A Bible Lesson on Matthew 5:1-20

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This is a lesson on the first part of the Sermon on the Mount (primarily on what we commonly call the Beatitudes).  This is early in the ministry of Jesus.  His popularity is at its height, but the popular expectations of Messiah’s kingdom don’t match the Truth.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus defines for His followers what kind of kingdom His kingdom is going to be.  Jesus is bringing a kingdom radically different from both secular institutions and also conventional religion.  Let us do our best to hear it afresh for the startling sermon that it is.

Matthew 5:1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.

2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

He sat down.  This is a posture of authority.  The Rabbis did their formal teaching from a seated position.  We even today talk about honored positions in universities as “chairs.”  When the Pope speaks (authoritatively) “ex cathedra” he’s speaking “from his chair.”  The “He opened His mouth and taught them saying …” carries the notion that what Jesus began to say was most serious, a solemn discussion of central things.

Who is there and who are these teachings intended for?  Verse 1 says “His disciples.”  But the 12 have not yet been named.  Matthew himself isn’t called until Chapter 9.  We should thus probably think that the whole company of those interested in this young Rabbi who had been healing and teaching in Galilee were on the mountain.  Jesus is going to tell them what they’re possibly enlisting in.  The fact is, this passage is for all who would call Jesus Savior and Lord.  As Stott put it, it’s a description of “what human life and human community look like when they come under the gracious rule of God”

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

English translators have added verbs in the beatitudes where there really are none.  These are not just statements, they are exclamations.  It’s not really “blessed are the …”  It’s more “blessed the …” And the word rendered “blessed” is probably more accurately rendered “fortunate” or “well off.”  Fortunate the poor in spirit!  It is a description of someone whose place in life is enviable or to be recommended.

“Poor in spirit” is the right starting point for a prospective disciple of Jesus.  An understanding of our human abject spiritual poverty before a holy and completely righteous Creator is the beginning point.  Ryle put it this way, “Humility is the very first letter in the alphabet of Christianity.”  This is not about economics.  It’s about realizing that we have no resources independent of our Maker.  (The only way that it relates to economics is to the extent that those without wealth can be more easily driven to depend upon God than those who think they have their own resources.)

The Old Testament passages about God helping the poor refer to those who because of economic circumstances have cast themselves upon God.  It’s their faith/dependence upon Him that brings His help.

As we read these blessings, we shouldn’t hear here different blessings being pronounced on different groups in the Kingdom.  There is only one real people of God, in all of whom these characteristics will be seen.  And the blessings that are pronounced are all part of the same whole, adoption into the family of God.  Jesus is not saying that there will be some experts in poverty of spirit who will get a particular blessing.  Rather, all who are going to be His will be poor in spirit and share in the Kingdom.

“Obviously” this whole notion is counter to the world’s system (both secular and conventional religious).  In the world, to succeed you have to have resources, either economic ones, or in the case of false religion, stored up “good marks” to somehow impress a false god.

Barclay’s translation/amplification of this verse is:  “O the bliss of the man who has realized his own utter helplessness, and who has put his whole trust in God, for thus alone he can render to God that perfect obedience which will make him a citizen of the kingdom of heaven!”

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Fortunate those who mourn!  Much of this passage hearkens back to the Old Testament, and passages of Isaiah are particularly relevant.  For example, there is

Isaiah 61:1 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;

2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;

3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.

God will comfort those who mourn.  That is true for those who mourn because of loss of life, but that is not the primary meaning here.  The flow here is from understanding our spiritual poverty to genuine mourning for our sin and its consequences, and the same for the sin of those around us.

We ought to genuinely grieve that our own rebellion sent the holy Son of God to the cross.  We ought to mourn over the fact that remaining sin in us dishonors Him and causes pain for those around us.  We should ache that our world is a terrible mess because people consistently choose to defy their rightful King.  We ought to mourn.

The word used here for “mourn” is the strongest one possible in the Greek language.  This is more than a little sadness.  It is the kind of grief that so takes hold of a person that it cannot be hid.  True disciples of Jesus will have that kind of experience regarding their own sin and the condition of mankind.  And the promise is that (just as Isaiah says) God will comfort.  He and only He has the power to provide us any solace in this kind of place.  It’s Him we’ve wronged.  Only He can pronounce us forgiven and part of His people, and His comfort is certain!

