Let us go back to the spring of the year in which the Lord Jesus was in his early thirties, to a mountain plain just outside of Capernaum. It is early in his ministry, in fact the very day he had attracted great multitudes with various diseases. Some of the crowd was taking a greater interest in the Lord and his teaching, so he took the opportunity to provide detailed instruction to those who had eagerly assembled to hear this new preacher. The comprehensive set of instructions would later become known as the Sermon on the Mount, the model for all Christian thinking and action.
Jesus had come to demonstrate, by his teaching and his way of life, the finer aspects of the Mosaic Law. He had not come to remove this God-given code of behavior, but to reveal the implicit meaning, especially in relation to himself: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). Over the centuries the law that was “holy, and just, and good” (Rom. 7:12) had come to be amplified by a set of rigid precepts and rules. How astounded they must have been at the gracious words that were delivered with such authority. Spellbound, they hung on to every word, as Jesus adjusted their focus from keeping the ordinances to the spirit of the law which they had missed.
To summarize its contents, the Sermon on the Mount teaches us concepts and attitudes which we must develop. This emphasis of Jesus is summed up very nicely by the apostle Paul in the letter to the Ephesians: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22 NIV).
The comments found at the end of the Sermon on the Mount show how vital it is that we strive to cultivate the way of thinking taught by our Master and to take care that it is translated into action: “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? And in thy name have cast out devils? And in thy name done many wonderful works? And then I will profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matt. 7:21-23).
Poor in spirit
A careful review of the first two beatitudes demonstrates the concept that we are considering, especially the first: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). Marginal references are helpful here: “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit” (Psa. 34:18). Also helpful is the quote from Isaiah, prophetic of the man who personified this attitude: “To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit and trembleth at my word” (Is. 66:2). The Lord Jesus himself said: “I am meek and lowly in heart…” (Matt. 11:29).
Humility is obviously the lesson: what a contrast we find here to the worldliness around us where the attitude of pride and aggressive assertiveness is revered by those who are considered to be successful people. It takes humility to recognize the fact that our ultimate salvation depends not on self but solely on the grace of God.
This absence of humility is clearly demonstrated in the supreme pride and arrogance of the Pharisees, apparent in their love of acclamation from the common people. They drew attention to themselves at the very moment of their monetary donations. Another example of their love of attention was in making a great show when praying. They made a practice of standing in prominent places, uttering loud and repetitious prayers to ensure that all would see and hear their fervent piousness: “Be not ye therefore like unto them…” said Jesus (Matt. 6:1-8).
Perhaps the ultimate example between the attitude of pride and humility is to be found in the parable of the publican and the sinner: “God I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican…And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner…”
Jesus left his followers of all dispensations in no doubt that the problem was the attitude of pride: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Lk. 18:11-14).
Those who mourn
There is a problem if an all-encompassing view is taken of the second beatitude: “Blessed are those who mourn.” The most hardened criminal will mourn the death of a loved one, so how could the blessing include him/her? Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians provides the answer: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (I Thess. 4:13). Those who are enlightened in regard to the true Christian hope recognize: “The wages of sin is death…” (Rom. 6:23) and although the loss may be agonizing, the bereaved wait in faith, with a quiet dignity, for the promised redemption.
A good example is the rich ruler who: “Came and knelt before him and said, My daughter has just died. But come and put your hand on her and she will live. Jesus got up and went with him…When Jesus entered the ruler’s house and saw the flute players and noisy crowd, he said, Go away. The girl is not dead but asleep. But they laughed at him. After the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took the girl by the hand, and she got up” (Matt. 9:18). With disregard for the current expectations and rituals of his contemporaries, the man approached the Lord in complete faith of the resurrection.
Godly mourning also occurs in the face of the iniquity that abounds in the world and plagues our own souls. There is a lovely passage to be found in Isaiah which confirms our understanding of “poor in heart” and illustrates this second aspect of how the believer mourns. God states: “I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit…” There is reassurance of healing and comfort both to the humble and to those who are associated with this attitude: “I have seen his ways, and will heal him; I will lead him also, and restore comforts unto him and to his mourners” (Isa. 57:15-20). The context of these verses is associated with those who, with humbleness of heart, greatly mourned for the degenerate state of the nation as a whole and also for their own individual sins. This is the attitude that our Lord requires from all the faithful.
Correct thinking leads to right action
Looking for the underlying message of the remaining beatitudes, it can be seen to be the necessity of setting right attitudes in the inner spirit of the mind, to ensure the outcome of correct actions.
Anger is the precursor to murder; adultery will not be committed if the heart does not harbor lustful thoughts; underlying attitudes do govern our actions.
Jesus ended his teaching with the parable of house location: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who builds his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the stream rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matt. 7:24-27). That rock is the sure foundation upon which our faith is built, none other than the one who we have come to remember this morning.
As we prepare to partake of the memorial emblems in obedience to our Savior’s commands, let us examine our attitudes in common with those early disciples who sat at the feet of Jesus on that day two thousand years ago. Our task is to approach the challenge with eagerness and optimism, anxious to put our old ways behind us and to follow the path that leads to the kingdom. May it be that we are granted the opportunity to eat and drink with him anew at that time.
Michael Atkin, Toronto East