(picture from cnn.com)
By rushing to agree with everyone else and pile on with the condemnations, Christians often lose a chance to show the character of Jesus to the world.
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Matthew #12 . Chapter 5:1-12
It seems to me that we could spend one week on each beatitude, however that would probably mean we’d never get to the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, let alone the rest of Matthew. So we are going to try to briefly examine the last five Christian character traits today.
First, a quick review. Jesus-followers should be spiritually poor, acknowledging our true position before God and our need of Jesus. Next, we should mourn our spiritual poverty (among other things) and bewail the sin that brought us to this place. We should face loss and brokenness with courage and determination to walk through it as we look to Jesus as the source of all comfort. In addition, we should wait quietly and meekly for God’s deliverance, not trusting in our own strength or resources to save us.
I want to make sure we understand that most of these things are very counter-cultural. Our culture blesses people who have it together, not the spiritually destitute. Our culture teaches us to avoid almost all mourning, in any way possible. Certainly, we do not learn from society to mourn sin and brokenness. Our culture teaches assertiveness and “going for it;” not humbly waiting on God to give “it” to you.
With that we come to the fourth character trait and its accompanying blessing: “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (matt 5:6). This is the natural continuation of the spiritual condition that is poor, mourning and meek. Once more, let me remind you that this character trait is not natural to our culture. What does our culture teach us to hunger and thirst for? Pleasure, comfort, wealth and recognition. It has been a very long time indeed since society at large has held up moral righteousness as goal to strive for, something to hunger after.
What does this character trait really mean? What does it look like in a 21st century disciple?
I see a several aspects of righteousness that seem to apply here. The first is that the true disciple does more than just acknowledge his position before God, mourn his sin, and wait quietly. The true disciple yearns to be truly right with God. The righteousness that is so eagerly desired here is the very thing that is given to us by Jesus because of his death on the cross and resurrection to eternal life. It is the righteousness that is ours by faith. As an old praise song says:
I am covered over with the robe of righteousness that Jesus gives to me.
I am covered over with the precious blood of Jesus and He lives in me.
Oh, what a joy it is to know my Heavenly Father loves me so, He gives to me my Jesus.
And when He looks at me, He sees not what I used to be, but He sees Jesus.
The person who is truly spiritually poor, who truly mourns for her sins, who meekly waits for God, also desperately wants her condition changed. Such a person wants his old deeds to be wiped away as if they had never happened. He wants to stand tall without shame. Such a person hungers for the righteousness of Christ.
A second aspect of righteousness is that of continuing to do right. The disciple of Jesus, the person who follows him, has already been given the righteousness of faith. But the disciple doesn’t only want past sins covered by Jesus’ righteousness – those who trust in Jesus have the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit creates a yearning within us to live uprightly. Thus, I believe the Good News Bible is right in translating this verse:
“Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires; God will satisfy them fully!”
God’s satisfaction of this desire to live righteously is vitally important. We can’t live in a righteous way apart from God any more than we can attain our salvation apart from him. But when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, he releases his power through the Holy Spirit to enable us live rightly. We shall be satisfied!
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matt 5:7).
At first glance, this one does not seem so counter-cultural. The truth is, however, our culture isn’t merciful – it just has different standards than the bible. For example, modern society is not merciful to people who commit sexual sin. It’s just that the dominant idea is that there are no real sexual sins anymore. In other words it isn’t mercy that causes our culture to refrain from condemning people for sexual sin. It is simply that they agree in with what people are doing. Read carefully here, and learn what this means: You can’t give mercy to someone unless you think they deserve condemnation in the first place. Mercy is forgiving people who have truly done wrong.
We can test this idea when see how society reacts to people who do something that is actually considered a sin by the culture. For example, just this week (as I write this) the owner of the LA Clippers (an NBA Basketball team) was caught on tape making racist comments. There has been no mercy for him from anybody. Sadly, even Christians have joined in with the condemnation.
Some of you may say, “But wait a minute. Christians don’t support racism.” Of course we don’t. But the whole point of mercy is that it is given to someone who doesn’t deserve it, someone who has done wrong. You can’t give mercy to a person unless you think they deserve condemnation in the first place. The truth is, if Christians were going to condemn this man, we should have been doing so long before his racism came to light. He openly sinned (according to the Bible’s definition of sin) in many other ways before his racism was publicly known. The fact that Christians are now joining in the universal condemnation is a sign that we have drifted far from Biblical faith, and we are more concerned about being called racists than we are about manifesting the love of Jesus to sinners.
