For the past 17 years my life has pretty much revolved around sermons. Let me put it this way, preaching is not just my occupation. It’s my pre-occupation. When I’m not actually delivering a sermon, I’m preparing to deliver one or praying for God’s help in my prep or I’m reading books and commentaries or striving to come up with a good outline or searching for illustrations or thinking about future sermon plans.
Many times I STUDY other preacher’s sermons so as to learn from their insights and techniques in speaking on a particular text. With that in mind, over the years I have purchased several editions of books that are compilations of great sermons by great preachers. One of those volumes is compiled by a great preacher in his own right, Dr. Clarence E. Macartney and it’s entitled, Great Sermons of the World. It contains sermons by such well-known preachers as the apostle Peter, John Chrysostom, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and many others—but the FIRST sermon in this book is the SERMON ON THE MOUNT which was of course delivered by our Lord. It’s found in Matthew’s gospel account—chapters 5-7—and, according to James Montgomery Boice, it is the best-known and most extensively studied discourse in the world. This particular sermon of Jesus has been the subject of thousands of books and articles, so many that there are now books about the books, volumes written merely to survey this voluminous material so a student can get a handle on the various approaches to Jesus’ sermon.
Oswald Chambers refers to these words as lovely and poetic but he says they have the powerful impact of “spiritual torpedoes.” And the words of this sermon are indeed powerful words because they reveal the heart of our Lord. I would agree with Philip Yancey who says, “If we fail to understand this message, we will fail to understand Jesus.”
In his commentary on this text William Barclay points out that even the way Matthew describes the DELIVERY of this message indicates the importance of this teaching. He’s referring to verse 1 where it says that before Jesus began to speak, “…He sat down.” In the 1st century whenever a Jewish rabbi began to teach officially he did this. He took his seat. And we still have this custom with us today. For example, at universities and grad schools we speak of a “teaching chair” as a place of important instruction. I remember when I was at Southern Seminary there were several “chaired positions.” One of the best known was “The Billy Graham chair of evangelism.” A certain professor taught from this “chair” — taught potential pastors like myself the importance of evangelism. That was his sole task. Another current example of this is seen in the fact that from time to time the Pope speaks, “ex cathedra” which means, “from his seat” as a way of saying this teaching is central—important to our catholic brothers.
Now, don’t misunderstand. There were times when a Jewish Rabbi would teach while standing or walking around. But when he sat down to teach, his students knew they needed to be sure and listen. They knew this teaching was important—that it would be “on the test” so to speak.
So the fact that Jesus sat down to deliver this message would have indicated to His followers that what He was about to say was very significant. Another thing that indicates the weight of these words is seen in the phrase “when He had opened His mouth.” I say this because, this phrase in Greek was used to communicate the fact that a person was about to pour out his heart. He was about to tell you what was most important to him. One of the commentary writers I read this week said that this sermon was Jesus’ PLATFORM speech. It was kind of like His INAUGURAL ADDRESS. And I would agree. With these powerful words Jesus was describing the kingdom He would be initiating. In fact, one commentator calls this not the Sermon on the Mount but the Sermon on the Level—because Jesus was telling exactly what He would expect from His followers.
In any case, it was much like the speech of a political candidate who says, “This is what I stand for. This is what I value. This is what my goals are. These are the kinds of things I’ll vote for. Elect me and this is what you’ll see me doing.” So, the words of this sermon are very important for us to understand.
Now, before I go any further, let me give you the SETTING and CONTEXT of Jesus’ mountaintop message. Matthew 4:24 says that news about Jesus’ ministry, “…had spread all over Syria, and people brought to Him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed and He healed them.” Verse 25 says that because of this, large crowds from all over the region followed Jesus wherever He went. I mean, at this point Jesus’ fame was growing such that people were coming from everywhere: Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan. People were ripping off their roofs and nearly trampling over one another in order to get to Him and benefit from the power of His preaching and healing. In fact, during these months of ministry, I imagine you could always tell where Jesus was by scanning the horizon to find the huge dust cloud that followed Him, a dust cloud caused by a multitude’s feet. We’ll see that kind of thing in next week’s sermon.
This brings us to this morning’s text where it says that one day Jesus looked around and saw how many people had followed Him. When He did this He stopped, went up the mountainside—actually it’s a large grassy hill on the shores of the Sea of Galilee—and He sat down and began to preach. Many believe Jesus didn’t teach from the top of the mountain down but rather He went down a ways and taught up using the mountainside as a huge amphitheater. We don’t have time two read all three chapters so listen as I read the first twelve verses of this sermon of sermons.
