Matthew has been working on getting us into the ministry of Christ and as we get into chapter 5, we’ll be fully launched therein. Jesus ministry will be categorized by Word and Deed. Chapters 5 through 7 of Matthew are Word and Chapters 8 and 9 are Deed. In Luke 24, there were two guys on the road to Emmaus who, unbeknownst to them, were in the presence of the risen Christ and He asks them about the things they were discussing and they said they were discussing things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a Prophet mighty in word and deed. Luke 24:19 And he said unto them, What things? And they said unto him, Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. Talk is cheap. What made Jesus’ words mighty was the deeds that backed them up. We have a tendency in Protestant circles or “evangelical/fundamentalist” circles to major heavily on the ‘word’ for fear that anything more would smell of works (deeds) and we do not want this associated with our salvation at all. The fallout of this is what in our attempts to keep works as far from our salvation as we can push them, we invariably have created a Christianity that vocally stands firm on chapter and verse, yet, struggles to actually put it into practice. Jesus, however, knew that anything He taught was only as good as the deeds that followed. He literally practiced what He preached. In fact, one might argue that He preached through what He practiced.
Jesus’ teaching style will vary as we move throughout Matthew’s gospel. There are times when He will make direct statements of truth, while other times He’ll use parables to reveal and conceal His message depending on the audience who might be listening. He will teach through His example. He will, as a good rabbi, use object lessons when necessary. He will bring to light the proper use of the TaNaK (Old Testament) while challenging the religious minds who had abused it. Jesus’ teaching will hold the religious arrogant at arms length while welcoming the contrite and humble with comforting words. In fact, when Jesus begins this sermon in Matthew 5, He is already challenging some information that would have been known at the time. There are other sources of Jewish literature that contain teachings on “blessings.” Matthew 5 begins with 8 or 9 (depending on how you count) blessings and what we are going to see is that Jesus is setting the record straight in the minds of their society. About 200 years prior to Christ, there was another Jewish scholar named Jesus ben-Sirach and in a collection of his work (The Wisdom of Jesus ben-Sirach), we find a list of blessings as well. Some of these might sound very close to a scriptural agreement, but there are a few that are at odds with what Jesus is going to teach. Below is an excerpt from the work and I want to highlight the sections that are of most interest to me,
25:7 I can think of nine whom I would call blessed, and a tenth my tongue proclaims: [blessed is] a man who can rejoice in his children; [blessed is] a man who lives to see the downfall of his foes. 25:8 Happy the man who lives with a sensible wife, and the one who does not plow with ox and ass together. Happy is the one who does not sin with the tongue, and the one who has not served an inferior. 25:9 Happy is the one who finds a friend, and the one who speaks to attentive listeners. 25:10 How great is the one who finds wisdom! But none is superior to the one who fears the Lord. 25:11 Fear of the Lord surpasses everything; to whom can we compare the one who has it?
Again, some of these seem to sound as if the scriptures of the Old Testament are certainly influencing ben-Sirach’s thinking. However, the three that I’ve highlight standout to me as at odds with the message of the Hebrew scriptures. Remember that when the Jews came back from Exile, there was a struggle with Judaism as to what its identity would be. The Greek social philosophy of Hellenism was bringing the Jews to a decision point about how they would respond to it. This eventually gave rise to the various groups during the time of Christ (i.e. Sadducees, Herodians, Essenes, Pharisees and Zealots). When the Greek empire fizzled into the Roman empire, the Romans essentially took Hellenism to its next level, but the society in Rome was very cutthroat. One rejoiced in seeing his enemy fall. One new one’s place in society and certainly didn’t lower himself to serve someone of lower class. And, how much respect would you command if people thought you were important enough to listen to your words of wisdom? As we see with ben-Sirach, the influences of Roman thinking and culture permeated his thinking and ultimately warped his view of what it means to be blessed. Ben-Sirach believed that God’s favor rested upon you if you were fortunate enough to witness the demise of your enemies. It was likewise evident that God’s favor rested upon you if you were never in the unfortunate circumstance of serving someone who was inferior to you by society’s standards. And, when people were just enamored by your words and would listen to you, then you knew for sure that God’s favor was upon you. Jesus is going to obliterate this kind of thinking throughout His ministry, but will be begin this large sermon by identifying who it is that is blessed – who has the favor of God resting upon them.
This opening section of the sermon is usually called, the Beatitudes (from the Latin word beati, which means “happy” or “fortunate”). Jesus has just called 4 of the 12 disciples in Matthew 4 and in chapter 5, it seems to suggesting something greater about these disciples.
Matthew 5:1 And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: 5:2 And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying
At first glance, it appears that Jesus sees the multitudes gathering and retreats up the mountain to teach His disciples privately. But, notice what Matthew says when the sermon closes in chapter 7:
Matthew 7:28 And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine.
