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:
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.” – Matthew 5:1-11 ESV
The Gospel of Luke provides us with additional insight into the timeline going on in this scene. He records that Jesus took time to hand-pick the remainder of His 12 followers, who He would later designate as His apostles.
12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. – Luke 6:12-16 ESV
The mention of the term, “apostle” is important, because it helps differentiate the 12 men Jesus chose from the rest of those who are called “disciples” in the story. Often, when reading the Gospel accounts, we can see the term “disciple” and automatically assume it only refers to the 12 men whom Jesus had called. But as we will see, a disciple was simply a designation for anyone who followed Jesus for any length of time. A disciple was a learner, someone who followed a particular teacher or rabbi in order to glean from them their wisdom or beliefs. Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus had many followers, but this did not mean that they viewed Him as their Messiah or Savior. In fact, when Jesus began to teach truths that were more difficult to comprehend, the crowds began to disperse. His disciples or followers turned their backs on Him. In John’s Gospel, he records an exchange between Jesus and His followers where He told them, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:54 ESV). This statement confused His audience, leaving some a bit repulsed by the imagery He used. But rather than back down, Jesus took the metaphor a step further.
53 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” – John 6:53-58 ESV
John records that the people found the words of Jesus difficult to hear and even harder to understand. And Jesus knew there were many in His audience who did not believe what He had to say. Sadly, John records, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66 ESV).
Why is this important? Because as we begin this portion of Matthew’s Gospel, we see Jesus addressing a crowd of His disciples or followers, and it is essential that we not mistakenly assume that the term “disciple” refers to someone who is a Christian or believer in Jesus. At this early stage in His ministry, there are relatively few who could be truly termed Christ-followers. Even the 12 are operating with a very limited understanding of just exactly who Jesus is. So, when Matthew records what has come to be known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the makeup of the crowd was a mixed bag of individuals who were there for a variety of reasons and who made up a cross section of Jewish culture of Jesus’ day. There were plenty of peasants or common people in the crowd that day. But there were also representatives of the Jewish religious leadership. And, of course, there were the 12 apostles whom Jesus had just recently called. Luke lets us know that many were there out of curiosity and for purely self-centered reasons, having come “to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all” (Luke 6:18-19 ESV).
And Jesus, taking advantage of their presence and their undivided attention, addressed them about a topic that was near and dear to all of them: The kingdom of heaven. But He was about to bring a radical new perspective to this familiar subject. As Jews, they would have considered themselves honorary citizens of the kingdom of heaven. They were the “chosen ones,” the descendants of Abraham and the hand-picked children of God. But Jesus is about to rock their world, presenting the kingdom of heaven and those who live in it, in a much different light than that to which they have grown accustomed. If you recall, Jesus had begun His ministry preaching the very same message that John the Baptist had preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV) The repentance He called for had to do with a change of mind, a rethinking of their current views on everything from God, righteousness, sin, salvation, and citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. As Jews, they thought they had it all figured out. They were the chosen people of God who had been given the law of God and access to the temple and the sacrificial system that allowed them to maintain a right standing with God. They were the apple of God’s eye, His prized possession and the designated recipients of His grace and love.
But in this paradigm-shifting message, Jesus will present a radical new perspective on what it means to live in the kingdom of heaven. And most of what He is going to tell them will leave them confused and conflicted. This will not be business as usual. His message will not confirm and conform to their present understanding of life in the kingdom of God. His words are meant to shock and surprise, to upset the status quo and reveal that something revolutionary was about to happen.
Nine different times in the opening lines of His message, Jesus uses the word, “blessed,” and He uses it to refer to those who are part of the kingdom of heaven because they have found favor with God. Their blessedness or right standing with God and designation as citizens of His kingdom has little do with what the Jews in Jesus’ audience would have deemed necessary for finding favor with God. Notice that Jesus doesn’t mention having a Jewish heritage as a prerequisite for blessedness. He doesn’t even bring up Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people. Instead, He mentions the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted. Those are the characteristics He uses to describe the blessed, those who have found favor with God and a place in His kingdom. But take a look at those attributes. Why would any of those seemingly negative characteristics qualify anyone for receiving God’s favor? For the average Jew, those descriptions would have represented everything to be despised and hated about life on this planet. Poverty of spirit was to be avoided at all costs. Mourning, while inevitable, was never seen as preferable. The Jews were a people who had suffered hundreds of years of oppression under the heavy-handed rule of outside forces like the Romans. Poverty, persecution, suffering, and mourning had become par for the course. And the idea of making peace with the Romans was about as far from the mind of the average Jew as showing mercy to a Gentile.
But Jesus is painting a radically different picture of life in the kingdom of heaven. It is not what they think. It is not what they have come to expect. And the description of it’s citizens is quite different than they would have imagined or desired. As Jesus begins to unpack this message, He is going to bring a new outlook on an old, familiar topic. He is going to rock their world and reform their view on what it means to receive God’s favor. What Jesus is about to reveal to them is the message of the grace of God. He is going to destroy the myth of self-righteousness that permeated the mindset of the Jewish people. Their confident belief in their status as God’s chosen people was going to crumble as Jesus revealed the impossibility of living up to the standards of kingdom life. What Jesus is going to show them is the radical nature of God’s righteous requirements, their own inadequacy, and the need of God’s grace. Those who find comfort, receive mercy, find God, and enjoy life in the kingdom of heaven will be those who accept the free gift of God’s grace made available through His Son.
Life in the kingdom of heaven cannot be earned. The favor of God cannot be merited through good deeds or right behavior. Righteousness is not a state one achieves through self-effort, but is a gift provided by a gracious God through the sacrifice of His own Son. A new day had dawned. The Son had come. The light was shining in the darkness.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.