|The Sea of Galilee and the Mt. of Beatitudes (the small hill at center
right, just to the right of the area with the tall green trees by the water).
I think you would agree with me that the world is a mess right now. I ran across the statistic this week that there are conflicts going on in all the countries of the world except eleven! That’s terrible. And some of these are truly horrific, like what is happening in Iraq and Syria with ISIS (or IS). How does Jesus want us to respond to times like these?
Some translate this, ‘I have overcome the world.’ But this word ‘overcome’ can imply that you have just barely made it through a problem. ‘I overcame my addiction to sleeping pills,’ or something like that. ‘I overcame my reliance on credit card debt.’ I fought it out, and I just barely made it over my problem. And I’m really hoping I don’t have that problem again. But this is not the meaning of what Jesus said in this verse. The word used here in Greek is the verb form of the Greek word nike, just like the popular running shoe, Nike. And what does this mean? Victory! It’s the picture of a conqueror having total victory over his enemy. When Jesus says, “I have conquered the world,” he means that he has had absolute victory over the world. In spite of all the things he suffered, he won! And if he won, if he had the victory, we can, too. As Paul put it, “in all these things we are completely victorious” or “we totally conquer” (Rom. 8:37).
That’s why Jesus says to us, “Be courageous.” The Christian life is not easy. It takes courage to be a Christian. But why are we able to be courageous? Because Jesus had the victory! He has conquered the world! And that means that we, too, can win, in spite of all the difficult things we go through. We, too, can have a total victory over the world!
As Paul said in his letter to the Romans: “Do not be conquered by what is evil (or the evil one), rather conquer (nika) what is evil with what is good” (Rom. 12:21). In this section, he’s talking about doing good to our enemies. “But rather if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by doing this you heap up coals of fire on his head” (Rom. 12:20). You have victory over your enemy by doing good to him, even when he is doing evil to you. Why? Because your good actions expose his actions as evil. And this will result in his eternal condemnation if he does not repent. When we show mercy or kindness to our enemies, we are having victory over their evil. We are conquering their evil with our good. I’m not saying this is easy to do. But this is what we’re called to do. It’s what Jesus wants to help us do.
For us to develop this attitude toward the world and the things of the world, we’ve got to get some things straightened out in our minds that many people, including many Christians, are confused about. For example, which of these do most people—even most Christians—think is better? Being strong in spirit or weak in spirit? I think we would all like X-men super powers, wouldn’t we? Everyone wants to be strong, right? Maybe you’ve even heard atheists attack Christians recently by saying, ‘I don’t need an imaginary playmate.’ What are they saying? They’re saying that they’re so spiritually strong, they don’t need God. Wow. That’s what many people really think. They don’t want to admit any weakness. And as a result, they have no place in their lives for God.
Or how do we deal with difficulties and even tragedies in our lives? Do we allow ourselves to mourn, to weep, to express our sorrow; or do we try to stop ourselves from being touched by sorrow or grief? Do we build a hard shell around ourselves against the world?
Which do we value more, being tough or being gentle? It seems everybody wants to be tough these days. Everybody wants to be a martial arts champion. Everybody wants others to get out of their way, beeping their horn at the intersection: me first, me first.
Do we go with the flow—after all, ‘everybody else is doing it’; or do we want what’s right and fair instead?
Do we show no mercy, or are we merciful? What do we learn from war movies, fighting movies, horror movies, video games? “Show no mercy.”
Do we think that having a pure heart is important? Or do we laugh at the idea, thinking that “no one is perfect”? It seems that many can’t even imagine that someone could have a pure heart.
Do we value being a fighter, not backing down, not giving in in a conflict; or making peace?
What about this: Do we value not making waves, not making “trouble”; or do we stand up for what’s right, even if there are consequences: serious consequences like losing your job, or even losing something more valuable than that? Which is more valuable to us? I’m not talking here about being violent, but about being a witness of the truth, about speaking up, and calling for what’s right to be done.
