Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to walk our readers through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 in order to help them understand what it teaches and how to apply it to our lives. This is our first such series here at Servants of Grace through an extended biblical passage and is part of our larger commitment to help Christians learn to read, interpret, reflect, and apply the Bible to their own lives.
- Today Dave opens the series by looking at Matthew 5:1-3.
Over the course of the next few months here at Servants of Grace, we’re going to study the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. This study will help us to understand what the passage teaches and how we can apply it to our lives. Part of the reason we’re doing this series and others like it (in the future) through certain sections of the Bible is we want to help you learn to read, interpret, reflect, and apply the Bible to your own life. Today’s post starts out this series looking at Matthew 5:1-3.
We should not view the Beatitudes as a list of ordinary virtues. The first three beatitudes describe weakness and neediness, rather than strength. In the abstract, almost no one will declare a desire to be poor in spirit, mournful, or meek. Of course, Jesus’ teaching is not abstract. He has just been proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom and verifying His claim to power with His public healings (Matt. 4:23–24).
The miracles made Jesus popular. But Jesus wanted disciples, not crowds, so He called a few men to Himself. To do so, He separated them from the crowds, for the crowds did not necessarily follow Him for the best reasons. They were curious and eager for healing. But mere popularity and miracle working could not fulfill the purpose of the incarnation. Jesus never intended to heal all the sick in Israel. He sought to raise up true disciples. So Jesus called His disciples to Himself, sat down, and began to teach them (5:1–2). The crowds were free to listen in (7:28), but the Sermon on the Mount was given primarily to Jesus’ disciples. The Sermon on the Mount describes the heart, mind, outlook, and values of a disciple of Jesus.
The Nature of a Blessed Character
Each beatitude begins with the words “Blessed are.” The Greek term translated “blessed” is makarios. It can mean “happy” or even “carefree.” But since Jesus goes on to say, “Blessed are those who mourn,” we know He does not have ordinary happiness, the happiness that comes from food or entertainment, in mind. Jesus’ “happy” disciples are poor and hungry; they mourn and suffer persecution. For disciples, happiness means wholeness and integrity even in the darkest hour.
We ought to be interested in Jesus’ concept of happiness. We certainly pursue happiness. We seek it in better food, funnier jokes, and more exciting vacations or movies. Consider the amusement park. There we lay down substantial sums of money for the privilege of standing in long lines on ninety-degree pavement to sit in a short ride that promises to put our heart in our throat and threatens to put our lunch in our lap. A trip to an amusement park often turns into a chore, teaching us that happiness, like friendship, is best found when we are not necessarily looking for it, when we are busy at something else.
Jesus says that real happiness—blessedness—comes from mature character. Physical pleasures are fragile. If we take pleasure in food, by the time we can afford finer foods and wines, they are probably bad for the heart or the waistline. If we take pleasure in our bodies, strength erodes and sensations fade. If we take pleasure in nature, we contend with crowds and pollution.
It is precarious to seek happiness in external things, for they can always be alienated from us. But outside forces cannot deprive us of our character. A model once said, “If I weren’t so beautiful, maybe I would have more character.” That was twenty years ago, when she was thirty. Perhaps she has found time to work on character since then. So from a selfish standpoint, we should strive to develop character. But disciples principally care about character because Jesus says that mature character is blessed by God.
The Unity of a Blessed Character
Even dedicated Christians, sitting in Bible studies, rarely say that they aspire to the blessed traits that Jesus mentions in the Beatitudes. They are not the traits that we would first choose for ourselves. The classic virtues of the past and the fashionable virtues of the present—toughness, independence—are missing. Instead, the first three beatitudes describe weakness and neediness. Why does Jesus bless poverty of spirit, mourning, and meekness?
First, these are Kingdom virtues; we expect them to differ from the virtues of this age. More importantly, we must see the Beatitudes as a multifaceted description of a whole person. They are not seven or eight random statements about virtue. Rather, they are a holistic portrait of a Kingdom citizen. More than that, they portray the heart of the King.
