For a second illustration of what “fulfilling the law” means Jesus turns to the subject of murder. The law says “You shall not murder” and Jesus explains what’s really is behind the cold hard proposition. It would be clear in people’s minds that they should not kill another person, but there is something greater that they need to understand. The outward act is wrong but it is not enough to deal with the problem on that level. Behind murder lay some form of “anger” so Jesus adds that the one who is angry “will be subject to judgment.”
Traditionally we deal with problems on the same level as the offense. You do something that offends me and I will do the same or something like it to you. A is answered by B. But the problem isn’t A but Why A. You offended me in public so I will offend you in public repeats the problem, it doesn’t solve it. We both need to understand why you did A to me. The answer is not “Same to you, buddy!” but “Why, my friend.” The law as such belongs to the former category and the answer to the latter. In Jesus’ answer we see the road to recovery has to go through the valley of reconciliation before it can be designated solved.
It follows from this that our real problem is not the problem itself (killing) but the anger that promotes it (the why we did it). Until we see this we remain unproductive in a tit-for-tat world. Jesus wants us to understand the actual problem and that is in us rather than between us. If I’m not speaking to someone because I think that person has offended me the answer is for something to happen that will level the field. I need to ask myself Why? – as does the other as well. It is not until we look within and consider that our “murder” of the other was caused by our “anger” toward them. The answer normally is not out there but in here.
At that point Jesus gives us an example of the principle. In today’s world, if we are in church and about ready to sing “All to Jesus I surrender” and it comes to mind that we have a beef against the elder who later on will pass out the elements in a communion service, its best to put the hymn book down and go to the elder and work through the issue. Tell him you were mad and now realize that attitude was wrong and see what happens as a result. There will be a little revival moment when two believers forgive and embrace. Without confession there can be no renewal.
Honesty simplifies all relationships, removes the need to find cause to blame the other, makes it easier to forgive, and mirrors how Christ would have us live together as his children displaying to the world what he is like. As always, his way is right. Our resistance is evidence that we have a long way to go. Even the secular author W. Somerset Maugham sensed the real problem when he wrote, “The first thing needful to make the world a tolerable place to live in is to recognize the inevitable selfishness of humanity.” Right! The intent of the law is not merely outward conformity to a set of moral rules but an inner transformation that generates the desire to conform to the image of God as represented in those external rules.
The three distinctives of the Jewish people were their land, their temple, and their Law; so when they lost the first two during the exile, the Law became increasingly important. Consequently the role of the scribes, the scholars of Israel, expanded due to the need for additional regulations. It was understood that these additional directives were necessary to keep the people from breaking the Mosaic law. So when Jesus appeared on the scene, breaking the Sabbath, failing to perform all the required religious rituals, it appeared that he held a lower view of the Law. Thus at the beginning of his public ministry it was necessary for him to identify the relationship between his message and the Law. This he did as recorded in Matt. 5:17-20.
“Don’t imagine that I have come to do away with the Law of Moses, or the teaching of the prophets. I‘ve not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Properly understood, the Law is the outward expression of the nature of God. How could Jesus ever minimize that? The Law sets forth the kind of life that is consistent with the nature of God. One way to understand the word “fulfill” is to take it in the sense of “fill full.” Christ had come to explain in the language of his day what the Law had always intended. Religion had taken truth and distorted it by elevating practice over principle. Jesus explains (in the rest of chapter 5 of Matthew) the inner meaning of that which the scribes had emasculated with endless regulations. What is of supreme importance is the goal of a regulation, not the way it is stated.
Jesus goes on to say that not even the smallest letter in the alphabet or some decorative stroke connected with it will ever disappear. It is without end, just as God is. Anyone who would set aside even the smallest part of the Law will be least in the Kingdom of heaven. What Jesus did was not breaking the Law but revealing the kind of life it intended for the church. What this means is spelled out in the same chapter of Matthew. I can hear Jesus teaching something as follows:
“To not murder is not enough, the motivation is wrong (vv. 21-22)
“To not commit adultery is not enough, get that lustful look out of your eye (vv. 27-28)
“To not hate your enemy is not enough, love them (vv. 43- 44), etc.