Do we value more enduring insults, or getting revenge? What’s in a typical martial arts movie? The main character prepares his whole life to get revenge. Right?
But how does God look at these things? Which of them does he say will give us victory over the world? Jesus answered all these questions in a beautiful teaching on a hill right by the Sea of Galilee. Today we call it the Mt. of Beatitudes. It’s a small hill with a small cave half way up the side and a rock at the top. The people sat above Jesus on the slope of the hill, with a beautiful view down to where he sat and the Sea of Galilee behind him.
But don’t be fooled by the peaceful view. On one side in the mountains were zealots living in caves getting ready for a war against Rome. On the other side was a Roman garrison, with soldiers marching around, sometimes going past on the road right below where they were sitting. Beyond that was a zealot city, the home base for those who were getting ready for war. There was political tension and occasional fighting. Not to mention that Jesus himself was soon to be killed. So how did he teach us to have victory in difficult times like these?
Matt. 5:3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for of them is the kingdom of the heavens.” That was an unexpected teaching. In the culture of the time, those who were spiritually weak were despised (John 7:49). For them, just like for us, everyone wanted to be strong in spirit. But Jesus says that the way to God is just the opposite.
For some reason, this verse is often translated, “for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens,” implying that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor in spirit. But actually what it says is “of them is the kingdom,” that is, that the kingdom of God is made up of people like these. The people in the kingdom are people who are poor in spirit.
Wow, you mean I don’t have to be a spiritual superstar to get into the kingdom of heaven? I don’t have to be a strong and independent person to be right with God? Absolutely not. This is a kingdom of people who know their weakness, who know their frailty, and who know they absolutely need a loving God. They know they’re not going to make it without him. As Paul put it, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). How can that be? Because when I admit my weakness, I get out of the way and let God be God. And then God can move in our lives. As Jesus said when he faced his difficulties, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). The more we understand how weak we really are, the more room there is for God in our lives. The poor, the weak, the humble in spirit: these are the kind of people you will find in the kingdom of God. But those who refuse to admit any weakness or any need for God won’t be there. And how could they? Because by rejecting God’s help in their lives, they are also rejecting God himself.
As God said, speaking through Isaiah, “I dwell...with the contrite and humble of spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the crushed” (Isaiah 57:15). You want to know where God is? Look among the lowly people of the world, not the proud and arrogant. Look at those who know they need God. These are the truly wise. And God is with them, especially when difficult things happen to them. Because the word translated “revive” here also means to “keep alive”: he doesn’t just restore them after difficult things have happened, but he is also right there with them through those difficult things, keeping their spirits alive.
Matt. 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Sure, we like to seem strong, to make it look like we’re not affected by any emotion. But there is no spiritual benefit in that. We may think it looks good. But when we’re feeling hurt and broken inside, we need to let our emotions express themselves. And when we allow ourselves to grieve, God will comfort us. Without mourning, how will we receive God’s comfort for our sorrows? How will we receive more of God in our lives? Trying to keep a stiff upper lip and control our emotions just keeps us from receiving God’s tremendous comfort in the difficult things we go through.
Matt. 5:5: “Blessed are the gentle, for they will inherit the earth.” Don’t we often think that it’s the warlike that will inherit the earth? It certainly looks like that sometimes. But in the long run, the violent and vicious die young, and lose everything. As Jesus said, “All those who take up the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). The violent will experience violence. But in the end, those who are gentle will inherit the earth. Why? Because these are the kind of people in God’s kingdom. And the people in his kingdom will rule and reign with him—maybe not now at the present time, but very soon, when he comes.
Matt. 5:6: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” What does it mean to hunger and thirst for righteousness? It means that you’re not satisfied with anything less than what’s right. And of course, if you’re hungry and thirsty for something, you’re going to seek it out. You’re going to try to find it. You’re going to look everywhere for it. Because you’re hungry for that and nothing else. If you hunger for righteousness, you will get closer and closer to righteousness. And Jesus said you will one day be satisfied.