Psalm 51:17  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Psalm 37:11  But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.

Fortunate the meek!  It only makes sense that the person who understands his poverty before a holy God and is truly grieved over his sin and that of others will walk gently.  The word translated “meek” could also be rendered gentle/humble/considerate/courteous.  You don’t throw your weight around when you have a grasp on how desperate was your condition.  This meekness is in the words of Martyn Lloyd-Jones “… a true view of oneself, expressing itself in attitude and conduct with respect to others … The man who is truly meek is the one who is truly amazed that God and man can treat him as well as they do.”  As Stott said”… this makes him gentle, humble, sensitive, patient in all his dealings with others.”

This whole notion is completely counter to our modern “assertive” society (and even our supposedly “Christian” psycho-babble about self-esteem).  This is instead real Christianity, radical stuff that it is.  Ryle puts it this way.  He says Jesus is speaking about ” … those who are of a patient and contented spirit.  They are willing to put up with little honor here below; they can bear injuries without resentment; they are not ready to take offence.  Like Lazarus in the parable, they are content to wait for their good things.  Blessed are all such!  They are never losers in the long run. One day they shall reign on the earth.”

The promise is that this kind of meekness will be accompanied by blessing.  The Christian looks forward to a certain inheritance stored up for him in Christ.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Fortunate those who hunger and thirst!  Many commentators have pointed out that we have a hard time really understanding this verse because most of us have never been really hungry or thirsty.  But real hunger was never far away from a ordinary working man of the Palestine of Jesus’ day, and parching thirst was a common experience.

The sentence construction in Greek also apparently makes it clear that this appetite for righteousness is not just for “some” of it, but the whole of it.  The construction is one that would be used if one wanted not just “some” water, but the whole pitcher, not just “some” bread but the whole loaf.  This is a picture of intense desire for righteousness.

What righteousness?  Certainly there is included in the meaning here personal legal righteousness/justification/right relationship with God.  There is also here the notion of personal moral righteousness, the longing for the ability to live rightly, morally, purely.  But even in addition to these there is the notion of a corporate reign of righteousness.  Those who are going to be true disciples will not only have the desperation of a man dying of thirst for personal righteousness, they will be equally desperate that society be set aright, that God’s righteous judgments rule in the affairs of men.  Luther put it that what is required is “… a hunger and thirst for righteousness that can never be curbed or stopped or sated, one that looks for nothing and cares for nothing except the accomplishment and maintenance of the right, despising everything that hinders this end.  If you cannot make the world completely pious, then do what you can.”

And again the promise of Christ is that such thirst will be (with certainty) satisfied, in part, in the here and now, and completely in eternity.

Ryle said, “He means those who desire above all things to be entirely conformed to the mind of God.  They long not so much to be rich, or wealthy, or learned, as to be holy.  Blessed are all such.  They shall have enough one day.  They shall ‘awake after God’s likeness and be satisfied.’  Psalm 42:15

Barclay’s version of this verse is “O the bliss of the man who longs for total righteousness as a starving man longs for food, and a man perishing of thirst longs for water, for that man will be truly satisfied!”

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Fortunate the merciful!  Mercy is compassion for people in need.  It is the sharing of their trouble.  It deals with both the general and specific consequences of sin.  It cures, heals, helps.

Our God is merciful.  Jesus says that if his listeners want to enlist, they need to understand that God’s people will be a merciful people.  It is, of course, not at all that our mercy in any way merits God’s mercy towards us.  God is not in our debt.  But if we’re without it, we prove that we haven’t really got hold of our own abject spiritual poverty.  The heart of a true disciple is a grateful heart, and that heart will show mercy as a reflection of the great mercy of God.  (Remember the parable of the unforgiving servant.)

