Opinion has been much divided concerning the design, scope, and application of the Sermon on the Mount. Most commentators have seen in it an exposition of Christian ethics. Men such as the late Count Tolstoi have regarded it as the setting forth of a "golden rule" for all men to live by. Others have dwelt upon its dispensational bearings, insisting that it belongs not to the saints of the present dispensation but to believers within a future millennium. Two inspired statements, however, reveal its true scope. In Matthew 5:1, 2, we learn that Christ was here teaching His disciples. From Matthew 7:28, 29, it is clear that He was also addressing a great multitude of the people. Thus it is evident that this address of our Lord contains instruction both for believers and unbelievers alike.
It needs to be borne in mind that this sermon was Christ's first utterance to the general public, who had been reared in a defective Judaism. It was possibly His first discourse to the disciples, too. His design was not only to teach Christian ethics but to expose the errors of Pharisaism and to awaken the consciences of His legalistic hearers. In Matthew 5:20 He said, "Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the Kingdom of heaven." Then, to the end of the chapter, He expounded the spirituality of the Law so as to arouse His hearers to see their need of His own perfect righteousness. It was their ignorance of the spirituality of the Law that was the real source of Pharisaism, for its leaders claimed to fulfill the Law in the outward letter. It was therefore our Lord's good purpose to awaken their consciences by enforcing the Law's true inner import and requirement.
It is to be noted that this Sermon on the Mount is recorded only in Matthew's Gospel. The differences between it and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 are pronounced and numerous. While it is true that Matthew is by far the most Jewish of the four Gospels, yet we believe it is a serious mistake to limit its application to godly Jews, either of the past or the future. The opening verse of the Gospel, where Christ is presented in a twofold way, should warn us against such a restriction. There He is presented as Son of David and as Son of Abraham, "the father of all them that believe" (Rom. 4:11). Therefore, we are fully assured that this sermon enunciates spiritual principles that obtain in every age, and on this basis we shall proceed.
Christ's first preaching seems to have been summarized in one short but crucial sentence, like that of John the Baptist before Him: "Repent ye: for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2; 4:17). It is not appropriate in a brief study such as this to discuss that most interesting topic, the Kingdom of heaven, what it is and what the various periods of its development are, but these Beatitudes teach us much about those who belong to that Kingdom, and upon whom Christ pronounced its highest forms of benediction.
Christ came once in the flesh, and He is coming yet again. Each advent has a special object as connected with the Kingdom of heaven. The first advent of our Lord was for the purpose of establishing an empire among men and over men, by laying the foundations of that empire within individual souls. His second coming will be for the purpose of setting up that empire in glory. It is therefore vitally important that we understand what the character of the subjects in that Kingdom is, so that we may know whether we belong to the Kingdom ourselves, and whether its privileges, immunities, and future rewards are a part of our present and future inheritance. Thus one may grasp the importance of a devout and careful study of these Beatitudes. We must examine them as a whole; we cannot take one alone without losing a part of the lesson they jointly teach. These Beatitudes form one portrait. When an artist draws a picture, each line may be graceful and masterful, but it is the union of the lines that reveals their mutual relation; it is the combination of the various artistic delineations and minute touches that gives us the complete portrait. So here, though each separate aspect has its own peculiar beauty and grace and shows the hand of a master, it is only when we take all the lines in combination that we get the full portrait of a true subject and citizen in the Kingdom of God (Dr. A. T. Pierson paraphrased).
God's great salvation is free, "without money and without price" (Isa. 55:1). This is a most merciful provision of Divine grace, for were God to offer salvation for sale no poor sinner could secure it, seeing that he has nothing with which to purchase it. But the vast majority are insensible of this; yea, all of us are until the Holy Spirit opens our sin-blinded eyes. It is only those who have passed from death to life who become conscious of their poverty, take the place of beggars, are glad to receive Divine charity, and begin to seek the true riches. Thus "the poor have the Gospel preached to them" (Matthew 11:5), preached not only to their ears, but to their hearts!
Thus poverty of spirit, a consciousness of one's emptiness and need, results from the work of the Holy Spirit within the human heart. It issues from the painful discovery that all my righteousnesses are as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). It follows my being awakened to the fact that my very best performances are unacceptable (yea, an abomination) to the thrice Holy One. Thus one who is poor in spirit realizes that he is a hell deserving sinner.