Matt. 5:7: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” As Jesus said, the way you measure it out is the way it will be measured to you (Matt. 7:2). This is true of many things, and mercy is one of them. If you extend mercy, you will receive mercy. Why? Because this is the kind of person in God’s kingdom. And God extends mercy to his people.
Matt. 5:8: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” I remember when I was young, I purposely tried to tarnish my heart. I didn’t want people to think I was a goody-goody type of guy. I wanted to be bad like other people. I sought it out. And of course it took me further and further from God and from good. Today, purity is something people laugh at and spit on. They seek corruption and glory in corruption and in corrupting other people. But these are not the kind of people who will see God. Who will see God? The pure, the clean, the innocent.
But what if our hearts have been corrupted and made unclean? Is there any hope for us? If we turn to God, God will give us a new heart—a completely pure heart. He can turn us completely around from seeking evil to seeking good and purity.
Matt. 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” The Muslims have gotten pretty messed up on this one. They think they are serving God by making war on people and killing people. Of course, they weren’t the first ones to come up with this idea. Christian armies were doing similar things long before there were any Muslims—and also since then. But these are not the kind of people that Jesus says will be called sons of God. The real sons of God are the ones who seek peace and who make peace. This is the heart of God . Not war.
What about defending yourself? Is this permitted by God? Of course we should resist evil (1 Pet. 5:9). But there are good and bad ways of doing this. We must resist without becoming evil ourselves, without imitating evil. Force is not itself evil. When the teacher breaks up a fight between two students, the teacher is restoring peace by using force or the threat of force. Force or power is not necessarily opposed to peace. It just depends on how you use that force or power and the details of the situation. The goal of your actions should be to restore peace, not to destroy your enemies.
Matt. 5:10: “Blessed are those persecuted because of righteousness, for of them is the kingdom of the heavens.” These are the kind of people in the kingdom: those who have been persecuted because of doing what’s right and seeking what’s right. And their reward is great. “Blessed are you when they reproach you and persecute you and say every evil thing against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in the heavens is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11,12).
What is Jesus saying? Instead of responding in kind, instead of seeking revenge, instead of getting angry and upset when we are persecuted, what should we do? Rejoice! You really have to hold life lightly to have this point of view. Just think of all those Christians being persecuted right now in Iraq, their children being killed. What does Jesus say? Blessed are you! Your reward is great. How can he say that to them, when they are suffering so much? Because he has victory over death. And so do all those that love him. Those Christian kids that were killed in Iraq have total victory over death. Yes, evil people can come and take our lives away. But that does not remove our victory. Our victory is complete in Jesus. They can kill us, but they can’t take away our lives or our reward. As Jesus put it, “Everyone who lives and believes in me will certainly not die for eternity” (John 11:26). They can kill us, but we will still be alive. We will still have victory.
Does that mean we want evil to happen to us? Of course not. We want a peaceful, wonderful life on a peaceful, wonderful earth. We also want to help other people have good lives. But there’s evil in this world, real evil. So how should we respond? Our response to evil should not be fear and terror. If we respond that way, we are giving the enemy the victory. Instead, we must remember that we are the true victors, no matter what they do to us. We must not give in to fear, but trust in God.
As Jesus put it, we should rejoice and be glad—yes even in the face of persecution. Why? Because this world will not continue this way much longer. And the day for rewards is coming. And those rewards are eternal rewards. This is how Jesus himself was able to live a fearless life. He valued eternity more that the terrible things that happened to him. They did their worst to him, but he remained victorious, from beginning to end.
Matt. 5:13: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt becomes tasteless, what will it be salted with? It is good for nothing anymore except to be thrown out and trampled on by people.” Who is the salt of the earth? You, the people he’s been talking about, the people that are in the kingdom of God.
