Maturing in the Kingdom: Introduction to the Beatitudes (part 1 of 9)

Matthew 5:1–10 (NIV84)

1 Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.



This morning we are going to begin a new series of messages that are going to challenge us.  I confess I have wanted to work on this series for a long time, but never have.  This is not easy.  As we have seen over the last year as we have tried to listen again to a Christ-centered gospel, his message is radical in our world.  That was clear last week when we talked about stewardship.  I sense that most of us are ready to hear the gospel, and not just listen to what we want to hear.  Some of us have indicated that looking at our spiritual relationship with God at this level makes us uncomfortable.  Jesus has a way of doing that.  His teaching in this introduction to the Sermon on the Mount stands against so much of what our culture values.  It is counter-intuitive, radical, and takes us to the heart of the kingdom of God.  Jesus came proclaiming this message: The kingdom of God is at hand.  It is here – in him, and now in us, and will come in all its fullness when he returns.

Matthew 5:1 tells us that when Jesus “saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down.  His disciples (note who he is teaching here), his disciples came to him, and he began to teach them…”  This morning I want to introduce the beatitudes.  What are these 8 sentences we read?  How are we to understand them?  How did Jesus intend for us to hear them?  How are they to function in our lives?

Let’s first clarify our goals.  The first goal is for us to understand the scripture and the kingdom of God more deeply by opening ourselves to Jesus’ words, even if that seems difficult.  Our understanding and starting from the right place is critical.  If we don’t get this right it is a little like the rocket scientist aiming a rocket at the North Star.  If our starting point is even an 8th of a degree off, we will miss by a million miles.

For example, the beatitudes have been understood and interpreted as Jesus telling us how to get saved, laying out the conditions to become a true believer.  If you want to go to heaven, you’ve got to be poor in spirit.  Let’s be really clear, that is not what Jesus is doing here.  This is not a list of rules to follow to be saved.  There are two manifestations of God’s grace.  There is saving grace – that which we receive when we believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord.  There is also a grace for his disciples, for believers, that is transforming grace.  This is what we are talking about when we sing May the Mind of Christ My Savior dwell in me…   In the beatitudes Jesus is telling his disciples then and now how to be more fully and more faithfully his people in the world.  This is about the fruits of the Spirit lived out in our attitudes.  This is Jesus teaching us how to be ever more truly human people in the kingdom of God while living in a world that is horribly confused, violent and marred by sin.

That leads us to the second goal – seeing a standard as kingdom people to reach for.  What does being filled with the mind of Christ look like?  These are be-attitudes.  God is building his kingdom in the hearts and lives of his people.  We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  These statements are the kingdom attitudes and aspirations of the Christ-follower.  This is about grace that transforms us.  Studying this is not like having some preacher offer us three statements that are going to make us healthy, wealthy and wise.  The beatitudes will call us to check out attitudes that have become deeply entrenched habits in our lives.



The beatitudes are difficult, and very important if we are going to understand our spiritual life in God’s kingdom.  In order to be clear and accurate we need to see two contexts in which these statements come from Jesus.  These two are the theological and historical contexts – and they are like lens through which we see so we can understand.  First the THEOLOGICAL.

First, Matthew was writing his gospel to a Jewish audience.  These people would have known their Scriptures far better than we do.  They knew the Old Testament inside and out.  They had much of it memorized.  So when they saw in this gospel the slightest echoes of the Old Testament story, they would have heard it readily and easily.  Secondly, there are constant echoes of the Old Testament story in the opening 4 chapters of Matthew.  We need to read it like those 1st century Jews.  You may know the story, but let me tell it again so we can hear what some of Jesus’ audience heard.

It begins in the book of Genesis where the good creation went bad because of human disobedience to God’s Word.  But instead of giving up the project, every time sin got really, really bad, God enacted a judgment while at the same time selecting or electing a particular man to be, as it were, his new Adam – his way to carry on with and bless the world.  When the world was destroyed in a flood, Noah was elected; he was to be God’s blessing to the world.  And then, when the world was again dismantled at the Tower of Babel, with all the babbling and divided nations, Abraham was elected: he was to be God’s new Adam – his blessing to the world.

But what happened to Abraham?  Well, after tracing Abraham’s family tree – or, as Genesis called it, after tracing each generation of Abraham to the end of the book, his offspring (the 12 sons of Jacob) settled down in Egypt.  And while that was OK for a while, when we flip the page and enter the book of Exodus, we see that because Israel had become a huge people, their being in Egypt had become very bad.  They, the hope of the world called to bless the nations of the world, were now enslaved by the world, enslaved by a tyrannical Pharaoh who didn’t know God.

