Matthew 5 begins what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, and is certainly the best sermon of all time (it is, after all, quite literally the Word from God). Volumes have been written about chapter 5 alone, so this blog certainly cannot do an adequate job of commentary, but neither should it skip quickly through it. One can study it over and over and learn something new about being a part of His kingdom each time, and apply it to virtually any question about sin. Matthew 4:23-25 tells us to some extent how much the Lord’s fame had spread as he taught, proclaimed the gospel, and healed the afflicted – and we can get some idea of the “great crowds” that had begun following Him. Many of them were hoping for a much different king, and an entirely different type of kingdom, than that which Jesus was proclaiming; but He well described that kingdom to Pilate in John 18:36.
Verses 3-12 contain what we refer to as the Beatitudes. The translation of the word “blessed” in these verses is confusing to some, as it varies from “happy” to “fortunate.” “Fortunate” is closer to the real meaning here (someone who is “mourning,” for example, could hardly be described as “happy”), and it relates more to a state of being in a relationship with God that results from His approval. None of the qualities in these statements refer to a condition that people are born with, inherit, or come by naturally. Nor are they intended as prescriptions for behavior, some of which the unconverted world at large can simply adopt for the good of mankind.
These are traits of character and attitude that reflect the qualities that Christians must have. But they are not, as some have suggested, lofty goals – all of which no one person could possibly achieve. In each one, Jesus says “Blessed are.. ,” indicating that there are people who have these qualities, and that we can ourselves be the people that he describes – that we as Christians, in fact, must be those people. Yet, we must understand that while having these qualities is what defines us as His people, our place in His kingdom is not something we earn by doing so. It is, in fact, our full understanding of that fact which enables us to have those qualities in the first place. It is the understanding that it is only by His grace – totally undeserved on our part – that we have salvation (Ephesians 2:8). But it is also our commitment to putting the needs, and even the importance of other people above that of our own that must shape our lives. All of these beatitudes illustrate these two facts, and point clearly to what Jesus Himself said are the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:35-40).
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”
The “poor in spirit” refers to a condition of the heart much like the tax collector in the parable Jesus tells in Luke 18:11-14. The latter part of verse 14 says it well – “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” It is likewise the same realization that Job came to when he at last got his audience with God in Job 42:1-6 – that our we are nothing compared to our Creator.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”
This refers to same sort of godly grief that comes from the remorse for our disobedience to God personally, as in 2 Corinthians 7:9-11, as well as mourning for the sins of others, as in Psalm 119:136.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”
Unfortunately, most people translate meekness into weakness, but that is not what is meant here. This meekness comes from the conscious decision to control even one’s own strength because of a redirected purpose – that of serving God, and of being genuinely concerned for the salvation of others, instead of serving ourselves. It is the antithesis of being overly concerned (and sometimes even obsessed) about personal advancement or correcting a perceived injustice to ourselves – to the detriment of others. They will “inherit the earth” because they put their trust in God, rather than themselves, even if that means being gentle at times when they could use force instead (Psalm 37:11-13).
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied”
Few that will read this have ever known the sort of immense hunger that comes from being deprived of food for a very long time, but it is this sort of very deep hunger and thirst that is referred to here. When one becomes a Christian, he commits himself to being a new creature, putting his old pursuit of life behind him (2 Corinthians 5:17), and then thirsts for knowledge and righteousness that comes from the right relationship with God (Romans 12:2). It is the kind of thirst spoken of in Psalm 42:1-2.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy”
The mercy referred to here is the sort of mercy Jesus taught in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35), as well as the mercy that equates to compassion, as in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God”
This does not refer to those who settle disputes or conflicts with others, though that sort of peace certainly may be a bi-product of it. But the word used for peace, shalom, had a much more meaningful usage. Here it relates not just to striving to be without conflict, but a deep and compassionate desire to instill well-being in one’s self, and especially in others, by having a right relationship with God (Colossians 3:12-15) that encourages others to do the same. We have peace with God through Jesus (Romans 5:1), and it is in Him through which we are all sons of God (Galatians 3:26).
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”
Those who serve the Lord have been hated by others for all time. Genesis 3:15 tells us that it will be that way as the Lord put enmity (a condition of hostility and animosity) between the devil’s offspring and us. That enmity was there throughout the Old Testament just as with Cain and Abel. It was there at the time of Jesus, as Herod and others later even sought to kill the Son of God; and that hostility non-believers have for God and His people is still in evidence today. Jesus named them for who they serve in John 8:44; and Paul explains in Romans 8:7 that those who are hostile to God cannot submit to His law. This is at the root of their animosity toward God’s people.
Verses 13-16 are referred to as the Similitudes, comparing Christians to salt and light. The salt they were familiar with would not have come from the round box with a metal spout, but probably from the Dead Sea, containing much impurity that over time would have the salt leached out. Jesus says that Christians are the salt of the earth. One way that we can lose our effectiveness (the savor) as such is by allowing our worship, and even the preaching of the Gospel itself, to become watered down by compromising in it so that we may please men, rather than remaining true to God’s commands. We remain the light of the world by staying true to His commands and letting the world see the results of the beatitudes in our lives. Verse 20 would be a fairly shocking statement, as the Pharisees certainly would have considered themselves to be the most righteous of all.
Verses 21-30 tell us that although murder and adultery both are certainly wrong, sin is a problem of the heart (going back to the 6th beatitude) as well. When we allow anger and lust to take it over, we have sinned. In verses 29-30, tearing an eye out or cutting a hand off are not literal suggestions (one could still lust with one eye, after all). The verses illustrate how important it is to remove ourselves completely from anything that makes us prone to fall away from the Lord.
Verses 31-32 make it clear that God takes the marriage relationship very seriously; and as Matthew 19:3-9 states, God intended from the beginning for that relationship to be between one man and one woman forever. Unfortunately, many people have considered the entire lesson of verses 33-37 to be that one should not take an oath, even in a judicial circumstance. While a Christian should consider that carefully in his heart, that does not seem to be the point that Jesus was making. Look further – in Matthew 23:16-22 – and consider that the Pharisees distinguished one oath from another, in order to excuse being deceptive – as if a lie would actually not be a lie if that by which you swear was not counted as binding. If people have to constantly wonder whether or not something one says may be true, one is hardly demonstrating that he hungers and thirsts after righteousness.
One should not take verses 38-42 to mean that there is never an appropriate time to take action or defend against evil. Once again, a proper reading of the rest of the New Testament will demonstrate that such is not the case. But the Pharisees had corrupted the Old Testament law to extend the right of personal revenge to new heights. Instead, Jesus teaches (and Paul states it well in Romans 12:17-21) that we should not resist evil with evil, but we rather overcome evil with good.
This magnificent chapter concludes in verses 43-48 with the command that we should love even our enemies, and even pray for those who persecute us. Apart from the fact that it is the right thing to do, and that it is commanded by God, this just makes good sense when we think about it. If we truly pray for the salvation of those who do wrong to us, we are praying for their hearts and lives to become blessed as in the beatitudes of this chapter. If that prayer is granted, how could that person continue to do us evil!
some images © V. Gilbert & Arlisle F. Beers
Please note: I did not design the reading plan that I am following in my blog. All of my comments in this blog, however, are solely my responsibility. When reading ANY commentary, you should ALWAYS refer first to the scripture, which is God’s unchanging and unfailing word. Reading schedules, as well as a link to the site where you can get the reading plan that I’m currently following for yourself can be found on the “Bible Reading Schedules” page of my website at http://graceofourlord.com. For questions and help, please see the “FAQ” and “Summaries” pages there.