Developing the Right Qualities

 

Week of September 2, 2012

 

Bible Verses:  Matthew 5:1-16.

 

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about the foundational qualities that should characterize Christian disciples’ lives.

 

Follow Jesus’ Teaching:  Matthew 5:1-2.

 

[1]  Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. [2]  And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:  [ESV]

 

[1-2]  Although some modern translations prefer ‘happy’ to ‘blessed’, it is a poor exchange. Those who are blessed will generally be profoundly happy; but blessedness cannot be reduced to happiness because happiness is an emotion often dependent upon outward circumstances. To be blessed means, fundamentally, to be approved, to find approval and its biblical opposite in the Old Testament is ‘to curse’. When man blesses God, he is approving God. Of course, he is not doing this in some condescending manner, but rather he is praising God. When God blesses man, He is approving man; and that is always an act of condescension. Since this is God’s universe there can be no higher blessing than to be approved by God. We must ask ourselves whose blessing we diligently seek. If God’s blessing means more to us than the approval of loved ones no matter how cherished, or of colleagues no matter how influential, then the beatitudes will speak to us very personally and deeply. The central theme of the beatitudes is the kingdom of heaven. The idea of kingdom is primarily dynamic rather than spatial. It is not so much a kingdom with geographical borders as it is a dominion or reign. Although kingdom can refer to the totality of God’s sovereignty, that is not what is in view in the Sermon on the Mount. In the universal sense, God’s kingdom or reign is eternal and all-embracing. No one and nothing can escape from His sovereign rule. But this cannot be the meaning of kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount since not everyone enters into the kingdom of heaven, but only those who are poor in spirit [5:3], obedient [7:21], and surpassingly righteous [5:20]. The kingdom of heaven in this narrower sense is that exercise of God’s sovereignty which deals directly with His saving purposes.

 

Change Your Inner Character:  Matthew 5:3-12.

 

[3]  "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [4]  "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. [5]  "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. [6]  "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. [7]  "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. [8]  "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. [9]  "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. [10]  "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [11]  "Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. [12]  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  [ESV]

 

Poor in spirit. The Old Testament supplies the necessary background against which to interpret the first beatitude. At first to be poor meant to be in literal, material need. But gradually, because the needy had no refuge but God, poverty came to have spiritual overtones and to be identified with humble dependence on God. The poor in the Old Testament is one who is both afflicted and unable to save himself, and who therefore looks to God for salvation, while recognizing that he has no claim upon Him. Thus to be poor in spirit is to acknowledge our spiritual poverty, indeed our spiritual bankruptcy, before God. To such, and only to such, the kingdom of God is given. For God’s rule which brings salvation is a gift as absolutely free as it is utterly underserved. It has to be received with the dependent humility of a little child. Thus, right at the beginning of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contradicted all human judgments and all nationalistic expectations of the kingdom of God. The kingdom is given only to those who knew they were so poor that they could offer nothing and achieve nothing. All they could do was to cry to God for mercy; and He heard their cry. Still today the indispensable condition of receiving the kingdom of God is to acknowledge our spiritual poverty.

Mourn. Those here promised comfort are not primarily those who mourn the loss of a loved one, but those who mourn the loss of their innocence, their righteousness, their self-respect. It is not the sorrow of bereavement to which Christ refers, but the sorrow of repentance. This is the second stage of spiritual blessing. It is one thing to be spiritually poor and acknowledge it; it is another to grieve and to mourn over it. Or, in more theological language, confession is one thing, contrition is another. We need, then, to observe that the Christian life, according to Jesus, is not all joy and laughter. Jesus wept over the sins of others, over their bitter consequences in judgment and death, and over the impenitent city which would not receive Him. We too should weep more over the evil in the world, as did the godly men of biblical times. It is not only the sins of others, however, which should cause us tears; for we have our own sins to weep over as well. There is not enough sorrow for sin among us. We should experience more godly grief of Christian penitence. Such mourners, who bewail their own sinfulness, will be comforted by the only comfort which can relieve their distress, namely the free forgiveness of God.

Meek. The Greek adjective translated meek means gentle, humble, considerate, courteous, and therefore exercising the self-control without which these qualities would be impossible. It seems important to note that in the beatitudes the meek come between those who mourn over sin and those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. The particular form of meekness which Christ requires in His disciples will surely have something to do with this sequence. This meekness denotes a humble and gentle attitude to others which is determined by a true estimate of ourselves. Meekness is essentially a true view of oneself, expressing itself in attitude and conduct with respect to others. This makes him gentle, humble, sensitive, patient in all his dealings with others. These meek people, Jesus added, shall inherit the earth. The godless may boast and throw their weight about, yet real possession eludes their grasp. The meek, on the other hand, although they may be deprived and disenfranchised by men, yet because they know what it is to live and reign with Christ, can enjoy and even possess the earth, which belongs to Christ.