“You seem to think that by observing all those little secondary rules you’ll make it into heaven. I’ll tell you something; unless your performance in keeping the Law is better than the scribes and Pharisees you’ll never make it into the kingdom of heaven. I’ll teach you how to keep the intent of the Law so that by allowing its real meaning to flood your inner self and draw you into a closer relationship to God. The Law is holy because the Law is the explanation of the nature of God. I have not come to do away with it but to show you the kind of life it was intended to produce. The Law continues central.
If the beatitudes leave the impression that believers are to play a somewhat passive role in society (“meek . . . merciful . . . peacemaker”), the following verses (Matt. 5:13-16) describe the active role they are to play. Jesus tells his followers they are to be the “salt of the earth” (v. 13) and the “light of the world.” What do these two metaphors suggest?
In the ancient world salt, in addition to being a seasoning, was a purifier and preservative. As believers live out the beatitudes in their daily lives they will permeate the world and retard its moral and ethical decay. One of the most noticeable things about salt is its essential difference from the medium in which it is placed. If Christians were “salty” they wouldn’t look like the world, but would affect it as a change agent. Every time you forget to put the salt in a dish for dinner, everyone at the table has a comment on how dull the food tastes. They know that salt changes things and if nothing is happening – “You forgot to add the salt!” If a group of believers do not change in some way the larger society of which they are a part, it would be reasonable to conclude that they weren’t the salt they claimed to be.
In the same say, followers of Jesus are to be “the light of the world.” Light has as its major function, illumination. Without light the world lives in darkness. Both here and in John, Jesus declares, “I am the light of the world” and, “If you follow me you won’t have to walk in darkness” (v. 14; John 8:42 NLT). The purpose of light is obvious and needs no discussion. Consider the impropriety of lighting a lamp and then covering it up. Talk about wasted energy. Think about it for a minute: If you build a city on a mountaintop there is simply no way to hide it. Everybody can see it. In the same way, if believers claim to be a bright city on the hillside and no one can find it, it’s obviously not there. If you can’t taste the salt or see the city they are both imaginary..
It is interesting to note that Jesus puts it this way: “Let your light shine.” Remember, we’re not the light, but simply lamps on the lamp stand. When we let God shine through us the world will see our good deeds and give praise to our Father in heaven (v. 16). Good deeds provide light in the world because they illuminate what God had in mind in the first place, i.e., to bring people out of the darkness of sin and into the glorious light of eternity. And the best way to do it is to live it out! As we used to sing in a different context, “Shine, Baby, shine!”
“God blesses those who are persecuted for having always done the right thing, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them” (Matt. 5:10).
The beatitudes are conditions of ethical conduct appropriate for the life of the believer. They spell out the kind of life that brings pleasure to God. The eighth and final beatitude comes as a surprise in that it describes the way a believer is to respond when persecuted for simply carrying out the righteous expectations of a holy life. The secular mind that has decided to persecute the Christian is logically confused because if it’s okay for them to decide what is right, why would it be wrong for believers to have the same choice, and decide something different? Of course, it is not the believer who makes the decision, but the God he worships and adores. In Christianity it is God, not man, who makes such decisions.
We have mentioned before that righteousness is simply what God has determined: to show compassion, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to maintain a pure and happy heart, etc. People who live this way are declared by God to be blessed. This blessedness expresses itself as a way to live “Happily ever after” and that begins immediately but reaches its completeness the moment Jesus returns to take over as King of Kings.
We tend to think that blessedness is the appropriate response for something we have done, some sort of positive achievement, but Jesus says we are blessed for being persecuted for the “right” thing we have done. Put simply the equation looks like this:
DO what is right, and the RESULT is to be persecuted.
