Matthew

Thoughts on the Beatitudes, Part 5

Thoughts on the Beatitudes, Part 5

[5] “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

There is a tendency to view meekness as weakness.a The meek is not someone who capitulates over the face of threats. He doesn’t retreat and act as if it is all a lost cause. We need to re-orient our minds to how the Bible views these characteristics. Remember that the kingdom of God is upside down to those in the world; and in one sense, the way the people of God live is upside down in comparison to how the rest of the world lives. R.J. Rushdoony once wrote that meekness is strength that is tamed. The meek know that their strength comes from Yahweh; he trusts and places his trust in Yahweh to make the world right; he sees Jesus as the ultimate restorer of Israel and the world. The meek has been united to the kingdom of heaven and has a new Lord and Master. He is being built up in the strength and maturity of Christ, the King, but yet this strength is balanced by self-control. The meek does not use his strength to lord it over people or to belittle others inside or outside the kingdom, but he uses his strength as a means to reveal the power of God and his kingdom. Consider Moses. The Bible says he was the meekest man in all the earth (Num. 12:3). Moses was known for his strength. He led an army and shepherded a nation. And when he was accused by others he didn’t say: “Look at me; the all-powerful Moses; the rescuer of Israel, the destroyer of Egyptian forces.” No. Moses restrained his strength and humbled himself before God praying that God would vindicate him in light of his enemies. Are you beginning to see the picture?

The way God honors this controlled strength is by giving the heirs of the kingdom, the earth!

But why would God give us the earth? We are the heirs of the Abrahamic promise. In Romans 4, Paul says that the promise is that we will be the heirs of the world. This earth, this system, this land, this air, everything is given to us; to inherit and to embrace. This is our world, not the devil’s, it is our world given to us by the ruler of the world, Jesus Christ. And the way we begin to claim it and adorn it and fashion it according to the kingdom of heaven is by being meek.

Practically, this means controlling your strength. How often are we guilty of using our strength or our position of authority to deride or to put down another? How often have we used our strength or our position in life to abuse our authority? How do we as parents conquer our children and their hearts? Do we assert our authority or do we win them with the way of meekness? How we assert our authority without abusing our strength is precisely what it means to be meek. And if we are going to rule the earth as God’s army we need to begin by being meek.

Our Lord Jesus did precisely that. He could have come to earth and obliterated all those Pharisees who disagreed with Him. He could have used His angels to bring about perfect justice, but this is not the Christ we know. The Christ we know is the one who became meek for our sakes and because He inherited the earth in His death and resurrection, we too are called to follow in His steps.

[6] “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

The fourth beatitude, which concludes this first section, is a call for righteousness. What does it look like to pursue righteousness? It looks like keeping Yahweh’s commandments. After all, Jesus is the one who said that if you love me keep my commandments (Jn. 14:15). It is a call to righteous living. We should hunger to be more obedient to God. We should hunger to live the gospel of the kingdom. This is what distinguishes the people of the kingdom from those outside it. But not only is hungering and thirsting for righteousness a call to pursue maturity, it is also a call to hunger and thirst for the establishment of righteousness on earth. We don’t want to see the world spoiled and destroyed. We need to be as hungry and thirsty for righteousness on earth as we are hungry and thirsty for food and drink. We can’t be satisfied with what we have. In what sense have we lacked hunger and thirst for righteousness? How are you encouraging one another to hunger for righteousness? Is your living such that when others see you they develop a tremendous appetite for righteousness? These are the questions we need to ask.

As you begin to increase in hunger and thirst for righteousness you will find a deep satisfaction in the life of the kingdom. You will learn that this is the good life; the life worth living; a life of active participation in making earth more and more like heaven.

  1. Peter Leithart’s exposition of the Beatitudes are quite helpful in clearing some misunderstandings. Audio found at Reformation Covenant Church in Oregon.  (back)

Thoughts on the Beatitudes, Part 4

Martin Luther once said:

`Twas a strange thing the world should be offended at him who raised the dead, made the blind to see, and the deaf to hear, etc. They who would deem such a man a devil, what kind of a God would they have? But here it is. Christ would give to the world the kingdom of heaven, but they will have the kingdom of the earth…”a

A short review will help as we discuss the next beatitude.

