Empty people finding fullness

Jesus begins his ministry by announcing that ‘the Kingdom of God is at hand’. He has come to implement all God has in mind for the world.

His kingdom will be an arena, not just for fixing problems and managing our messiness, but for creating lovers of God who are devoted to his project.

So, Jesus explains what people in this kingdom look like—very much like himself of course—because he is not just the King but the prototype of what a subject is.

This, of course, amounts to a declaration of war. People who don’t already love God will not be interested in his way of life. Even the birth of Jesus is seriously contested. The local man in charge kills hundreds of children in an attempt to head-off any competition for control.

Things haven’t changed much. In many countries, including our own, Jesus is downplayed and his people maligned as harmful. If God is for real, and if Jesus has come to reveal him, the world recognises a rival, meaning that those who believe in him should be cancelled.

We need to know who God congratulates for getting things right. Jesus teaches us a number of ‘beatitudes’ (Matthew 5:2-10). But the word usually translated ‘blessed’ actually means to be congratulated or happy.

First, the people who have chosen well and have a good future are those who are ‘poor in spirit’.

Jesus is not saying it’s good to be depressed. Rather, he commends the person who knows that everything they really need and value in their life is going to have to come from someone else. That’s how poor they are. They feel this deeply—they are poor in spirit

There’s a story in the Old Testament about the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon. She sees his wealth. She hears his wisdom. And we are told that there is ‘no more spirit in her’ (1 Kings 10:5). Alongside of him, her wealth and wisdom are nothing.

Jesus does this to all of us. For a while, we think we can run our lives, change some things around us, keep ourselves happy and anticipate a good life. This soon runs thin.

Then, we see Jesus. He is not living for himself but for his Father—God. He doesn’t restlessly accuse us. He understands that our bluster is shallow and that we are really empty. And, he gives himself to us, and we know this. We begin to see that he’s the rich one and we are those in need.

Jesus demonstrates how to live in a world God looks after. He heals many who are sick. He delivers some who have fallen into the hands of evil spirits. He knows what he’s doing. Even better, he knows what God is doing. He’s believable. He’s real.

That’s when we become ‘poor in spirit’. If our life is going to amount to anything, it is going to have to start and finish knowing he’s the one who gets things right. He’s dwarfed us in the way he lives and speaks. But he doesn’t make dwarfs of us. He promises we will inherit God’s kingdom. We’ll be God’s special people—and he will be in charge of everything.

That’s why we are to be congratulated now. The reward is coming. But the congratulation is for now. We’ve chosen well.

Real comfort for grieving people

The second beatitude—or congratulation—says the people to be congratulated are those who are mourning. They will be comforted.

Perhaps we are grieving our own failure. We may be grieving over what loved ones are doing. We may be grieving as we see our culture moving from things that are helpful to things that self-destruct.

If we think we are the answer to the problem, we have not understood how deep the problem is. If we merely complain, or wish things hadn’t gone wrong, nothing changes.

Our problems are the necessary revelation of a disease that’s deep and deadly. There is only one Saviour.

We need to learn to grieve. It’s actually God’s gift to us (Zechariah 12:10).                                                                         

This is not being morbid or introspective. It’s acknowledging that our sins, and the sins that happen to or around us are real and have profound results.

Jesus says those who choose to grieve rather than evade reality will be comforted. Perhaps he has in mind what he says a few chapters after this one. ‘Come to me all you who are weary and weighed down. I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:29).

Jesus will have to deal with the real causes of the problem in us if he is going to bring us any relief. It will cost him his life to bring the help that is needed.

Jesus tells us not to be troubled (John 14:1, 27). But then, he has already said that said that his own heart is deeply troubled (John 12:27-33). He is contemplating the death where he will bear our griefs and carry our sorrows. The Lord will lay on him all our sins (Isaiah 53:4-6).

This is the comfort Jesus is promising when he says the grieving ones are to be congratulated. Not only do we have someone to deal with our sins. We have a message and a hope to bring to the whole world.

And of course, we will be part of the new world Christ is making by trusting him. That’s part of the comfort. What happens when Jesus deals with our grief is real, and lasting.

It will be good to look at the rest of these beatitudes one by one. But I hope, already, that we are seeing that, by sending Jesus to us, God is taking charge and putting things right. And he shows us how to be part of this kingdom, how to be on ‘the right side of history’, and so, to be congratulated.

Jesus is speaking to us, right to where we are, and promising a real and wonderful future. And it’s beginning now.

Change that goes to the heart of things

When Jesus comes among us, he needs to recalibrate our thinking as to what makes up a good life. Here’s the third of his ‘beatitudes’.

The meek are to be congratulated and they will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5-6).