I affirm that racism is sinful and evil. As a Jesus follower, I also affirm that I must be ready to show mercy to anyone who will receive it. It may be offensive to say this, but I truly believe that Jesus would be merciful to a racist, if the racist gave him a chance by repenting. Now, I don’t have any evidence that this man has repented of racism, or of any of his other sins, either. That’s a whole different story. But I bring this all up to point out that our culture is not merciful at all; and if we intend to be merciful to people who don’t deserve it, it will offend people.
Jesus makes forgiving others central to the gospel message:
“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
Forgiving others is not an option for the Christian. If we refuse to forgive, than we cannot receive forgiveness ourselves. I will deal with this subject in detail when we reach Matthew 6.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt 5:8). Jesus was speaking to a crowd of Jewish people who were very concerned with external purity. He announces his counter-cultural aims by speaking of a purity of the heart. Even though the Old Testament speaks quite a bit about purity of heart, the Jewish religion by the time of Jesus had already begun to move beyond the Old Testament alone, and had started to rely on non-scriptural rabbinical proclamations and commentary. In other words, though Jesus’ focus on internal purity was a not a new teaching, it was a teaching largely ignored by Jews in Jesus day, and to some extent, since that time as well. If a person washed according to the proper ceremony, and ate kosher food and avoided dead bodies and so on, then he was pure. But Jesus, throughout the gospels, contests this idea, insisting that God is a God of relationship, not just ceremony, and what matters is what is in the heart.
I believe that in context, this purity of heart also refers to how Christians should deal with each other, and other people. What this means is that a follower of Jesus should be completely honest, sincere and well-intentioned in all dealings with others. We should not be hypocritical, or pretend to be a sort of person we are not.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). As always, there are two points to make. First, I believe that Jesus is talking here about evangelism. Peace with God was a promise foretold by the ancient prophets, (see Ezekiel 37:26 for example) and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Romans 5:1 says,
“Therefore since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
A peacemaker is therefore one who helps to spread this peace-with-God – a person who assists in the reconciliation (peacemaking) between God and human beings. This is to be characteristic of all Christians. I can think of no other good reason why the peacemaker should be called a ‘son of God.’
Second, a peacemaker is someone who helps reconcile people to other people. Now, there are many caveats (“buts”) to this sort of peacemaking. It does not mean compromising the truth. It does not mean appeasing rage-filled unrepentant sinners. Peacemaking does not forbid us from ever taking a stand, or standing our ground. It is not “peace at all costs.” And many times, it involves a painful process. As John Stott says:
“When we are ourselves involved in a quarrel there will be either the pain of apologizing to the person we have injured or the pain of rebuking the person who has injured us.”
We are, however called to try to end discord, rather than to create and perpetuate it by gossip, slander or even silence.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:10). Jesus qualifies his statement here by saying “because of righteousness” because there is no special blessing in being persecuted when we deserve it – the blessing comes when we don’t. As Peter writes:
“For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:19-21).
This is becoming more and more relevant to our times. Christians, even in the Western World, are increasingly insulted and falsely accused. More and more people are willing to say “every kind of evil” against us when we take a stand for what the Bible actually says. I want to say that this is unfortunate; however Jesus says there is actually blessing in it.
Although many of us have experienced the pain of having our beliefs publicly distorted and derided, none of us in the Western world (as far as I know) have yet suffered physical persecution for following Jesus. Other brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world have, however. Throughout both communist and Muslim countries, Christians are censured, deprived of rights, imprisoned and sometimes even killed for their faith. The testimony of Richard Wurmbrand, a Lutheran pastor who was tortured by the communists in Romania, is that the presence of Jesus came in an incredibly tangible, special way when he was being tormented. He did indeed, testify that this special sense of God’s presence was a blessing that accompanied his persecution. I can only believe him and trust Jesus’ words. In the book of Revelation we also see a special honor reserved for martyrs of the faith. Persecution is something I tend to fear, but Jesus actually wants his followers to look upon it in a positive light as condition that is marked by his special blessing.
Now, I think Jesus provides us with an excellent summary to all this in the next few verses: we’ll look at that next time. But for now I want to reiterate something else: We can’t do this. There is no way we can really hunger for the righteousness we need, show the mercy we should show, be pure in heart, be a true peacemaker, or endure persecution as blessing. There is no way that we can form that sort of character inside of us just by trying harder.
This is the character that Jesus wants to form inside of us through the power of the Holy Spirit. Trying won’t get us there. What will get us there is surrendering to Jesus, saying to him: “Yes, I agree that this is the sort of person you want me to be. I agree that I want to be this sort of person. I can’t do it, but I ask you to do it, and I say ‘yes’ to you when you want to change me.”
Why don’t you take a minute and ask him to do that right now?