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The Greatest Sermon Ever Told | What Kind of a Sermon Is This?
September 10, 2023
1Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
2And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons[a] of God.
10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
To discover and experience Jesus Christ in our midst
To cultivate mutually encouraging relationships
To participate in God’s mission to the world
Almighty God, as we gather together may we rest in your Spirit, and may we remember that you alone renew our lives. Help us shake off all that weighs down, that we may be free to hold fast to you, the One who fills our lives with unmerited grace and abounding love. In the name of Christ, your Son, we pray. Amen.
Responsive Prayer—Psalm 1
1Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
3He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
4The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6For the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Summary and Connection
Today, we begin a new series focused on the Sermon on the Mount titled, The Greatest Sermon Ever Told. This study guide is based on Matthew 5:1-4. The Sermon on the Mount has garnered the reputation of being the most famous as well as one of the most misunderstood, and misinterpreted sections of Jesus’ teaching ministry. What are the ways in which the Sermon on the Mount is misunderstood? Some Christians, and non-Christians read the Sermon in a legalistic or mechanistic manner: “If you are poor in spirit, or if you mourn, then God will favor you and bless you.” Some see the Sermon as an impossible ideal: “There is no way any human being can live up to the standards Jesus is setting here!” Then there are some who interpret the Sermon in light of social justice: “God favors the materially poor and despises the rich.” However, the Sermon on the Mount is not a legal manifesto addressing how to earn God’s favor by leading a moralistic lifestyle. It is neither an impossible ideal, nor an exclusive treatise on social justice. What is it then? To put it simply, the Sermon on the Mount captures Jesus’ vision for human flourishing, or what is called, often with a philosophical undertone—the good life.
How is the Sermon on the Mount a vision for human flourishing and good life? In order to answer that question we need to take a closer look at the strikingly paradoxical series of nine statements called the Beatitudes. It is important to understand why Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes. The word “Beatitudes” is a transliteration of the Latin translation of the Greek word makarios—beatus. The beatitudes are statements that ascribes happiness or flourishing to a particular person. They are pronouncements, based on observation, affirming a certain state of being and living in the world that produces human flourishing. In other words, the beatitudes are not pronouncements of what to do or be to merit and enjoy God’s favor. New Testament scholar Scott McKnight aptly captures the importance of the word makarios: “On this one word the entire passage stands and from this one word the whole list hangs. Get this word right, the rest fall into place; get it wrong, and the whole thing falls apart.”
Jesus’ strikingly paradoxical statements answer three vital questions as it pertains to human flourishing or good life: 1) What does it mean to be blessed? 2) Who is blessed? 3) How are we blessed? In Hebrew, the word for “blessed” has two connotations: barak and asre. They are organically related, yet they are distinct. The word barak signifies the initiating, and effecting actions of the person who is blessing—God. However, the word asre stresses a state of blessing or flourishing as observed by someone else, a bystander who is not initiating the blessing. Therefore, to be blessed or to flourish is to be in a covenantal relationship with God, like the tree planted by the water that bears fruit (Psalm 1). Furthermore, the blessed ones are the ones who are covenantally united with Christ, being and living in paradoxical lowly states—poor in spirit, the mourners, and the meek. In other words, to truly flourish as human beings, and to fully experience the good life in the ‘already but not yet’ stage on earth, is to acknowledge our spiritual poverty and bankruptcy before God, emptying ourselves of our self-righteousness, and looking to Jesus as the one who initiates our blessing, and the blessed one. Thus, the beatitudes, by capturing the state of blessedness of the ones who are in a covenantal relationship with God, provides the foundational context for the rest of the Sermon. The beatitudes emphasize the overarching theme of the Bible—indicatives always precede imperatives. What Christians do is based on who we are in Christ. We obey because God has loved us and united us to himself by his Son; we are not united to God, nor do we make him love us because we have obeyed him. Our obedience is a response to his love, not a purchase of it.
