The Sermon on the Mount is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew extending over three chapters: Matthew 5 through 7. Our focus here will be on the initial portion of that message known as “The Beatitudes.” The opening verses of Matt 5 are called that because because the initial chain of verses, almost poetic in nature, begin with the word “Blessed.” We will further focus on just the first four of the Beatitudes.
There is no known archaeological record for us to know for certain where this Sermon occurred. North of Capernaum on the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee there is a long sloping hillside that has an amphitheater-like topography. This has been traditionally taken as the site. Today there is a small Roman Catholic chapel there, with a retreat center and serene grounds suitable for contemplation. It is a common stop for any tours of Israel. Here are some pictures. (How we wish the soil could play for us a recording of that day and message).
This Sermon is so widely known that its familiarity interferes with some important observations. Let’s begin by noticing how shocking His message begins. “Blessed are the poor…” What? Everything in Jewish culture at that time was based on the premise that doing good, being good, earned you points with God, and points like those that banks give on credit card usage can be and are converted in prizes and honors of all kinds. This of course is a common ‘message’ of our day. It is the prosperity Gospel, and the essence of idolatry, ancient and modern.
Below in the Gospel of Matthew, the first New Testament Gospel, in the first recorded teaching by Jesus we have an astonishing inversion of human thinking. Contemplate the below simple words of incredibly deep meaning:
Clearly “the poor” of verse 2 is not a reference to financial destitution. Jesus’s perspective is always on much bigger prizes, here it is the “spirit” of man. What circumstance would bring a person to the condition of being “poor in spirit?”
We have several clues. Matthew records just two chapters earlier, the great message of John the Baptist to the people:
Matt 3:1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make His paths straight.’”
4 Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him 6 and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?8 Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, 9 and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. (NKJV)
Previously we saw John’s great message about Jesus, namely that Jesus is the Lamb of God. In Matt 3:2 John’s great message to the people about themselves is…repent! But repent from what? Matt 3:6 makes clear that such baptism was done in confession of one’s own sins. But this leads to a further question: the Old Covenant, the full Mosaic Law, covered the sins of the people through the Temple sacrifices and religious worship festivals. Was that not sufficient? The answer was, and is, “no.” John quotes Isaiah (40:3) in the Old Testament that this repentance was preparing for a coming One, the Lord. (Recall that the Greek word for Lord was the Septuagint translation, LXX, of the Old Testament Hebrew word YHWH, or as commonly transliterated into English as Jehovah or Yahweh; no one knows exactly how YHWH should be pronounced, and even attempting to do so is offensive to many orthodox Jews).
When the Jewish leaders from Jerusalem came to John to discern what he was up to, he warned them in blunt terms that their ancestry in Abraham was not sufficient as a grounds of righteousness any more than seeking to obey the Old Testament Law.
Hence the repentance was that inversion of mind from thinking that by my law-keeping I am not perfect but good enough for God and, so, I’ll be ok in any coming judgment. (Sound familiar today? It’s man’s basic heart of self-justification, that we can be good enough that God can overlook our imperfections, especially in comparison to all those terrible ‘other people’ ‘out there.’)
Returning to our Sermon on the Mount, we have another clue as to what is meant by the phrase “poor in spirit,” namely, the next three verses, Matt 4:4-6: to mourn, to be meek, and to hunger and thirst (not for food and drink) but for true (not just phony, me comparing myself to you) righteousness. This triad of verses are what it means to be “poor in spirit:” to understand deep within one’s soul that my keeping of the Law can never make me righteous. The Law is good, and it is teaching me something…that I am not good. (Later in the New Testament the Apostle Paul speaks of the Law becoming alive, specifically with respect to “coveting,” and when it did, Paul ‘died.’).
Why is possessing these deep, inner conditions something “blessed.” Because they brought the disciples to John the Baptist and to the expression of their repentance from self-righteousness under Law, and by that, from that, it brought them to Jesus, the One who would provide, by Grace, the true righteousness that only God can give. As Paul later writes in Romans, the Law was our schoolmaster leading us to Jesus Christ, our only answer to sin.
This transformation from the letter of the Law to the living Law in and of the Lord occurs throughout the Old Testament, e.g.:
11 In that day you shall not be shamed for any of your deeds
In which you transgress against Me;
For then I will take away from your midst
Those who rejoice in your pride,
And you shall no longer be haughty
In My holy mountain.
12 I will leave in your midst
A meek and humble people,
And they shall trust in the name of the Lord.
Zephaniah 3:11-12 NKJV
This inversion, where “poor in spirit” becomes our highway to Christ and forgiveness is nicely expressed by Tim Keller:
“The Bible’s purpose is not so much to show you how to live a good life. The Bible’s purpose is to show you how God’s grace breaks into your life against your will and saves you from the sin and brokenness otherwise you would never be able to overcome… religion is ‘if you obey, then you will be accepted’. But the Gospel is, ‘if you are absolutely accepted, and sure you’re accepted, only then will you ever begin to obey’. Those are two utterly different things. Every page of the Bible shows the difference.” Tim Keller, Centrality of the Gospel
Let us now turn to the central event of the ages, and the basis upon which our meekness should rest, in confidence: the Work of Christ on the Cross.
(C) Emmanuel Longing, 2013