Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes of Jesus

Sermon-on-the-Mount
A Bengali depiction of Christ’s 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. He said: 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, 
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
Blessed are those who mourn, 
    for they will be comforted. 
Blessed are the meek, 
    for they will inherit the earth. 
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 
    for they will be filled. 
Blessed are the merciful, 
    for they will be shown mercy. 
Blessed are the pure in heart, 
    for they will see God. 
Blessed are the peacemakers, 
    for they will be called children of God. 
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, 
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (NIV) 

Just as God’s Law was given on a mountain (The Ten Commandments) so the law was restated on a mountain by Jesus (Sermon on the Mount). I believe that arguably one of the most important and impacting portions of Holy Scripture are the Beatitudes of Jesus, which serve as the foundation to all of Christ’s teaching. These Beatitudes are not simply a random collection of pithy phrases from Jesus on what constitutes approval from God. They intentionally build upon each other and describe true righteousness.  

Blessed are the poor in spirit.   

This Beatitude is the spiritual base to the Christian life.  Most of the original crowd listening to Jesus thought they were on the outside of the kingdom, on the margins of true religion. Instead, Jesus told them they have a place as poor and pitiable people. To be “poor in spirit” means one is a spiritual beggar who recognizes they have nothing to offer God. It is seeing oneself, one’s sin, and one’s life as spiritually bankrupt apart from God. Beggars have no ability to strike deals; they have nothing to leverage with; and, realize they deserve nothing. Beggars do one thing continually: they beg. The proud person would never be caught begging for anything. Yet, the humble spiritual beggar constantly prays because they need God! They discern that without God there is no hope. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the penitent and not the proud. 

Blessed are those who mourn. 

This is the emotional response of acknowledging one’s spiritual poverty.  Grief and lament have a central place in Christian theology and life. To avoid it, work around it, or short-circuit its process is to refuse Christ because there is no righteousness apart from mourning over sin. Crying, weeping, and even intense tears are important and necessary. To experience personal grief over one’s sins and the sins of the church and the world is a Beatitude of Jesus. You neither need position, power, privilege, nor pedigree to be a mourner. All can mourn. This is the door by which we enter the kingdom of God. 

Blessed are the meek. 

A meek spirit is the result of realizing our poverty of spirit and practicing grief and lament. At the heart of what it means to be meek is a spirit of non-retaliation. When we are flat on our backs before God, there is no place to look but up. Thus, there is no ability to look down on others. To be meek is to be broken before God. A meek person takes personal responsibility for their attitudes and actions. The meek have no need to retaliate, even when egregiously wronged, because they fully entrust themselves to God alone who judges the living and the dead. Ironically, brokenness is the path to righteous wholeness. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. 

Only those who know their poverty of spirit, personally grieve over sin, and are truly humble/meek end up longing for righteousness. This is much more than just desire; this is the recognition that without God I will not make it. I cannot be righteous without Jesus. Simply put, righteousness is a right relationship with God and others. That is what happens when a person is meek. Such a person knows she cannot make things right by herself; she needs help, specifically, God’s help. If we ever have the thought that we can live most days of our lives without God, we do not yet know true righteousness. People who understand their great need for Jesus are easy to spot. They crave and devour God’s Word as their daily food; and they cannot stop blabbering on about Jesus. 

Sermon on the Mount
A fresco of the Sermon on the Mount on the northern wall of the Sistine Chapel.

There are three practices of living that arise from being filled with God’s righteousness.  They are the next three Beatitudes of mercy, purity, and peacemaking. These cannot be conjured up by our own will. They organically grow within us and are freely expressed because of what God is doing in our lives. You cannot force them any more than you can force a stalk of corn to grow on your terms. Instead, you work with the unforced rhythms of God’s grace and allow his righteousness to take root in you. Below the soil the activity of spiritual poverty, mourning, and humility takes place. Then, when the plant breaks the soil and flowers, it produces mercy, purity, and peace-making. 

Blessed are the merciful.  

Mercy begins with a disposition of the heart that seeks to be generous. Mercy is a loving response to someone or a group of people in misery. We accept them and help them because we ourselves have been there. Mercy looks for ways to come alongside others and help, rather than pile expectations and burdens on others without mentoring them in the ways of God. 

Blessed are the pure in heart. 

Purity also results from true righteousness. A stalk of corn might look good, but if you shuck it and it is filled with worms, it isn’t going to be worth much. Legalistic righteousness is concerned to look good, is obsessed with performance, perfection, and possessions. Conversely, the righteousness of God fills our hungry hearts and makes us pure and holy, set apart for his use. 

Blessed are the peacemakers.  

