jesus to all the world, both Jew and Gentile and to make disciples of them.
We also noticed that since the sermon is directed to His true disciples, whether the eleven or the surrounding crowd, that this sermon was not meant for the Jewish nation as a whole as a new ethic for the Jewish people. Neither is it some sort of esoteric teaching of the life in the millennial kingdom. This sermon is addresses to those who heard it. And as it seemed good to the Holy Spirit to have Matthew record it in the Scripture, it speaks to us as well. So if this sermon is addressed to Jesus’ disciples of Jesus from the time of Jesus, we have to understand what Jesus is saying to us by this sermon.
Exposition of the Text
The Sermon begins with a series of “blessing” statements. Anyone who reads it with a sense of literalness knows that they seem quite different than the “be happy attitudes of Robert Schuller. The modern health and wealth gospellers would hardly consider these “blessings” at all. Why would Jesus consider people who are poor in spirit, weeping, meek, persecuted for His sake, and so on as being “blessed”?
Matthew contains these statements of blessing at the beginning of His gospel on one mount and a series of curses or woes on the Pharisees, Scribes, and other Jewish leaders on another mount in Jerusalem. In it he seems to be framing the gospel with the mountains in Deuteronomy in which blessings for obedience were shouted from one mountain and curses for disobedience from another. If we follow this pattern here, Jesus’ disciples are blessed because they obey Him and the Scribes and Pharisees cursed because they did not.
The first blessing is to those who are “poor in spirit”. Poor in spirit is not necessarily the same as being materially poor. However there is at least some correlation as Luke who records a similar sermon given on another occasion by simple recording “blessed are the poor” without the “in spirit”.
Being poor in spirit is seen by many commentators as being people who know of their desperate need of salvation and have lost all hope in themselves and look for the Savior. This is true enough, but as this verse is in the context of the difficulties that a disciple of Jesus will encounter, there is also a sense that followers of Jesus might suffer the loss of material goods as well. This seemed to have happened to believers in the early church as the writer of Hebrews addresses this situation directly. So I would think it wise to keep the possibility of loss of possessions as the cost of discipleship a real possibility.
This poverty, however it is defined had a promise “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. We must notice that it says “is” and not “will be”. The Kingdom of Heaven is not some far off Eden in the sweet by and by but is a present reality to those who are suffering poverty in spirit or goods because of the gospel. This of course means true for us as well. We who believe in Jesus are already in the Kingdom. At this moment, we are in the Kingdom marked by suffering fir and with Christ. But someday, we shall enter into the joy beyond the cross with Jesus as well. But we are not less in the Kingdom now than we will be then.
In verse 4, Jesus blesses His followers who are mourning with the promise that they shall be comforted in their mourning. Here the promise has a future tense verb. The believer in times of sorrow and joy is still in the Kingdom. But mourning and the promised comfort are separated in time. We are reminded of the verse in Psalm 30:5 that joy comes in the morning afterward. In other words, “mourning today, morning tomorrow”. Jesus in John 16 reminded His disciples of their upcoming travail over Jesus’ arrest and death. They are reminded that they would mourn and the world would be glad. However their mourning would be turned to joy on Easter morning.
The disciple of Jesus will undergo the distress of mourning. But the Comforter, the Holy Ghost, who the Father sends in Jesus’ name will provide comfort. In fact, the verb here in Matthew is the same root we get Paraclete (comforter, advocate) from. So in times of grief, we must remind ourselves of the coming joy.
In a Greek world which practically made arrogance a virtue, it would seem hard to think that being meek would be a blessing. The Greek man was self-actualized and full of self-esteem. He stood above the fray and the common herd. Being meek is anything but this, It was rather seen as weakness as it is today (meekness=weakness). The Christians under persecution would soon be driven underground to find refuge in the cemeteries to which the Romans and Greeks were to superstitious to enter and the Pharisees would not enter because of incurring ritual uncleanness.
Jesus even calls himself “meek” the only person who could honestly call himself such. Here the One through whom the Father created all things was meek enough to come to earth and become weak. Yet Jesus triumphed by weakness over those who in this world considered themselves to be strong. He could have triumphed in power, yet overcame in weakness for our sake.
