By Tim Harris
The Gospel of Matthew depicts Jesus, more than anything, as the long-awaited Messiah-King. John the Baptist prepared the way of the king, proclaiming: “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2). Inaugurating his own kingdom, Jesus announced the very same message (4:17). And as he went about “preaching the gospel of the kingdom,” Jesus healed “all manner of sickness…among the people” (4:23). The King of kings had come, and by words and healings was demonstrating the purpose and power of his kingdom.
In this historical context Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). What have come to be known as the Beatitudes span 10 verses, and act as the sermon’s opening lines and fitting introduction (5:3-12).
The sermon was Jesus’ manifesto on the character and conduct of citizens of the kingdom.
In it he contrasted his kingdom ethics with the empty religiosity of his day embodied in the two-faced moralism of the Pharisees. The blessed ones of the Beatitudes are those who live out the tenets of the Sermon on the Mount.
At first glance, the list of Beatitudes seems like a résumé of ethical ideals unique to certain Christians — like Jesus, Paul, and your grandmother. But there are several reasons why we should see the Beatitudes (properly understood) as normative—and not exceptional—of born-again children of God.
For example, in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus contrasted the blessed ones with the cursed. “Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh… Woe unto you that laugh now! For ye shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:21, 25).
And in the sermon, Jesus addressed the topic of false professors: people that claim citizenship in God’s kingdom but do not love and follow the king. “Not everyone that says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father… Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord…’ And I will profess unto them, ‘Depart from me, ye that work iniquity’” (7:21-23).
Another temptation when reading the Beatitudes is to see them as a disjointed catalog of traits from which a Christian may pick and choose for their own lives. But textually, the Beatitudes must be understood together, as a multifaceted description of true believers.
Upon examination, each Beatitude is inter-dependent upon the others.
A person can’t mourn over his sins, for example, if he is not poor in spirit; neither can he be a peacemaker if he is unwilling to be merciful to others, and so forth. The Beatitudes build upon each other.
The term Beatitude itself means “a declaration of blessedness.” The Beatitudes then are Jesus’ declaration of the blessedness of those living under his gracious kingship. “Blessed” literally means “happy, fortunate, blissful.” In this article, we will consider the first three Beatitudes; and in this issue, we want to examine them in their entirety and, in doing so, live the blessed life that is only found in Christ.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3).
In the first century Jewish mind, the Messiah-King was to rally an army of mighty men and angels, rout Roman imperialism, and reestablish a Jewish theocracy — as in the days of Moses, Joshua, and Gideon. Thus, Jesus had to repeatedly correct misguided expectations about his kingdom.
The first prerequisite for entrance into his kingdom was not earthly wisdom, wealth, or even moral excellence. It was rather to be poor in spirit: sensing a deep need for God. Standing before Pilate as “the king of the Jews,” Jesus minced no words. “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight” (John 18:36). The values of the kingdom of heaven, as its name implies, are quite otherworldly — foreign to earthly monarchs and man by nature (1 John 2:15-17).
The root of Jesus’ term “poor” means “to crouch as a helpless beggar.” While every human on earth is spiritually poor and morally bankrupt before God, only those made alive by God’s Spirit can sense the plight of their depraved condition. Thus, Jesus lauded this inner mark of believers. “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick,” Jesus would say, “for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:12-13).
The poor in spirit feel their need for the Physician.
The Puritan Thomas Watson described such as “those who are brought to the sense of their sins, and seeing no goodness in themselves, despair in themselves and sue wholly to the mercy of God in Christ.” We should ask ourselves, as another writer posed it: Do I sense a powerlessness in myself? A sense of moral uncleanness before God? A sense of personal unworthiness before God? A sense that if there is to be any life or joy or usefulness, it will have to be all of God and all of grace?
“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).