We would say the strong and assertive are those who inherit the earth. Jesus knows better. A little later, he says that he himself is meek and lowly in heart (Matthew 11:28-30)—and he is going to inherit the earth.

Meekness is hard to define and harder to have! It has to do with how we relate to others. It’s not just avoiding being pushy. It’s not just being weak. It’s not just checking our impatience. It’s a deeply felt belief that we are here to help others but not to control them.

Remember that Jesus has begun his ministry announcing the kingdom of heaven is near. The question this raises is: who is in charge of everything? Or, who is responsible for saving the earth?

We tend to think our ideas are best, that people should do things our way. But if Jesus is the Saviour of the world, we need to be a step or two behind what he is doing rather than running the show.

This doesn’t make us weak in playing our part in human relationships. If anything, it makes us more sure-footed. Moses demonstrates this. He is ‘very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth’ (Num. 12:3). But he confronts a world leader and frees slaves. His meekness has nothing to do with being a doormat for others tread on. 

However, if we are truly meek, other people can tell the difference. They know they have a place around us. They know they won’t get run over. They may even ask questions.

Remember that when Jesus says he is meek and lowly in heart, he’s inviting weary people to come to him—weary with trying to make something of themselves.

We’ve got good reason to live this way. When Jesus says the meek will inherit the earth, he’s quoting Psalm 37. The Lord will deal with those who are doing wrong. Our part is to trust the Lord, delight in him, be still and patient and refrain from anger (vv. 1-11).

It comes back to knowing that the King is in charge. It’s not our will that’s important, or the will of others. It’s the will of the King that will prevail and obedience to him that will make it happen. Under that, we all have our place and meekness welcomes this.

Satisfied! With righteousness

Jesus tells us that those who hunger for righteousness are doing well. They will receive, abundantly, what they long for (Matthew 5:6).

Righteousness, as Jesus describes it, is obeying God’s commands (5:17-20). But then, as he continues to teach, we find it is not just compliance but a hearty agreement with what God wants. Jesus tells us to be perfect like our heavenly Father is perfect (5:48).

But what kind of person is hungry for righteousness? Most of us think it’s something we have plenty of. We do the right thing—mostly. And we spend a lot of time and energy defending it. We don’t understand the word ‘hungry’ when it comes to righteousness.

And there’s another problem. Our natural self is saying, ‘My idea is best!’ God’s requirements seem like an intrusion.

Into this situation comes Jesus. And he begins by demonstrating what hunger for righteousness looks like. He insists on John baptizing him. He’s ‘hungry’ to get this done (Matt. 3:15). He has no lack of righteousness himself, but he wants us to be obedient children of God. His obedience to the Father is going to make it happen.

Then, Jesus shows us what God’s righteousness looks like. He saves people from their sicknesses. He teaches the truth in a way that is riveting. Many are finding that God is real and that he is reaching out to them.

Jesus is providing an appetizer! We are never going to do what God wants if we are not attracted by who he is.

Isaiah said this would happen: God delighting our hearts and making us thankful; God making us like sturdy trees—tall and righteous, and getting on with the things that need doing (Isaiah 61:1-4).

Does this whet our appetite? We all want upright people to govern us, or to be our neighbours. But what about us?

We really need to be filled with righteousness—preferring what God wants. This is what we are made for. We damage ourselves and defraud those around us when we don’t follow what he says. Sometimes, things need to go wrong before we long for what God wants (Psalm 119 :71).

Perhaps we’ve been hungry and not understood our pain. Jesus knows we need lots of things but tells us to seek God’s reign and righteousness first (Matt. 6:33). God can look after all the other things, but we need to be hungry for righteousness.

So, how does this happen?

Jesus tells us about a tax collector who is broken by his miserable life. He’s defrauded people and kept God at a distance—until now. He asks God to be merciful to him—a sinner (Luke 18:13-14).

Here’s the punch line. Jesus says he goes back to his home a righteous man—or justified. He’s been hungering for righteousness. And now, he’s filled!

Later on, Jesus will tell a lame man that his sins are forgiven (Matthew 9:2). He is able to say this because he will offer up his own body as an offering for them, and for ours as well (Matt. 26:28).

All of us need this thorough wash out of who we are—our unholy desires and crippling guilt. We need to believe in this act of Jesus on our behalf. And we need to hear God calling us righteous. That’s right, God calls us righteous (Isa. 53:11-12; Rom. 3:22).

Now, our protests and pomp drop away and we find God is someone to love. And so is our neighbour. All the rules we thought were a bother are now a good way to live.

Paul tells us what’s happened. ‘The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age’ (Titus 2:11-12).

All this is better than breakfast! We’re hungry, and being satisfied, all at the same time. And we are being congratulated!

