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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.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt. 5:5)
Meekness is a rare commodity in our day when self-promotion reigns, social media savvy is prized, and deferring to others is frowned upon as weakness. If you don’t assert yourself, conventional wisdom goes, you’ll get trampled. Jesus, on the other hand, is “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). He will reveal Himself to the meek but confront the arrogant and self-reliant. He will give rest to the weary while the proud will be left to carry their own heavy burdens. God is the sovereign Ruler, and Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords. We are nothing apart from what God gives us. So the wise, meekly and humbly, look to their sovereign Lord for His mercy, grace, and provision. They hide in the shadow of His wings and seek His protection, in the confidence that it is the meek, rather than the assertive and self-promoting, who will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matt. 5:6)
God’s kingdom—His realm under His rule—is a place where righteousness reigns, because God Himself is perfectly righteous in His impeccable character. Thus, those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” will be satisfied. Later, Jesus tells His followers that unless their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, they will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20). For their part, they should “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things”—food, clothing, and shelter—will be added to them (6:33). Do you and I truly seek justice and prize integrity? Or do we crave preferential treatment and find subtle ways of controlling and manipulating others, ideally without their realizing it? Again, Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter, calling for a heart that delights in righteousness. Of course, none of this is possible apart from Christ, whom God “for our sake . . . made . . . to be sin” even though He “knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matt. 5:7)
The one who is merciful knows that he himself needs mercy and in Christ has received mercy (Rom. 12:1). As the recipient of mercy, he extends mercy to others, treating them with kindness and tender compassion. In this way, mercy balances out righteousness. Mercy may come across as weakness, yet in fact, those who extend mercy do so out of inner strength, knowing that they are secure in God’s love and are assured of their acceptance and favor in Christ. At the same time, they are aware of their own frailty and weakness and thus are sensitive to others. Jesus set the example, in keeping with Isaiah’s messianic prophecy: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench” (Matt. 12:20; see Isa. 42:3). Jesus treated people with tender loving care and compassion. Similarly, rather than being boastful and arrogant, citizens of God’s kingdom are humble and kind.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matt. 5:8)
Who can claim to be pure in heart? Like the Pharisees, we are all dirty on the inside. So Jesus’ exhortation to them pertains to all of us: “First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean” (Matt. 23:26). Yet this cleansing can be performed only by the Holy Spirit. Again, this thought is not entirely new in Scripture. We see it already in David, who prayed after sinning egregiously: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:7, 10). David already understood that sin separates people from God and so pleaded, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11). While God will never remove His Spirit from genuine believers today, we must still cleanse ourselves with the help of the Holy Spirit so that we become pure in heart and thus will be able to see God one day (2 Cor. 7:1; 1 John 3:2).
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matt. 5:9)
Everyone wants peace, but where are the peacemakers? The word “peacemaker” is used only here in the New Testament; the verb form, “to make peace,” is used elsewhere only once in one of the Apostle Paul’s letters: “For in him [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19–20). This shows that Jesus is the ultimate peacemaker, and that through His death on the cross He reconciled us with God. Now that we have peace with God, we are called to make peace, and like the Son of God, we will be called “sons of God.” The blessing Jesus pronounces here is not merely on those who value peace; it is for those who actively pursue the making of peace with both God and others. Such peacemakers yearn for reconciliation and relational peace in the place of strife, seeking to soothe rather than inflame, to pacify rather than exacerbate. “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention” (Prov. 15:18). Therefore, believers should “strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). In this way, such sons of God reflect God the Father, who is actively engaged in peacemaking through the blood of the cross of His beloved Son.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:10)
Once again, Jesus’ words here are counterintuitive. No one in his right mind would consider himself blessed when he is persecuted. But here Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. While so far all Beatitudes were cast in the third person, at this point Jesus turns directly to His followers and addresses them with the added words: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11–12). By being hated and reviled, Jesus’ followers enter the noble line of the Old Testament prophets who endured similar persecution and mistreatment. They may suffer earthly loss, but they will receive a great heavenly reward.
“You are the salt of the earth.” (Matt. 5:13)
In the meantime, Jesus provides instructions for His followers who are still in this world, using two diverse metaphors—namely, those of salt and light. Regarding salt, Jesus explains: “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” (Matt. 5:13). If Jesus’ followers are indistinguishable from the world around them, what good are they? Like salt seasoning a meal, believers are called to provide flavor and even act as preservatives in a corrupt culture. Conversely, Jesus explains in a sobering note that once salt has lost its taste, it has been rendered completely useless. Therefore, let’s not be useless Christians.
“You are the light of the world.” (Matt. 5:14)
Finally, Jesus likens believers to light. Elsewhere, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5), but here He tells His followers, “You are the light of the world.” This is not a contradiction. Rather, Christ’s disciples are called to serve as light of the world because, as believers in the light, they themselves have become “sons of light” (John 12:36). Extending the light metaphor, Jesus elaborates:
“A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 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. 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.” (Matt. 5:14–16)
While we are not saved by our good works, we are saved for good works, deeds that glorify our heavenly Father.
At the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has provided His followers with a magnificent mosaic of qualities that mark His disciples: poverty of spirit, mourning over sin, meekness, a deep craving for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, an active desire to make peace, and patient bearing up under persecution for the sake of righteousness. This catalog of characteristics differs markedly from the world’s values, which include proud self-reliance, living for pleasure, aggressive self-assertion, getting ahead at all costs, harshness and rudeness, moral degeneration and decay, combativeness, and hypersensitive vigilance to ensure that one’s own rights are never violated. In addition, Christ’s disciples should flavor the culture and shine as God’s lights in the world. By emulating these ten characteristics, with the help of the indwelling Holy Spirit, Jesus’ followers will prove to be citizens of God’s kingdom, already in the here and now, and for all eternity.