Should it not be:
DO what is right, and the RESULT is to be blessed?
Apparently persecution is not something we have to put up with, but a positive blessing itself. How could that be? Only in that when opposition is encountered and we ask how this obstacle can be used to serve the purposes of God do we see persecution as a positive blessing. Paul’s reaction to prison was to sing and pray (Acts 16:5). As a result he ministered to all the other prisoners. So the net result of this particular episode was (1) he did the right thing, and (2) it resulted in effective outreach. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for always doing the right thing.”
It should not come as a surprise that Christian morality, (which often runs counter to secular morality) seems strange to the world. We used to sing, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.” So stay open for a wide range of persecution because if we really are in the same boat as Jesus, our reception will be much the same as his.
“Blessed are those who work for peace, for they will be known as children of God” (Matt. 5:9).
What needs to be pointed out immediately is that the peace that Jesus enjoins is not a passive acceptance of everything that comes along, but an active involvement that confronts the problem and works through to a satisfactory resolution. It is one with the psalmist who wrote, “Strive for peace with all your heart” (Psalm 34:14, TEV). Contemporary culture has been cluttered for quite some time with those who carry signs regarding some aspect of nature – and they have a right to do that, but protest has to merge into something a lot more helpful before the “dream” swill can come to fruition. Common sense encourages positive involvement in that which helps change to happen.
The peace of which Jesus is speaking in this verse is not the eradication of some global problem or even the absence of war (and both are desirable), but in context he is referring to the establishment of right relationships between members of the human family. Human nature drives a wedge between people by appealing to the beneficial aspects of an issue to one person or group rather than to the community at large. Unfortunately, we are people who find it amazing easy to accept whatever benefits us. It runs contrary to one of Jesus’ basic teachings –concern for the other that restores the group to personal and corporate health.
It is a peace that restores. Broken relationships rob people of the deep joy of life. They take up the valuable time that could have been used for the betterment of all involved. They lodge in a person’s mind and heart in a way that makes it impossible to think seriously about reconciliation.
“Blessed are those whose hearts are pure; they are the ones who will see God” Matt. 5:8
Pure gold is gold that is pure – all the way through. There is not a trace of impurity in it. The pure in heart are those who are devoted to God without reservation of any kind. They are single-minded in their commitment to the Lord. The primary reference is not to sexual impurity, although that is brought up a bit later (Matt. 5:28), but to an undivided heart in its relationship to God.
It’s quite widely agreed that the western world has entered a stage of immorality that began with the widespread demise of absolutes. What custom had kept me from doing, I did, and in doing, custom redefined itself. In the Christian world it wasn’t quite that easy because the shift left us with hearts that want to follow Christ, but are resistant to his call for moral purity. It is this moral schizophrenia that the beatitude addresses. The syntax of the second phrase (with autoi after the connector) stresses that it is the pure in heart (and only them?) that will see God. God calls as followers those who “leave their nets” (Mark 4:20), their “tax-collector booth” (Matt. 9:9), their family connections (Luke 9:59, and “everything they have” (Luke 18:22) He expects from them their undivided loyalty. Half-hearted believers are not the ones who “see God.”
The promise of seeing God is primarily, but not exclusively, eschatological. There never will be a moment more glorious that when when we stand in the presence of God and “see his face” (Rev. 22:4). Purity of heart is the basic requirement for seeing him not only then but now. Like so many other truths of scripture, this one is eschatological in fulfillment, but available in a limited sense now. Present life anticipates life eternal.
Most of us enjoy an electronic personality called Siri. She lives in our mobile phone and can be called upon night or day for the explanation and evaluation of anything. This has a certain parallel in spiritual life. From time to time when we ask, we become existentially aware of what lies ahead for the believer. God allows us to sense the wonder of the eternal state – that which is eternal enters time. We perceive the heavenly banquet although we are sitting quietly with him here below. How blessed we are as we await the ultimate blessing of his eternal presence.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” Matt. 5:7.
