This sermon, delivered during the Spring 2011 Week of Spiritual Emphasis at the General Conference in Silver Spring, Maryland, has been adapted for print. We have kept some of the unique characteristics of the oral presentation intact.—Editors.
Those sitting there on the mountainside by the Sea of Galilee had an expectation. Some of the people had heard about the wedding and the water-to-wine thing. There had been reports of thunder and a voice saying “This is My Son” and something unusual like that, so there was a sense of anticipation.
In the inauguration, in the initiation of His public ministry, what would Jesus say? The better part of 20 years in preparation, and what was it that He said? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3).
These words, according to Ellen White, were “strange and new” (Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 6). They were radical. They were like a bombshell dropped on first-century Judaism. No, it’s not the Pharisees. No, it’s not the Sadducees. No, it’s not the Essenes. It’s not the Zealots.1 Jesus did not align Himself with any of them. He had a distinct mission. I would go as far as to say that with Jesus’ distinct mission and distinct message came a distinct methodology.
“His words had struck at the very root of their former ideas and opinions; to obey His teaching would require a change in all their habits of thought and action” (ibid
., p. 147). Ellen White’s words grow even more amazing. “It would bring them into collision with their religious teachers; for it would involve the overthrow of the whole structure which for generations the rabbis had been rearing” (ibid
Now, what does that sound like? The overthrow of the structure. It’s a revolution, man. Jesus, on the Mount of Blessing, is not only revelatory, He is revolutionary. Listen to the language: “The overthrow of the whole structure which for generations the rabbis had been rearing.” Jesus is the quintessential revolutionary.
Ellen White continues: “In the Sermon on the Mount He sought to undo the work that had been wrought by false education” (The Desire of Ages, p. 299). It wasn’t so much what Jesus had to teach them, it was that He had to teach them how to unlearn; Jesus had to “undo” the work that had been wrought by false education and “give His hearers a right conception of His kingdom and of His character” (ibid.).
Speaking to a very diverse audience that brought cultural, religious, social, and psychological differences together, Jesus had to rewire everything.
The First Step
Keeping in mind Jesus’ desire to undo what had been learned, let’s go to Matthew 5. I would like to introduce you to a new way of looking at the Beatitudes. We sometimes have the tendency, many of us, in our perfunctory study of Scripture, to view the Beatitudes as isolated, unrelated pearls of wisdom.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That’s so nice, like a Hershey’s Kiss of spirituality. It’s like Chicken Soup for the Soul, first-century-style.
But watch what Jesus does here. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The very first step in everyone’s spiritual journey is to recognize their spiritual poverty. Every person’s journey begins here, in the same place. Only those who recognize that at some level they are spiritually impoverished will go looking for a solution to their impoverishment. So when Jesus speaks here, from the summit of the new covenant Sinai, He is not only speaking to the Pharisees, or the Sadducees, or the Essenes, or the Zealots; He is speaking to humanity. He is speaking to the Chinese, to the Africans, to the South Americans . . . He is speaking to everyone.
And Jesus isn’t giving isolated, disparate drops of spiritual wisdom. There is, instead, a sequential development to the Beatitudes. This will become clearer as we develop the pattern. Everyone’s spiritual journey begins where Jesus began it—with the recognition of their basic spiritual destitution. The thief on the cross—all he knew was that he was scared and he was in trouble. He knew he was nailed to a tree. He knew he wasn’t getting off the tree. And in that moment of terror he turned to Jesus and said, “[Lord,] remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). When Jesus replied, “You will be with me in paradise” (verse 43), his journey began.
The Mourning Meek
Everyone’s journey begins there. However, for those who are not nailed to a tree (which is most of us, fortunately), there is a progression in our spiritual experience. Not only do we recognize our spiritual poverty, but given sufficient time and spiritual maturation, we will begin to mourn our spiritual condition. To lament our spiritual condition, Jesus not only says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”; He then adds, “Blessed are those who mourn” that condition, “for they will be comforted.”
This is the experience of repentance, a genuine repentance in which we repent not only for the consequences of our actions, but for the actions themselves. “Blessed are they that mourn”—blessed are they who recognize in an increasingly deep and resonant fashion their spiritual impoverishment, and mourn this spiritual state.
Ellen White wrote: “There is not a point that needs to be dwelt upon more earnestly, repeated more frequently, or established more firmly in the minds of all than the impossibility of fallen man meriting anything by his own best good works” (Faith and Works, p. 19). Ellen White says this is what we need to dwell on—our fallenness, and, by extension, God’s awesomeness.