Peacemakers are people who find themselves caught in the middle and want to live righteously with the mercy and purity that God has provided for them. Peace is only realized through peacemakers. It seems we all desire peace, yet, peacemakers are hard to come by. It’s a tough gig. Peacemakers exist through being characterized by the earlier Beatitudes. To achieve peace, one must first be at peace with God and self – which is why we need the cross of Jesus Christ. 

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.  

When a person lives in this righteousness as presented by Jesus, there will be persecution. Folks who are offended by even slight criticisms are usually the ones who are privileged and in power. They have not yet learned the ways of Jesus. Pettiness is nothing more than a sign of unrighteousness. Yoking up with Jesus, following him, and living into his words and ways has always been risky and dangerous. The Beatitudes of Jesus are not characteristics that lead to power, prestige, or possessions, but likely just the opposite. 

The former Pope Benedict XVI, explained Christ’s Beatitudes this way: “The Beatitudes, spoken with the community of Jesus’ disciples in view, are paradoxes – the standards of the world are turned upside down as soon as things are seen in their right perspective, which is to say, in terms of God’s values, so different from those of the world. It is precisely those who are poor in worldly terms, those thought of as lost souls, who are truly fortunate ones, the blessed, who have every reason to rejoice and exult in their suffering. The Beatitudes are promises resplendent with the new image of the world and humanity inaugurated by Jesus.” 

Those who are in Jesus Christ become living beatitudes, walking, talking blessings to the world.  Those who live with Jesus in his kingdom have a destiny to be witnesses to another subversive, yet wonderful, way of life, where the last are first and the greatest are the least. 

O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me. 

O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me. 

O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, grant me your peace. 

On Loving God

Last Supper Barbados
Depiction of the Upper Room by Unknown artist from Barbados.

This week, as I reflected on the words of Jesus:

“If you love me, you will obey what I command,” (John 14:15) 

my thoughts kept coming back to a dear friend of mine.  In the Fall of 1992, Wesley was on his deathbed in an Iowa hospital.  At the time, I was pastoring a small Michigan congregation and was able to take some time off to go and be with him. I was there for a week, spending my days at the hospital and only leaving his room to sleep for the night. It was my habit to rise about 5:00am and make my way to Wesley’s room where we would spend some quiet unhindered time with each other for a few hours before family members arrived. Wesley was deathly ill and could barely communicate anything above a whisper. Yet, those hours with him were incredible times of spiritual bonding and true Christian friendship.

You see, what was so amazing about my relationship with Wesley is that only a year before, he and I had a strained, difficult, and awkward relationship as he was about as far from God as anyone could be and did not want much to do with a Pastor.  Yet, in a matter of a few months, we had become devoted to one another as brothers.  Through a series of circumstances that I ascribe as God’s gracious hand, Wesley embraced a spiritual life that was as rich and full as I have ever seen (that is a story for another time). Now, as I sat with him six months later, Wesley was at the edge of his life.

During that week, I watched in the background as day after day, friend after friend, and relative after relative came into Wesley’s room to visit him for the last time.  The majority were much like Wesley before he wholeheartedly followed the love of Christ – having made a profession of faith as children, they had long since outgrew their Sunday School belief.  With each person, as frail as Wesley was, barely able to lift an arm more than a few inches, he would grab a hold, pull them close and say into their ear: “Look at me! I am dying. Is this how you want to end up?”  And then he said to every one of them: “If you are really a Christian and love Jesus, obey him and live your life for him.”

Love and obedience – they go together in Scripture like a hand in a glove.  The words of Jesus to love through obedience are part of what we call the Upper Room Discourse, or Farewell Speech. They are the Lord’s final words to his followers before his crucifixion – quite literally being Jesus’ deathbed message to those he loved. These are the words Jesus did not want his followers to forget. The disciples were distressed and troubled over the prospect that Jesus would not be with them, and they needed some focused words to live effectively with encouragement in the days and years ahead.

Upper Room
Pewter art of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. A gift from Wesley.

There are a two truths Jesus said to his disciples (and saying to us) as he was grabbing them and holding them close before his death:

Love is practiced through obedience to Christ’s commands.

Love through obedience is accomplished through the Holy Spirit’s help.

If we are to love Jesus, we will obey him – which begs the question: What are his commands?  There are three summaries of Christ’s teaching and commands in the Gospels that encompass loving him through obedience: The Great Commission; The Great Commandment; and, The Beatitudes.

When Jesus first began his teaching and healing ministry, he sat all the people down who were following him and gave them a summary of the Old Testament understanding of God’s righteousness.  These are the things, Jesus explained, that characterize a person who loves God:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 

Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:12-17, NIV).

