“The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed. It is the nearest thing to a manifesto that he ever uttered, for it is his own description of what he wanted his followers to be and to do.” ~ John Stott
Judging by the crowds and various groups of people gathered to listen to the words of The Great Rabbi, The Sermon on the Mount was most likely delivered at the height of Jesus’ popularity (Matt. 3:25-4:1). Jesus forgoes his normal teaching style, the parables, and teaches his disciples, as well as the listening crowd, in a more straightforward manner. It is an extreme sermon for it calls us to an extreme life, i.e., a Kingdom of Heaven kind of life. One author writes, “at times we will find ourselves wishing it were less clear” because its words are so convicting. As we study the sermon we will realize that these instructions lie at the heart of our Savior’s message. If we are to understand Jesus and his agenda of the Kingdom of Heaven, we must begin to make sense of this sermon.
Now, the sermon as a whole is the outworking of what Jesus called The Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew, the author of this particular Gospel, has just informed us, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.” Matthew is now elaborating on exactly what the gospel (good news) of the Kingdom was.
The first thing to realize about Jesus’ Kingdom talk is that it was a new way of describing God’s redemptive activities. Outside of John the Baptist proclaiming, “the kingdom of heaven is near” the phrase is not found in the Old Testament or in any of the intertestamental writings. But yet Jesus spoke about it all the time. The kingdom of heaven this, the kingdom of God that…he talked about it constantly.
Why? What was he doing?
The word he was using for “kingdom” could also be translated or understood as dominion and royal rule, kind of like an empire. The Jews and Greeks gathered to listen to Jesus knew a lot about empires. The were smack-dab in the middle of the one of the most successful empires known to man – the Roman Empire. And the Jews knew even more about empire, particularly oppressive empires. Their history is marked with one oppressive empire after the other – the Ancient Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Seleucids, and then the Romans. Embedded deep in Hebrew expectations was a coming a Messiah who would finally and ultimately put an end to oppressive empires and establish the Davidic Kingdom promised long ago (2 Sam. 7; Psalm 89 and 132).
Jesus was deliberately drawing their attention to those messianic promises made centuries before as he was preaching “the gospel of the kingdom.” However, Jesus went about teaching the Kingdom in a very different way that almost all of them expected. Rather than leading them into yet another violent revolt or war to establish empire/kingdom, Jesus was teaching them a better, more powerful way. God’s way of establishing his eternal Kingdom here on earth was going to go in a completely against-the-grain and unexpected route.
Just what was that unexpected, counter-cultural way of ushering in God’s Kingdom into this world? Well, that’s just what Jesus’ sermon was all about. It was a sermon defining and describing Kingdom living in the here and now.
“Blessed” – The Way Life Should be Lived
The sermon begins with the famous Beatitudes. Each beginning with the word μακάριος (makarios /mak·ar·ee·os/ adj.) which is translated “Blessed.” Sometimes this word is understood to simply mean “happy.” But Jesus is speaking about much more than our feelings. He is not stating how people who live like this may feel, but what God thinks of them and declares them to be: they are “blessed.” The priestly blessing given to Aaron in Numbers 6 may best represent what Jesus is talking about when he refers to the “poor in spirit” as being blessed: “…may the LORD bless thee, and keep thee; may the LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; and may the LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” The Beatitudes begin with a gospel (good news) to the spiritually bankrupt – those who thought they were divinely rejected are now proclaimed to be divinely accepted!
So, much more than a temporary or circumstantial feeling of happiness, to be “blessed” is a state of well-being and divine blessing that already belongs to those living like this (i.e., recipients of the kingdom of heaven, the inheritors of the earth, the comforted, the satisfied, those who receive mercy and see God, etc…). John Stott writes, “Just as The Beatitudes describe every Christian (at least in the ideal), so the eight blessings are given to every Christian . . . The eight qualities together constitute the responsibilities, and the eight blessings the privileges, of being a citizen of God’s kingdom.” It is much more than a mental state but a condition of a blessed life – KINGDOM LIFE – where God is with you and within you.
Descriptions on Being the Kingdom of Heaven – Understanding the Progression of The Beatitudes
John Stott makes the case that “the first four Beatitudes reveal a spiritual progression” – each step leads to the next and presupposes the one that has gone before.” Note the progression:
- To be poor in spirit is to recognize our spiritual bankruptcy that we have nothing to offer God.
- In turn, we mourn the cause of this bankruptcy, our sinfulness (vs. 4)
- From there, we are then to be meek (humble, gentle), acknowledging and accepting our spiritual poverty in our actions with others (vs. 5)
- Finally, we seek a solution to our perversion and the world’s brokenness by hungering & thirsting after righteousness (vs. 6)
The next four characteristics turn us outward, from our attitude toward God to our attitude toward others:
- The hunger for righteousness leads to us being merciful and compassionate (vs. 7)
- Those who receive and sow mercy become sincere people (pure in heart) who see and experience God with remarkable intimacy (vs. 8)
- Those who see and experience God become like him – a reconciling peacemaker (vs. 9).
- And lastly, those who are like God –those who are Christ-like and go against the grain of culture by pursuing peace-exuding righteousness in a world of unrighteousness – will, like Christ, be persecuted (vs. 10). But we can be of good cheer because the kingdom of heaven belongs to such people!
Being the Kingdom in the Here and Now!
The Beatitudes begin and end with the phrase “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus was explaining “the kingdom” by describing what the participants of “the kingdom” are and do. The rest of the sermon continue on those lines.
We are to seek and strive to be the “kingdom of heaven” here on earth, albeit imperfectly, from now until Jesus returns! May the words of The Great Rabbi guide us to that end!