Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is probably the best-known and most often quoted of all of Jesus’ teachings, though arguably it is also the least understood and, without a doubt, the least obeyed.
Matthew makes it clear that the targeted audience was not the masses fascinated by His healings, but rather His disciples: “Seeing the crowds, He went up on the mountain, and when He sat down, His disciples came to Him. And He opened His mouth and taught them” (Matthew 5:1–2). Jesus is not telling people in general how to behave; He is telling His committed followers how to live lives that are blessed by God.
The theme of the Sermon is that true followers of Jesus must be different. First, He contrasts the lifestyle expected of His followers against that exhibited by the religious elite in 5:20: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” But then He also contrasts their lifestyle with the behavior of godless people in 6:8: “Do not be like them.”
How different must we be? Very different! This Sermon is the most complete description anywhere in the New Testament of the appropriate lifestyle of a devoted follower of Jesus, and it is radically counter-cultural, totally at variance with the lifestyle of the non-Christian world, and sadly, even with much of what we see in Christian circles.
Please understand that I am well aware that its standards are absolutely unattainable by human effort alone. Anyone who claims to consistently live by the Sermon on the Mount is either totally ignorant about what it says, or is just a liar. On the other hand, it would be a serious mistake to not even strive to meet its lofty challenges.
John Stott observes, “Only a belief in the necessity and the possibility of a new birth can keep us from reading the Sermon on the Mount with either foolish optimism or hopeless despair.” But a new birth is possible! Through the miracle of regeneration and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, we can make significant progress toward living in obedience to the lifestyle Jesus describes.
The sermon begins with the Beatitudes, a series of eight statements beginning with the words “Blessed are …” (5:3–12). The key point I wish to make about the people Jesus is describing as “blessed” is that these are not eight separate and distinct categories of disciples, some of whom are poor in spirit, some who mourn, some who are meek, etc. The Beatitudes are Christ’s description of what every Christian ought to be like. Each of these qualities are to characterize each of His followers.
It is also important to notice that Jesus is not describing anyone’s economic, social, or psychological status here, but rather their spiritual status. The poor are the poor in spirit, the hungry are those who hunger for righteousness, the sorrowful are those who are sorry for sin, and the persecuted are those rejected because of their faith in Jesus.
Each person who exhibits these qualities is pronounced “blessed” in a way that is appropriate to the particular quality commended. The term “blessed,” by the way, has always been a difficult one to translate and grasp. Many scholars have employed the word “happy,” but that is not altogether satisfactory. Happiness in our culture is a subjective state, whereas Jesus is making an objective judgment about these people. He is declaring not what they feel like, but what God thinks of them and therefore what they actually are. They are, in short, approved by God and content in God. And while these blessings—like enjoying the kingdom of heaven, being comforted, being filled, and seeing God—will only be fully experienced in Heaven, there are profound applications to our lives here on earth. In other words, we get to preview these blessings as we begin to live out these qualities.
Let me suggest one more truth about the Beatitudes as a whole. I believe they paint a portrait of Jesus Himself. There is not a single characteristic shared here that He did not exhibit perfectly. He was poor in spirit, He mourned over sin, He was meeker than Moses, He hungered and thirsted for righteousness, He was merciful and pure in heart, He was a peacemaker, and He was persecuted because of righteousness as no one before or since. Jesus not only taught us these truths, He modeled them. The call to be a counter-cultural Christian is the call to be like Jesus Himself.
Friends, what we see in this amazing passage of Scripture is such a reversal of human values that it actually turns everything topsy-turvy. The world says, “Assert yourself, stand up for yourself, be proud of yourself, defend yourself, avenge yourself, serve yourself.” But God exalts the humble and abases the proud, calls the first last and the last first, ascribes greatness to the servant, sends the rich away empty-handed and declares the meek to be His heirs. Jesus congratulates those whom the world pities and calls all who follow Him “blessed.”
—Michael P. Andrus, adapted