1 – Now when Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on a mountain SIDE and SAT DOWN. His disciples came to Him,
2 – and He began to teach them. He said:
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 children of God.
10 – Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
11 – Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.
12 – Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in Heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Okay—here’s how I want us to study these verses. I want us to focus on answering this question: “What is the central message here? What was Jesus saying in this all-important sermon?” I think people hearing His message—then and now—would say that Jesus’ message seemed to contain both GOOD NEWS and BAD NEWS.
(1) The good news Jesus alluded to was this: He repeatedly said it is possible for the people in His kingdom to be truly happy—deeply, profoundly HAPPY.
Please note—many Bible translations don’t use the word “happy” here because Jesus was talking about much more than your everyday variety of happiness. I mean, our word, “happy” doesn’t quite convey the concept that Jesus was referring to here. He was talking about “happiness…and then some.” And that goes along with the meaning of the word, “beatitude.” It comes from a Latin word that means “SUPREME happiness.”
This word for SUPREME HAPPINESS is indeed a central theme of this sermon because Jesus used it nine times in the first eleven verses. Now, in an effort to convey the idea of a state of being more than happy many Bibles use the word “blessed” here—but we need help in understanding the true meaning of “blessed” because it is not a word that we use in our every day speech. I mean, you and I almost never hear this word in a non-religious context. In fact, as I told you a few years back, when most people say this word, they don’t pronounce it as it should be pronounced according to the rules of the English language. When we read these verses we don’t say, “blest.” No, we make it more religious sounding by saying in sort of a stained-glass voice, “Bless-ed” and we don’t do that with any other word that ends in “ed.” We don’t say, “My hair is mess-ed up today because I didn’t have enough time to get dress-ed.” But we do say, “bless-ed” don’t we—because to us this word is sort of a holy word. And, you know, we aren’t far from the truth in making that assumption, because in Jesus’ day this word was used to describe a sort of holy happiness—a holy joy. Let me explain. In Greek this word that we translate “blessed” or “happy” is pronounced, “makarios,” and in “preacher terms” at this point in our sermon study we need to do some “exegesis.” That is to say to fully understand this Greek word’s meaning we need to examine how it was used in Jesus’ day because don’t really have an equivalent word in English. I mean, “happy” doesn’t do it. “Blessed” is better but still not quite there so let’s exegete! In the Greek language, the word “makarios” communicated the idea of contentment, fulfillment, satisfaction, completion.
One way it was used was to describe the island of Cyprus. Back then it was called the Makaree-ah, which sounds suspiciously close to the name of that dance song from a few years back, but there is no connection. No, Makaria literally means “the very happy island” and it was called that because Cyprus was so rich, so beautiful, so fertile, that one didn’t have to go beyond its coastline to find perfect and complete happiness. Cyprus contained within itself all of the elements of a fulfilling life.
But even THIS usage doesn’t give us a complete understanding of this word. You see, “markarios” implied an inner satisfaction and sufficiency that did not depend on outward circumstances for happiness—a holy joy that you could have even if you didn’t live on a wonderful island paradise like Cyprus. In fact, it was a joy that filled the soul even in the midst of the most depressing of events. William Barclay writes,
“Human happiness is something that is dependent on the chances and changes of life, something which life may give and which life may also destroy. The Christian blessedness is completely untouchable and unassailable.”
So, understand—by using this word, Jesus is saying it is possible for us to have a complete joy that no one can take from us, an inner peace, an inner bliss—a feeling of fulfillment that is not affected by the inevitable woes and worries of life in this fallen world. Quoting Barclay once more, “The world can WIN its joys and the world can equally LOSE its joys. A change in fortune, a collapse in health, the failure of a plan, the disappointment of an ambition, even a change in the weather, can take away the fickle joy the world gives. But the Christian can have the serene and untouchable joy which comes from walking forever in the company and the presence of Jesus Christ. The greatness of the beatitudes is that they are not wistful glimpses of some future beauty; they are not even golden promises of some glory; they are triumphant shouts of bliss for a permanent joy that nothing in the world can ever take away.”
Does that sound tempting to you? I mean, think of it—the ability to be deeply, profoundly joyful, no matter what comes!
- An unexpected diagnosis—no problem—I’m still makarios!