What does he mean by salt of the earth? What does salt do? It’s a taste enhancer, as well as a preservative. We help preserve the world through our lives and our testimony. When we Christians are removed from the earth, which will happen one day, there will be nothing to preserve the earth anymore, and its destruction will follow.
But what happens if Christians lose their distinct flavor? What happens when we lose our testimony to the world and become like everyone else, when Christian denominations stop standing up against sin? Then their testimony is of no value anymore. As Jesus himself said, they have become worthless.
Matt. 5:14: “You are the light of the world; it’s impossible to hide a city set on a mountain.” Who is the light of the world? The people he’s been talking about, the kind of people in the kingdom of God. We can compare this to the rabbis’ saying: “the Temple is the light of the world.” That may have been the case at one time, but now, we are the light of the world. We are a city on a hill, where it’s obvious for all to see. People are looking at that city to see what we will do.
Matt. 5:15: “nor do they light a lamp and place it under a bucket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.” You don’t hide a light. That’s not its purpose. In the same way, we are not meant to be hidden as believers, but to spread God’s light everywhere.
Matt. 5:16: “In the same way, let your light shine before people, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in the heavens.” When people see us do what’s right, it touches them; it shows them that there is a God in heaven.
Then Jesus said, “Do not suppose that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets” (Matt. 5:17a). Jesus wanted to make it very clear that what he was teaching was not in opposition to the Law and Prophets, which is the Jewish way to say the Old Testament. “I did not come to abolish, but to fill them” (Matt. 5:17b). Instead he came to fill or to fulfill the Old Testament, to reveal its true meaning, and to fulfill its prophecies.
Matt. 5:18: “For amen I say to you all , until the heaven and earth pass away, a single letter or a single stroke will certainly not pass away from the Law until all comes to pass.” Where do all the prophecies about the future come from? From the Old Testament. The New Testament just repeats them and clarifies them. Every word of God will be fulfilled.
Matt. 5:19a: “Whoever, therefore, looses one of the least of these commandments and teaches the people in this manner, will be called least in the kingdom of the heavens.” Unfortunately, the Church did exactly this for hundreds of years. Jewish Christians were told that they were not to obey the Law of Moses, exactly the opposite of what Jesus says here. “But he who obeys and teaches it [even the least commandment], this one will be called great in the kingdom of the heavens” (Matt. 5:19b). Here you can see the importance of our Jewish roots to Jesus.
Matt. 5:20: “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness is abundantly greater than the scribes and Pharisees, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Look how strongly worded this is. We have to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees! We talked about this a little before with regard to giving. But it applies to everything. The New Testament, the New Covenant comes to bring us closer to God than ever before. The Old Testament points in the right direction, it brings people part of the way, but now we actually fulfill everything the Old Testament was pointing to because of God’s work in our lives through Jesus. How does this work? Jesus explains it this way:
Matt. 5:21: “You have heard that it was said to the people of ancient times, ‘You will not murder’; he who murders is subject to the court.” Where was this from? It was not only in the Law of Moses. It was also in the Laws of Noah, which makes it a really ancient commandment. In an earlier teaching, I mentioned that two of the Laws of Noah were the prohibition of murder and the requirement to establish courts of justice to deal with murder and other crimes (Gen. 9:6). That’s what Jesus is talking about here.
In Jesus’ day, the courts to deal with murder had to have twenty-three people in them. That’s how many you needed in a court dealing with a crime for which the penalty was death. If it was a lesser offense, you only needed three judges. But for a death penalty case, there had to be twenty-three people in the court.
Matt. 5:22a: “But I say to you that everyone who becomes angry with his brother is subject to the court.” Jesus says it’s not only when you murder that you deserve a more serious court case, but even when you become angry. Now this is really remarkable when you get to know the Middle Eastern personality. Maybe it’s because it’s so hot and uncomfortable in the desert, but people in the Middle East tend to have pretty explosive personalities. If they have a fender bender, a little car accident, the two people will jump out of their cars, shouting at each other. And of course, politics is often the same way. They will get very angry very quickly. This is what leads to a lot of the fighting in the Middle East. They get angry and then they start shooting. But Jesus says that it’s not only murder that’s a serious offense; getting angry is just as serious an offense.