The world perceives the kingdom of heaven to be a threat to their kingdoms. As the atheists of the first century acknowledged, these Christians turned the world upside down with their message and their lives. The kingdom is God’s world coming to earth. This new world is a world that manifests itself in an entirely different fashion than the present kingdoms. It is upside down; it is foolish to those whore are perishing.

In short, the Beatitudes are instructions for how we are to live in this world; but beyond that, it is also how we turn the world upside down. The Beatitudes reveal how the actions of Christians will transform the world from an ethic of shame to an ethic of honor. They are value statements. When you read them do not limit the word blessed as simply happy, but look at it as honorable.  In other words, to live this Beatitude/Beatific life is an honor. Jesus is saying that if you live in this way you will be honored and exalted in due time. Again, this is the paradox of the Christian message: that when you are poor in spirit you are honored in the kingdom of heaven.

The Beatitudes serve as a poem divided into two sections; each section contains 36 words. In this poem, Jesus is not telling us that if we live this way we will enter the kingdom of heaven, rather Jesus is saying that this is how kingdom-disciples live; those who have been transformed by the grace of the gospel are now called to transform the world.

We established the first beatitude “poor in spirit” as a foundational beatitude to understanding the other seven. To be poor in spirit is to depend on the infinite riches of God in Christ Jesus; it is to reject the self-sufficient way that so many live in our day, and instead embrace a life of supreme dependence upon God’s Word. Our look at the Beatitudes continues in verse 4:

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.

[2] And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

[3] “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

[4] “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

The Beatitudes are about Jesus coming as Restorer of His people. Israel has been an outcast and now Jesus comes to restore her; but he is coming to restore a particular type of people– a people who mourn. How honorable it is for those who mourn, for they shall be comforted! This is a fulfillment of Isaiah 61, which says that Yahweh will comfort those who mourn.What is Jesus not saying not saying in this Beatitude? Jesus is not saying that those who are constantly in a state of self-pity and shame and who are looking deeply inwardly for sins and are crying over their transgressions will be comforted. There is a sense in which we mourn over our sins, but this is not what mourning means in the context of the Beatitudes. In this context, those who mourn are those who grieve over the condition of this present world. Those who mourn are those who hope that the world will be made right. Those who mourn have a biblical sense that something is not right in this world and this leads to marvelous expectation for the work of the kingdom of heaven. Those who mourn will be comforted because they know that the kingdom of heaven is the only hope for the world. They believe that the Gospel will transform lives and form a new humanity. N.T. Wright says:

But the whole point of the Gospels is that the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven is precisely not the imposition of an alien and dehumanizing tyranny, but rather the confrontation of alien and dehumanizing tyrannies with the news of a God—the God recognized in Jesus—who is radically different from them all, and whose in-breaking justice aims at rescuing and restoring genuine humanness…b

N.T. Wright summarizes well this beatitude. Those who mourn are those who seek the shalom of the city; they are the ones who desire to see the present world reconciled to Jesus Christ and who desire the kingdom of heaven to be the ultimate and true kingdom of all the world. Those who mourn wish to see that tyrants will be confronted by the good news of God’s kingdom and be humbled and bow down to King Jesus. This beatitude is a parallel to the prophetic word of the prophet Ezekiel in chapter 9. In that chapter, Yahweh is going to destroy the city, but He will protect and mark one particular group of people: those who mourn over the abominations of the city. These are the ones who will be comforted. This background shapes how we understand this beatitude. The ones mourning are the ones who grieve over the atrocities and the many sins committed against Yahweh and His anointed One. The people in the kingdom of heaven don’t live their lives expecting to escape this  they live their lives hoping to see this world transformed. This is why we are called to mourn, and in our mourning we will find that Yahweh will comfort us with a vision of a transformed world.

Practically, we cannot mourn something we do not understand. We cannot understand the depths of this broken world unless we see this broken world. We are called to act in our mourning. Crying over the lost condition of the world is not enough. We mourn by participating in restoration. We lament the state of things and we know that there is destruction and doom for those who do not turn to the kingdom of heaven in repentance, but we also become active participants in restoring this broken world. The vision is global, but it begins locally. We begin by looking to our own city; to our own neighborhoods and our own families. Is there enough brokenness around us to keep us longing and mourning for God’s kingdom? How honorable are those who mourn; who understand the true significance of how the world has been wrecked by sin, but also how the world will be restored by Jesus Christ. They who mourn will be comforted.