- A bill comes that you don’t know how you will possibly be able to pay—no worries—I’m still makarios!
- Down-sizing at work takes my job—that’s okay—my makarios is still intact!
But there is one more aspect of this word’s meaning that I must point out. “Makarios” also meant “divine approval.” Jesus was saying that the kind of people He describes here, the people He applies this word, “makarios” to—well they not only experience an invulnerable joy, they also make God proud! Max Lucado captures this idea in his book, The Applause of Heaven and says we could translate The Beatitudes like this: “God APPLAUDS the poor in spirit. He CHEERS for the mourners. He FAVORS the meek. He SMILES on those who hunger for righteousness. He HONORS the merciful. He WELCOMES the pure in heart. He CLAPS FOR the peacemakers. He RISES TO GREET the persecuted.” Well, let me ask you, have you felt God’s applause lately? Do you feel His smile—His approval when it comes to the attitudes and actions you embrace in life?
I remember how good it felt to make my parents proud.
- I wanted them to see me ride a two-wheeler bike for the first time and hear their applause!
- I wanted to show them my good report cards and hear them say, “Well done!”
- I wanted them to come watch me play on the JV football team and hear them cheer.
- I wanted them to hear me sing a solo or preach a sermon and commend me for my efforts.
Children naturally want to please their parents. That was—and still is—a great feeling isn’t it!? Well, in His sermon Jesus is saying that as Christians we can live in such a way that we feel the approval of our Heavenly Father every day. And—wouldn’t life be more joyful if we knew God was proud of the way we were living it?
So—in this sermon of sermons one thing Jesus is saying is this, “If you value the things I value—then you can be supremely happy! You can have a joy that no one can take away! On top of that, you will feel the applause of God!” Now, wouldn’t you agree that this is good news!? It is—but the BAD NEWS is this:
(2) Jesus’ sermon indicates that most of us are looking for this supreme happiness in the WRONG places.
Look again at those first verses. Pay close attention to exactly WHO it is that Jesus says experiences this quality of holy joy—what LIFESTYLE it is that God applauds.“Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are those who are persecuted. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.”
I think the people who first heard this sermon must have been perplexed because of the way Jesus applied this wonderful word. He applied “makarios” to things they would never think of applying it to. And this part of His message is perplexing to us as well isn’t it? We’d never say, “Happy are the poor, the meek, the merciful, the persecuted, the slandered!” To us those are all oxymorons! Those things just don’t go together. It seems as if Jesus has things switched somehow. He values what we avoid and avoids what we tend to value. I mean, if we lived according to the standards of today’s society we’d say, “Blessed are the rich, the self-confident. Blessed are those people who never have anything to be sad about. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for a good time! Blessed are those who look out for number one! Blessed are the people with power. Blessed the popular. Blessed are the teens who have more friends on Facebook than anyone else! Blessed are the quarterbacks and head cheerleaders and the people who win Olympic gold! Blessed are the CEO’s and Billionaires.” These are the people we applaud.
J. B. Phillips once rendered the Beatitudes to make them seem more like our world. He put them this way, “Happy are the ‘pushers’ for they get on in the world. Happy are the hard-boiled for they never let life hurt them. Happy are those who complain for they get their own way in the end. Happy are the blasé for they never worry over their sins. Happy are the slave-drivers for they get results. Happy are the knowledgeable men of the world: for they know their way around. Happy are the trouble-makers: for they make people take notice of them.”
And Philips’ version is another accurate description of our world’s way of thinking isn’t it? I’m saying that at first glance Jesus’ sermon just doesn’t make sense from a worldly point of view. In fact, one secular psychiatrist made fun of the Beatitudes saying, “This spirit of self-sacrifice which permeates Christianity and is so highly prized in the Christian religious life is nothing less than MASOCHISM moderately indulged.”
And if this part of Jesus’ sermon perplexes you, if it has you scratching your head, if it makes you question the wisdom of these words, well, then one thing I would point out is that our Creator—Jesus—Almighty God in the flesh—Jesus knows how life works. This Preacher of this sermon knows better than we do what brings genuine “makarios” to life. I mean He created us, so He’s well aware of the fact that we are made for eternity and because we are, the temporary things of this world don’t bring us lasting joy. They never bring us “makarios.”
