“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:3-4)
While no sermon ever preached has been more significant to the Christian Church than the Sermon on the Mount, tragically, only one-third of Americans know enough about it to identify Jesus as the one who preached it. In fact, many Americans actually believe that it was a sermon preached by Billy Graham!1 Probably even sadder is the fact that most Christians do not believe that it is possible to live the Sermon on the Mount. Many churches today have adopted the dispensationalist view that says that the Sermon on the Mount is not applicable to Christians today. They teach that it belongs to the era of law rather than grace or expresses the standards of Christ’s millennial reign.2 This however was not the view of the early church!
The earliest interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, outside of the New Testament, appears to be in the Didache, which was written between AD 60-80. The Didache talks about “two ways:” the way of life and the way of death which seem to come from the “narrow gate” and “wide gate” which Jesus talks about in Matthew 7:13-14. At the conclusion of the description of the two ways, the author of the Didache wrote, “See that no one leads you astray from this way of the teaching, for such a person teaches you without regard for God. For if you are able to bear the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect. But if you are not able, then do what you can.” The author of the Didache viewed the Sermon on the Mount as a description of the true righteousness that characterizes the ideal Christian disciple. The author of the Didache taught that the follower of Jesus should “constantly strive to be “perfect even as the Father in heaven is perfect,” knowing that “God will grant righteousness to those who hunger and thirst for it.”
John Chrysostom was a preacher from Antioch who lived from 347-407. Chrysostom’s sermons on Matthew are the oldest exposition of Matthew that is now in existence. Chrysostom pointed out that some believers, from the apostolic age until his own time, had actually been characterized by the exemplary righteousness that the Sermon on the Mount described. He believed that divine grace would empower those who sought such righteousness to attain it. On several occasions, he denied that the Sermon on the Mount expressed an impossible ethic that believers could not attain. He wrote, “Let us not consider that these commandments are impossible!” He went on to say that for the Christian “none of the things He has command are burdensome or odious.”3 Even John Calvin taught that believers could keep the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, but only through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.4
The Sermon on the Mount applies to all Christians and the righteousness described in this Sermon should be the goal for our character and conduct today. It is not an impossible goal that was intended to drive us into despair but it is a description of the effects of God’s transforming grace. This righteousness is not attained through human effort but through the Divine enabling grace of Christ! The Sermon on the Mount describes the righteousness that is the fruit of the Spirit whom Christ gives to His followers. What we see in this sermon is the law of God written on the believer’s heart in fulfillment of the new covenant. The righteousness described in this sermon will naturally and spontaneously characterize the lives of Christ’s followers.
Someone who truly repents of their sins, and trusts in Christ to save them, experiences a radical transformation in their life. Some preachers emphasize Christ’s imputed righteousness to our accounts – but they fail to see that Christ also imparts His righteousness to those who follow Him. Grace is not an excuse for a sinful lifestyle. True disciples will be characterized by righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. Those who have become a son or daughter of the Heavenly Father will resemble Him in their character and behavior. “As a result, personal holiness is an important indication of whether one who professes to follow Christ is truly His disciple.” This righteousness is not the product of self-effort, but it is the result of a gracious God filling those who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness.5 The commandments of the Sermon on the Mount are not to be viewed as laws to be kept in order to achieve salvation or as requirements for becoming a child of God. Rather the commandments define the character and conduct of those who are already followers of Jesus. They describe the holy life that followers of Christ are to lead.