In His meekness that would not bruise a reed or quench a smoking flax, Jesus entered into His inheritance in Heaven at the Father’s right hand. This inheritance is also laid up to those whom the Son wishes to share it with. These people are those whom He has chosen who believe on Him and become disciples in the promise of inheriting with Jesus as His friends.
The text does not directly address this, but I think this describes our attitude towards persecution when it comes. We are not to rise up against it with the sword which kills two ways but are to persevere through suffering in meekness, knowing that we shall afterward enter into His inheritance. However, this does not mean we should lay down at the feet of those who would execute is or seek to be martyred. It is OK to conceal one’s self from persecution. Even Jesus did this on several occasions. However, the time may come like the hour came upon Jesus that we must needs lay down our lives to follow Him. May God be gracious if and when this happens and His Comforter near.
Verse six promises a blessing for those who are suffering from hunger and thirst after righteousness. These are the people who shall be abundantly full. Those who hunger and thirst physically feel these pains acutely and are driven to find food and drink quickly, lest they perish. Jesus in this sermon likens the thirst and hunger for righteousness as the actual pain that a believer suffers to be made right with God. The Pharisees had sought after an external righteousness, but they were rather well off as well as self-righteous. They were not really hungry as they had filled their bellied with junk food and drink. The true follower of Jesus realizes just how wretched he or she is in respect to God’s true righteousness and look outwardly for a Savior to provide the righteousness they need rather than inward to one’s own ingenuity and strength which is idolatry. Those who come hungry and thirsty to Jesus shall be abundantly fed of the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Verse seven presents a blessing which is difficult for other reasons. The world can see profit in showing mercy at some times. They can often be thankful when mercy is extended to them. We are so much less good at extending mercy. And if we do, like the USA did to Germany in the Marshall Plan after World War 2, then it is often out of practical concerns for ourselves, because we saw what happened in World War 1 when mercy was not extended to Germany. But the mercy which Jesus is talking about is the mercy which is totally self-giving, exemplified by His forgiving those who had crucified Him (includes us).
The Gospel of Matthew emphasizes reconciliation throughout. One who has something against His brother is to leave the gift at the altar in Jerusalem and be reconciled to one’s brother, even if this means a long return trip. This is more important than the gift one brought to the altar. In many cases, the brother might truly have been the offender, yet the offended was to take initiative to reconcile himself. This would require mercy. This is the mercy and reconciliation Jesus offered to us. He sought us out from heaven to bring mercy and reconciliation.
How are we to be merciful? I thing that in the persecuted community of Jesus this involves bringing the Gospel of God’s mercy and reconciliation to a hostile world which hates us because it hated Him. But there is also the mercy shown from brother to brother within the church community as well. How many church splits and offenses have resulted by this lack of reconciliation? When brethren are at odds with each other, the body of Christ is again wounded. It would behoove is to realize this and realize that God wants us to show mercy, even when we are wronged seventy seven times.
The next blessing seems so good until we consider it carefully. Who could be pure in heart enough to see God? (You might want to see the sermon “Worthy to Worship the One Who is Worthy” in this archive.) (You might also want to look at “The Truth Hurts, but Here's Help” in this archive as well). John tells us “In Him is light, and in him is not a speck of darkness.” We would all burn like a cinder in our own righteousness. Only Jesus could see God directly as He is perfect and sinless. But we by His grace can see God, but we have to be clothed in the righteousness of Christ. We can see God in Jesus.
The blessing upon the peacemakers dovetails the blessing to those who show mercy as showing mercy is necessary to peacemaking. The promise is a little different. The merciful would be blessed by obtaining mercy. The peacemakers will be called the “children of God” which is essentially similar as everyone who is in the Kingdom is one to whom mercy has been shown.
Again, this verse seems to put the original initiative on us. We must first be reconcilers before we can be reconciled. If this were the case, who could ever be reconciled to God. When we consider that God has reconciled to us by His Son and how hard it is still for us to make peace with our friends, no less our enemies, we can see how impossible this is. No one would ever make it into the Kingdom. But again this is the point. This sermon brings us to the end of our self-delusion that we can in some way save ourselves. We must be in Christ who has lived this sermon in our behalf.
