The Good Life, Part 1
When I did this a couple of weeks ago I almost made a joke that preaching from my couch was surprisingly comfortable, and that I could get used to this. And here we are again. The truth is, this is not something I could get used to. While I’m grateful for video I’ll be even more grateful when we can actually be together again.
There’s a sense of irony and even some sadness on my part that we’re beginning our study of the Sermon on the Mount this week, where Jesus taught the crowds, and here we are all split up like this.
But such is the time we’re living in. I was thinking this morning about our persecuted brothers and sisters living around the world in countries where even gathering with 30 people like this would be a dream come true. The Lord causes all things to work together for good, and one of those good effects for us may simply be appreciating what we get to enjoy on a regular basis.
But today we do come to Matthew chapter 5 and the Sermon on the Mount, easily the most recognized and quoted part of Matthew’s gospel, and easily one of the most recognizes and quoted parts of the whole Bible.
I have a lot of joy in my heart as I approach this part of God's word. I love the Sermon on the Mount and have been captivated by it many times in reading and study. I was deeply impacted as a Christian and a future pastor by Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ two-volume “Studies in the Sermon on the Mount” which I read in my early 20s. I got to teach a six-week Sunday school class on the Sermon during my last year in Regina, which was a highlight to me from that season. I’ve been gripped by this passage many times reading through the Bible. And so I’m thrilled now to get to spend almost 20 weeks moving through this great passage together.
And yet, I’d be hiding the truth if I didn’t tell you that I’m also intimidated by this part of God’s word. I know that even though we’re going to spend all this time together in these three chapters, we’re only going to scratch the surface. There’s so much here, and I want to make sure that we focus on what we should so that we don’t miss that God has to say to us.
I also am so aware of the distance between me and Jesus as a teacher and preacher. Me preaching through this sermon by Jesus feels a little bit like using a box of crayons to explain the Mona Lisa. And I just pray that I won’t get in the way, but that what shines out will be the majesty and glory of Jesus.
Matthew 7:28 says that “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching,” and I’m asking the Lord that this will be our experience together in this study.
Introducing the Sermon
As we get into this morning, I want to give you a bit of a picture of what to expect. This message is going to have three parts. First, we’re going to spend a bit more time introducing the sermon on the Mount itself, and set the stage for our journey through it in the next 19 or so weeks.
Second, We’re going to introduce this first part of the sermon, known as the Beatitudes. And third, we’re going to dig into our study of the first two Beatitudes found in verses 3 and 4 of Matthew chapter 5.
Let’s start by talking about this whole big section, called the Sermon on the Mount. We’re going to try to answer three questions about it: what, who, and where.
First, “what.” What is the Sermon on the Mount? I’ve been using the word “sermon,” and will continue to use that word because that’s what we call this. But we should know that the word “sermon” is not used by Matthew to describe this section. Instead we’re told that this was “teaching” given by Jesus. Verse 2: “And he opened his mouth and taught them.”
Now this teaching may have come out all at once in the span of an hour or so. It may have been a sermon. It’s also possible that Matthew condenses a series of teachings that Jesus gave over several hours or even several days. In other words, this could have been the “Seminar on the Mount.”
But either way, Matthew’s account makes clear that Jesus did teach this material in a specific setting at this specific point in his ministry. And we’re going to discover that Jesus’ teaching is very deliberately crafted and coherent. There is a logical flow from one section to another.
In other words, this is not just a loose collection of sayings that flits from one topic to the next without any connection. No, this teaching has structure and focus a flow to it. The ideas connect together. And when we discover those connections then the whole thing really comes to life.
So that’s “what” this teaching is. Next let’s ask “who,” as in, who was this teaching for? And here we need to remember some of the context. Chapter 4 ended by telling us the large crowds that were following “him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (Matthew 4:25). A mixed group of Jews and Gentiles following after Jesus.
And so chapter 5 begins by telling us that “Seeing the crowds, he went up on a mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him” (Matthew 5:1).
Now some people read this verse and understand that Jesus went up this mountain to try to get away from the crowds. And after he’d retreated, a smaller group of committed disciples came to him and he taught this material to them, not the crowds.
That might have happened. But I’m not convinced that’s the best way to understand this. To me it seems more likely that Jesus went up on the mountain in order to teach these crowds of his followers.
Here’s why I think this. First, Matthew hasn’t told us anything negative yet about these crowds. All Matthew has told us, at this point, is that large crowds of people were following Jesus as He introduced the kingdom.
And if we were reading this book for the first time, we’d probably assume the best about these crowds—that they were filled with genuine followers of Jesus.
And when Matthew tells is that “his disciples came to him,” we’d probably think that “disciples” was another word for the crowds of people following Jesus. A “disciple” is someone who attaches themselves to a teacher, and that seems to be what these crowds of people were doing, having left their homes and jobs to go wherever Jesus goes.
The second reason I think Jesus was teaching the crowds is because of how the sermon ends. In chapter 7 Jesus concludes this teaching by inviting people to enter into His kingdom, by warning them that “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21), and by challenging them to put His words into practice.
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock… And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.” (Matthew 7:24, 26).
So as Jesus concludes His teaching, it doesn’t sound like he’s talking to a small group of locked-in believers. Instead, it sounds more like He’s talking to a big group of people with varying levels of commitment to Him, and He’s inviting them to become locked-in, fully-committed believers.
And this seems to be confirmed by Matthew 7:28: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching,” (Matthew 7:28). Who was listening? Who was astonished? The crowds.