With that in mind, listen again to Jesus’ words. Our Designer says, “Blessed-are those spiritually poor people—the people who know they are bankrupt without God. Blessed are those who mourn over their sins because they recognize this separates them from their Heavenly Father. Blessed are the meek—those fortunate people who are wise enough to humble themselves and give God control of their lives. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for a deeper relationship with Him. Blessed are those who become like Jesus—in that they are merciful and pure in heart and work to make peace—and endure injustice. Blessed are those who suffer in this world as they strive to further the next one!”
And do you know what? It’s easy to see that the people in our culture who don’t “get” the message of this sermon—the people who treasure the things of this world aren’t happy. It’s easy to see that the people we tend to applaud don’t even know what “makarios” feels like! In fact, we could accurately say, “Not makarios—but miserable are the heroes and stars of this world. Wretched and pitiful are the men and women our culture esteems.” If you need visible proof of this fact, all you need do is pick up a copy of People magazine and read the pathetic lives that the “stars” of our society lead.
In his book Intellectuals, Paul Johnson says that the “stars,” our “idols,” the people we laud, strive to emulate, and feature on the covers of popular magazines—he says they are not the fulfilled, happy, balanced people we might imagine. Our American idols are a miserable a group of people. Most have troubled or broken marriages. Many have already been married numerous times. Nearly all are incurably dependent on psychotherapy. In a heavy irony, these larger than life heroes are often tormented by self-doubt. And on the other hand if you look at the “losers” of this world, the servants—the “un-stars,” you find happy people—makarios people.
Philip Yancey tells of a time he was visiting with Wycliffe Bible translators in their austere headquarters in the Arizona desert. They lived in mobile homes and gathered to study in a concrete block building with a metal roof. He said these missionaries eagerly embraced the hardship of living like this in the hot Arizona desert as a fore-telling of the places they would go and live in order to take the Bible to people who had never read it in their own language. He said they even had a song they loved to sing—a song that talked about the hardships they would face—but they sang it with joy on their faces. You may know its words:
“So send I you to labor unrewarded, to serve unpaid, unloved, unsought, unknown, to bear rebuke to suffer scorn and scoffing. So send I you to toil for Me alone.”
One morning Yancey said he went jogging and came across a luxurious compound not far away, a resort with two Olympic swimming pools, aerobic workout rooms, a cinder jogging trail, lush gardens, a baseball diamond, soccer fields, and horse stables. He investigated and found out that the facilities belonged to a famous eating disorder clinic that catered to movie stars and famous athletes. The clinic featured the latest twelve-step program techniques, had a staff well stocked with Ph.D’s and M.D’s, and charged its clients about $800 a day. Yancey said the contrast between the two compounds was striking. One institution endeavored to save SOULS, to prepare people to share the Gospel so others would be ready to face eternity. The other endeavored to save BODIES, to prepare people to enjoy this life. It seems obvious our culture tends to honor the latter. Yancey writes,“I have spent time with stars and also with ‘servants’—doctors and nurses who work among the ultimate outcasts: leprosy patients in rural India, a Princeton graduate who runs a hotel for the homeless in Chicago, health workers who have left high paying jobs to serve in a backwater town of Mississippi. Christian workers in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and other repositories of human suffering. I was prepared to HONOR and ADMIRE these servants—to hold them up as inspiring examples. I was not prepared to ENVY them.Yet as I now reflect on the two groups side by side, stars and servants-well, the servants clearly emerge as the favored ones, the graced-ones, the TRULY HAPPY ones. Without a question, I would rather spend time among the servants than the stars. They possess qualities of depth and richness and even joy that I have not found elsewhere. Servants work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, ‘wasting’ their talents and skills among the poor and uneducated. Somehow though, in the process of LOSING their lives they FIND them.”
Yancey discovered a powerful truth. People who scorn the things of this world and work for the next are indeed happy, joyful. They live blessed, makarios lives!
So—in this sermon of sermons Jesus says we can be truly, deeply, happy—we can have this blessed joy no matter what comes in life, but to have it we need to value the things He values. We need to live as He lived—and when we do we make God proud.
In closing I want to point out three things that we must remember in our study of this sermon.
A. First, the values Jesus lists in the Beatitudes can only be lived out by CHRISTIANS.
These spiritual standards come about only through the indwelling power of the Son of God. I mean, only the poor in spirit—only those individuals who in humility have realized their need for God and have responded to that realization by giving their hearts and lives to Jesus—only Christians can live this way. Only by letting Jesus live in and through us can we be merciful and pure in heart and work to make peace and endure injustice.