  1. Martin Luther, http://www.reformed.org/master/index.html?mainframe=/documents/Table_talk/table_talk.html  (back)
  2. http://godspace.wordpress.com/2010/03/15/nt-wright-the-kingdom-of-god-and-the-need-for-social-justice/  (back)
Thoughts on the Beatitudes, Part 3

Thoughts on the Beatitudes, Part 3

How then do we apply the life of the kingdom as we begin to explore the beatitudes? We are going to consider only the first beatitude because the first beatitude establishes a foundation for how are to understand the others.

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

[3] “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

There are many who believe that these are just ideals that we cannot achieve, but Christ demands that we live in this manner. These are not hypothetical commands, so that we can try and get a taste of what it looks like to be poor in spirit, no, these are commands given to us as people to achieve by the grace of God. Just as the kingdom of heaven is a real manifestation–not some ethereal and abstract idea–so our call to be poor in spirit is a present reality.

The kingdom of heaven is the coming down of God’s world to earth. The heavenly kingdom comes to earth so that throughout time earth might become like heaven, and one day heaven and earth will come together to form one holy city, the New Heavens and New Earth. The kingdom of heaven is the earthly taste of the New Heavens and New Earth.

Jesus says that the poor in spirit possess the kingdom of heaven. “It’s really the gateway to the rest of the beatitudes. You see—if you don’t get being poor in spirit right, then there is no way you can be properly meek or mournful or hungry or thirsty or pure in heart or peacemaking or persecuted for rightousness’ sake.”a So, what does it mean to be poor in spirit? To be poor in spirit is to recognize your dependence upon God; your dependence upon His riches. Your life and your goods are nothing apart from the author of your salvation. Those poor in spirit are those who truly understand the justification of God; that apart from God’s work in us we would never be able to follow and obey Yahweh. How do I know that I am justified in Christ? Because I live in utter dependence of His grace. Being poor in spirit is not an optional character trait, it’s the basic orientation of the justified believer in Christ. The poor in spirit knows their need for God.  How well do you know your need for God?

The contrast to “the poor in Spirit” is to be “rich in Spirit.” Biblically, this is not a positive trait, because the rich in spirit live independent of God. They view themselves justified apart from the grace of God and so they live in their self-sufficiency and in their pride. The rich in spirit person is always aware of people’s shortcomings and deficiencies. He is always content that he is not like the others. He is quick to find fault in others, but he never looks at his own sins (Mt. 7:3-5). He lives arrogantly and proud of his own accomplishments without ever finding joy in other people’s joy. The rich in spirit are full of themselves. They walk around looking for people to criticize and they can’t wait to tell so and so someone else’s mistakes.

The rich in spirit have a deep sense of their own self-sufficiency. They don’t need the community; they refuse to be a part of the body. They live for themselves and they go their own separate ways.

How different is the picture our Lord portrays with this little phrase “poor in spirit?” The poor in spirit considers others more significant than themselves. This is what I meant when I said that Jesus’ message in this sermon is upside down. There’s nothing in our bones that inclines us to consider others more important than ourselves. Our natural inclination is to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, and to think that we are more important—more essential—more valuable—than others. But Jesus has baptized you and he has called you to believe something that goes against your natural inclinations, and he expects you to do it. He has given you the grace to do it. He expects you to grow in the grace that he has given you, which necessarily means becoming poorer and poorer in spirit. This is how Christ lived. He lived his life for the sake of others. He esteemed others and he was sacrificed for others, because Jesus became poor in spirit for you.

  1. Notes from Pastor Jeremy Sexton  (back)

Thoughts on the Beatitudes, Part 2

Before we delve into the Beatitudes we are confronted with the first two verses, which establish the background for the Beatitudes.

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, saying:

Mountain and Mouth

There are two words that need to be stressed in these verses, and they are mountain and mouth. First, the gospel of Matthew is full of mountains. In fact, the first mountain we see is in Matthew four where Satan takes Jesus up on the mountain and offers him all authority if He only bows down and worships him. The last mountain is in Matthew 28 where Jesus gives forth his Commission to his disciples on a mountain. Jesus begins on a mountain in Matthew four being offered all authority and he ends in Matthew 28 with all authority in heaven and earth not because He submitted to the devil, but because He conquered the devil by giving His life through death.