1. Looking at the Bible
What does the text say? Who are the main characters in this story? What according to you is the theme of this passage?
- Look at verses 1-2: Why does Matthew tell us that Jesus went up the mountain, that he sat down and opened his mouth and taught?
- What is the significance of Jesus beginning the beatitudes by blessing the ‘poor in spirit’?
- According to Jesus, who are ‘those who mourn’? Is Jesus speaking of those who mourn the loss of a loved one or something else? If not, why?
2. Looking at Jesus
At Central we believe that all of Scripture points to Jesus. In other words, Jesus is the theological center of the Bible. Every passage not only points to Jesus, but the grand narrative of the Bible also finds its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus.
- What can we learn about the kingdom of God in general, and the character of Jesus in particular from this passage?
3. Looking at Our Hearts
The following are personal application questions based on the stages of growth in Christian faith.
- In the summary above, we read about the different ways we tend to misunderstand and misinterpret the Sermon on the Mount. How has Jason’s sermon, and this discussion helped you in correctly understanding the context of the Sermon on the Mount?
- According to you, how are the ‘poor in spirit’ and ‘those who mourn’ blessed? In what way do you receive the kingdom of heaven, and the comfort when you mourn?
4. Looking at Our World
- How does this passage offer us the hope and confidence to live a blessed life in a city like New York?
God’s word is a lamp to our feet. Christ’s teachings are a light to our path. May God’s word take root in our lives. May Christ’s love nourish and sustain us. Amen.
View Study Guide Notes
Question 1: Matthew wants the readers to understand the significance of Jesus’ actions, and the event in Jesus’ life and ministry. According to D.A Carson, Jesus deliberately went up the mountain to teach in order to draw a parallel between Moses who received the law on Mount Sinai, and himself who taught the law and its implications from the so-called ‘Mount of the Beatitudes.’ Mathew wants us to acknowledge Jesus as the greater Moses who has come proclaiming the kingdom to true Israel—both Jews and the Gentiles.
Furthermore, Matthew writes about Jesus sitting down, and opening his mouth to teach. It looks like a redundant detail, until we recognize that the expression was a well-known semitic idiom, or a traditional formula. In other words, Matthew deliberately presents Jesus as an authority figure, a teacher who is here to teach about the kingdom of God. Jesus is unlike the religious teachers of his day in that his teaching was essentially an announcement of the kingdom of God—a new vision for human flourishing, or good life.
As we have already learned, the Sermon on the Mount marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He is surrounded by a large crowd that includes his disciples as well. Of all the ways Jesus could have presented himself, and his vision for the kingdom, Jesus deliberately starts by addressing the ‘poor in spirit.’ Jesus had a massive audience with a wide ranging socio-economic background. It is important to understand that he does not single out materially poor, or the oppressed as the blessed ones as opposed to the rest who are not blessed. The Hebrew word for poor certainly captures material poverty, and God’s love for the poor, and the oppressed. However, the word also means the lowly and the humble. So, why does Jesus begin by blessing the poor in spirit? One commentator makes an insightful observation: “At the very outset of the Sermon on the Mount, we learn that we do not have the spiritual resources to put any of the sermon’s precepts into practice. We cannot fulfill God’s standards ourselves. We must come to him and acknowledge our spiritual bankruptcy, emptying ourselves of our self-righteousness, moral self-esteem, and personal vainglory. Emptied of these things we are ready for him to fill us.”\
When you read the verse, “blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted,” it is natural for both Christians and non-Christians alike to conclude that Jesus is talking about people who are mourning and are in inexplicable grief precipitated by a loss, be it of a loved one or a beloved thing. It is true that God comforts his people who have lost their loved ones by offering the peace of his presence in their trying times. However, this beatitude is about the ones who mourn, and are distressed about their spiritual bankruptcy, in light of God’s great love for them. In other words, this is the sorrow of repentance. It is the kind of intense sorrow that we see in David’s Psalms of repentance (Psalm 32 and 51). The ones who mourn in repentance, bewailing their own sinfulness, will be comforted by the only comfort which can relieve their distress, namely the unmerited forgiveness of God, received in and through the comforter himself, Jesus Christ.