We need to have this experience on a daily basis; is that even often enough? We need to have an awareness of what we’d be without God. In the words of John Wesley: “But for the grace of God, there go I.”
What’s next? Jesus says: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5).
After we have recognized our spiritual poverty—and mourn that spiritual condition—we begin to realize that everyone else is fundamentally similar to us. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. This realization should have an impact on the way we treat those around us.
The apostle Paul says that we no longer regard any man according to the flesh
(2 Cor. 5:16). What we have to try to do is view others and—here is the trickiest part—ourselves through the eyes of Jesus.
It’s an unexpected thing, but when our eyes are opened, we act as Paul describes; we don’t judge people as they are. We suddenly see them through the eyes of Christ. This new way of seeing creates in us an attitude of meekness.
Look at where we are in the spiritual journey. We have recognized our spiritual condition; we have mourned that condition as a sign of increasing spiritual maturity and repentance. This gives us an attitude of meekness and commonality with those around us. But we suddenly realize that there is a deficiency, a desperate need in us. In fact, the deficiency is so great that Jesus uses the language of hunger. There is something lacking that we know we ourselves do not possess and cannot possess. What are we hungering and thirsting for? Righteousness.
Jesus’ language is purposely picturesque here. Hunger and thirst! This is something we have to have. Righteousness. We discover a constant awareness of our need for the righteousness of Christ. The greatest statement of Ellen White, in my humble opinion, has to be in The Desire of Ages, page 25: “Christ was treated as we deserve, that we might be treated as He deserves. He was condemned for our sins, in which He had no share, that we might be justified by His righteousness, in which we had no share. He suffered the death which was ours, that we might receive the life which was His. ‘With His stripes we are healed.’ ”
To me, this is the most succinct, poetic, glorious, extrabiblical articulation of the gospel. I can’t imagine how it could be articulated better. To me, this is it. This is what will keep us in the center. It’s the righteousness of Christ—and a commitment to the basic Adventist message. This is who we are.
You don’t have to look like me, or be like me. Today I didn’t wear a tie. I was very happy that others weren’t wearing ties. We’re OK. We’re good. You like the silk necklaces; I don’t like them.
With Mercy and Peace
So after we’ve hungered and thirsted for righteousness, look at this next one: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matt. 5:7). This is so simple when you realize that you get the righteousness of Christ for one reason only—the mercy of God. Period.
You receive the righteousness of Christ and the plan of salvation and the gift of salvation for one reason. God is good and merciful, and when you realize God has bestowed upon you an undeserved act of mercy this radically affects the way that you treat others. You begin to try—and that’s the operative word—to treat others the way God has treated you. With deference, with kindness, with respect, and with mercy, because love covers a multitude of sins.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” When you begin to treat others the way Christ has treated you, something begins to happen to your heart. Through His righteousness we start to become “pure in heart” (verse 8).
Righteousness comes, true sanctification comes, when we begin to treat others the way Christ has treated us. That’s how our hearts begin to be purified. We come to God as we are; He fills us, and through His mercy we see God—and we reflect Him.
And now in the second-to-the-last beatitude (Matt. 5:9) Jesus says that as we begin to treat others as Christ has treated us in ministry, we want to bring them the message of the Prince of Peace—and the God of peace who, fundamentally, is the message of peace.
In 2 Corinthians 5 Paul reminds us that God has reconciled the world to Himself. Romans 5:1 adds: “Therefore since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God.” And God made “peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col. 1:20). The implication here is that Jesus is the Prince of Peace who brings the message of peace, and we can carry that message to our brothers and sisters. God has made peace with humanity in the man
This morning I ask: Won’t you receive that peace, won’t you receive that ransom?
This is fundamentally our message, that God, in the person of Christ, has built a bridge. Jesus is the bridge between God and humanity. Our message is at its heart a message of peace, that God has made peace with humanity. When we accept this and our hearts are changed, our lives begin to be built around ministry. We ask: How do I bring the message of Christ to others?
Take a look at the second part there. It says: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:9). Who was the Son of God? Jesus. So this is Jesus’ way of saying that when a person’s entire life is built around sharing God’s message, that person becomes like Him. They become a “child” of God.