B. Second, the Beatitudes are a PACKAGE DEAL, not something to pick and choose from.
A Christian should, and must strive to display each of these character traits. I mean, it’s easy to make the mistake of saying, “I believe in mourning for my own sins but I’m just not a merciful kind of guy.” or “I’m too meek to be a peacemaker.” We can’t pick some of these attitudes and actions and ignore others. They are a package deal. They go together.
C. And then finally, we must understand that in this message Jesus is not just talking about attitudes but also about ACTIONS. He’s saying that our beliefs must impact our behavior.
Jesus is not saying, “Live like this in order to be saved.” He’s saying, “Live like this because you are saved.” Conduct must flow out of character. You see, a Christian—a disciple—is one who both EMBRACES and EMBODIES the Beatitudes. If you want to spot a devoted Christ-follower in a crowd, look for these character qualities-because they will stand out. After all, in Matthew 6:8 Jesus says, “Do not be like them.” Be different! John Stott writes: “The disciples were not to take their cue from the people around them, but from Jesus, and so prove to be genuine children of their heavenly Father.” He’s right. As Christians, we are to be stamped by Christ, not by the culture around us, or by our tendencies within us. These beatitudes are more than qualities to celebrate in worship. They are qualities to be lived out in our day to day lives.
A.W. Tozer once wrote: “There is an evil, glaring disparity between theology and practice among professing Christians. An intelligent observer of our human scene who heard the Sunday morning message and later watched the Sunday afternoon conduct of those who heard it would conclude he had been examining two distinct and contrary religions. It appears to me that too many Christians want to enjoy the thrill of feeling right but are not willing to endure the inconvenience of being right.”
James Emery White tells the following story about his visit to the Eagle and Child pub in Great Britain, the place where C. S. Lewis and his friends used to meet. He writes: “One day, as I sat at my favorite little table, and another stream of tourists entered—and left—I heard the manager muttering, ‘Bloody Christians.’ I was enough of a regular to feel comfortable asking him what he meant. ‘Take a look at this,’ he said, holding up a menu. ‘They cost me two pounds each. Two pounds! I ordered hundreds of them, and now I only have ten because they keep getting nicked.’ ‘You mean people are stealing them?’ I asked incredulously. ‘Yeah, the bloody Christians take the menus, while the bloody students take the spoons and ashtrays.’ Understanding students’ obvious need for utensils, I couldn’t help but ask, ‘Why the menus?’ ‘I don’t know, it’s what they can get their hands on, I suppose,’ he answered. ‘It got so bad I started making copies of the menu that they could take—for free—but they still take the good ones.’ ‘I’m surprised they don’t try and take what’s on the walls, then,’ I mused, looking at the pictures, plaque, and particularly the framed handwritten letter from Lewis, Tolkien, and others commemorating the day they had drunk to the barmaid’s health. ‘Oh, those aren’t real,’ he said, ‘just copies. They still get taken. I’d never put the real ones up.’ He paused a moment, and then said, ‘What gets me is that all these people who come in for Lewis are supposed to be Christians, right?’ ‘Yes,’ I thought to myself, ‘they are.’ The irony is bitter; the manager of The Eagle and Child pub holds Christians and, one would surmise, Christianity itself, in disdain because of the behavior of the Christians who flock to pay homage to Lewis. Many wouldn’t dare drink a pint [of beer], but they will gladly steal.”
Unfortunately it’s easy to find stories like this one—stories that show Christians failing to live up to their calling—Christians who are more like the world that our Lord. And that’s tragic because in this sermon Jesus calls us to be different. He calls us to be different in pubs and on the ball field and on the beltway and on the golf course and in the class room. We’re called to embody the Beatitudes! We’re called to give instead of take—to care not about pleasing ourselves—but rather making God proud.
This morning, my prayer is that we would all say, “God, as I study this sermon of sermons. Teach me. Transform me. Help me to live out these beatitudes. Make Me a humble servant. Make me a merciful individual. Everyday remind me how dependent I am on Your grace. Enable me to be a peacemaker. Help me to love people—even annoying, demanding, sinful people…even the people that hurt me. God, help me to live my faith—even if that brings hardship and persecution. Help me to be a living version of this sermon of sermons. Help me to make You proud as I experience the blessed happiness of Jesus, Who for the joy set before Him endured the cross scorning its shame.”
Now—don’t answer right away—-but if that is your prayer would you raise your hand?