But, what happened?  We know from Sunday school that God raised up a Deliverer – Moses.  Moses was born in strange circumstances.  As tradition has it an elderly woman name Jochebed gave birth to him, bringing him into a very dangerous world.  King Pharaoh had issued a decree for infanticide: all Israelite baby boys were to be killed; thrown into the Nile.  But as we have been told, the Deliverer Moses was miraculously himself delivered.  The Nile River delivered him right into the heart of Egypt!  When he grew up, Moses began God’s campaign to free his people and establish the kingdom of God in the world.  Moses went to Pharaoh to say for God, “Let my people go.” And after a time of stubborn refusal, and God’s plagues against Egypt, Pharaoh finally had to let the people go, and dramatically, as they came out of Egypt, they were brought down and through the waters of the Red Sea, and then, immediately, they were sent out by the Spirit of God into the desert.  While there Moses led the 12 tribes of Israel to a mountain, Mount Sinai, where they received the Word of God through Moses.  They received the 10 commandments on stone tablets.  They received their charter for life, their blueprint for being human and the people of God in the world.

Now reflect with me on Matthew’s gospel because Matthew knew his audience was in much the same situation as Israel when they were in Egypt.  They were ruled by a tyrannical ruler – not Pharaoh, but Caesar of Rome.  Matthew began his gospel with a genealogy (same word used in Genesis).  He started with Abraham and traced it all the way to Jesus.  Jesus we are told was to be Israel’s Deliverer – and of course, within the context that would have been understood by Israel, he would be their deliverer from Rome.

Jesus, like Moses, was born in incredible circumstances – and remarkably similar ones.  In Matthew 1 and 2 we are told that he was born of a woman named Mary, who was very young and who was a virgin.  Besides this, Jesus was born into a dangerous world.  It was a world where the evil King Herod issued a Pharaoh-like decree for infanticide in Bethlehem.  All the baby boys under 2 were killed.  The Deliverer Jesus, just like Moses, was miraculously delivered himself, and sent to the center of Egypt.  What is even more amazing is that when he grew up, Jesus, just like Moses, began God’s campaign to free his people and to establish the kingdom of God in the world.  In chapter 3 we are told about John the Baptist who prepared the way for Jesus.  After coming out of Egypt and growing up, Jesus went down to John the Baptist and, in a highly symbolic moment, was brought down through the Red-Sea-like waters of the Jordon River in baptism.  And then, immediately after his baptism, Jesus, just like Israel before him, was sent by the Spirit of God into the desert.  And there, in the desert, he like them, was tested – in a test that lasted 40 days and 40 nights instead of 40 years.  And then, Jesus gathered around himself a band of 12 disciples, the number of the 12 tribes of Israel.  He gathered them around himself, like Moses did, and led them to a mountain, where, as the new and greater Teacher, Jesus sat down and began giving his newly constituted Israel a new and greater blue print and charter for being human in a very inhumane world.      Not the 10 commandments this time, but the 8 beatitudes.  And not on stone tablets – but this time, if Jesus was to have his way, to be written in their hearts.  For that is all part of his plan – the deeper mission Jesus is on.

That is the theological context of what is happening on this mountainside.  Jesus was being recast by Matthew.  He was being deliberately portrayed as the new Moses who is challenging a new Israel who will gather themselves around his teaching – challenging them to receive a new charter and blueprint for being his truly human people in the world for the sake of the world: blessed to be a blessing.  That is what is going on here with the Beatitudes.

That brings us to the second context – THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT.  Why did Israel need this?  Why did Jesus need to say these beatitudes at all?  He wasn’t saying it to save them – we know that.  They are all to be saved by his grace.  Jesus gave these statements because, very simply, Israel of the 1st century had on the whole become unfaithful to God.  They were not living as truly human people, salt and light, the city on the hill.  They were not living as God’s people – blessed to be a blessing.

You see, as can happen in the Church of Jesus Christ today, and does happen all the time, the people of Israel in the 1st century thought they were elect – chosen by God – because somehow or other they were a little better than others, a little more deserving of grace.  And with that kind of thinking in their heads, it was easy for them to think of God as their God, their kind of private tribal deity, who of course was for them and against everyone else (especially their enemies).  The next obvious step was for them to forget that God called, chose, and elected them for the sake of the world and to be a blessing in their world.  For them bringing in the kingdom of God was all about their prosperity, their political success, and their returning to the glory days of Israel.  Now they were thinking just like the rest of the world and became a part of the problem instead of God’s solution of salvation.  It is in this historical context that the beatitudes will ring with radical, up-side-down, mind-bending words from God about his kingdom – his not ours.

So here is our challenge for the coming weeks.  These blessings from God can only be heard if we are committed to listening to Jesus – the new Moses who comes with the same authority as the 10 commandments.  Listening means truly opening ourselves to the transforming grace of God speaking.  This is not about telling God what we want him to say to make us comfortable, or to demand what we have always assumed he was saying.

Jesus will speak about what it means to be a truly human person in the kingdom of God whose image we bear.  This does not look anything like the American dream or the messages of our culture, or the moralisms that indicate that if we are against a couple things we are Christian.

One of the reasons this is a challenging pilgrimage through the beatitudes – and for that matter through the whole of the Sermon on the Mount – is that his teaching is unexpected, surprising, and counter-intuitive.  His call is for us to be Christ-followers ready to again receive his transforming grace so we can be truly human, living a truly God-blessed life.  This will be a challenge for me and for all of us.  Do we have the courage to really hear him?  This is about the transforming grace of God.

Why do this?  Jesus’ words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount give us some clarity as we approach the beginning.  Matthew 7:24-27:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.  But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.   The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.