Poverty of spirit may be viewed as the negative side of faith. It is that realization of one's utter worthlessness that precedes a laying hold of Christ by faith, a spiritual eating of His flesh and drinking of His blood (John 6:48-58). It is the work of the Spirit emptying the heart of self, that Christ may fill it. It is a sense of need and destitution. This first Beatitude, then, is foundational, describing a fundamental trait that is found in every regenerated soul. The one who is poor in spirit is nothing in his own eyes, and feels that his proper place is in the dust before God. He may, through false teaching or worldliness, leave that place, but God knows how to bring him back. And in His faithfulness and love He will do so, for the place of humble self-abasement before God is the place of blessing for His children. How to cultivate this God-honoring spirit is revealed by the Lord Jesus in Matthew 11:29.
He who is in possession of this poverty of spirit is pronounced blessed: because he now has a disposition that is the very reverse of that which was his by nature; because he possesses the first sure evidence that a Divine work of grace has been wrought within him; because such a spirit causes him to look outside of himself for true enrichment; because he is an heir of the Kingdom of heaven.
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Conclusion the Beatitude and Christ
Our meditations upon the Beatitudes would not be complete unless they turned our thoughts to the Person of our blessed Lord. As we have endeavored to show, they describe the character and conduct of a Christian. Since Christian character is formed in us by the experiential process of our being conformed to the image of God's Son, then we must turn our gaze upon Him who is the perfect pattern. In the Lord Jesus Christ we find the brightest manifestations and the highest exemplifications of all the various spiritual graces that are found (as dim reflections) in His followers. Not one or two but all of these perfections were displayed by Him, for He is not only lovely, but "altogether lovely" (Song of Sol. 5:16). May the Holy Spirit, who is here to glorify Him, take now of the things of Christ and show them unto us (John 16:14, 15).
First let us consider the words, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." How marvelous it is to see how the Scriptures speak of Him who was rich becoming poor for our sakes, that we through His poverty might be rich (2 Cor. 8:9). Great indeed was the poverty into which He entered. Born of parents who were poor in this world's goods, He commenced His earthly life in a manger. During His youth and early manhood, He toiled at the carpenter's bench. After His public ministry had begun, He declared that though the foxes had their holes and the birds of the air their nests, the Son of Man had not where to lay His head (Luke 9:58). If we trace out the Messianic utterances recorded in the Psalms by the Spirit of prophecy, we shall find that again and again He confessed to God His poverty of spirit: "I am poor and sorrowful" (Ps. 69:29); "Bow down Thine ear, O Lord, hear Me: for I am poor and needy" (Ps. 86:1); "For I am poor and needy, and My heart is wounded within Me" (Ps. 109:22).
Second, let us ponder the words, "Blessed are they that mourn." Christ was indeed the chief Mourner. Old Testament prophecy contemplated Him as "a Man of Sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Isa. 53:3). When contending with the Pharisees over their slavish observance of the Sabbath, and while seeking to teach them, by precept and example, a proper understanding of God's holy institution, He "grieved for the hardness of their hearts" (Mark 3:5). Behold Him sighing before He healed the deaf and dumb man (Mark 7:34). Mark Him weeping by the graveside of Lazarus (John 11:35). Hear His lamentation over the beloved city: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem... how often would I have gathered thy children together" (Matthew 23:37). Draw near and reverently behold Him in the gloom of Gethsemane, pouring out His petitions to the Father "with strong crying and tears" (Heb. 5:7). Bow down in awe and wonder as you hear Him crying from the cross, "My God, My God, Why hast Thou forsaken Me?" (Mark 15:34). Hearken to His plaintive plea, "Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto My sorrow" (Lam. 1:12).
Third, behold the beauty of Christ in the saying, "Blessed are the meek." A score of examples might be drawn from the Gospels that illustrate the lovely lowliness of the incarnate Lord of glory. Mark it in the men selected by Him to be His ambassadors. He chose not the wise, the learned, the great, or the noble. At least four of them were fishermen, and one was in the employment of the Roman government as a despised tax collector. Witness His lowliness in the company that He kept. He sought not the rich and renowned, but was "a friend of publicans and sinners" (Matthew 11:19). See it in the miracles that He wrought. Again and again He enjoined the healed to go and tell no man what had been done for them. Behold it in the unobtrusiveness of His service. Unlike the hypocrites, who sounded a trumpet before them when they were about to bestow alms on some poor person, He sought not the limelight, but shunned advertising and disdained popularity. When the crowds would make Him their idol, He avoided them (Mark 1:45; 7:24). "When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take Him by force, to make Him a king, He departed again into a mountain Himself alone" (John 6:15). When His brethren urged Him, saying, "Shew Thyself to the world," He declined and went up to the feast in secret (John 7:2-10). When He, in fulfillment of prophecy, presented Himself to Israel as their King, He entered Jerusalem in a most lowly fashion, riding upon the foal of an ass (Zech. 9:9; John 12:14).
