2. Citizens of a new kingdom
If you were to ask the average person on the street, if they could tell you one thing that Jesus taught, I would venture to guess, it would probably be from the SotM. Without a doubt, the SotM is the most well-known, but perhaps the least understood, body of Jesus’ teaching we find anywhere in the gospels. And as we begin this journey together through the SotM, it might be helpful to place it within the larger context of Jesus’ life & ministry.
What was Jesus' purpose in delivering this sermon in the first place? And I would say that the overarching theme of the SotM is “What does it really mean to be a citizen of the kingdom of heaven?" That is really what Jesus is talking about all the way thru, not only the Beatitudes, but the entire SOTM. If you turn back to the verses just prior to this sermon, to Matt 4:23, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people."
You see Jesus was bringing good news because, in entering into our world, he had now begun to usher in a new kingdom- the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God. But what many people failed to understand, was that Jesus was going to establish his reign, not over an earthly kingdom like Israel, or a political system as we have here in Canada today, but over a new society of men and women here on the earth who would submit themselves to his rule, who would become citizens of this new kingdom of heaven. And so the SotM is really Jesus’ kingdom manifesto! It describes what it means to be a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, how we are to live our lives under Jesus' rule. As Jesus says a little later in Matt 5:19 - "Whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."
And so he begins with the Beatitudes, because they describe for us the character qualities that will be evident & displayed in those who are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Notice both the 1st & the last of these Beatitudes have the same wording: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." & "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." In other words those who exhibit these qualities in their lives, demonstrate that they are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. I don't think that Jesus ever intended that the principles he teaches in the SotM would be adopted by the larger world in general. On the contrary, as we observed last week, the things Jesus teaches here stand in direct opposition to the way the world operates. One of Jesus' purposes in the SOTM is to show the radical difference between the attitudes and behaviour of the Christian & the nonChristian, between a citizen of the world, & the citizen of the kingdom of heaven
And so with that in mind, we should remember as we look at these beatitudes, that they are really a description of what a Christian, a citizen of the kingdom of heaven should look like. Jesus is not describing 8 different people here, but one. And so I want to go on, this morning, to talk about the next two beatitudes, beginning with the 3rd: "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." Now when you picture a "meek" person, what do you think of? The word “meekness” is not really seen as a positive attribute today is it? We tend to look down on people that we see as being meek. But I think this word "meek" is greatly misunderstood and misused in our language today. We think of a meek person as someone who is weak & powerless, spineless & subservient. In short, someone who can be walked all over like a doormat. But the Biblical meaning of "meekness" is not that at all. In the original Greek it was originally used to describe a horse or a wild animal that has been tamed & brought under control, & made useful to its master. The NLT: “God blesses those who are humble" is perhaps a more helpful translation. It’s talking about a humility and a gentleness of Spirit, that comes not from weakness, but from inner strength. A meekness & humility that comes in submitting our own power & strength to God, & choosing not to use it for ourselves, but for others.
Perhaps the best way to understand "meekness" is to look at some examples of how this quality was demonstrated & exercised in the Bible. Probably the best OT example is Moses. He’s described in Numbers 12:3, as “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” God eventually gave Moses a position of leadership among the people of Israel, but he did not use that position to exalt himself or assert himself. When he met with criticism from the people, he did not try to defend himself. Instead he humbled himself before God, & allowed God to defend him.
In the NT, Paul has a lot to say about exercising leadership. He exhorts Timothy, in facing those who oppose his ministry, to correct & instruct them with gentleness or meekness. Paul never pulled rank, or threw his apostolic weight around. Instead he carried out his ministry with a true spirit of humilty & meekness.
Of course the ultimate example of humility, is found in Jesus himself. Jesus says "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart" In any situation we can think of, whether it was washing his disciples' feet, or standing before Pilate during his trial, Jesus showed us what true meekness & humility really is. He did not seek to justify himself, or seek glory for himself, or even defend himself. Instead He was willing to be abased, to be subjected to all kinds of abuse, in an amazing display of meekness, deliberately choosing not to exercise the power his Father had given him Certainly none of these men: Moses, Paul or Jesus, would ever have been described as weak or spineless. They possessed tremendous strength of character, they had great leadership abilities. But they willingly submitted their personal strength to God, & it was in this that they displayed true meekness. And the promise Jesus gives to the meek person is that they shall inherit the earth.