8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Fortunate the pure in heart!  For one thing, this speaks of moral uprightness.  But the primary idea here is singleness of purpose.  A pure metal is one that is unalloyed.  And the primary reference here is to sincerity.  The life of one who is pure in heart is completely transparent before God and men.  It is completely without guile.  There is no trace of hypocrisy.  The pure in heart is the same in all circumstances.  As Stott so truly pointed out, only Jesus was completely undivided in His purpose to honor the Father.  But true disciples of Christ will to an unusual degree exhibit this characteristic.  And the end of it is that they will see God.

In spite of the fact that it is part of a single whole package, the “they will see God” ought to cause us special pause.  People in our time are entirely too casual in their talking about seeing God.  To see Him with anything but purity of heart and singleness of affection should strike us as terrible disaster, our undoing.  The Psalmist said

Psalm 24:3 “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?  

4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” 

The wonder of this sermon is the promise that in Christ, you and I will be able to stand in His presence and see Him.  Jesus works in us purity of heart if we are really His.

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Fortunate the peacemakers!  The Hebrew concept of peace/shalom is more than just the absence of conflict.  It involves the presence of all that makes for man’s highest good, sound relations between God and man and between man and man.

Being “called sons of God” is a Hebraism for being known for doing the work of God.  Jesus came to establish peace between God and man.  His true disciples will work for the same and for real peace between men, on the same sound basis of Christ.  This is no liberal/flower child/protest march/Nobel prize kind of business.  This is about bringing men and women into right relationship to God, and then teaching them the Kingdom implications of their real brotherhood in Christ.

Jesus is completely honest with those who have climbed the hill with Him.  Not everybody is going to appreciate the true disciple.  When one is poor in spirit, mourns over his own sin and that of his neighbors, when he is meek and merciful and single-minded in his devotion to Christ, and goes out of his way to try to establish real righteousness and peace founded on the one and only foundation of Christ, there is going to be trouble in this sad world.  That’s just the way it is.  The kingdom that Jesus is describing is one with values completely at odds with both those of secular society and those of conventional false religion.  The kind of radical life Jesus demands will inevitably bring persecution.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Fortunate those who are persecuted because of righteousness!  Persecution for the right reasons is in the end not grievous.  It is temporary trouble balanced against what is right and good, against an eternal weight of glory.

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.

Fortunate you when insulted for Christ!  When a believer bears insult, falsehood, deprivation or worse for the sake of Christ, it is an occasion of joy, in that it authenticates his discipleship.  The world hated the prophets, the world hated Jesus, and it will hate His true disciples.  There’s no problem in the eyes of the world over a small amount of “civilized”/domesticated religion.  But this business of thirsting for all of righteousness, having singleness of purpose, mourning over the state of the world … that’s too much, and by contrast it exposes the corruption of others!  It’s a sure ticket to ridicule.  But Jesus tells us to glory in it.  There is eternal reward in the package He is offering to those who will hear.

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.

Salt gives flavor and preserves.  Such is the nature of Christian witness.  It flavors and preserves society.  On the other hand, when it ceases to be thoroughly Christian, when it ceases to be what Jesus has described, it is worse than useless.  Salt/sodium chloride is a stable compound that doesn’t really break down.  But it can get mixed with other things and become useless as a seasoning and preservative.

Tasker said Christ’s disciples “… are to be a moral disinfectant in a world where moral standards are low, constantly changing or non-existent.”

Lloyd-Jones commented, “The glory of the gospel is that when the church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it.  It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, even though it may hate it at first.”

Thielicke wrote, “… But Jesus, of course, did not say ‘You are the honey of the world.’  He said, ‘You are the salt of the earth.’  Salt bites and the unadulterated message of the judgment and grace of God has always been a biting thing.”

14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.

This is quite a statement and responsibility.  Jesus said that He is the Light of the world.  Light was the first thing created.  It is what allows us to see what is what and how things really are.  And Jesus tells His disciples that their lives will make plain to the world the nature of things.

The Greek pronoun “you” here is emphatic.  It is as if Jesus has said “you and only you.”  The point is that the responsibility is ours.  It is not to be ducked, passed on, or otherwise taken lightly.  Stott paraphrased, “You must be what you are … You are light, and so you must let your light shine and not conceal it in any way, whether by sin or by compromise, by laziness or by fear.”

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.