So it seems to make sense to me that Jesus was travelling around preaching the good news of the kingdom, and a large crowd was following Him, and this crowd was the audience for this teaching. And this will be important for us later on at certain points in this passage.
The third question is “where?” Where was this teaching delivered? Verse one said that Jesus “went up on the mountain.” This language could simply refer to a hilly area. But a number of scholars have seen in this passage a connection between Jesus and Moses, who went up on Mt. Sinai to receive the teaching from God in the Old Covenant.
But if there is a connection here, it really serves to highlight how much greater than Moses Jesus is. Moses went up on Mount Sinai to receive the Law from God alone, and then he descended to communicate it to the people. Jesus goes up the mountain and just declares His teaching to His people. He doesn’t need to receive it from God first because He is God.
So that’s a bit of an introduction to the sermon. Next, we’re going to consider the way that Jesus begins this teaching. If you have a Bible in front of you, most likely you’ll see verses 3-11 grouped together with the title “The Beatitudes.”
Beatus is the Latin word for “Blessed.” And this section is called the Beatitudes because each sentence in this section begins with this word “blessed.” This is how Jesus’ teaching begins.
Beatitudes, statements of blessing, are not strange in the Bible. The book of Psalms open up with “Blessed is the man….” Psalm 2 speaks about the Son of David and says “blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:12). Psalm 32 tells us, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Psalm 32:1–2).
Psalm 40:4: “Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust, who does not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after a lie!” Psalm 41:1: “Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him.” And it goes on. The word is used 25 times in the Psalms alone.
So what does it mean? What does it mean to be blessed? The basic answer has to do with being happy or fortunate. You are blessed when things are going well for you. The blessed person is the person who is living the good life.
If you were an Israelite living in the Old Covenant, that “good life” was very connected to God’s material gifts. A rich and happy life was filled with God’s bounty. And we see that right away in Psalm 1: the man who delights in the law of the Lord is “blessed,” because, “In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalm 1:3). In other words, his crops all grow. His home is filled with children. He’s respected in the community. His business ventures work out well.
He’s living the good life. He is blessed.
And it shouldn’t surprise us that when we look at the Psalms, so many of these “blessed” statements are connected to the person’s obedience. “Blessed is the man who does this or that.” That fits with how the Old Covenant really worked. God graciously rewarded obedience with earthly gifts. And so if you obeyed, you’d be happy. Blissful. Fortunate. You’d be living the good life as you enjoyed all of God’s good gifts.
The Poor in Spirit
So can you imagine the reaction that people would have had as Jesus opened His mouth and began to teach them with these words? “Blessed are the…” was familiar language, at least to the Jewish people present among Jesus. But it’s what comes next that’s really surprising. Let’s look at verse 3.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
This sounded very different. Poor? Being poor was not a spot anybody wanted to be in. Wasn’t being poor, not having enough, a sign of God's curse even?
And who wants to be poor in spirit? Who wants to look inside themselves and see empty spiritual shelves? Who wants to admit that they have nothing to offer God or others?
These same questions continue with the second beatitude in verse 4: “Blessed are those who mourn.” Who wants to mourn? Who wants to be sad? It’s that a problem? Doesn’t that mean that something bad has happened and might even mean that you’ve done something wrong?
How are we to understand these perplexing words that Jesus opens His sermon with?
The answer—or at least a big part of the answer—is to remember the context. These words don’t come out of nowhere. These words come after everything we’ve been hearing over the past few weeks.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2) said John the Baptist and Jesus. “Turn from your sin because God’s heavenly kingdom has drawn near.”
And people responded to this message. “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:5–6).
Unlike the Pharisees and the Sadducees, these people understood that being an Israelite wasn’t enough. Being a child of Abraham wasn’t enough. They were sinners and they—and their nation—were in a bad spot and they needed salvation in order to be fit for God’s kingdom.
So when Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in Spirit” and “blessed are those who mourn,” who is He describing? He’s describing his followers. He’s describing the people who have responded to the call to repent.
These people know that they are spiritually bankrupt. Like David and Daniel and Ezra, they know what it’s like to mourn and even weep for their sins and the sins of their people that have wound them up in this painful exile.
As one commentator wrote, “The poor that Jesus commends are the humble who know that God is their only hope… Those who cast themselves on his mercy.”1Wesley G. Olmstead, Matthew 1-14: A Handbook on the Greek Text, Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2019), 76.
And so what this means, again, is that the poor in spirit are the genuine followers of Jesus. Those who mourn are the genuine followers of Jesus. They recognize that the kingdom of Heaven is at hand and they’ve responded with genuine repentance and genuine faith.
And Jesus says to these genuine followers, these genuine responders, these spiritually bankrupt mourners: you are the blessed ones. You are the ones who have found real, lasting happiness. You are living the good life.
And why is that? How does that make sense? Jesus explains it for us in the second half of these beatitudes. Look at verse 3. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
Here’s why the poor in spirit are blessed. Here’s why they have the good life. For—because—theirs is the kingdom of heaven. They are the ones who get to share in the kingdom God has brought and will bring. They are blessed because they will participate in the age to come.
The same thing goes for the mourners. ““Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
Those who mourn over their sin and the sin of their people are blessed, are the ones with the good life, because they will be comforted. And what is that comfort? If you’re mourning for sin, then what’s the comfort? Salvation from sin.
Isn’t this what God promised His people in Isaiah 40? “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned” (Isaiah 40:1–2).
And we kn