Righteousness. The hungry and thirsty whom God satisfies are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Such spiritual hunger is a characteristic of all God’s people, whose supreme ambition is not material but spiritual. Righteousness in the Bible has at least three aspects: legal, moral and social. Legal righteousness is justification, a right relationship with God. Moral righteousness is that righteousness of character and conduct which pleases God. Social righteousness is concerned with seeking man’s liberation from oppression, together with the promotion of civil rights, justice in the law courts, integrity in business dealings and honor in home and family affairs. There is perhaps no greater secret of progress in Christian living than a healthy, hearty spiritual appetite. It is not enough to mourn over past sin; we must also hunger for future righteousness. Yet in this life our hunger will never be fully satisfied, nor our thirst fully quenched. Like all the qualities included in the beatitudes, hunger and thirst are perpetual characteristics of the disciples of Jesus and will continue throughout their lives on earth.

Merciful.  Mercy is compassion for people in need and is to be distinguished from grace. Mercy always deals with what we see of pain, misery and distress, these results of sin; and grace always deals with the sin and guilt itself. The one extends relief, the other pardon; the one cures, heals, helps, the other cleanses and reinstates. The world (at least when it is true to its own nature) is unmerciful, as indeed also the church in its worldliness has often been. But those who show mercy shall receive mercy. This is not because we can merit mercy by mercy or forgiveness by forgiveness, but because we cannot receive the mercy and forgiveness of God unless we repent, and we cannot claim to have repented of our sins if we are unmerciful towards the sins of others. Nothing moves us to forgive like the wondering knowledge that we have ourselves been forgiven. Nothing proves more clearly that we have been forgiven than our own readiness to forgive. To forgive and to be forgiven, to show mercy and to receive mercy: these belong indissolubly together. It is the meek who are also the merciful. For to be meek is to acknowledge to others that we are sinners; to be merciful is to have compassion on others, for they are sinners too.

Pure in heart.  It is immediately obvious that the words in heart indicate the kind of purity to which Jesus is alluding, as the words in spirit indicated the kind of poverty He meant. The poor in spirit are the spiritually poor as distinct from those whose poverty is only material. From whom, then, are the pure in heart being distinguished? The popular interpretation is to regard purity of heart as an expression for inward purity, for the quality of those who have been cleansed from moral – as opposed to ceremonial – defilement. This emphasis on the inward and moral, whether contrasted with the outward and ceremonial or the outward and physical, is certainly consistent with the whole Sermon on the Mount which requires heart-righteousness rather than mere rule-righteousness. Nevertheless, in the context of the other beatitudes, purity of heart seems to refer in some sense to our relationships and refers to sincerity. In his relations with both God and man the pure in heart person is free from falsehood and is utterly sincere. Their very heart – including their thoughts and motives – is pure, unmixed with anything devious, ulterior or base. Hypocrisy and deceit are abhorrent to them; they are without guile. Only the pure in heart will see God, see Him now with the eye of faith and see His glory in the hereafter, for only the utterly sincere can bear the dazzling vision in whose light the darkness of deceit must vanish and by whose fire all shams are burned up.

Peacemakers.  The sequence of thought from purity of heart to peacemaking is natural, because one of the most frequent causes of conflict is intrigue, while openness and sincerity are essential to all true reconciliation. Every Christian, according to this beatitude, is meant to be a peacemaker both in the community and in the church. We should never ourselves seek conflict or be responsible for it. On the contrary, we are called to peace, we are actively to pursue peace, we are to strive for peace with all men, and so far as it depends on us, we are to live peaceably with all. Now peacemaking is a divine work. For peace means reconciliation, and God is the author of peace and of reconciliation. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the particular blessing which attaches to peacemakers is that they shall be called sons of God. For they are seeking to do what their Father has done, loving people with His love. But we need to remember that the words ‘peace’ and ‘appeasement’ are not synonyms. For the peace of God is not peace at any price. He made peace with us at immense cost, even at the price of the life-blood of His only Son. We too will find peacemaking a costly enterprise. When we are ourselves involved in a quarrel, 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. Sometimes there is the nagging pain of having to refuse to forgive the guilty party until he repents. Of course a cheap peace can be bought by cheap forgiveness. But true peace and true forgiveness are costly treasures. God forgives us only when we repent. Jesus told us to do the same. How can we forgive an injury when it is neither admitted nor regretted?

Persecuted.  It may seem strange that Jesus should pass from peacemaking to persecution, from the work of reconciliation to the experience of hostility. Yet however hard we may try to make peace with some people, they refuse to live at peace with us. Persecution is simply the clash between two irreconcilable value-systems. How did Jesus expect His disciples to react under persecution? Rejoice and be glad [12]. We are not to retaliate like an unbeliever, nor to sulk like a child, nor to lick our wounds in self-pity like a dog, nor just to grin and bear it like a Stoic, still less to pretend we enjoy it like a masochist. What then? We are to rejoice as a Christian should rejoice. Why so? Partly because, Jesus added, your reward is great in heaven. We may lose everything on earth, but we shall inherit everything in heaven – not as a reward for merit, however, because the promise of the reward is free. Partly because persecution is a token of genuineness, a certificate of Christian authenticity, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. But the major reason why we should rejoice is because we are suffering, He said, on my account, on account of our loyalty to Him and to His standards of truth and righteousness. Since all the beatitudes describe what every Christian disciple is intended to be, we conclude that the condition of being despised and rejected, slandered and persecuted, is as much a normal mark of Christian discipleship as being pure in heart or merciful. Every Christian is to be a peacemaker, and every Christian is to expect opposition. Those who hunger for righteousness will suffer for the righteousness they crave. Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his master. Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer. In fact, it is a joy and a token of His grace.