For me, this sequence is absolutely profound. And the very best part is the last part. For those of you who are looking ahead, you are thinking, That’s the persecution part. I’m a little confused about that. We’ll get to that in just a second.
Becoming a Threat
Let’s walk through this quickly. We’ve progressed to the point where, in our meekness, we realize we are bereft. We need something that we know we do not possess. We need the righteousness of God, and He fills us with it. We begin to treat others as God has treated us. We begin to lavish mercy upon others. As we do this, what begins to happen to us? Our heart begins to be purified in a wonderful and new way as we reach out to others in authentic ministry. As we reach out to them and as we bring them water, as we bring them health care, the health message, and as we bring them education, as we meet the basic needs of humanity, we also say, “Let me tell you about Jesus.”
We finally get to the point where we are so filled with Christ that our life is built around ministry, and our life is so crafted around the message of the Prince of Peace (and bringing that message to others) that we become a threat to Satan. That’s why the final beatitude says: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness” (Matt. 5:10).
When Paul was smitten on the road to Damascus, did Jesus ask, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute My church?”
No. He asked: “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). When the church is so identified with Christ, to persecute one is to persecute the other.
Someone once said, “You can tell a lot about a man by looking at who wants him dead.”
I want to be the kind of Christian that Satan wants dead. Don’t be so naïve as to think that the devil wants everyone dead. If only it were so easy. There are many people he is perfectly happy to have healthy and prominent and beautiful and famous. Persecution is the inevitable result of being filled with the Spirit of Christ. “All who labor [for Christ] will suffer persecution” (see 1 Cor. 4:12 and
2 Tim. 3:12). It’s going to happen.
Beginning and Ending
Here’s the capstone. You stayed with me, so now you get the dessert.
Go back to Matthew 5:3. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Now watch this. Verse 4: “Will be comforted.” Verse 5: “Will inherit the earth.” Verse 6: “Will be filled.” Verse 7: “Will obtain mercy.” Verse 8: “Will see God.” Verse 9: “Will be called children of God.” What has happened to our verb tense? We shifted from the present tense to the future tense.
Now watch what Jesus does in a stroke of absolute, divine brilliance and encouragement: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is . . .” (verse 10). The very same thing. Don’t miss this. This is the best part.
You would be tempted at first blush to think this is a chiastic pattern, A-B-C-B-A, but I suggest that it is sequential. Jesus here in a very brilliant, encouraging stroke is saying that if you are just at the beginning, if you’re a thief nailed to a tree and all you know is that you are a sinner in need of a Savior, heaven is made for you. Heaven is your home.
But then Jesus says, in the process of spiritual maturation—what we would call sanctification—you mourn your condition, your experience of repentance deepens, and daily you go back to that place. You begin to grow and then you begin to treat others the way that God has treated you. You have an attitude of meekness, and you hunger and thirst for righteousness. You realize that you have received mercy, and you want to bring that mercy to those around you. Your heart begins to be purified, though sometimes unrevealed and unbeknownst to yourself, you begin to reach out to others with the message of the Prince of Peace. And lo, and behold, you begin to be persecuted.2
And Jesus, when He gets to the end of the sequence, says: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
He wants you to know that wherever you are along this beatitudal ladder, wherever you are in the sequence, you are His. And this makes Satan fearful.
As Ellen White describes, when John the Baptist preached, standing up to his waist in muddy waters in the river Jordan, Satan trembled for the future of his kingdom (see The Desire of Ages, p. 224).
Maybe that’s you, spreading the Word, on fire for Him. I hope it is. But wherever you are in the continuum, Jesus’ message is unmistakable. Yours is the kingdom of heaven.
The burden of Jesus’ heart as He stood on that mountain was to give people hope, perspective—to give them access to God, His kingdom, and His character. Heaven was made for those near the end of the journey. Persecuted—and closer, perhaps, to the summit.
But “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Heaven was also made for people at the beginning. It was made for those like me, with all of my warts, with all of my pimples, with all of my faults, foibles, and inconsistencies.
No matter where we are, heaven was made for all of us. “Yours is the kingdom of heaven!”
1 I won’t take the time to demonstrate, but there are at least broad analogies in modern contemporary Christianity that would be well represented by each of these groups.
2 If you are not experiencing persecution, I would step out on a limb and ask a question: Is there nothing to persecute?
David Asscherick is director of ARISE, a training and discipling ministry located in sonora, California. This article was published June 23, 2011.