The 5th Beatitude has to do with the “merciful.” God promises mercy for all who show it to others. Behind the Greek term is the Hebrew hesed that speaks of God’s “loving-kindness” or “steadfast love.” In its original setting it describes the fidelity of a covenant relationship. God’s hesed is not a surge of emotion but an act of intentional kindness. As used in this beatitude it promises that God will show mercy to all who in their lives have shown mercy to others. One writer calls it a quid pro quo ethic that should be taken seriously but not legalistically.
To be merciful is to withhold what can be called proper retaliation. We recognize that a person who without reason harms another should be punished appropriately. Our entire system of jurisprudence is built upon the principle that harm cannot be dismissed but must be balanced by a proper retaliation. It’s “an eye for an eye,” not more, not less. Few would deny that the approach has been effective in the development of western civilization. But God doesn’t see it quite that way. He is merciful, that is, he withholds retribution (at least for the moment) and expects his people to act accordingly. Life is not an arena for getting even, but the opportunity to withhold retaliation for the benefit of both parties. The wrongdoer is to receive what he doesn’t deserve so that he can become what he has never been. It is love in the courts of ethical growth.
Calvary’s cross have given us the ultimate expression of mercy. The victim (Jesus) should have been shown mercy since the charge against him was false, yet on the cross he extended forgiveness and mercy to those who had him nailed here.. Dying for our sins, his mercy reached out to all who would receive it. Wherever forgiveness is extended we have another illustration of mercy. Even though the offence is real retaliation is not the divine reaction. Rather than getting even God encourages us to extend mercy. That’s what he has done for the entire population of the world, so why shouldn’t we? All too often we relish the pleasure of getting even. But to withhold forgiveness is, as someone put it, like drinking rat poison and then wait for the rat to die.
The text reminds us that it is to those that show mercy that mercy will be shown. It is not that our act of mercy entitles us to receive mercy from God; it is that, in the end, God will show mercy to those who have followed this practice through life.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled” Matt. 5:6
It will be well to pause a moment to explain more specifically the word that gave its name to the Beatitudes, markarios. Cyprus was called he markaria, the “Happy Isle,” because it was so fertile and beautiful that everything a person could want was found within its coastline. The word represents a joy that has its secret within itself. When God says that a certain type of person is “blessed” he means that in their relationship to him they experience a deep and personal sense of peace. We have already noted that the poor in spirit, those that understand sorrow, and the meek are blessed in their relationship to God. To that group Jesus now adds those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
For most people of the ancient world, hunger was a possibility that always lay just around the corner. That being the case, we can better understand Jesus’ prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” In today’s beatitude God recommends that we long for righteousness as a hungry man longs for food. To say that a person “hungers and thirsts” pictures a deep longing for that which will bring the greatest pleasure. What God desires in us is a heart aflame with passion to do what is right. Reality is structured so that only those who meet the requirement receive the satisfaction of fulfillment. Righteousness is not an ethereal concept that floats in the world of philosophical thought but a genuine desire to do what is right. It is not a theory but something we do. It is when our desire to fulfill the will of God is like that of a starving man’s desire for food that it is rewarded with complete satisfaction of soul.
Unfortunately this level of passion for what is right finds little fulfillment in today’s culture. The desire is there, but has been redirected to such tawdry things as having, seeing, and wanting. So we “long” for certain musical environments, for travel to exotic areas, for a wide assortment of things. God calls us to long for righteousness and when we do we find that even a deeper desire is being fulfilled. In my gospel harmony I put it this way: “How blessed are those who long to do what pleases God, for God will satisfy them completely.”