As we begin our study of this Sermon, may we remember one more thing John Chrysostom wrote, “Even before heaven [Christ] commands us to make earth heaven, and while living on earth to conduct ourselves as citizens there.”6
The Sermon on the Mount is carefully organized. The first four beatitudes are alliterated (and I love alliteration!), but of course they’re alliterated in Greek so that’s not a whole lot of help for us! They all begin with the Greek letter “π.” This alliteration divides the Beatitudes into two equal sections of four beatitudes each. Notice the phrase, “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This marks both the first and the last beatitude and serves as an inclusio which is a stylistic device which is used to show that everything bracketed between these two statements of “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven” is really part of one theme – the Kingdom of Heaven.7 So, the Beatitudes are collectively showing the nature of those who are part of Christ’s Kingdom. Jesus’ model prayer is the center of this Sermon and this serves to highlight the importance of prayer.8
What does it mean to be “blessed”? The term “blessed” comes from the Greek word μακάριος (mak-ar’-ee-os) which is a word used by Jesus to describe those who were recipients of God’s favor. Jesus was not referring to an emotion or feeling that is based on present circumstances. He also was not saying that life would be free from difficulty – in fact He says just the opposite! However, what Jesus is saying is that those who are “blessed” are filled with a deep inner joy of long awaited salvation which has been promised by God. You could say that “blessed” means “congratulations.” It also means “approval,” and in this case it is the approval of God. To be “blessed” in the way Jesus uses the term means to be under the anointing of the Holy Spirit9 and be approved by God because our “Monarch” has mercifully given us grace.10
The First Beatitude
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5:3)
What does it mean to be “poor”? The Greek adjective translated as “poor” comes from the verb which means “to cower” or “to bow down timidly.” It describes the posture of a beggar as he holds out his cup and pleads for money. In Jesus’ day beggars lived in a state of absolute dependence on the graciousness and generosity of others. “Poor in spirit” mean “beggarly in spirit,” and describes someone who is keenly aware that he is spiritually destitute and must rely entirely on the grace of God for salvation. The one who is “poor in spirit” realizes that they stand “without pretense before God, stripped of all self-sufficiency, self-security, and self-righteousness.”11 Jesus is not saying that people who are poor in this world’s goods are blessed; He is saying that those who are “poor in spirit” are blessed. Jesus is talking about a “poverty” of spirit. Not financial destitution or material poverty, but a “personal acknowledgment of spiritual bankruptcy.” This is “conscious confession of unworth before God.”12 This is not someone who is “poor-mouthing” themselves, nor is it an artificial “self-hatred” – this is someone who has come face to face with the reality of their own sinfulness and is truly repentant!
This type of “poverty” is something that the writers of the Old Testament often wrote about. In Psalm 86:1-5, we read:
1 Bow down Your ear, O LORD, hear me; for I am poor and needy. 2 Preserve my life, for I am holy; you are my God; Save Your servant who trusts in You! 3 Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I cry to You all day long. 4 Rejoice the soul of Your servant, for to You, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 5 For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You.
Listen to what God said in Isaiah 57:15:
For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.
In Isaiah 66:2 God said, “…on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word.” Have you ever come face to face with your own sinfulness and truly repented? The problem with so many so-called Christians today is that they have never truly repented and turned from their wicked ways. They may have “accepted” Christ or “invited Him into their hearts,” but they’ve never really came face-to-face with the true condition of their hearts. John Wesley asked:
Who then are the poor in spirit? Without question, to Jesus the poor in spirit are the humble. The poor in spirit are those who know themselves. It is they who are convinced of their own sins. The poor in spirit are those to whom God has given that first repentance. This must first be given before there can be that faith which is in Jesus…the poor in spirit knows that he is wretched, poor, miserable, blind, and naked. He is convinced that he is spiritually poor indeed. He knows that he has no spiritual good abiding in him. He says, “In me dwells no good thing, but only that which is evil and abominable.” He has a deep sense of the loathsome sin which has been surrounding him since his birth. They know that sin overspreads his own soul and totally corrupts every power and faculty of it. He sees, more and more, the bad tempers which spring from that bad root. He is aware of his pride and haughtiness of spirit. He knows of his constant bias to think more of himself than he ought to thing. He is convicted of his vanity and thirst after the esteem and honor that comes from men. He knows that he has hatred, envy, jealousy, revenge, anger, malice, and bitterness. He admits to an inbred enmity both against God and against man, which appears in thousands of shapes. He admits to loving the world rather than loving God. He confesses to the self-will, the foolish and harmful desires, which cleave to his inmost soul. He is aware of how deeply he has offended God and man with his words. If he is not guilty of profane, immodest, untrue or unkind words, he is guilty of conversation which does not edify and does not glorify God…His evil past is now always in his sight. If he were to tell his faults, they would be more than he would be able to express. He may as well try to number the drops of the rain, the sands of the sea, or the days of eternity, as to number his many mistakes. The poor in spirit is now fully aware of his guilt.
