Earlier in the summer we had a series on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and beginning at verse 58 of chapter 5. It is, therefore, some time ago that we studied Jesus' teaching at the start of that great sermon. So with another new term beginning and indeed a new year for schools and universities and also for churches with their children's and youth or student work, and in the context of a country and world so confused, I thought it would be helpful to listen again to, and learn from, Jesus teaching in Matthew 5.1-16. And after some words of introduction I have three headings – indeed the vision of our church, first, Godly Living; secondly, Church Growth, and, thirdly, Changing Britain.
So by way of introduction I need to say this. Jesus has with-drawn from the crowds and is sitting down to teach his disciples (verse 1):
"Seeing the crowds, he [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him."
But some of these crowds seem to be there as well, overhearing what Jesus is saying to his inner circle; among the last words of chapter 7 we read, "when Jesus had finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching". But here in chapter 5 verse 2, he starts his teaching: "he opened his mouth and taught them."
And the taught them what Godly Living should look like among his disciples. For he is giving eight characteristics that should be true of every believer. So at this Commissioning Service why not use these, as you consider them, for your own spiritual health check? Sure, you will never perfectly fulfil Jesus' ideal regarding these eight signs. That is why you will have to turn back to God regularly for forgiveness and to pray for the Holy Spirit to strengthen you as you seek to live, although imperfectly, a Godly life. Well, so much by way of introduction.
1. Godly Living
Let's look now at these eight signs, begining with the first one – verse 3:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
But what is Jesus saying when he says: "Blessed are the poor in spirit"? Does he mean, "happy are the poor in spirit"? And what does he mean by "poor in spirit"? From what we know from the rest of Jesus' teaching and the rest of the New Testament, it is not likely to mean "happy" in the sense of feeling "happy", like when your football team wins, or you've just passed an exam. No! It is not something subjective, to do with feelings. It surely is something objective. For it is God who is "blessing" the believer. But in what way?
Well, in the way explained in the second half of the sentence. In this first of the blessings, or as they are also called, the beatitudes, the person who is "poor in spirit", is blessed by inheriting "the kingdom of heaven" both for now and for eternity. So Jesus is saying that you get right with God and fitted for heaven and his kingdom, not by what you do, but by humbly recognizing that you are in mess, and on your own, spiritually speaking. You admit you are lacking in spiritual resources. You admit to spiritual poverty. And you've got to the point when you can genuinely sing, as the old hymn puts it:
"Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy Cross I cling."
And the blessing, to those whose only real confidence is in God, is that they experience his kingdom – the kingdom of heaven. Who tonight needs to admit to that spiritual poverty and turn to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and the strength of the Holy Spirit? If so, why not do so?
Let's now move on to the second blessing or beatitude, verse 4:
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."
And what does Jesus mean by "blessed are those who mourn"? Well, it will include mourning the loss of a loved one through death, but not just because a person is sad. No! Rather it is because death points to the fragility of life and the challenge of heaven and hell. And mourners are comforted when mourning a believer by the fact of the Resurrection and return of Jesus Christ.
But also there are those mourning not just a person's death, but also the world's sin and suffering. Well, these will be comforted through Christ's forgiveness for sin through his Cross, on the one hand. And, on the other hand, they will be comforted by the wholeness the Holy Spirit can bring to those who trust in Jesus Christ.
Moving on to the third beatitude and verse 5:
"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
But who, then, are the meek who will inherit the earth? And what does "meek" mean? Well, the word "meek" in the original can refer to controlling your anger - so not too much and not too little. So the blessing for the meek would be for those who seek God's help to control themselves from being too angry or not angry enough when anger is called for. That is not least called for when discipline is needed and also not least in public life.
And the fourth beatitude in verse 6 says:
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied."
Here hungering and thirsting for righteousness surely refers to all forms of righteousness - spiritual, moral and social. So it refers to the righteousness with God through justifying faith - the saving faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, that gets us right with God; then moral righteousness refers to the good works, that should follow such faith; and also a righteousness, or just order in society, that is God's will (as Old Testament prophets so clearly taught).
Then the fifth beatitude reads as follows:
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy?"
What does the word "merciful" refer to? It seems here to refer to treating well those suffering pain, or misery either from natural disasters or other people's faults, as seen in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It can also refer to being merciful to someone who sins against you and you don't demand justice but show forgiveness.
Then comes the sixth beatitude, verse 8:
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."
Is that not referring to someone who loves God with all their heart, with an undivided loyalty? Their reward will be "seeing God". This can, of course, only be directly in heaven when "we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3.2). But in the present they can have a greater sense of his glory – of God somehow making himself real in their personal experience.
Then the seventh beatitude is for peacemakers, verse 9:
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God."
Of course, they will be praying people, who pray, first, for the secular authorities, "that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life" (1 Timothy 2.2). Secondly, they will not say "peace, peace" as the false prophets in the Old Testament said when sin hadn't been dealt with in the public realm. And, thirdly, in their personal affairs, as John Stott well says, it will involve pain: "There will be either the pain of apologizing to the person we have injured or the pain of rebuking the person who has injured us."
But peace-making is so important – it is of the very essence of our God who through Christ …
"… was pleased … to reconcile to himself all things whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross" (Col 1.20).
So the "peacemakers" says Jesus, appropriately "shall be called sons of God." Are you a peacemaker or do you sow discord?
