Matthew, in his monumental gospel, introduces Jesus as the descendant of Abraham and David, narrating His miraculous virgin conception and birth and recounting His flight to Egypt and return to Nazareth. At the inception of Jesus’ public ministry, John the Baptist cries out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). Later, when hearing of John’s arrest, Jesus begins to proclaim an identical message (Matt. 4:17). Yet while John is only the forerunner, Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus then gathers a large following and travels far and wide, “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matt. 4:23).
After this preamble, Matthew opens the first of five major teaching sections of Jesus in his gospel. The number five is reminiscent of the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. Similarly, the reference to Jesus’ ascending a mountain brings to mind Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai when receiving the law. This Mosaic connection is later reinforced by Jesus’ repeated pronouncements, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you” (Matt. 5:21–22, 27–28, 31–32, 33–34, 38–39, 43–44). Matthew’s message is clear: Jesus is a new and greater Moses who authoritatively teaches and applies the law of God (see Matt. 7:28–29).
In this inaugural address in Matthew’s gospel, at the inception of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches His followers about the character of kingdom citizens. As a master teacher, He presents these characteristics in the form of eight memorable Beatitudes, each pronouncing a blessing on those who possess a given character trait, with the addition of two metaphorical attributes, salt and light. Thus, Jesus echoes the Ten Words or Commandments in the law of Moses by positing ten characteristics of those who will inherit and inhabit the eternal kingdom of God. Notably, while “seeing the crowds,” Jesus directed His words to His disciples (Matt. 5:1–2).
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:3)
Jesus starts to paint His portrait of the kingdom citizen with a perhaps surprising attribute: poverty of spirit. “Blessed”—that is, eternally favored by God—are those who know themselves to be spiritually poor and needy, like the man in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee is boastful, arrogant, and proud of all his religious accomplishments, while the tax collector, “standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ ” (Luke 18:13). Those who know themselves to be spiritually poor keenly sense their need for God and their dependence on Him. They plead for mercy, because they know that they could never stand before a righteous, holy God on their own merits.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4)
In the next beatitude, Jesus affirms a piece of Old Testament wisdom as enunciated in the book of Ecclesiastes: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Eccl. 7:2). In view of the fact that all of us will die one day, we should live in light of our eternal destiny. Therefore, “the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure” (Eccl. 7:4, NIV). Impenitent pleasure-seekers ultimately engage in a denial of eternal realities, while the wise person is conscious of his final destiny, mourning his own sin and the sins of others around him. Conscious of their own shortcomings and rebellion against God, they thrust themselves on God’s mercy and will receive comfort and forgiveness.