Some happy people?
The beatitudes – possibly one of the most well known passages in the Bible. They’re a beautiful collection of different sayings about various people (the poor in spirit, the mournful, the persecuted etc) who seem to be losers on earth but will eventually win out when they die and go to heaven. Isn’t it an encouraging thought when you fit into one of these nice little categories? Shall we read them?
“2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 in the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
(Matthew 5:2-16 ESV)
Wait, I’m sorry, did I say well known? Ah, I meant to say most misunderstood. You see that lovely little paragraph that I wrote up there? That’s a load of rubbish. It’s what I thought until quite recently, but I’ve been shown the error of my ways.
The beatitudes are not just a collection of platitudes, a nice mantra to repeat when you’re stressed or in trouble. The beatitudes are no feel-good, ‘it’s all going to be okay’, sayings. They are not an anthology of people who will be happy in heaven. The beatitudes are a wonderful summary of salvation. They call us to have renewed hearts and minds that live to worship God.
A joy filled life
The beatitudes are not a random collection of wise sayings, rather they are a structured whole. Firstly, they do not refer to different people. There are not people who are poor in spirit and those people will be happy, and then there are some other people who’re mournful and they will be happy. There are people who are poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungry for righteousness, merciful, pure, peacemaking and persecuted and those people will be blessed. Who are these people? They are those who follow Christ.
The Sermon on the Mount as most of you will know is an intensely practical sermon filled with solid teaching on how to live the Christian life. But here at the very start of it Jesus gives a list of the characteristics of the Christian. He’s saying that the first thing we have to do is sort out our hearts – after that then we can worry about the practicalities.
So what about these characteristics? So they’re all about the same people, rather than being about different individuals who fulfil one of the ‘categories’. Does that then mean that it’s an anthology of various random Christian traits?
That brings us to our second point: The beatitudes form a structured picture of the Christian life. Look at the order they are given in:
The poor in spirit
Those who mourn
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
The pure in heart
Those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake
You when others revile you and persecute you
They split up nicely into four sections that describe the different stages in the Christian life.
1. Humility before God (poor in spirit, mourning and meek). This is where the Christian starts; this is always God’s starting point. Before we are raised up first we must realise that our own goodness is not enough to put us right with God. We must become beggars, relying on God’s goodness and generosity. We must mourn our sinfulness and swallow our pride. James says to “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:10, ESV). First the humbling, then the exalting.
2. Seeking God’s goodness (hunger and thirst). After realising our own sin and depravity we long for something more, something better. We long for God and for his righteousness and glory.
3. Bearing righteous fruit (mercy, purity, peace). Jesus said “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7, ESV). God does not withhold blessings from his people and as we strive for increasing holiness we will act increasingly holy. As we struggle we become more like Christ.
4. Attacked for our righteousness (persecuted, reviled). Paul wrote to Timothy: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (1 Timothy 3:12, ESV). If we show these fruits in our life, if we are meek and pure and merciful then Jesus says we will be persecuted. “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:19, ESV). The world does not understand behaviour like Jesus calls us to and so it cannot accept us.
"The Christian is first of all someone who is humbled before God - verses 3 to 5, poor in spirit, mourning, meek. Then he is someone who is seeking. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. And he is someone who finds, and begins to bear the fruit of righteousness in his own life. Mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking. And because of what these people are, and do, in this fallen world - they experience persecution."
- Gilbert McAdam
So the beatitudes are not only a portrayal of the Christian character as it is meant to be but also a structured depiction of the process by which we become and continue as followers of Christ.
A concluding challenge.
Verses 14-16 of Matthew 5 are often separated from the beatitudes but I think they are really part of the same whole. If you are humbled before God then you will be salt and light. If you are seeking, finding and practising righteousness you will stand out like a city on a hill. When you are persecuted for your faith it will be tempting to hide your light under a basket but that’s not what this light is for! This light is for changing lives. Take it out! Shine it where everyone can see, be salt and light where you live and work and study. Glorify God in your life. Humble yourself, and He will lift you up.
My friends, the beatitudes leave us also with a challenge. They are there as a description of character. Our character as children called by God. Do we match up? Look at your life:
Do you view yourself as a beggar before an almighty God – or as a ruler of your own little life, sufficiently good to pass muster?
Do you mourn your sinfulness, do you weep for God’s lost glory – or do you look on sin and evil with apathy and indifference?
Do you act with gentleness to others, knowing that you are a sinner too – or are you harsh, arrogant and unkind?
Do you hunger for new life and increasing righteousness – or are you unconcerned with your lack of holiness?
Do you show mercy to those around you – or do you hate those who have wronged you, never forgiving, holding grudges?
Do you have a pure heart – or is your mind taken up with sin?
Do you bring peace and wellbeing to those around you – or do you stir up trouble, never helping others, not showing love?
Do you feel like an outsider in this world, are you persecuted – or are you compromising on your Christian life in order to fit in?
If you don’t tick all these boxes, and I know I don’t, then pray – pray for God’s grace, that amazing grace which surpasses all understanding, grace which covers our faults in Jesus’ blood and grace which corrects them through the Spirit’s work.
<<Heavily based on a series of sermons (well, the first two of the series) on The Sermon on the Mount by Gilbert McAdam of Calvary Reformed Church Manila. Available on Youtube. My thanks to him for correcting my mistakes… I heartily reccommend that you listen to at least the first two sermons.
For an excellent Story by Ben Mildred of Not at the Dinner Table on being a light see 'The Lamp'>>