Once in a while I’m asked to do a study on a specific portion of Scripture. While we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop in the Middle East, I’d like to respond to one I received recently concerning a portion of the Sermon on the Mount commonly called “The Beatitudes”. It’s found in Matt. 5:3-12 with an abbreviated and slightly different version in Luke 6:20-23. While everyone in the world seems to be talking about other things, it might be refreshing to think about peace for a moment. Not peace in the world necessarily, or even in the Middle East, but peace in our hearts and in our lives. If events are leading us in the direction we think, we’ll want to remember these exhortations from our Lord.
The Sermon on the Mount was given near the beginning of the Lord’s ministry, but already He had achieved widespread fame because of His healing power. In Matt. 4: 23-25 we learn that huge crowds were gathering around Him. They came not only from the Galilee, but from what we now know as Jordan, southern Syria, and Lebanon in the east and north, and from Judea and Jerusalem in the south. Remember, this was in a time when there were no phones or other means of long range communications and nearly all travel was on foot. These crowds gathered by word of mouth and although many were in pain, they had walked for several days to reach Him. The lame, the paralyzed, the sick, those who were demon possessed, afflicted with seizures and such had made long and arduous journeys to find Him and He healed them all, for as He had told the Israelites in the wilderness, “I am the Lord who heals you.” (Exodus 15:26)
On this occasion they found themselves in a natural amphitheater on the North Western shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was and is a peaceful, tranquil place where even today there’s no sign of encroaching civilization except for a beautiful octagonal chapel over looking the sea. It was built in 1929 with funds donated by Benito Mussolini.
Each of the groups I’ve taken to Israel has picked the area as among their favorites and has tried to linger there as long as possible. I could always sense the regret they felt at having to leave, and even though I reminded them that we had to maintain some semblance of a schedule, I admit that I always felt it too. It’s as if the Spirit of the Prince of Peace dwells there today, comforting our restless hearts with His timeless message.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:3)
According to Strong’s Concordance the phrase poor in spirit describes those who are “destitute of wealth of learning and intellectual culture which the schools afford.” Several times in the Scriptures, the Lord mentions the fact that an abundance of or excessive reliance upon worldly education can actually be a hindrance to entering into the Kingdom.
In Isaiah 29:13-14 He said, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men. Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.”
Paul, who was by most accounts the towering intellect of New Testament writers, built upon this in 1 Cor 1:18-25 when he wrote;
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.
Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.
As I’ve grown older and become more reflective I’m more aware of the fact that much of man’s knowledge is flawed, just as man is flawed. And some of it is intentionally so, since some who are considered intellectuals have a bias against God and use their positions of influence to further their views. Their success in making the theory of evolution the standard for public education is one case in point, among many.
We must become as little children, The Lord admonished us (Mark 10:15), and for me that meant discarding much of what I was taught in favor of taking God at His word.
But those who refuse to allow the wisdom of this world to displace their native knowledge of God and instead pursue His word for His wisdom will receive the Kingdom as their reward. Speaking of God’s wisdom, King Solomon wrote, “For whoever finds me finds life and receives favor from the Lord.” (Proverbs 8:35)
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matt. 5:4)
Mourning is evidence of love and compassion. It’s a strengthened version of the Greek word for suffer from which it’s derived. To mourn is to feel sorrow or grief. When we mourn the loss of a loved one we’re expressing our grief over the reality of death. Our Lord feels the same way. He’s called a man of sorrows, familiar with grief. (Isaiah 53:3) Only one who knows sorrow and has experienced grief can effectively comfort those who mourn. As someone once wrote, “In every pain that rends the heart, the Man of Sorrows has a part.” Unlike others who claim to do so, He really does feel our pain. He’s the only one who truly understands and can offer unconditional comfort during our times of mourning.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (Matt. 5:5)
The word translated “meek” means mild of disposition or gentle of spirit. It’s not the same as being a doormat. Moses was called the meekest man on Earth, (Numbers 12:3) but he faced down Pharaoh, talked with God, and supervised over a million people on a 40 year camping trip. You can’t accomplish that by being a doormat.
