The beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 is called the Beatitudes.
Jesus sat down to teach the crowds which were following him and said:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
These are the beatitudes, or blessings, with which Jesus begins his sermon. Now, many times when people talk about these blessings, they call them the “be-attitudes.” The thinking behind that is that Jesus is giving us commands or advice for us to be perfect. In the Middle Ages, these were part of what were referred to as the “evangelical counsels;” today they are often referred to as the “commands or law of Christ.” The point, though, is that many people believe that Jesus is telling us in these beatitudes how we should be in order to be perfect.
However, if we look at these beatitudes some more within the context of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount we start to realize that Jesus is really preaching something much more profound than “evangelical counsels.” For, he isn’t telling us how we should be or act, but how we will be and how he will make us.
Think first of why we sit at the foot of Christ to listen to his words. Are we here to be emptied of our own works? If so, then God has promised us that He will fill us with the saving righteousness of Christ. If not – if we just want to hear what we need to do to be saved – then we are left with our own dead works. Only Christ’s work on the cross brings salvation to us, while our own works leave us in death. We need to be emptied of our works so that we can be filled with Christ’s.
I’m sure that in the crowd that followed Jesus, not all were there to be emptied and then filled. A great many, I am sure, came thinking that they were full already and bore a sense of entitlement and self-righteousness. It’s the same in our own day as well.
When I think about this, I think of the refrigerators at corporate offices in which people store their lunches. Over the course of many weeks, the refrigerator begins to get full of rotting food as people tend to leave their things in it for too long. Ultimately, the refrigerator is cleaned out to make way for fresh food.
This is illustrative of what happens to us as people before and after we come to faith in Christ. In our natural state, we put our works in our little plastic containers in our souls and label them as “good works.” As we collect these “good works” we begin to have great pride in them and hoard them to show God how righteous we are. We’re very proud of our collection.
However, when we pop open the lid to our works, we see that inside they are spoiled and rotting. Everything we do is still tainted by sin, and no matter how great the label on the container, they do nothing to cover up our sins in God’s sight. The prophet Isaiah spoke of this when he said, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6). Isaiah recognized that all the things that we label “good and righteous” do not justify us before God.
So, in order to remove these rotting works from us, God empties us through His Word of Law so that we may be filled with His Gospel. He takes our works out of our sight so that He may cleanse us; He empties our refrigerators, if you will, in order to fill us again with something better.
Thus, His Word makes us the poor in spirit, those who mourn over our sins, the meek who bow before God. He humbles us through His accusing Word of Law that tells us that “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Once this is done, and we have been cleansed of trust in our own works, He begins to fill us with what is fresh through His Word of Gospel.
Through the Gospel of Christ, He makes us those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, bestows his mercy upon us to allow us to be merciful in return, and makes us the pure in heart. Most of all, God makes us peacemakers after the likeness of our ultimate peacemaker. For Jesus Christ did not come to bring peace on the earth in the manner of the wisdom of the world – and the promise of the angels on that Advent morning was not for him to do so – but rather Jesus Christ came to bring peace between humanity and God, ending our war of rebellion against Him. Thus, God Himself has brought us to Himself. This is not the wisdom of the world, but rather the wisdom of God revealed through the cross.
For through the cross, Christ has reconciled us to God and made us children of God, reconciling us to each other as well. Through the cross, God has “made foolish the wisdom of the world” for the “foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31). For through the cross, we are made weak. We are emptied of our own works, merits, and wisdom so that we may be filled with the works, merits, and foolishness of Christ through the proclamation of the Gospel – the Good News of salvation that is found only in Christ. And then as “little Christs,” made in his image, we spread this peace of God to others.
So now, in this emptying and filling, we can better understand the beatitudes. Jesus’ words are not exhortations, but rather descriptions of how we will be. God’s Word of Law makes us poor in spirit, mournful, and meek. He makes us hunger and thirst for righteousness and then satisfies us and gives us His comfort through the kingdom of heaven. He promises us that we shall inherit the earth in the life to come at the resurrection.
Thus, we are justified in God’s sight by His grace through faith in Christ. Then, through the sanctifying actions of His Holy Spirit, He makes us merciful, pure in heart, and the peacemakers. For we are the children of God who have received mercy and we will see God. Thus, it is God who fulfills the beatitudes in us. It is not about the things we do, but rather about the things which God does for us and then through us. It is not about what we do, but who we are in Christ.
But this does not agree with the wisdom of the world which values outward human strength, power, force, and riches. So, the wisdom of the world strikes out and persecutes these foolish Christians who appear poor and weak and who trust in the promises of God shown through a foolish cross of wood. The wisdom of this world reviles us and utters all kinds of evils against us. But, in all these trials and tribulations, we know that the world has always done this to those who trust in God’s wisdom.
The Gospel is not something discernible by the wisdom of the world, precisely because the world is not looking for it. The world cannot grasp it, because it can not understand it; the cross looks weak, while our works look strong. So, the world trusts in its own power and works, and Christ crucified is a “stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Therefore, in that great crowd of hearers that Jesus was teaching, those Jews from Judea and those Gentiles from the Decapolis, Jesus used his Word to overcome their trust in their own power and works and to tear down the wisdom of the world which held them captive. The entire Sermon on the Mount is meant to empty his hearers of their rotting works so that Christ may fill them with his work on the cross and thus bring them salvation as a gift.
We are his hearers too – we deserve to be condemned by God for our sins, but God in His gracious mercy has saved us through Christ’s death on the cross. He has emptied us of our dead, rotting works and filled us with the righteousness of Christ which brings salvation. So, “to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks,” Christ crucified is the “power and wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24).
In Christ only do we have salvation, and we are the called whom he has reconciled to God. Thus, we sit at the feet of Jesus Christ, because God has brought us to him to be emptied and filled. And although the world may rage against the Church, rejoice and be glad, for yours is the kingdom of heaven and how great is that reward, for we have Christ crucified and risen in our midst forever.
(Image: The Beatitudes by Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABloch-SermonOnTheMount.jpg).