He knows the punishment which he deserves. He knows he could be punished for his carnal mind and the universal corruption of his nature. However, he is much more aware of the punishment he deserves for all his desires, thoughts, sinful words, and actions. He does not doubt, even for a moment, that the least of these deserves damnation. Above all, he knows he is guilty of not believing Jesus. He wonders how he can escape being punished for having neglected the salvation which is in Jesus…The wrath of God properly abides upon him.
How can he make up for his past? What can he trade to God in exchange for his soul? What can he do to stop the vengeance of God? How shall he come before Him? How shall he pay that which he owes? …he sees himself utterly helpless with regard to atoning for his past sins. He is unable to make any amends to God. He cannot pay any ransom for his own soul.
He knows that he cannot even make a deal with God. He cannot promise to sin no more in return for Gods’ forgiveness. He cannot agree constantly to obey all of God’s commands. He knows such a condition is beyond his ability to perform. He knows and feels he is not able to obey even the outward commandments of God. He knows he cannot obey the outward commandments while his heart remains in sinfulness and corruption…Surrounded with win, sorrow, fear and finding no way through the gate, he can only cry, “God, save me or I perish.”
Poverty of spirit, then, is a just sense of both inward and outward sins. It is a sense of our true guilt and helplessness.13
Have you recognized your absolute inability to save yourself and cast yourself at the feet of Christ in complete deliverance to save you? It is to those who are “poor in spirit” that Christ promises “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The “poor in spirit” have a King who graciously reigns over them as King here and now and graciously promises them a part in His future Kingdom.
You may recall that at the end of this sermon Jesus tells those who think they are the spiritual elite, and who expect to enter the Kingdom: “…I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” This is a great reversal that is characteristic of grace – the spiritually destitute who have no apparent claim to the Kingdom will be the very ones who possess it.14
Do you sense your poverty of spirit? Allow me to quote John Wesley again:
When you feel yourself lost, you know that you have a right to the kingdom of heaven. The gracious promises and teachings of Jesus are true. This kingdom was purchased for you by Him. It is very near. You are on the brink of heaven. One more step, and you will enter into the kingdom of righteousness and peace and joy. Do you believe you are all sin? Look to Jesus, who promised to take away all of the sins of the world. Are you all unholy? See in Jesus the righteousness which He has promised you. Are you unable to make up for the least of your sins? He has taken all of yours sins upon himself. If you can but believe this, all of your sins are forgiven. Do you know yourself to be totally unclean in soul and in body? The grace of God will cleanse you and make you sinless. Dare to believe this. You need stagger no more in unbelief. Arise, and believe this promise.15
The Second Beatitude
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Mt. 5:4)
What does it mean to mourn? What are the people who are blessed by God mourning over? These two questions are important ones. Is Jesus simply saying that when you mourn over a lost loved one you are blessed and you will be comforted?
This second beatitude, along with the first, reverberates themes from Isaiah 61:1-3. Jesus was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesies about the coming Messiah.
1 The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, Because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound; 2 To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn, 3 To console those who mourn in Zion, To give them beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; That they may be called trees of righteousness, The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.
The context of Isaiah 61 portrays Israel “mourning” as an expression of sorrow for Israel’s exile as the result of their sinful rebellion against God. I think the appeal to Isaiah 61 here in this second beatitude implies that the mourning which Jesus is speaking of is mourning for sin. The Old Testament is filled with examples of this type of mourning.
- Psalm 119:136, “Rivers of water run down from my eyes, because men do not keep Your law.”
- Psalm 40:12, “My iniquities have overtaken me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of my head; therefore my heart fails me.”
- Psalm 51:16-17, “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart. These, O God, You will not despise.”