And why are there so many allusions to mountains in the gospel? The simple answer is that Matthew is drawing our attention to that great mountain in the Old Covenant where Moses received the laws of Yahweh and instructed the people how to live and how to be a different people from the nations around them. Jesus is the greater/better Moses. Just as Moses gave Yahweh’s law to the people, so now Jesus, as the Law-giver, instructs his people how to live and consequently how to become a different people, a kingdom people different from all the other earthly kingdoms. The Sermon on the Mount is an extension of the laws of Moses; it was what Moses’ law always intended, but in Christ these laws are lived out in fullness, loyalty, and righteousness. The Sermon on the Mount is not a set of harsh, moralistic, legalistic rules to live by, they are life-transforming, grace-giving instructions from on high.

The second word to consider is the word mouth. It is important to see that these words are proceeding from the mouth of Jesus. In Deuteronomy 8 the people are told to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Jesus rebukes Satan by pointing back to Deuteronomy, and now in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is the one who speaks authoritatively. Jesus is affirming that He is Yahweh in the flesh. Just as Israel needed to live by the words of Yahweh, this new Israel—composed of Jews and Gentiles—need to live from the words that proceed out of the mouth of Jesus, the Christ. These words in verses 3-12 are the words of a new world order given by a new Moses to a new people.

An Honorable People

There are eight beatitudes in this sermon. Some have translated the word beatitude as happy or blessed, but a more accurate way of understanding this term is by translating it as honorable. These are value statements. The Beatitudes are not characteristics of a pitiful/shameful people, but these are characteristics of an honorable people; a people who have been exalted because of their dependence on God. Saint Peter says that if we humble ourselves before the Lord He will exalt us in due time.a The people of the kingdom are being honored and exalted when they live according to the laws of the kingdom.b These beatitudes are set against the shameful characteristics of those outside the kingdom. Jesus is saying, “How honorable are those who live under these gracious laws!”

Another element concerning the beatitudes is their poetic naturec. The first section, the first four beatitudes, contains 36 words; and the second section, the last four, also contains 36 words c forming a perfect poem. We are considering a piece of poetry as we look at the Beatitudes.

One final observation and a crucial one before we look in great detail in the next few posts. As we apply these beatitudes we must remember that these are not intended for those who want to be in the kingdom or as a way of getting in the kingdom, no; these are for those who are already in the kingdom seeking to expand and live out the ethic of the kingdom. We are not to see these as ways of getting in the kingdom, but as ways of living the kingdom out.

Part 1

  1. I Peter 5:6.  (back)
  2. K.C. Hanson’s analysis of “Honor and Shame in the Ancient World.  (back)
  3. Leithart writes: “12 is the number of Israel and 72 is the number of the Table of Nations in Genesis 10.”  (back)

Thoughts on the Beatitudes, Part 1

Sometimes we hear the most insightful comments from the mouth of unbelievers. A few years ago before the death of renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens, a self-professed “liberal female pastor” interviewed the renowned anti-Christian author. She began the interview by asking him why he chose to debate fundamentalists who believed in the literal resurrection of Jesus and His atonement for our sins. As a liberal she did not believe in a literal resurrection nor other classic Christian truths. The Bible stories were mainly myths given to illustrate how to better love one another. The atheist Christopher Hitchens answered with the forcefulness and clarity you would expect: “Then I am not speaking to a Christian at all!” He then proceeded to quote St. Paul who said that “If there is no resurrection, then we are of all people most miserable.”[1] Hitchens, of course, was not defending Christianity, but at least he knew what a Christian believes. This is an accurate assessment from the mouth of one of the most hostile and leading atheists of the 21st century. In Hitchens’ world, there is an antithesis: you either believe in the resurrected Christ of Scriptures or you reject him. There is no middle ground. You may put on a clerical garb, but in the end you are dressing yourself as a servant of the deceiver.

Historically, in the year AD 50 there was a group of Christ-haters–the atheists of the first century. They lived in Thessalonica and their words were recorded in Acts 17. They said the following: “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also.”[2] They were referring to Paul and Silas and their assessment was that the way they lived and what they proclaimed was turning the world upside down. It was revolutionizing the present world system.

It was Augustine who coined Jesus’ great sermon as the Sermon on the Mount. And what I want you to be keenly aware of as we consider these verses in these next few posts is the upside-downess of the kingdom of heaven. The atheists of the first century despised our Lord, but they understood that something strange was happening; something different than anything they had seen before. “These Christians are shaking the world with their backwards and non-sensical message,” they said.