Question 2: As mentioned in the summary and connection, the Sermon on the Mount is not about ethical or virtuous living, nor is it about legalistic religious code. The Sermon on the Mount is essentially an announcement—it is the proclamation of the breaking in of the kingdom of God. Jesus ushers in the kingdom of God, establishing a new covenant—the covenant of grace. Jesus proclaims the kingdom through his teaching, and he demonstrates the kingdom through his miracles and healings. By his proclamation and demonstration of the kingdom, Jesus shows us that it is grace, and not the law, that restores human nature. Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God as the kingdom of peace, prosperity, and rest. In other words, the kingdom of God is a vision for human flourishing and the good life. Jesus’ kingdom is upside-down in that unlike the worldly kingdom, in Jesus’ kingdom the ones who flourish are the ones who are united with Christ—humble and lowly, who acknowledge their sinfulness and mourn, the ones who live by faith. What is fascinating about the kingdom of God is the fact that irrespective of one’s earthly circumstances, ones who belong to Christ, inherit the kingdom of heaven, and truly experience the peace and comfort now, and fully experience the perfect peace in eternity.
In this passage we see Jesus as both the initiator of the blessing and as the blessed one. Jesus as fully God and fully man, humbles himself, dwelling among sinful people as the blessing. He blesses people by his healings and miracles. Furthermore, Jesus is also the blessed one. He is the true and perfect blessed one who bore the fruit of perfect righteousness and obedience. He is the true and perfect blessed one who fulfilled the righteous requirement of the law we see in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is the true and perfect blessed lamb of God who bore the sins of his people and covered them with the robe of his righteousness. The only way to be blessed, and the only way to flourish, and to experience good life is through the blessed one who unites himself to us.
Question 3: First question is a personal application question.
The poor in spirit are the humble ones who are in desperate need of God’s gracious presence to live. To such, and only such, is the kingdom of God is given, without any demand. God’s rule brings salvation as a gift—absolutely free and utterly undeserved. It can only be received with a childlike humility and reliance. Ask your group a follow-up question addressing the posture of their heart: If you examine your heart, do you see yourself exercising childlike faith, or are you self-reliant, or self-righteous?
It is vital for us to understand that ‘those who mourn’ does not mean the Christians who are perpetually morose, or forever living in guilt. At the individual level, this mourning is a personal grief over sin. This is the mourning experienced by a Christian who is more and more exposed to the holiness of God, and begins to recognize the ugliness of their sin. On a corporate level, this is the mourning experienced by a Christian who is burdened by the brokenness and devastation caused by the sins of the world. How is the mournful person comforted? As he mourns, he is comforted by the word of God, and the promises of God that are true in Christ. He is reminded of the beauty of the gospel—his status as the justified and righteous one in Christ. Most importantly, he is comforted by the assurance that one day, in new heaven and new earth, God himself comforts his people with his glorious presence, wiping away all tears from the eyes of those who once mourned.
Question 4: This passage reveals to us the radical nature of the kingdom of God, and most importantly, it reveals to us the heart of God towards his image bearers. God is not indifferent to the plight of humanity. God fulfills his promise and accomplishes his redemptive purpose by sending his son to redeem and restore human beings. As Christians, we are redeemed sinners who are united with Christ. We are like the tree planted by the water that is always flourishing. According to Scripture, our union with Christ, and our faithfulness to God is the good life, and the true representation of God’s original purpose. With this knowledge and unchangeable assurance, we can move into the worldly kingdom as the citizens of the kingdom of God. The beatitudes show us that our earthly circumstances do not mitigate our status, and this gives us hope in the midst of sin, sickness, destruction, decay, and ultimately death itself. Also, this reality enables us to be the instruments of grace, the blessed ones, who represent the kingdom of God wherever we are placed by God.