Genuine lovers of Jesus are characterized by their: authentic humility; deep concern to the point of tears over sin; gentle and meek spirit toward others; intense desire for personal righteousness and corporate justice; daily life of mercy, purity, and peacemaking; and, willingness to accept adversity for the sake of Jesus. Yes, lovers of Jesus are distinctly and profoundly characterized by grace. To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with their God is the normal everyday default life-setting for lovers of Jesus Christ.

When Jesus wanted to put all the Law and the Prophets (The Old Testament of the Bible) into a summary that would be easy to remember and understand he said:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40, NIV)

What Jesus requires is an holistic love for God. Humanity is meant for wholeness, integration, and alignment between head, heart, and gut – with the glue of love. We are designed to have all of life in parity and balance – work, play, family, and church – because Jesus is Lord over it all, not just the church part. In the totality of our lives, in every relationship, and in every activity, Jesus invites us to grab hold of the kind of love that seeks a righteous agenda based in grace and mercy.

What is more, Jesus gave clear instructions of how to occupy our time on this earth while he is away preparing a place for us so that he can take us to be with him.  The gracious and pure living of the Beatitudes and the love of the Great Commandment are to be fully utilized with the Great Commission. Jesus stated:

All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.  Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.(Matthew 28:18-20, NIV)

Making disciples is at the heart of Christ’s commands. Every Christian is to be Christ’s apprentice learning the ways of Jesus in all of life, being spiritually developed so that we can be characterized by the Beatitudes and the Great Commandment. Jesus wants lifelong students in the faith, continually learning to love God through integrated and aligned selves in the church and in the world.

This is a big job.  In fact, the task is so huge that Jesus left us with the means of accomplishing it – he has given us another “Counselor” to be with us forever (John 14:16). “Counselor” (NIV) is translated in various ways in versions of the New Testament because the Greek term “Paraclete” is a rich word that is hard to encompass with a single English word. Other translations include: “Advocate,” “Comforter,” and “Helper.”  They are all accurate words to describe the Holy Spirit.  I think the best term to portray who the Holy Spirit is for God’s people is “True Friend.”

A true friend is the kind of person who you can call in the middle of the night and they will answer and listen; will drop everything to come and be with you in a time of need; will say hard things to you in love so that you can be a better person and have a better relationship with them; and, maintains a committed and consistent relationship with you.  A true friend is simply a person you enjoy and are deeply thankful for having them in your life.

Upper Room Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit given to the disciples of Jesus.

That is what the Holy Spirit is – the Spirit helps us when we need help; encourages us when we are down; comes immediately to our side when we are in need; and, gives us a good loving kick in the backside when appropriate.  The Holy Spirit is our True Friend in the world.  The Spirit continually speaks truth to us and leads us into truth. The Spirit will come alongside and apprentice us in the faith and guide us in grateful obedience to Jesus.

Because of God the Father’s love in sending the Son; the Son’s sacrificial love through the cross; the Spirit’s consistent loving presence; and, the triune God’s insistence on living a life of love, Christianity is both duty and delight – and they go together in perfect harmony.

Wesley miraculously lived through his deathbed experience. God was not quite finished with him yet.  Wesley’s Christian life displayed that loving assurance and trust in Jesus leads to a no-holds-barred obedience which is grateful and joyous despite the most awful of circumstances.

In the summer of 1993, at 29 years of age, Wesley went to be with his Lord.  Not in my lifetime have I personally seen such a complete turn-around of a person so far away from God to a person whose every thought and word reflected the Beatitudes, the Great Commandment, and the Great Commission.  And I enjoyed a relationship that was totally changed from one of animosity to one that could be characterized as “true friend.”  Because of his love for God, Wesley now sees Jesus.

There is only one level of commitment to Christ – the high charge and privilege of duty and delight. A true disciple, a genuine follower of Jesus, loves him and lives an obedient life to the Lord in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we have our lives so planned and pre-determined that when the Holy Spirit shows up to take us to a place of obedience to Jesus, we struggle to realize what’s happening. And we miss what God is doing in this world.  At other times we observe the commands of Scripture and feel the gentle nudging of God’s Spirit, yet we either cannot or will not respond out of fear, busyness, or even grief.  And then there are times when we are attentive to God’s Word and God’s Spirit and seek to obey Jesus – only to mess up so that we are left wondering if God could ever really do anything in us.