And not only that: “the one who says to his brother, ‘You airhead,’ is subject to the Sanhedrin” (Matt. 5:22b). The Sanhedrin was the highest court in the country. This is where only the most important trials would be held, trials of national importance. This is the same court before which Jesus appeared. According to Jesus, calling your brother a name like this is that serious. To us, it doesn’t even seem like such a bad name. But Jesus compares it to a national emergency. Why? Jesus considers human dignity to be very, very important. When you call your brother a name, you put him down, you degrade him.
But not only that: “the one who says, ‘You fool,’ is subject to the Gehenna of fire” (Matt. 5:22c). If you call your brother a fool (or moron, or idiot), this deserves the judgment of the last day, the punishment for which is eternal fire. This is something with eternal consequences. Jesus is radically revaluing our understanding of how we think and talk about one another. And I’ve got to say as I get older, I really see that unkind words can have permanent damage: permanent damage to people and permanent damage to relationships. Even things we don’t think of as so bad can still do damage. Jesus is teaching us to be very, very careful and kind in our relationships with people, and especially in our difficult relationships, the people that are not easy to get along with. We’re still supposed to treat them with dignity.
Matt. 5:23: “If therefore you are bringing your gift (your offering) to the altar and there you remember that your brother has something against you...” Notice the first two words: “If therefore.” Jesus is connecting this with the previous teaching about not getting angry and not calling names. Here he’s talking about bringing an offering to the Temple in Jerusalem. Most people brought their offerings on crowded festival days, when you had to wait in long lines to get your turn to present your offering or your sacrifice. So maybe you’ve been standing there for an hour or two, waiting in line, and suddenly you realize that your brother has something against you. What should you do? Now notice very carefully it doesn’t say that you remember you have something against your brother. No. It says that you remember that your brother has something against you.
Matt. 5:24: “leave your gift (your offering) there before the altar, and first go make peace with your brother, and then come bring your gift.” Now this is a really wonderful instruction. What does it mean? It means that peace with your brother is more important to God than your sacrifice: relationships are more important than religious duties or religious rituals. And that’s a beautiful message right there. As John put it, how can you love God whom you cannot see if you don’t love the brother you can see (1 John 4:20).
But that’s only a part of the message here. For a long time, I could never quite get the connection between what Jesus said earlier about being angry and calling names with this section, even though Jesus clearly connects the two. So what’s the connection? Have you ever had the experience in reading the words of Jesus, how does this connect with that? The disciples ask him a question, but his answer doesn’t seem to connect at all. His thinking is on such a different plane than ours that sometimes we miss it altogether. And I missed this one for years.
So let’s go back and review. In verse 22, he taught us that getting angry and calling names are much more serious than we ever realized. “If therefore...” he says, your brother has something against you (vs. 23), you should go to him and make peace (vs. 24). But wait a minute, why are you going to your brother? He’s the one that has something against you, not you against him. So that means you’re not the one who might get angry—he is. So you’re not in danger of the court or the Sanhedrin or Gehenna as Jesus warned us. You’re fine. But your brother is not. And that’s the whole point. He may get angry at you or call you a name, and because of that be in danger of all these things. So why do you go to him? You go to him because you want to keep him from sinning because of you. Even though he is the one who’s upset, you care enough about your brother that you go to him to make it right to keep him from sinning. Do you get it? By doing this, you will save your brother from committing a great evil. Wow! Suddenly we see how compassionate this teaching is. You’re willing to face whatever the trouble was between the two of you to keep your brother from sinning, and to keep you from being the cause of his sin. It’s a very beautiful teaching. But it’s not the only one like this in this chapter.