Verses 10 and 11 make up a singular blessing, with verse 11 fleshing out verse 10 with greater detail. This is the only blessing with an extended commentary. Like verse one, the promise is in the present tense, not the future. Those who have undergone persecution for Christ receive the blessing at the same time they are undergoing the persecution. Again the reward is the Kingdom, which is a present and not a far off reality. Like we have mentioned, it is a Kingdom marked in the present by our suffering and in the future by joy. The idea here is that the disciple of Jesus undergoes persecution which has long lasting effects. But the persecuted believer is glad because He knows where he or she is going.
The current state of being blessed in suffering is continued by the present “You all” are blessed. Up to this point, the blessings are in the third person which is somewhat remote and hypothetical, But the “you” makes this personal. The “you” isn’t “them”. The “you” is “us”. This makes it abundantly clear that this is directed at the follower of Jesus in this current age and not those Jews back then or the future millennial kingdom.
Liars shall slander and insult those who will live for Jesus. Again this is personal. “Liars” is the correct reading as it is a noun and not “falsely” as the King James translates it. The slander and hate is person, as personal and real is the blessing of those who are so treated for Jesus sake. In it, the believer shares in the suffering and subsequent rewards of the prophets who were so treated in the Old Testament.
This should give us a real idea of what the true believer in Jesus should expect. These are no glib “be happy attitudes” of the Hour of Power. How the gospel has been so perverted is truly shocking. These are not rules to gain material wealth and prosperity in this. Our “best life now” is true in a way, but not the way of Joel Osteen. Our best life begins when we enter into the Kingdom in spite of the external difficulties and trials. We are in the Kingdom now as much as we ever shall be. But as Jesus suffered the cross to enter His joy, the race is set before His disciples as well. We can be assured of our blessing despite worldly appearances to the contrary.
As Bonhoeffer wrote, there is a cost to discipleship, that the call of Jesus is to “come and die” and not “come and dine”. The Bible promises that those who are faithful to the teaching of the Gospel will suffer just like Jesus did. There is true blessing reserved for us at the end of our cross in this life just like Jesus endured the agony of the race and His cross for the joy that was set before Him. To this, Jesus bids us follow. These “blessings” the world considers to be curses, and what the world considers proof of blessing can actually become the curse of God by those who do not believe.
We must continue to remember that rich people and people who are currently doing well are not necessarily cursed. Neither is this a blanket promise of reward for poor and distressed people. This must be understood that this sermon is for those who will hear what Jesus says and follow Him. This is not a prescription for world peace at all or some kind of worldly ethical standard, a golden rule to live by.
In a sense, what makes these unseemly blessings a true blessing is that they serve in a sense of assuring the believer that they are following Jesus. It is not to say that these are an infallible standard in the sense that because you claim to be a follower of Jesus and these things are happening to you that you are OK with God. But when we understand that if troubles is absent from our life and we claim to be followers of Jesus, or we think that the Christian is living his “best life now”, then we must examine ourselves to see if we are truly Christians at all. We do not go out of the way to be persecuted, but persecution will come is we are truly following Jesus. This is God’s promise. So if we are in the faith and through no fault of our own undergo these difficulties, then this is proof that having suffered with and for Christ that we shall also rule with Him.
As we go further into the Sermon on the Mount, we will see just how impossible it would be to live out in this life. This is why some theologians try to saddle a restored Israel with Jesus’ teaching or reserve it for the millennial kingdom in which we will be strengthened enough to do it. This ermon is far more terrifying than the Law given to Moses in that it condemns attitudes as well as actions. Who could possibly live it? Trying to live it would lead to deep despair or a horrible self-righteousness like that of the Pharisees, the group to whom Jesus would address woes. John Wesley’s three sermons on the Sermon on the Mount even make it seem more terrible.
I would like to remind you early in this sermon that the same Jesus who spoke this sermon also bid us to come to Him because His yoke is easy and His burden light. This same Jesus would die on the cross for the sin of the world. Jesus bore the woes for us that we would have to bear. Jesus kept the Sermon on the Mount and every jot and tittle of Scripture in our behalf. So we should take comfort that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and not to strict observance of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount should bring us to the point of despair that we can save ourselves and cause us to fling ourselves into the mercy and care of our Savior Jesus Christ.
These strange blessings Jesus proclaims would never be ones we would gravitate towards. These difficulties which come to a Christian would not be possible in our strength to bear. This is why God has given us the Holy Spirit to comfort us in times of sorrow. God takes the lemons the world hurls at us and will make of it the sweetest lemonade.