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.

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