What does it mean "to inherit the earth"? I think there are a couple of ways to understand this. Certainly there is the future sense, of reigning with Christ & being heirs with him in his coming kingdom. But here in this present life, to inherit the earth, means receiving all the blessings that God wants to provide in order for us to live in this life. You see, the meek person does not reach out & grasp what he needs for himself. Instead he looks to God to be the one who provides for him. He entrusts himself & his needs completely to the Lord. And it is to this person that God will give all things. As Paul says in Philippians: "And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus."
4th Beatitude: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." I suspect that the expression Jesus uses here probably does not have quite the same impact on us today, as it did on the people who first heard it from Jesus' lips. Let's face it, few of us here this morning, really know what it is to be genuinely hungry or thirsty. We have cupboards & freezers full of food. We turn on a tap & we get water instantly. But in Jesus' day, the average person earned just enough to keep bread on the table, one day at a time. If a labourer was unable to work one particular day, it could often mean that he & his family did not eat the next. In a desert climate, water was often a scarce commodity. And so the idea of hungering & thirsting, had a more immediate meaning to the people Jesus was speaking to here. What Jesus was really saying is "Blessed is the man who longs for righteousness, the way a starving man longs for food, the way a person dying of thirst longs for water."
You see as we go on in our Christian life, sometimes there's a danger that our walk with God just becomes a nice sideline for us. When it's convenient for us, or when we have a specific need, then we will turn to God. But we find ourselves getting preoccupied with other things. That's not what it means to hunger & thirst after righteousness. It means that our search for God & what’s important to Him becomes the driving force of our lives, the one thing that occupies our thoughts, our energy, our passion. If you’re starving, there’s only thing that will preoccupy your thoughts.
In Psalm 42, we read "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God." How many of us can say that that is really true of us? Do we hunger & thirst for God, as a starving man hungers for food? And what exactly is it that we are to hunger after? The word “righteousness” could be taken to mean a number of different things. We can talk about righteousness in the sense of "seeking justice": In other words, "Blessed are those who seek to right wrong, who long for justice to prevail in our world, who have a concern for those who are being treated unjustly." of the OT prophets like Amos & Hosea spoke out strongly against those who exploited the poor, who oppressed the weak & the defenseless. It could also have the idea of "personal righteousness", a desire to live our lives out in obedience to God.
While certainly there is nothing wrong with either of these- a desire to see justice prevail, or to live in obedience to God, I'm not sure this is really what Jesus had in mind. Righteousness, as it is used in the NT, really has a deeper meaning. It means, to put it simply, “to be in right standing with God.” The reason why we are not right with God, of course, is because of sin. It's our sin has separated us from him. And so the Bible teaches that the only way to be right with God, is not by trying to live a good life, but by removing the effects & power of sin from our lives. The only way to do that is thru the blood of Christ, & his atoning sacrifice for our sins. Paul says in Romans 3, that this kind of righteousness is not as a result of our own efforts to obey God's law, but it comes from God & is received thru faith in JC.
So Jesus is saying more here, than "Blessed is the person who longs to see justice, or longs to live a morally upright life" As admirable as those desires are, sometimes what they produce in us is a sense of self-righteousness, rather than true holiness. The truth is we can never become righteous thru our own efforts, even if we try. The Bible says that "All our righteous acts are like filthy rags" Rather true righteousness comes only as God thru Christ, cleanses us from sin & its devestating effects. Perhaps a better paraphrase is: "Blessed is the man who hungers & thirsts to be made right with God." And the promise Jesus gives us is this: "They shall be filled, they shall be satisfied, they shall get what they desire, they shall be made right with God"
We see this promise fulfilled in our lives in 3 stages: There is the immediate righteousness that is imputed to us the moment we trust in Christ for our salvation. In theological terms this is known as justification. There is also the ongoing process of growing in holiness & Christlikeness that is known as sanctification. And ultimately there will come a day when we will stand before God in glory & be made complete, when we will be like Christ. All of these steps can be seen as part of what it means to be filled with righteousness.
In conclusion then, how do we apply these 2 beatitudes to our lives? Again as we said last week, we must never think that these qualities that Jesus is speaking of in the Beatitudes are something that we can try to drum up on our own. We can't just say, "This week I'm going to be more meek, more humble." These are qualities that grow in us, as the Spirit of God works in us. What Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” But at the same time, we still have an active part to play in allowing them to be formed in our lives. As we see the example of Jesus, as we see what he expects of us, we must come to God honestly & openly.
Would you pray with me this morning, as we ask God to do more of his work in our lives? "Lord, I recognize I am not all that you would have me be at this point. I know that so often I don't display the kind of meekness & humility, the hungering & thirsting after righteousness that you are describing here. But Lord I know that as a citizen of your kingdom, you want to form these qualities in my life. I surrender myself to you, that you would help me to become all that you want me to be