The truth is this: Love conquers all. Grace overcomes everything. Mercy never fails. We are here on this earth because of our True Friend. Even though we walk with Jesus in a three-steps-forward-two-steps-backward kind of way, the Spirit accommodates to our weakness.  To be a disciple, an apprentice, means we keep learning the ways of Jesus under the tutelage of God’s Spirit who patiently and powerfully works within us so that God’s kingdom breaks into this world and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Poverty of Spirit

A beggar in BelÈm, Lisbon. He sat there for hours without moving.

I like having conversations with people… most of the time.  Yet, I don’t like being in a discussion where I’m wondering if the person has an agenda.  That causes me to have my antenna up concerning his/her motives or attitude.  Maybe, like me, you’ve had that moment either within a conversation or afterward where you realize, “Gosh, that dude was a real schmuck.  He was just preening and posturing to get something.”  Most of us aren’t schmucks.  You are probably reading this because you want to do what is right, just, and good.  When it comes to Christian spirituality and discipleship, we would like God’s stamp of approval on our lives.  We want to walk in the words and ways of Jesus, and not be “that guy” who is obnoxious or contemptible.

The Beatitudes of Jesus (Matthew 5:1-12) tell us what being “blessed” by God looks like.  The Beatitudes were countercultural to the prevailing religious milieu of Christ’s day, and, even today, are often not the kinds of characteristics which a lot of people embody.  In other words, the Beatitudes are not really on a lot of folks’ radar.

God cares not only for what we do, but why we do it.  Our attitudes are just as important to him as our actions.  Obeying God, honoring your parents, submitting to a boss, or listening to a teacher might be actions we do, but if we do them with a begrudging spirit which believes that we could do everything better than all these other persons, then pride has reared its sinister head.  In such times, we are more in league with the ancient Pharisees than with Jesus.

But I am confident of better things in your case.  Pursuing true righteousness – a right relationship with God and with others – is what brings real and lasting joy.  Whereas the Pharisees based their righteousness on outward appearances and pious behaviors, the true follower of Jesus adopts inner attitudes of humility which result in outward gestures of genuine love.  Being a conformist to a prevailing form of outward Christianity is useless, because our standard of righteousness as Christians is not what everybody else is doing, but what Christ has done.

The bedrock attitude of a Christian is humility, and this is what the first Beatitude establishes.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).  Christians are spiritual beggars, the ones who acknowledge their great need, and are desperate for Jesus.  A beggar begs because he/she cannot simply meet their own need, and they have no means to reciprocate and give anything in return.

John Chrysostom quote

In saying that the poor in spirit are blessed, Jesus is saying that his followers have an awareness that they are spiritually bankrupt before God and stand in stark need of him.  An urgency of longing for God is at the heart of a spiritual beggar.

It isn’t hard to notice a person who is poor in spirit because true humility stands out in a culture of pride.  A spiritual beggar:

  • Doesn’t try and make slick deals with God, because they have nothing to bargain with; instead, they are content with unconditional surrender to a God of grace and mercy.
  • Doesn’t complain, because they realize they don’t deserve anything; instead, they incessantly praise God for his incredible grace to them.
  • Prays a lot, because a beggar is always begging; they pray, not because it is an effective strategy to get what they want, but because they are destitute without God.
  • Takes Christ on his terms, without acting like a peacock to get noticed, because a beggar has no position or pedigree to rely upon.
  • Realizes that the more they learn, the more they don’t know; therefore, they rely completely on God without being stubbornly independent – they listen to Scripture rather than talk all the time.
  • Knows no enemies because having lots of stuff and superior status only engenders defending turf and maintaining position.

The late Henri Nouwen once said: “Poverty is the inner disposition that allows us to take away our defenses and convert our enemies into friends.  We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend.”  Those who are poor in spirit are not anxiously clinging to their stuff, their money, their good name, or their supposed right to be in control.

Only the poor in spirit will enter the kingdom of heaven.  The way is narrow, and only a few are willing to truly humble themselves before God and take the posture of a beggar.  To think we do not need to bow to such a lowly activity of begging belies that we believe we are above such things – which is the broad open way of destruction that many will find.

The only way to enter God’s kingdom is through humility.  The Lord’s realm is populated with those who are lowly.  Many times we might think that the most spiritual among us are those that give.  Yet, it could very well be that much of the giving is meant to maintain personal independence, an inordinate position over another person, and the status of not being in need.  Receiving with open hands can be a much harder thing to do, because it communicates to another that we are in need – and our pride doesn’t like that.

So, it is my hope for you today that you will know the blessing of being a spiritual beggar.  May you realize that your poverty of spirit is a blessed narrow way toward the wealth of imputed righteousness.  May you enjoy the kingdom of God, bask in the grace given by God, and receive all God’s good gifts with gratitude.