Once again in this second beatitude we see the necessity of repentance. This was the message of both Jesus and John the Baptist. Mourning shows the sincerity and intensity of true repentance. You “mourn” when someone dies. You mourn because you will be separated from the one whom you loved. I think in this second beatitude we see Jesus saying that He will comfort those who “mourn” in the realization of their own impending death for their sin and because of their separation from God. This is not a superficial regret, or a fear of being “found out” by other people. This is not the necessary “I’m sorry” when you’ve been caught. This is true repentance which makes no excuses and offers no rationalization. This is grieving for sin from a broken heart. This is someone who is grieving over their separation from God.
To those who mourn over their sin, Jesus promises “they will be comforted.” This means that God will act to restore the broken relationship and bring the repentant mourner back into fellowship with Himself. The sorrow of the sinner’s exile from God will be replaced with the joy of God’s presence. The sinner’s mourning will be turned to praise for the One who saved him. Let’s return to Isaiah 61 again for a moment.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; For He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the earth brings forth its bud, As the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, So the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.
The sorrowful cries of the mourner were turned to rejoicing in the joy of the One who clothed with garments of salvation and the robe of righteousness – the mourner was comforted.
I have told you that when someone becomes a Christian they leave the kingdom of this world and become the citizen of Christ’s kingdom. Christ’s kingdom is both already and not yet. The poor in spirit inherit the kingdom, and the mourners are comforted, now and not yet. The ultimate fulfillment of the promise of the Kingdom, and the promise they “will be comforted,” will be fulfilled in the future when Christ returns. In Revelation 7 we are told of a day when we will be:
…before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple. And He who sits on the throne will dwell among them. 16 They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; 17 for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Someday the last tear will be wiped from the mourner’s eyes and we will be comforted by His physical presence forever!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor who paid the ultimate price for standing up against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime in Germany. While the majority of the German church went along with Hitler, Bonhoeffer did not. In 1937 Bonhoeffer was disgusted with the condition of the church and state, and so he responded to the need for reform by bluntly relating the differences between the common religion of his day and Christ’s intentions for His followers. Responding to the political and spiritual condition of Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer wrote his famous book The Cost of Discipleship. In it he wrote about the Sermon on the Mount and he maintained that discipleship is a necessary response to the grace extended in the call to Christianity. This is how he began the first chapter:
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace.
Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?
Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. The Church which holds the correct doctrine of grace has, it is supposed, ipso facto [by the fact itself] a part in that grace. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.
Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. “All for sin could not atone.” The world goes on in the same old way, and we are still sinners “even in the best life” …. Let the Christian rest content in his worldliness and with this renunciation of any higher standard than the world. He is doing it for the sake of the world rather than for the sake of grace. Let him be comforted and rest assured in his possession of this grace–for grace alone does everything. Instead of following Christ, let the Christian enjoy the consolations of his grace! That is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a world of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”16
What kind of grace do you have? “Cheap” grace that costs nothing or a “costly” grace that has caused you to leave everything and follow Jesus? Cheap grace requires no poverty of spirit or mourning over sin. Cheap grace is grace without repentance.
To the poor in spirit God calls and says:
1 “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, Come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance. 3Incline your ear, and come to Me. Hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you — The sure mercies of David. (Isa. 55:1-3)
To those who mourn God calls and says that He will:
…console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified. (Isa. 61:3)
I’ve been quoting from Isaiah, but let me remind you of what happened when Isaiah’s own eyes were opened to his sinfulness. What did he do? Did he try to hide his sin or offer excuses? No! He said: “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts” (Isa. 6:5).
Perhaps as you’ve read this message God has opened your eyes to your condition and you realize that you are unclean before Him. Perhaps you’ve begun to mourn over your condition and realize that you are truly poor. If this is the case, God is willing and waiting to welcome you Home. Go to Him and find deliverance from your sins!
 Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, 2.
 Ibid, 9.
 Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, 4-5.
 Ibid, 8.
 Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, 34.
 Ibid, 11.
 Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, 17.
 Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, 16.
 Kendall, The Sermon on the Mount, 25.
 Ibid, 22.
 Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, 42-43.
 Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, 18.
 Wesley, The Nature of the Kingdom, 51-53.
 Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, 52.
 Wesley, The Nature of the Kingdom, 56.
 Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 43-45.