Matt. 5:27: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You will not commit adultery.’” Where did they hear this? Not only in the Law of Moses, but also in the Laws of Noah (Gen. 2:24).
Matt. 5:28: “But I say to you, that everyone that looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” It’s not just the physical act of adultery that deserves punishment, but even entertaining an adulterous thought in your mind. Wow! And adultery was considered one of the three most serious sins in the Bible, with the penalty of death. That means that looking with desire is just as bad as this very serious sin. Again, Jesus is showing us that not only our actions, but even our thoughts can have very serious consequences. Okay, so let’s see if we can make the connection with the next verse:
Matt. 5:29: “But if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away from you: for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body be destroyed than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna.” What’s the connection? If you were using your right eye to look with adulterous desire, it’s better for you to get rid of your eye than to commit this very serious sin. And what about the next verse:
Matt. 5:30: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body be destroyed than for your whole body to go into Gehenna.” What’s the connection? I’ll just let you think about that one yourself. But let’s just say that as in the last verse, it’s referring to a part of our body being used to fulfill adulterous desire. These are things that we must not allow to continue, because the penalty is eternal fire. This was not a unique teaching to Jesus. The rabbis also came down hard on such things. But the point of these teachings is not to get you to start chopping off parts of your body, but to get us to realize how important these issues are to God so we can we can stop them and avoid chopping things off.
Matt. 5:31: “But it was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” Jesus is answering an objection here to his teaching about adulterous looking. What is the objection? The common teaching of the time was that a man could divorce his wife for any reason at all, even if he found a prettier woman. So if he sees a beautiful woman and desires her, it’s okay because he can just divorce his wife and marry the other woman. So how does Jesus answer this objection?
Matt. 5:32: “But I say to you that anyone divorcing his wife, aside from a matter of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Jesus permitted divorce if the wife had committed sexual immorality. But aside from this one exception, if you divorce your wife for any other reason, you make her commit adultery. But why is this? How does the husband make her commit adultery? What she does after the divorce is her own decision, not his, right? But it’s difficult for a woman that is married to stay unmarried. And back in those days, it was also financially difficult. So of course, she will want to marry again. But since the divorce is not valid in God’s eyes, for her to remarry would be to commit adultery. And in the same way, anyone who marries her is also committing adultery. So Jesus says that if you do this, you’re causing these great sins to take place. But there is no punishment mentioned in the Bible for this. Only the people actually committing adultery are guilty. But just like with the man whose brother is upset with him, this person is still responsible.
So what is Jesus implying here? That even though there may be some problem between you and your wife that is causing you to think about divorce, because of your concern for your wife as a human being, and your concern for her soul, you will not divorce her because you want to prevent your wife from committing this very serious sin, and to prevent someone else from committing this serious sin with her. Wow! Do you see how compassionate this teaching is? We must be willing to face whatever the trouble is between ourselves and our spouses because of our great concern to keep one another from sinning. It’s actually a very beautiful teaching. We’ve got to get the focus off of ourselves and onto others. How much do we really care about our brother or our sister? If we are a follower of Jesus, we are concerned not just about ourselves, but also about them. What can we do to help them keep from sinning? How can we live so as not to become a stumbling block in the life of our brother or sister? Amen?
There’s much more to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but that’s where we’ll stop for today.
Let’s pray: Father God, we come before you as imperfect people. You call us to live in victory over the world. But we still have areas in our lives where we struggle and fight with the flesh: either with ourselves or others. Father, I pray that you would fill us with compassion for our fellow human beings more than we are concerned about having our own way. Help us to admit our brokenness before you, our imperfection. Because when we admit our poverty of spirit, that’s when you can come in and begin to change us. Lord, make us kind, make us gentle, make us the opposite of this world and the things of this world. Help our salt to stay salty and flavorful. And restore purity to our hearts. And we ask all this in Jesus name.