A sense of spiritual poverty allows us to then mourn over our sins. Jesus was not talking about mere misery or grief, and there is nothing inherently godly about self-loathing. The apostle Paul explained that there are both ungodly and godly types of sorrow: one is a sorrow unto despair, the other is unto repentance (2 Corinthians 7:9-10). While ungodly sorrow, as someone has said, drowns us in “guilt, shame, despair, depression, self-pity, and hopelessness,” godly sorrow is brokenhearted loathing of sin that produces repentance. Such mourning is seen in the prayer of Luke 18:13: “And the [tax collector], standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.”
We are surprisingly sinful. Do you know what I mean?
Do you have those times when you see yourself as surprisingly—shockingly—sinful?
That is, in the unflattering mirror of Scripture, you appear so much more discontent, and self-absorbed, and critical, and covetous, and lustful than you ever saw yourself on your own. It is this revelation of the Spirit that drives us to Christ for cleansing. John Newton expressed this in a hymn: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” It is only to grief-stricken senses that free grace appears truly amazing.
Contrition involves grief over, and abhorrence of, the sin that distorts the glory of God we were created to enjoy and radiate in life. When the law and gospel expose our need for Christ, godly sorrow drives us to seek redemption in the merits of Christ’s perfect life, sin-bearing death, and mighty resurrection. As C. H. Spurgeon observed,
“A bleeding Savior makes men’s hearts bleed. When he is pierced, they are pierced. Of one thing I am sure, that nothing ever pierced my heart like the discovery of God’s boundless love in giving his beloved Son to die for me.”
And only the blood of this bleeding Substitute can purge—rather than placate—our guilty consciences (Hebrews 9:14).
“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
This trajectory continues. From a sense of spiritual poverty, and then mourning, arises meekness: a confident attitude of utter surrender to Christ as Savior and Lord. In our day, meekness is often misunderstood, and thus either ignored or misapplied. To understand what Jesus meant by meekness, we turn to the passage Jesus was quoting: Psalm 37:11. “But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.”
The psalmist speaks of “those that wait upon the LORD” (v.9), and then calls the same group “the meek” (v.11). By looking at the context, we discover what it means to wait on God—and what it means to be meek. First, the meek delight in God as their Treasure (v.4). Second, the meek commit their way unto God as their Leader (vv.5-6). Third, the meek rest in God as their Avenger (vv.7-8).
Notice the present and future implications of this Beatitude. “Blessed are the meek (presently): for they shall inherit the earth (futuristically).”
Many of God’s promises are yet to be fulfilled. But they shall be in time. This confidence is the strength of the meek.
A weak man obsesses about how to get what he wants out of life; a meek man delights in God and labors, entrusting his heart’s desires to God. A weak woman frets about the future; a meek woman rests in God’s wise and sovereign plans, even as she prepares for the future. A weak person either refrains from avenging personal grievances out of fear, or seeks revenge out of pride; but a meek person refrains from revenge out of confidence in God’s perfect justice and perfect timing.
Meekness is, therefore, a trusting, delighting, life-entrusting, restful surrender to our wise and powerful king Jesus. And in the end, the very ones who didn’t obsess and fret about “gaining the whole world” shall inherit the fullness of the earth.
It should be clear at this point: the “happy, blessed, blissful” ones of the kingdom are not so for any reason originating in themselves. All such blessedness is of grace: sovereign, undeserved, and immeasurably costly grace. It is not about moral reform, or even about divine kindness in a vacuum.
Grace is about a king on a cross. Bleeding. Dying. Absorbing God’s wrath meant for us.
The events of Calvary are the only foundation of true happiness and wholeness in this life and the next. The virtuous life of the king; the death of the king on behalf of his subjects; and the invincible resurrection of the king — these are the centerpieces of worship in heaven, of joy on earth, and of every other aspect of our full redemption.
Is this king the centerpiece of our joy in life? Do we sense our deep need for him? Do we mourn the sins that made him bleed? Do we surrender to his authority and trust his righteous reign? If so, the promises of the king are for us — the kingdom is ours; the comfort is ours; the earth is ours.
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