The Beatitudes do more than describe a disciple; they also describe Jesus, the Master. Matthew implicitly asks disciples to pattern their lives after Jesus. In Matthew 10:24–25, Jesus says, “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.” The goal of becoming like the Master is evident in almost all of the Beatitudes:
- Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn,” and He mourned when He saw that the people were like sheep without a shepherd (9:36; cf. 23:37).
- Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek,” and Jesus was meek and humble (11:28–30). He laid a gentle, easy yoke on His people.
- Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” and He hungered for righteousness. He fulfilled all righteousness (3:15). No one could convict Him of any sin (John 8:46).
- Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful,” and He was merciful. What most often moved Jesus to perform His miracles? He had compassion on the sick and needy. When He saw people in need, He empathized and healed them (Matt. 14:14–21; 20:34; 9:36).
- Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” and He was so pure that no one could find a legitimate charge against Him at His trial (26:59–60).
- Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and He often offered peace in healing and salvation to the people He met (Mark 5:34; Luke 8:48; John 14:27). Jesus offers peace, though not at any price (Matt. 10:13, 34).
- Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,” and He was persecuted constantly, even to the point of death.
The only beatitude that Jesus did not claim for Himself is “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” But to be poor in spirit is to know one’s spiritual neediness—especially our sinful nature. Jesus certainly needed the Spirit’s sustaining strength for His ministry, but He was not poor in spirit in the ways that we are. This reminds us of an important point: we can progress toward Jesus, but a gap always remains between the Creator and His creatures. Jesus does not share that gap with us; He bridges it. Jesus reaches out to the poor in spirit, to teach and heal them—to teach and heal us.
Incidentally, Paul also says we should aspire to be like Christ. For Paul, maturity means reaching “the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Believers know Christ and therefore should put on the new self, “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:20–24). We are “imitators of God,” loving one another and forgiving each other as Christ did (4:32–5:2). So we are transformed into the likeness of Christ.
There is no higher privilege than this, to become like the Son of God. It is God’s design that we should aspire to a character that is ever more like the character of Jesus. God permits us to pursue that goal; more importantly, He gives us grace for the journey, making it a privilege rather than a burden. By grace, God sent His Son. By grace, Jesus came to seek and save the lost. By grace, He atoned for our sins. By grace, the Father raised Jesus from the tomb and sent the Spirit to testify to him. By grace, God completes His work by changing our hearts, so that we love Him and believe in Him. This is how we become like Christ, from heart to toe.
Grace also holds the Beatitudes together. The first three beatitudes describe a disciple’s knowledge of his spiritual need. The fourth states God’s promise to meet that need. The fifth through seventh describe the results of the fourth beatitude.
Blessings for the Needy
Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). To understand whom this refers to, we must distinguish between character and personality. “The poor” are not those who have a poor personality, as if God favored the shy, the nervous, and the cowardly. He blesses the spiritual character trait we can call self-acknowledged weakness. Disciples can be virile and tough, yet “poor in spirit.” However strong or forceful their personality may be, disciples know their spiritual needs, their sin, their inability to reform themselves. Whatever our strengths, we know that we need God’s grace and mercy.
Human society admires self-reliance and self-confidence. We admire the self-made businessman. We admire children who refuse to receive help when they eat their food or tie their shoelaces. Picture the household scene where a father watches his daughter struggling mightily to tie her shoelaces. Her immature fingers fumble with the strings. Her face, steely with determination during the first attempts, begins to don the mask of frustration. The kind father offers to help, but the girl looks up with rugged resolve and declares, “No Daddy, I can do it myself!” That kind of tenacity and confidence fills a typical father with pride.
But is the child right? Can we do it ourselves? Jesus’ disciples admit they cannot. We lay pride aside. We pray, “Whatever my strengths, I am poor in your sight, Lord. I need your grace to live, now and forever.” When disciples take their poverty to God, He makes them rich, giving them the grace they seek. The Lord also grants an inheritance: “Theirs is the kingdom.” Membership in the Kingdom is a gift the Lord bestows upon all who take their spiritual poverty to Him.