My favorite paraphrase of this verse is, “Blessed are those who’ve been given everything, for they don’t have to worry about anything.” This applies to no other group as much as to the Church. We’re the ones who can approach every circumstance of our lives with a mild disposition and a gentle heart for we know that we’ll inherit the earth. We can afford to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to give generously to everyone who asks, because all that and more has been done for us. We don’t have to be concerned with the little things of this life because we’ve been given everything in the next one.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matt. 5:6)
Do you wish you could avoid sinning? Does your behavior sometimes surprise or even embarrass you? Do you feel bad about having to ask God to forgive you again and again? If so, then you hunger for righteousness. You want so badly to please Him by living in accordance with His standards. That yearning can never be satisfied as long as we’re here, but one day we’ll be changed and the most delightful thing about it will be our ability to finally live in a manner pleasing to God.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (Matt. 5:7)
Micah 6:6-8 is an incredible passage because it demonstrated what’s really important to the Lord almost 8 centuries before the New Covenant. Let’s read it.
With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Acting justly is hard to do, but the idea is easy to understand. Loving mercy is another matter. Micah’s answer to his own question runs exactly counter to human nature. Mercy is sometimes defined as not getting what you deserve. That’s something we all want for ourselves, but for everyone else we demand justice. Micah tells us that if we want to please God, we should be very careful to ensure that our own behavior comes as close as possible to His standards for justice, and we should rejoice whenever He shows someone else mercy.
That takes some doing, but the Lord said that with the measure we use it will be measured to us. Are we merciful? When some one wrongs us, do we ask the Lord to forgive them, or do we spend the next little while conjuring up clever ways to get even? Remember, if we think it, it’s as bad as having done it. To love mercy means to show it in our own actions toward others and to rejoice whenever someone else doesn’t get what he deserves.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (Matt. 5:8)
Like Micah 6, Psalm 24 also contains a rhetorical question or two.Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in His Holy Place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false. For he will receive blessing from the Lord and vindication from God his Savior. (Psalm 24:3-5) Clean hands, no bad works, and a pure heart, no bad motives. Who can do this? As Jesus told Peter,with man this is impossible, but not with God. All things are possible with God.(Mark 10:27) When we’re washed in the blood of the Lamb, we’re given clean hands and a pure heart and we will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. (Matt. 5:9)
In the middle of a long list of exhortations on behavior, Paul said, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18) We can’t control the circumstances that confront us but we can control our response to them. We can be like oil on troubled waters.
For environmental reasons it’s no longer done, but in days gone by sailors deliberately poured small quantities of oil onto the water in order to forestall rough seas. The oil had a calming effect on the waves as it spread over the surface. Small quantities of oil can cover a surprisingly large area, becoming a layer just a few molecules thick. The surface tension of the oil layer has an effect similar to that of a thin skin, containing and calming the waters beneath it.
By our words and actions, we can have a similar effect on those around us, and as we do we identify ourselves as children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:10)
There’s a lot of persecution in the world today, but not all of it is covered by this verse. Only that which we endure in the pursuit of righteousness is mentioned. And only those who’ve truly given their hearts to the Lord will endure this kind of persecution. Those who are just going through the motions will soon fall away.
The story is often told of the little house church in the former Soviet Union where religious observance was illegal. One Sunday morning soldiers burst in and lined the small group of worshipers up against the wall. “Worshiping God is illegal,” they said, “Punishable by death. If you’ve come here by accident and didn’t intend to break the law, leave now and don’t ever come back.” About half the group quickly left. The soldiers took aim at the rest and said, “Are you willing to die for your faith? When no one moved, the soldiers put down their weapons and said, “Good. Now we know it’s safe to worship here.”
It’s an extreme example that may or may not be a true story, but you get the point. More likely you and I would just be laughed at, the brunt of some bad joke, or have our lifestyle disparaged on TV or in a movie. But some of us know people who’ve had complaints filed against them for having a manger scene on their lawn, or whose kids have been told they can’t pray on school grounds, or whose car has been vandalized because of the fish symbol on the back. And in parts of the world where it’s still illegal to be a Christian, like it is in China and some Moslem and Hindu countries, people are dying for their faith every day. Blessed are they, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:11-12)
Technically, verses 11 and 12 above aren’t part of the 8 beatitudes that are the inspiration for Mussolini’s octagonal chapel, but they make a good summary statement. The next time someone offends you because of your faith, just smile and say thanks. It’s guaranteed to take all the fun out of it for them and it will remind you that this has been going on since the beginning. It also helps to remember that the Lord’s keeping track of all this and has promised to take vengeance on your behalf.