How do God’s people please him? What must Christian disciples do to earn God’s approval? What attitudes and allegiances do we need to possess to earn a round of applause from Heaven?
Do we need, for example, to give all of our income to charity? Must we align ourselves with a particular denomination, congregation or sect? Or do we need to perform certain rites or rituals to receive a commendation certificate from the Almighty?
Thankfully, none of those things is specified in our passage this morning. In these opening verses of the world’s most famous speech – Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” – we discover the attitudes and allegiances that God is most looking for amongst his people. In these ‘beatitudes’ (as they are known) we learn what attitudes are most highly esteemed in the eyes of the Lord – if not in the eyes of the world.
Jesus delivered this famous sermon not in a church or synagogue, but on a mountainside (v.1). Jesus’ great speech takes place outdoors on a high place, much as Moses had brought God’s Old Testament laws to his people from the heights of Mount Sinai. Matthew tells us that Jesus “sat down, his disciples came to him, and he began to teach them” (v.2)
The nine beatitudes that follow set out a New Testament guide to pleasing God. Nine sentences that summarise the spiritual and ethical standards that Jesus wants his followers to aspire to. Nine statements that describe the character traits which Jesus himself modelled during his time on earth.
So let’s spend a few moments this morning briefly going through them one by one…
The attitudes and allegiance of which God approves
Firstly, Christ commends those who are poor in spirit (v.3). This phrase doesn’t refer to people who are financially poor, but to those who recognise their spiritual bankruptcy. To people who recognise their need for God’s grace and mercy if they are to make a success of their life. The poor in spirit in Scripture are people who lack many signs of earthly success (like wealth, possessions, power and status), but are rich in faith and trust in God.
Biblically speaking, to be ‘poor in spirit’ is to be completely dependent on God for our growth in holiness – like a child depends on his or her parents for their bodily nourishment and physical growth. A person who is poor in spirit is also wise enough to recognise that everything we have is to be sought and received as a gift of God. And someone wise enough to acknowledge their moral failings and their need for forgiveness.
In his own life, Jesus modelled what it means to be poor in spirit. Whilst on earth, the Son of God expressed total reliance on his heavenly Father. Christ’s life in this world was saturated in prayer, in humble recognition that he could accomplish nothing without his Father’s strength and support.
Blessed too are those who “mourn” says Jesus in verse 4. Not mourning the loss of a loved one, but mourning over sin – both in our own lives and in the wider world. To mourn in this sense is to be broken-hearted by our own bad words and deeds, and to be aggrieved by the harm we see other people doing to one another. We should all mourn whenever we see evidence of sin in ourselves, in our community and in the daily news. Whether we see it in our own hearts or simply on TV, followers of Jesus ought to weep over injustice and be grieved by the sight of evil deeds.
Jesus himself wept over Jerusalem, for example, because of the persecution God’s Old Testament prophets had suffered there at the hands of evil men – and he was aggrieved when he saw people abusing the Temple precinct as a place of profit rather than as a place of prayer. His passions were aroused at immorality and injustice.
Thirdly, Jesus says his disciples should aspire to be “meek” (verse 5). To be meek is to be selfless not selfish, to be humble instead of proud, to put the rights of others ahead of our own.
As Son of God, Jesus himself had every right imaginable. Yet he surrendered his place of privilege and came to Earth to be our suffering Saviour. He was “gentle and humble in heart” (Matt 11:29). Recall the famous words of Philippians chapter 2: “Christ did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”
Next we’re told that it pleases God when his people “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (v.6). To hunger and thirst is to strongly desire food and drink. And just as we can crave nourishment, God wants us to crave righteousness. A hungry man might yearn for a good meal, but a righteous man or woman yearns to do God’s will – to do what is good.
Jesus himself amply displayed this appetite to do what’s right in God’s sight. For instance, in the Garden of Gethsemane he resisted the temptation to avoid arrest and save his own skin – and prayed instead “Father, your will, not mine, be done”.
As we move to verse 7 we read “blessed are the merciful”. To be merciful means being willing to extend forgiveness to those who wrong us. To show grace towards those who do us harm.
Jesus himself showed remarkable mercy towards those who hurt him, even praying for his executioners as he hung on his cross. “Father, forgive them” he said, “for they do not know what they are doing”.
“Blessed are the pure in heart” says verse 8. This means to be wholehearted in our love for God, to have an undivided desire to please him. So often in life we are tempted to have divided loyalties and mixed motives – but God loves those whose overriding ambition is to glorify him.
Jesus himself was pure in heart. Throughout the Gospel narratives we see his single-minded determination to serve his Father and complete his Messianic mission. As the first Easter approached Jesus ‘set his face’ towards Jerusalem and the supreme sacrifice he would make there for us. Nothing could deflect him from his task or distract him from his God-given vocation.
Meanwhile, in verse 9, we’re told that “blessed are the peacemakers”. Every Christian should seek to bring reconciliation where there is conflict. To be a peacemaker is to draw people together and to restore damaged relationships.
Of course, Jesus was the greatest of all peacemakers, since through the events of that first Easter he has secured peace between God and humanity. Even to this day, Christ continues to offer reconciliation to repentant sinners. A reconciliation with God available through faith in him alone.
Lastly, in verses 10 and 11, Jesus twice says “blessed are the persecuted”. In this sinful, rebellious world, people of integrity – people who are uncompromising in their pursuit of righteousness – are bound to be unpopular. Committed Christians will always find themselves unpopular with totalitarian regimes, with unscrupulous employers, and with secular society. Our principles and priorities will inevitably come into conflict with theirs. Our value systems will be at odds with their aims. Christians will come under intense pressure to comply with their agendas instead of God’s.
Indeed, in verse 11 Jesus says that to align ourselves to him – even at the expense of persecution, insults and false accusations – is something that his Heavenly Father will bless: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you…because of me.” The distinctive feature of someone who truly pleases God the Father is fidelity to his Son. Loyalty to the Lord Jesus, whatever the cost, is what God holds in the highest regard.
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward!
Before I finish, its important to note that the attitudes commended by Jesus in these beatitudes will be appropriately – and amply – rewarded. The Christian disciple who has an attitude of spiritual humility and a thirst for holiness will be blessed by God. The man or woman who is loyal to the Lord Jesus will be vindicated in the end.
The blessings promised to a faithful believer in today’s verses are truly mouth-watering. They include:
- Experiencing God’s mercy and the comfort of knowing that we are forgiven for Christ’s sake;
- Being granted citizenship of the Kingdom of Heaven and the right to be called children of God.
- Inheriting a place in the New Creation, when the earth will be made new;
- And, above all, being given the ‘beatific vision’ – the supreme privilege and joy of seeing God face to face.
If we need an incentive to follow Jesus, then here it is. If we need a motivation to persevere despite persecution, then you’ve just heard it. If you need a carrot to keep yourself pressing on with personal holiness, then here it is. Jesus promises his people eternal blessings that will outweigh every earthly hardship. Christians can look forward to permanent privileges that will outlast any and all persecution. No wonder Jesus tells his hearers in verse 12 to “rejoice and be glad”!
So as I finish, today’s passage teaches us that if we want to win God’s approval in this world, we need to adopt an attitude of spiritual humility, we need to develop an appetite for holiness – and we need to align ourselves to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Of course, to do any one of those things we need God’s help. We need supernatural support from the Holy Spirit to be spiritually healthy, to be morally upright and to be full of faith. So let’s pray…