The kingdom of heaven is like that. It comes from heaven to earth to manifest itself in a way never seen by men. The reason this kingdom is so different than the other kingdoms is because it is a heavenly kingdom; a kingdom that operates by different standards. It is no wonder that from the very beginning the kingdom of heaven has been contrary to common sense.The very idea of a woman giving birth to the Creator of the Universe—of God becoming flesh—is about as contrary to worldly wisdom as it gets.

And this foolishness, what the world perceives the kingdom to be, also applies to how Jesus’ followers are to act and think. If the kingdom receives this perception from the world, then too, will the people of the kingdom receive a similar assessment? Those who have been gripped by this scandalous good news about Jesus are to believe things and do things that seem utterly backwards to the world and this in turn will have a profound effect on the world. The subjects of the kingdom of this world glory in power and coercion and being first. But the subjects of Christ’s kingdom glory in weakness and servanthood and meekness and being last.

Is it any surprise that when the world reads the instructions found in Matthew five they think it is irrational, backwards, and strange? If this were a kingdom built by men then it would be a kingdom for the strong and the rich and the wise and the satisfied and those who do not need anything or who are truly independent, but the kingdom of heaven is not like that. The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom in which God paradoxically became poor and meek and mournful and hungry and thirsty and persecuted—a kingdom in which God submitted to death on a cross.

When the disciples of Christ listen and live out the commands of Christ, then we can expect the world to be turned upside down. We cannot be hearers of the law without doing and living the law also.

In the next few posts we will consider how the renewed commujnity ought to live before this watching world.



[2] Illustration on Acts 17 was brought to my attention by Jeremy Sexton.

Blessing and Kingship

Blessing and Kingship

David Garland observes that the genealogy in Matthew reveals something unique about the nature of Jesus’ salvation:

Both David and Abraham were promised a son. The birth of Isaac, miraculous as it was (Gen. 22:7), and the birth of Solomon, beloved of the Lord (2 Samuel 12:24-25), are superseded by the birth of Jesus, whose conception is even more miraculous and who is beloved of God’s own son. a

The promises made to Abraham and David were promises of a universal nature. The promise to Abraham was that by his seed all the nations of the earth shall gain a blessing (Gen. 22:18). The Davidic promise was that of rulership and kingship. In Jesus, all the nations of the earth are blessed and his kingship shall have no end.

  1. Garland, David. Reading Matthew, 17  (back)

Galilee and Jerusalem

Concerning Galilee, I observed in my Easter sermon:

After they confirm the empty tomb, they are sent to Galilee. Matthew tends to place emphasis on Galilee. The reason he does so, is to contrast it with Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the place where Jesus meets rejection and death, but Galilee is the place where Jesus finds peace.[1] According to one commentator, it is the place where “the light dawns.”[2] Jesus is taking them to a new place; a place of safety and refuge, as they begin to live in light of His resurrected presence.

Following the service, Jim Jordan observed that Jerusalem is also Egypt, and Galilee is in northern Israel, also indicating the contrast.

My wife observed also that Galilee is mentioned in this account as another evidence that the gospel is going to all the nations of the earth.


[1] See Matthew 4:12-16.

[2] France, 407.

Earthquakes

It occurred to me that the earthquakes indicate the dismantling of the Old World system where death and the devil ruled. The earthquake served as a tearing apart (the veil, certainly) of the order that was once predominant. The earthquake (seismos) indicated the shaking up of the old system, and its reverberations led to its ultimate destruction. Something new will be built in its place. The New World emerges from the empty tomb.

Resurrection and Symbolism

One of the important elements of the gospel resurrection accounts is that so much of the language reflects the glory of the resurrection. In Matthew’s gospel, there is a reference to the “first day” (vs. 1); a clear reference to newness. Matthew also observes the “earthquake” (seismos; vs. 2); the shaking of the Old World order; the forming of something new. The angels come with their dazzling apparel (vs. 3) representing the new light that has emerged from the darkness of the tomb. When these few examples are overlooked, the interpreter misses the fascinating description of the author.

Angels Descending…

The angel descends to move the stone (Mat. 28). This descending is an indication that heaven and earth are coming together. They are fulfilling the Lord’s Prayer for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. This fortunate and blessed angel has the divine mission to unlock the darkness of the tomb, so that the Son of Light might appear.