This should be very telling – Matthew wants us to recognize that the disciples of Christ are the multitudes, but not just multitudes generically – we’ve already seen the makeup of these multitudes in chapter 4. This doesn’t mean Christ won’t have 12 closest followers, but it does teach us something about those whom Christ welcomed to be His disciple. In Chapter 4, recall who it is that is amassing around Jesus,
Matthew 4:23 And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people. 4:24 And his fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatick, and those that had the palsy; and he healed them. 4:25 And there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judaea, and from beyond Jordan.
Jesus begins teaching about His kingdom and what it is known for and the multitudes, whom Matthew seems to associate directly with the idea of disciples, are not multitudes of celebrities, politicians, the wealthy or the influential. It is the sick, the lame. This is one of the defining markers of the kingdom of Christ – it welcomes and honors those of society whom in their society are pushed to the fringes. As Jesus will tell the Pharisees in Matthew 9, the sick have need a physician, not the whole. We should keep this in mind – the true marks of Jesus’ kingdom and Jesus’ followers isn’t a well-dressed Sunday best. It isn’t by believing your appearance is what brings you favor with God – that’s ben-Sirach thinking. Just like the Pharisees, we often miss Jesus’ kingdom because it is seeking people we wouldn’t think of seeking. That’s the unfortunate and fortunate nature of what Jesus will teach us – it is unfortunate because it causes us to have to come to grips with our approach to Christianity, but fortunate for the very same reason. It is convicting, yet encouraging. And, it is in the presence of these multitudes who were sick and poor and nobodies in society, Jesus says,
Matthew 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 5:4 Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. 5:5 Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. 5:6 Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. 5:7 Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. 5:8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. 5:9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. 5:10 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 5:11 Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. 5:12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
Jesus is not prescribing how to obtain God’s favor, but is making emphatic statements describing where God’s favor is already found. Notice in this list isn’t anything listed about the faithful church-goer or the diligent student of the scriptures or the tenacious soul-winner, yet, these are often what we hold up in high-esteem as evidence of the favor of God resting upon someone. None of those things are wrong by any means, but nonetheless, are we thinking as Jesus thought? Do we ascribe and assign blessing based on things that really have no basis in defining the resting place of God’s favor? Jesus looked at the multitudes of outcasts and tells them that the blessed are the poor in the spirit. Why? Because theirs in the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn. Why? because they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek. Why? Because they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness. Why? Because they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful. Why? Because they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart. Why? Because they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers. Why? Because they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Why? Because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Some view this as the “Christian Constitution” – the set of statements that define what the Christian life should aspire to achieve. Yet, contextually, Jesus is not primarily tell the audience to aspire to these things. Is Jesus encouraging them to mourn and be persecuted? No, Jesus is telling a multitude of folks who ARE THESE VERY THINGS that the favor of God rests upon them. Their secular society reminds them of “their place” as does their religious society, yet the favor of God rests upon them as evidenced by what they receive in exchange. This is why Jesus’ kingdom is so backwards from the rest of the world. The kingdoms of the world take the poor in spirit and discard them as useless for the kingdom, yet, for Jesus, He will exchange the poverty for the kingdom of heaven itself. In the kingdoms of this world, those who mourn – those who bottle up and internalize the pains of life – are told to get over it and suck it up. In Jesus’ kingdom, their mourning will be exchanged for comfort. As we already saw back in Matthew 2 and the reference to Christ’s birth and Rachel’s mourning – Christ is the joy that dawns out of mourning.
It isn’t my intention to walk through each blessing, but allow you to begin to think on these things. Even though these things are not prescriptions for obtaining God’s favor, they nonetheless serve to help us as believers understand better the mind of God. If God’s favor rests on those people, what does that mean about my approach to Christianity? Let me be clear – God is not saying that certain aspects of humanity are more worth it than others, arbitrarily speaking. However, when humanity mistreats its fellow man and brings oppression and wickedness upon their fellow man, God is a God who hears the cry of the oppressed and will deliver them. Do I think like ben-Sirach or do I think like Christ? If I pulled up to 30,000 feet, would I see a pattern of weaving and zig-zags as I make my way to the kind of people I’m comfortable ministering to? That isn’t what we see in Jesus. He had an ever widening circle, welcoming the outsider into His kingdom and under His wings.
The sermon starts off with bold blessings that insinuate a bold statement of where God’s favor rests. As the sermon continues, we will find out more about this ragtag multitude as being salt of the earth. Not only are these the kind of people the kingdom rescues, but these are the kind of people that the kingdom empowers to reach the world.
Our story continues…