The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is written by a Jewish writer describing a Jewish teacher explaining to a primarily Jewish audience the idea of what life should be like; a blessed life. The first psalm in the Jewish book of Psalms also gives a picture of a blessed from a Jewish perspective: soak up the Torah, the revealed law of God, and you will be like a fresh, strong productive tree (instead of like the chaff waste blown off of grain which is to be burned).
Matthew 3 builds to the Sermon with the proclamation of John the immersing prophet who is calling Israel back to God’s law. He warns religious leaders that they may think of themselves as trees, but they are not like the one in Psalm 1. They have become dead trees in danger of getting cut down by their owner.
Jesus steps forward and identifies with the repentance of Israel in the wilderness, but he also wants to show his allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven, which is a Jewish way of saying the Kingdom of God. What is that? That is when and where God is in charge; sovereign; ruling. Jesus believes it and demonstrates it in three distinct temptations at the end of an excruciatingly long fast in the wilderness.
The wilderness time is numbered reflecting the wanderings of Israel. This one of God, unlike Israel, resists all temptations and is faithful. Neither the craving of physical needs like bread, relational needs like being seen as special enough to be saved miraculously nor the pragmatic temptation to spiritually compromise for earthly gain can make Jesus stray from his faith. Jesus shows that it is right to trust God as in charge because he is.
Immediately after the account of testing Matthew records how Jesus told others what he had lived: God is in charge here and now, so we ought to turn from how we are living to live in faithful obedience. Jesus and his newly chosen group of apprentices take this message to the people but soon have the people coming to them. That is when Jesus goes on the side of the hill and sits down his disciples, surrounded by those who look to him for blessing. What Jesus tells them is about the blessed life.
What is the blessed life? It is living in the rule of God, the Kingdom of Heaven. Who is it for? It is for those you might not expect, the poor and persecuted, the mourning, meek and starving, as well as for the merciful, pure hearted, peace makers. It is for those who grow up in real righteousness from God, not from society.
The explanation of the ‘blessed’ life is done in sequence, with eight ‘blessed are’ statements being explained in eight descriptions. These eight are divided into two equal groups, each with a header and 3 main sub-points.
The first group of four has the persecuted for righteousness sake as the header. Jesus explains in Matthew 5:11-48 how real righteousness matured in us really is the way to live with God in charge. In Mt 5:11-20 he explains why a blessed life is about more righteousness, not safe, mixed or hindered righteousness. The problem with most people is not that they are ‘too righteous’, it is that they aren’t genuinely righteous the way God has always said to be.
So what does it look like to grow in righteousness? One must be committed to making peace. This mindset, that God is right and that reconciliation should be the priority, is the fundamental righteousness needed to be identified as sons of God. If in fact we are his children, because he made peace for us and now calls us to grow up in His provided peace, we should also have hearts of integrity, purity. If our hearts are clouded by partially suppressed desires, by rationalized selfishness or by exaggeration, we should not be surprised that we cannot get a clear picture of God. God saves people as a peacemaker to be a peacemaker, and that requires integrity. If we are to grow in God’s grace we have to not only get past outward contempt and manipulation, we actually need to be of one mind, of a pure heart.
If we grow in God’s grace like that, then we will be so fundamentally different in this world that we will inescapably feel the pain of going against the grain of this world. Persecuted for righteousness sake is all about being genuinely different, not just acting as if we were different, such that the world’s aggression does not convert you. As a child who has been adopted into God’s family and is growing up in His character, you would expect a pattern of behavior that is unique. Having received undue mercy, you would then live that way and give mercy to others. That cycle continues. Get; give; get; give… God’s way will become our way as we grow up.
But how do we actually do that? Chapter 6 verse 1 states that the key is living to God and not to the religious or any other human community. Take giving, for example. The merciful man is giving mercy for a different reason than the socially motivated giver. Though hypocrites give to be seen, the blessed way to give is to do so for the sake of righteousness. One gives to fix a need, and that need is not to be perceived by others as generous. (Mt 6:2-4)
Likewise the discipline of prayer is not about boasting, it is about meekly asking. By closing the door and privately asking the one who is Lord over the earth to rule here as He does where He is, the earth is gained. Essentially the world will be ruled by God (and ultimately is so now, even if we do not fully see it as such). By praying meekly, loyally for that kind of world, one is necessarily going to receive that kind of world; it is the only world that will ultimately be. (Mt 6:5-15)
How does one get to be so pure of heart that they ask God to rule and they mercifully give just because they want things to be right? They have to grieve over what they have been doing to contribute to the problem. By fasting we can break the addiction to rationalizing our way of living that is not righteous. (Mt 6:16-18)
But where does that start? The whole thing starts with wise evaluation. What is truly valuable? If one cannot discern value, one’s investments are doomed. Those who see their spiritually poverty as the urgent and important issue over and against the common assessment that financial poverty is the problem that needs to be fixed; well, they are blessed. (Mt 6:19-24)
So what we have seen is two sides of the mountain. Blessed are those who are own up to being poor in spirit and treasure not being poor in spirit. They will fast, pray and give in ways that are real and useful. They will not do works of righteousness to look good to men, they will be God’s works of righteousness and do things unto Him as is only appropriate.
These are people who are increasingly mature in righteousness that contrasts with the world. Breaking from selfishness they become peacemakers. Being at peace with God and desiring to be at peace with others, they pray for purity of heart to see God as their provision, not their manipulative tactics. These are people of mercy who give mercy and get mercy because they are increasingly growing up in God’s blessed way.
What of the rest of the Sermon? Jesus was tempted and knows that people will have some real questions. He addresses the concern for straying from this path of blessed living as people have real physical needs in 6:25-34. He deals with peoples’ concerns about needing to sort out others first in 7:1-12. He deals with peoples’ presumption that they already are righteous by addressing their foundational character in regard to their relationship to God in 7:13-27. He amazed the crowd for the simple fact that he disarms their excuses. The unrighteous life should not be the life we live. There is a blessed life, and it is built on Jesus and what he can teach those who will build on him.