Fourth, consider how these words are best exemplified in Christ: "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness." What a summary this is of the inner life of the man Christ Jesus! Before the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit announced, "And righteousness shall be the girdle of His loins" (Isa. 11:5). When Christ entered this world, He said, "Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God" (Heb. 10:9). As a boy of twelve He asked, "Wist ye not that I must be about My Father's business?" (Luke 2:49). At the beginning of His public ministry He declared, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill" (Matthew 5:17). To His disciples He declared, "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me, and to finish His work" (John 4:34). Of Him the Holy Spirit has said, "Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness: therefore God, Thy God, hath anointed Thee with the oil of gladness above Thy fellows" (Ps. 45:7). Well may He be called "THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS" (Jer. 23:6).
Fifth, note the words, "Blessed are the merciful." In Christ we see mercy personified. It was mercy to poor lost sinners that caused the Son of God to exchange the glory of heaven for the shame of earth. It was wondrous and matchless mercy that took Him to the cross, there to be made a curse for His people. So, it is "not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy [that] He saved us" (Titus 3:5). He is, even now, exercising mercy on our behalf as our "merciful and faithful High Priest" (Heb. 2:17). So also we are continually to be "looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life" (Jude 21). because He will show mercy in the Day of Judgment to all who believe upon Him (II Tim. 1:18).
Sixth, contemplate the words, "Blessed are the pure in heart." This, too, was perfectly exemplified in Christ. He was the "Lamb without blemish and without spot (1 Pet. 1:19). In becoming man, He was uncontaminated, contracting none of the defilements of sin. His humanity was, and is, perfectly holy (Luke 1:35). He was "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners" (Heb. 7:26). "In Him is no sin" (1 John 3:5). Therefore, He "did no sin" (1 Pet. 2:22) and "knew no sin" (2 Cor. 5:21). "He is pure" (1 John 3:3). Because He was absolutely pure in nature, His motives and actions were always pure. When He said, "I seek not Mine own glory" (John 8:50), He summed up the whole of His earthly career.
Seventh, ponder the words, "Blessed are the peacemakers." Supremely true is this of our blessed Savior. He is the One who "made peace through the blood of His cross" (Col. 1:20). He was appointed to be a propitiation (Rom. 3:25), that is, the One who would appease God's wrath, satisfying every demand of His broken Law, and glorifying His justice and holiness. He has also made peace between Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:11-18). Even now Christ Jesus is seated in majesty upon the throne of His father David (Acts 2:29-36), reigning as the "Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David" (Isa. 9:6, 7). When Christ returns to raise the dead and to judge the world in righteousness, then He shall purge this war-torn earth of sin and of all the effects of the Fall (Rom. 8:19-23). We may look confidently to that time when the Lord Christ shall thus restore peace in the "new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness" (2 Pet. 3:13).
Eighth, meditate on these words: "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake." None was ever persecuted as was the Righteous One, as may be seen by the symbolic reference to Him in Revelation 12:4! By the Spirit of prophecy He declared, "I am afflicted and ready to die from My youth up" (Ps. 88:15). At the beginning of His ministry, when Jesus was teaching in Nazareth (His home town), the people "rose up, and thrust Him out of the city, and led Him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast Him down headlong" (Luke 4:29). In the temple precincts, leaders of the Jews "took up stones to cast at Him" (John 8:59). All through His ministry His steps were dogged by enemies. The religious leaders charged Him with having a demon (John 8:48). Those who sat in the gate spoke against Him, and He was the song of the drunkards (Ps. 69:12). At His trial they plucked off His hair (Isa. 50:6), spat in His face, buffeted Him, and smote Him with the palms of their hands (Matthew 26:67). After He was scourged by the soldiers and crowned with thorns, He was led carrying His own cross to Calvary, where they crucified Him. Even in His dying hours He was not left in peace, but was persecuted by revilings and scoffings. How unutterably mild, by comparison, is the persecution that we are called upon to endure for His sake!
In like manner, each of the promises attached to the Beatitudes finds its accomplishment in Christ. Poor in spirit He was, and His supremely is the Kingdom. Mourn He did, yet He will be comforted as He sees of the travail of His soul (Isa. 53:11). He was meekness personified, yet He is now seated upon a throne of glory. He hungered and thirsted after righteousness, yet now He is filled with satisfaction as He beholds that the righteousness which He worked out has been imputed to His people. Pure in heart, He sees God as none other sees him (Matthew 11:27). As the Peacemaker, He is acknowledged as the unique Son of God by all the blood-bought children. As the persecuted One, great is His reward, for He has been given the name above all others (Phil. 2:9-11). May the Spirit of God occupy us more and more with Him who is fairer than the children of men (Ps. 45:2).