And, finally, as the eighth beatitude, Jesus says, verse 10:
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"
But more about that in a moment, for it brings us to our second heading
2. Church Growth
And that heading is because persecution sometimes results in numerical church growth and certainly it results in spiritual Church Growth, if responded to rightly. So look now at verses 11 and 12:
"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"
Jesus now makes this "blessing" or beatitude personal. He moves from general principles to personal predictions, by talking about "you". So he hammers home this beatitude on persecution more than any of the other beatitudes. Why? Because being "reviled" and "persecuted" and "having all kinds of evil uttered against you falsely" is part of the normal Christian life this side of heaven. Let me explain further.
First, we've got to understand that these beatitudes don't refer to eight different groups of people – some who are good at being merciful and others who are meek, and so on. No! These beatitudes are drawing attention to characteristics that should be true of every believer and evidence of every believer's saving faith. Of course, this side of heaven, as we've said, we all fail and need forgiveness regularly. We don't match up to these standards of Christ as we should. So all disciples of Christ must be working with the Holy Spirit's strength to improve, from wherever they are at, spiritually speaking.
And, secondly, we are not "saved" by these characteristics. Rather, they are the "good works" or "good virtues" that we are saved for. They represent the sort of people God wants us to become. As Paul puts it so importantly in Ephesians 2.8-10:
"For by grace you have been saved by faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus [listen] for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."
But, then, thirdly, you have to realize this. The simple fact is that as Christians positively do those good works, or show more of all those virtues, there will be conflict. People will not like you for a range of reasons, not least your concern for righteousness, to which Jesus refers in verse 10. But what they really hate is Jesus Christ himself – the real Jesus Christ, the Jesus Christ of the Bible who was fully God and fully man and to whom you are witnessing by your life, let alone by what you say. The crowds in Jesus life-time said, "Away with him" – they still do. Referring to himself, Jesus said in John 3.19:
"the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their works were evil."
So now Jesus is predicting you will be attacked – verse 11:
"Blessed are you when [not 'if'] others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account."
And this is happening more and more. I don't need to elaborate. But, for example, we at the Christian Institute know of many instances. More locally my wife was seriously attacked for alone arguing, as a doctor on the Newcastle City's Adoption panel, that a homosexual adoption was not only Christianly immoral but not in the best interests of the child. And Ian Garrett has been disgracefully removed from being a Church of England school Governor, basically because he argued for the Church of England's official position on sexual ethics. And others in this Church have stories to tell. But compared to Christians in many other countries of the world, we've had an easy ride. So how we in the West all need to remember those words in Hebrews 12.3:
"Consider him [Jesus] who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood."
But back to Jesus' beatitude. For Jesus there tells us how to react when we are persecuted. He doesn't say, fight back. He doesn't say, complain against God. He doesn't say, act like a religious celebrity telling everyone all you have gone through. He doesn't say, "just grin and bear it." No!
First Jesus says, when you are persecuted, verse 12:
"Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
Jesus promises you a "great" [note that word – "great"] future reward. And also you are, he says, in a great tradition of godly men and women – "the prophets who were before you."
Secondly, realize you may be contributing to Church Growth – that's why I have headed this section Church Growth. Tertullian, the early-church writer, at the end of the 2nd century AD famously wrote that "the Blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church." It is amazing how some Churches grow even numerically after persecution. Think of China today, and some of today's Churches formerly under the Marxist Soviet tyranny.
But, thirdly, remember churches certainly can grow spiritually through persecution. As the writer to the Hebrews says when treating persecution as God's discipline or an opportunity for learning:
"It is for discipline you have to endure [i.e suffering] … For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it" (Heb 12.7,11).
And, fourthly, opposition, Jesus says, should not mean we retreat into a ghetto. No, we should work, he is saying, to change the world that is persecuting Christians.
So that brings us to my third heading
3. Changing Britain
... and what Jesus has to say about "salt" and "light". Look at verses 13-16:
"You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."
Salt and light are very powerful metaphors. And Jesus is saying, through both metaphors, there are two communities, the church and the world and they are clearly distinct. So first, what does Jesus mean by saying,
"You are the salt of the earth."
Well, you have to realize that before refrigeration, salt was very valuable as a preservative. Rubbed into meat salt could keep it for long periods and prevent decay. So Jesus means that the world left to itself will decay like rotten meat; and the church can hinder such decaying as a preservative. Through his common grace, God has provided for everyone's benefit, the State and the human family to stem the decaying process. But the Church is especially needed.
However, this ability for the Church to function properly depends on its salt, retaining its saltiness. In the context of the beatitudes, that means Christians retaining as much as possible those characteristics that are "blessed" by God. If the Church becomes like the world, by being contaminated, by conforming to the world's standards, Jesus says:
"It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet."
By contrast, there is the light. Jesus' disciples and all Christians are "the light of the world."
Without electric lights and lighting, in Jesus' time a cloudy night could make everything pitch black. So how essential lamps were then. So how essential we are now as believers. And the light in this verse is related to Christian "good works". For Jesus says, "You are the light of the world" (verse 14). But then in verse 16:
"let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."
Good works, will obviously include evangelism and that includes teaching, as the risen Christ said: "to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt 28.20). And that will also involve all "mercy ministries" – works of love as well as works of faith. And that teaching in making disciples and teaching Christ's commandments, particularly in our country, needs to be done much more publicly – yes, appropriately and graciously but clearly and in all areas of life.
For at present, the default world-view in the West is atheistic secularism. No one has voted this. So how has it happened? Maybe we as Christians have not been engaging explicitly enough as Christians in the secular world. Too many of us may have been, in Jesus terminology, "people who light a lamp and put it under a basket." My prayer is that during the next twelve months more and more of us will be like those people who
"light a lamp [the lamp of God's truth that relates to the individual, the family, the church and the world] and put it … on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house."
Will you seek to do that this session? So I conclude with Jesus words:
"In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."