We all know the impulse to put it under a bowl.  It’s tiring out there, at war, day after day.  We get smacked around living as His servants, even when we’re simply trying our best to do what is right and good.  It would be easier to simply take shelter behind the walls of the monastery and let the barbarians go their own way.  It would be easier if we never had to deal with other people.  But Jesus says that’s not an option.  Bonhoeffer put it this way, “Flight into the invisible is a denial of the call.  A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow Him.”  Christianity is to be visible.

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.

This is about the glory of God.  Rightly lived, our lives will make plain to the world what really is what.  Our lives will direct the gaze of people to our Father.  “good works” is a general expression that describes everything a believer is and does because of who he or she is as a disciple of Jesus.  It’s not a description of some special, occasional big deal effort, but rather a description of daily God-breathed life of His people.

Ryle: “Surely, if words mean anything, we are meant to learn from these two figures that there must be something marked, distinct, and peculiar about our character, if we are true Christians. It will never do to idle through life, thinking and living like others, if we mean to be owned by Christ as His people. Have we grace? Then it must be seen. –Have we the Spirit? Then there must be fruit.–Have we any saving religion? Then there must be a difference of habits, tastes, and turn of mind, between us and those who think only of the world.”

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

There is nothing less Christian than a rebellious antinomian (anti-law) notion that since we aren’t saved by keeping the law of God, we may do as we please, as if we were the measure of all things.  If there is to be any sanity in the universe, what is right cannot change.  Jesus didn’t come to do away with the Old Testament revelation, He came to complete it, to be its culmination.  He fulfilled the Old Testament in terms of filling out and completing its doctrinal revelation.  He fulfilled the Old Testament in terms of being the One the prophets had predicted and ceremonies foreshadowed.

18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

The issue here is a proper reverence for the will of God revealed in the Scriptures.  The plain statement is that if we presume to cancel what God has said, we’ve done a really really bad thing.

Ryle commented, “The saints in the Old Testament saw many things through a glass darkly; but they all looked by faith to the same Saviour and were led by the same Spirit as ourselves.  These are no light matters.  Much infidelity begins with an ignorant contempt of the Old Testament.

For another thing, let us beware of the despising of the law of the Ten Commandments.  Let us not suppose for a second that it is set aside by the Gospel or that Christians have nothing to do with it.  The coming of Christ did not alter the position of the Ten Commandments one hair’s breadth.  If anything, it exalted and raised their authority. (Rom 3:31)  The law of the Ten Commandments is God’s eternal measure of right and wrong.  By it is the knowledge of sin; by it the Spirit shows men their need of Christ and drives them to Him; to it Christ refers His people as their rule and guide for holy living.  In its right place, it is just as important as ‘the Glorious Gospel’—It cannot save us; we cannot be justified by it; but never, never let us despise it.  It is a symptom of an ignorant ministry, and an unhealthy state of religion when the law is lightly esteemed.  The true Christian ‘delights in the law of God.’  (Rom 7:22) ”

20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

A real reverence for the will of God will be seen in something bigger than a religion that simply tries to make the definitive list of do’s and don’ts and pays attention only to checking off items on the current list.  It will be concerned with the heart of the Law in the sense of being concerned with every outworking of it and the principles in it.

Stott said, “Not only is greatness in the kingdom assessed by a righteousness that conforms to the law, but entry into the kingdom is impossible without a conformity better (much better: the Greek expression is very emphatic) than that of the scribes and Pharisees”

How can that be?  (After all, those guys were scrupulous about their law-keeping!)  It’s not a matter of degree, but of kind.  It’s not a matter of getting a better score than a Pharisee.  It’s not “kept 240 out of 248 commandments this week!”  It is rather a matter of having a humble, righteousness of heart, an inward righteousness of mind and motive that will show itself in behavior consistent with God’s law, but is far deeper and more radical than just “list keeping.”  Written law couldn’t possible cover every circumstance humans will face, but God-breathed righteousness is to cover every one.  The point is a new character that is in line with the character of God Himself.

Jeremiah 31:33 This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel  after that time,” declares the LORD.  “I will put my law in their minds  and write it on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they will be my people.  

34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD.  “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

Ezekiel 36:27  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

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