“How blessed are those who understand the sorrow of this world, for God himself will comfort and encourage them” (Matt. 5:4)
The second Beatitude deals with the ever too present sorrow that is always lurking in the shadows of life. “Blessed are those who mourn” is the standard translation followed by “for they will be comforted.” “Those who mourn” are normally understood to be those who are going through difficult times, and that is understandable. But, as the designation is used here by Jesus, it describes those who understand that all the suffering in the world stems from the sinful and self-destructive human tendency to act as though God did not exist. In Jesus, In His Own Words I describe them as “those who understand the sorrow of this world.” Phillips has “those who know what sorrow means.” It is less that they are experiencing sorrow than it is that they understand how it came to be, If one does not understand the source of all sorrow and grief there exists for that person no clear perspective on why life has its downside. If you assume that the lack of sorrow is the normal state of things you will never be able to deal with it in any definitive way. The Christian believer understands that, given the curse of sin, sorrow is a standard ingredient in life. What should (and will) be is the absence of sorrow, but that awaits the triumphant return of Christ and the end of the human experience.
Way back at the beginning the primal pair failed the crucial test and were put out of the garden. But that was not all. To Adam, God declared, “Cursed is the ground because of you” (Gen. 3:17). With sin came a sorrow that extended from separation from God all the way to the cursing of the earth. Paul writes that “the creation was subjected to frustration” and that it will be “liberated from its bondage to decay” at the future moment God’s glory will be finally and completely displayed (Rom. 8:18-21).
So Jesus reminds us that it is those who “understand the sorrow of this world” that are blessed. We alone know God’s broad plans for sin’s ultimate destruction and removal. God himself “comforts and encourages” those who know that what currently is, along with all its sorrow, will be done away with and God will rule both heaven and earth with perfect justice. And that is why those who understand are, even in the difficulties of life, blessed.”
The short-range view cannot understand the why of sorrow. This, in turn, prevents an optimistic view of the future. There is no certainty that all will be well. In fact, how does one know that everything will not get progressively worse so that in time the forces of evil will prevail? Followers of Jesus understand not only the nature and the cause of sorrow, but its ultimate demise as well. Blessed are those who understand sorrow!
We began our discussion of the life and teachings of Jesus by watching how he acted in order to learn how to live as he did. (That series will be available (within a few days) as a paper back through Createspace.com under the title Mentored by Jesus). Then we did a Good News Dictionary pointing out in alphabetic order, insights into how he lived and what he taught. Now we are starting a series on the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). My hope is that we will continue to learn and be blessed as together we come to better understand the essential truths that Jesus taught to his followers long ago on a hill side above the Sea of Galilee.
Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is an arrangement of a great deal of what Jesus taught, part of it on a hillside in Galilee (Note: A number of the sayings appear in the other gospels in different geographic areas). It contains the heart of Jesus’ teaching on how to live in a way that honors God the Father. It is a Kingdom message.
On this occasion when Jesus “saw the crowds” he went up a hillside and finding a suitable spot, sat down and his disciple gathered around him. It sounds as though he turned away from the crowds and went to be alone with his disciples except that at the close of the sermon the text says, “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching” (Matt. 7:28). It appears, then, that he didn’t leave the crowds in order be with his disciples but that the crowd came along and would have heard the entire discourse.
The teaching begins with what are called “The Beatitudes,” an expression that reflects the 9 opening lines, each of which begins with “Blessed are the . . . “ And Matthew places as first the truth, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and then adds the reason, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:3). Whenever I hear “poor in spirit” the image of a sort of Caspar Milquetoast flashes in my mind. But obviously that isn’t what Jesus is saying. Linguistic authorities have discussed the meaning of the expression as well as historians and theologians. Haven’t read them all but I did pay careful attention to the beatitudes when I translated Jesus, in His Own Words. This is my translation: “How blessed are those who recognize their spiritual need, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.” The poor in spirit are those who recognize how much help they need in spiritual matters. If we have poor health we mean that it lacks a great deal to be what it should be. If we are poor when it comes to matters of spiritual concern it means that we need significant help when I comes to spiritual things. The point is that we will never posses spiritual richness until we acknowledge own deficiency. So “Blessed are those who recognize their need for spiritual insight and want help.