 

Expand Your Outward Influence:  Matthew 5:13-16.

 

[13]  "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. [14]  "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. [15]  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. [16]  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.  [ESV]

 

[13-16]  God intends the most powerful of all restraints within sinful society to be His own redeemed, regenerate and righteous people. Believers are to be a moral disinfectant in a world where moral standards are low, constantly changing, or non-existent. The effectiveness of salt, however, is conditional: it must retain its saltness. Now, strictly speaking, salt can never lose its saltness. Nevertheless, it can become contaminated by mixture with impurities, and then it becomes useless, even dangerous. So too a Christian. Christian saltiness is Christian character as depicted in the beatitudes, committed Christian discipleship exemplified in both deed and word. For effectiveness the Christian must retain his Christlikeness, as salt must retain its saltness. The influence of Christians in and on society depends on their being distinct, not identical. The glory of the gospel is that when the church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first. Otherwise, if we Christians are indistinguishable from non-Christians, we are useless. We might as well be discarded like saltless salt, thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. Jesus introduces His second metaphor with a similar affirmation: you are the light of the world. What this light is Jesus clarifies as our good works. It seems that good works is a general expression to cover everything a Christian says and does because he is a Christian, every outward and visible manifestation of his Christian faith. Since light is a common biblical symbol of truth, a Christian’s shining light must surely include his spoken testimony. Evangelism must be counted as one of the good works by which our light shines and our Father is glorified. Good works are works of love as well as of faith. They express not only our loyalty to God, but our care for our fellowman as well. Indeed, the primary meaning of works must be practical, visible deeds of compassion. It is when people see these, Jesus said, that they will glorify God, for they embody the good news of His love which we proclaim. Without them our gospel loses its credibility and our God His honor. As with the salt, so with the light, the affirmation is followed by a condition. If salt can lose its saltness, the light in us can become darkness. But we are to allow the light of Christ within us to shine out from us, so that people may see it. We are to be like a city set on a hill or a lamp put on a stand. That is, as the disciples of Jesus, we are not to conceal the truth we know or the truth of what we are. We are to openly live the life described in the beatitudes, and not be ashamed of Christ. Then people will see us and our good works, and seeing us will glorify God. For they will inevitably recognize that it is by the grace of God we are what we are, that our light is His light, and that our works are His works done in us and through us. So it is the light they will praise, not the lamp which bears it; it is our Father in heaven whom they will glorify, not the children He has begotten and who exhibit a certain family likeness. The salt and light metaphors which Jesus used have much to teach us about our Christian responsibilities in the world. Three lessons are prominent. First, there is a fundamental difference between Christians and non-Christians, between the church and the world. The Sermon is built on the assumption that Christians are different, and it issues a call to us to be different. Probably the greatest tragedy of the church throughout its long and checkered history has been its constant tendency to conform to the prevailing culture instead of developing a Christian counter-culture. Second, we must accept the responsibility which this distinction puts upon us. It is when in each metaphor we bring the affirmation and the condition together that our responsibility stands out. Third, we must see our Christian responsibility as twofold. Salt and light have one thing in common: they give and expend themselves – and thus are the opposite of any and every kind of self-centered religiosity. Nevertheless, the kind of service each renders is different. In fact, their effects are complementary. The function of salt is largely negative: it prevents decay. The function of light is positive: it illumines the darkness. So Jesus calls His disciples to exert a double influence on the secular community, a negative influence by arresting its decay and a positive influence by bringing light into its darkness. For it is one thing to stop the spread of evil; it is another to promote the spread of truth, beauty and goodness.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         What is the meaning of blessed and kingdom of heaven in the Beatitudes?

 

2.         For the eight beatitudes in 5:3-12, make two parallel lists. In one list write down the eight character traits (poor in spirit, mourn, meek, etc.) and in the other list write down the eight blessings or promises (kingdom of heaven, comfort, inherit the earth, etc.). Now focus on the meaning of the terms in each list. Then, next, focus on the relationship between the character trait and the promised blessing. For example, what is the relationship between poor in spirit and kingdom of heaven? Why does Jesus connect these two terms?

 

3.         What does it mean for you to be salt of the earth and light of the world? What three lessons can we learn from these metaphors about our Christian responsibilities in the world?

 

References:

The Gospel according to Matthew, Leon Morris, Pillar, Eerdmans.

Christian Counter-Culture, John Stott, Inter Varsity Press.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, D.A. Carson, Global Christian Publishers.