Gentled by mercy

Gentled by mercy

The people Jesus congratulates are those who show mercy. They are the ones who will receive mercy from God[1]. This teaching is not new. King David has already recognised that God will have mercy on those who show mercy[2].

People who need mercy are in trouble. They may be desperate. They may be the reason for their own problems. But people who show mercy see beyond this and give what they can to help. They have been gentled by mercy and know that God does more than expect everyone to ‘do the right thing’.

Jesus himself often shows mercy to needy people. In this Gospel, two groups of blind men cry out for mercy[3]. A distressed father kneels and ask for mercy for his sick son[4]. A foreign lady cries out persistently and kneels to ask for mercy for her sick daughter[5]. And Jesus helps them all.

He has compassion on the crowds because they are leaderless[6], or sick and hungry[7].

In seeking mercy, some call Jesus ‘Son of David’—Israel’s promised deliverer. They may know the promises God has made to send a Messiah who will act mercifully[8]. So, showing mercy is important for Jesus, and for us who belong in his kingdom.

Our tendency is to expect justice and forget mercy. But while we’re doing this, God is upholding us, being kind to us, generous to us. He’s not asking if we are worthy. He’s just seeing us as needy people and reaching out to help. Jesus doesn’t come into the world to help people who think they are righteous. He comes to help those who are undeserving[9].

God has already shown Israel that he wants them to do what is right, but also, to love mercy[10]. He doesn’t just teach this. He shows it in how he treats them[11]

And, of course, this is what God is doing when Jesus dies for our sins (Romans 3:25). If anyone has had reason to complain, it is Jesus. He is misunderstood, maligned and nailed to a cross. But he endures being the focus for all our hatred of God. And he expresses the mercy of God for us sinners.

He can truly say, ’Father forgive them’. He knows we don’t understand the love of God, don’t know how far our pride has taken us from being warm and real. Not yet, anyway. When he is ‘lifted up’, he will draw us to himself, and to God. And then, the mercy of God will create mercy in us.

If all we want is for things to be ‘right’, we lose our way, and our peace, and God’s mercy. And if we think someone is not worthy of our attention, we’re thinking legally, not mercifully.

Jesus makes an issue of this in a story he tells[12]. A man badly in debt pleads not to be sold as a slave, and promises to find the money. Instead of this, his creditor forgives the whole debt. But then, this forgiven man demands payment of a very small sum from someone else. When the first creditor hears of this, he runs the ungrateful man off to jail.

Jesus tells this story to warn us. If we don’t forgive others as we have been forgiven, we have not understood forgiveness. Effectively, we’ve not been forgiven. The results of being without mercy are severe.

But this story isn’t just a warning. It tells us that mercy doesn’t begin with us. Jesus is among us. He is going to reveal and secure God’s mercy to us[13]. He simply asks us to acknowledge the compassion we’ve received and to share it with others.

On three occasions in this Gospel, Jesus explains to Pharisees that they should offer mercy to the needy rather than parade their performance[14]. Twice, he quotes God’s word. ‘I desire mercy rather than sacrifice’[15].

Perhaps we need mercy from God for our legal mindset. And certainly, all of us need to know that we have not deserved anything we have received. Without Jesus as Lord, we also would be lost and hopeless. We need to know how pitiable we are. This is when we truly say, ‘Have mercy on us, Son of David’.

This is the way that our life becomes beautifully uncomplicated, and attractive—like our Saviour’s. And Jesus says we should be congratulated!

[1] Matthew 5:7

[2] Psalm 18:20-25

[3] 9:27; 20:30-34

[4] 17:15

[5] 15:22

[6] 9:36

[7] 14:14; 15:32

[8] Luke 1:68-72

[9] Matt. 9:13: 12:7

[10] Isa. 1:17; 58:6-10; Hos. 12:6; Mic. 6:8

[11] Isaiah 30:18

[12] Matthew 18:21-35

[13] Luke 1:77-78

[14] 9:13; 23:23

[15] 9:13; 12:7

Being pure, and seeing God are what matter

We continue looking at the beatitudes in the teaching of Jesus. Here, it’s the pure in heart who should be congratulated. They are going to see God (Matthew 5:8).

Jesus is showing us what life is like when he is in charge—when he establishes God’s kingdom. So, what he teaches is a call for us to choose. Do we admire the bold and the beautiful? Is that what we want to be like? Or do we want to be pure in heart? Jesus says it needs to be the latter.

Seeing God is not a rare experience for saints and mystics. Everyone needs to know that they will see God. We’ve been made in his image. He is our goal. Without this promise we are living at odds with our proper destiny.

So, purity of heart, the only way to get to see God, is a deep need. To ignore it is dangerous.

Someone with a pure heart is a very practical person—someone we’d like to have as a neighbour.  David tells us that they do what is right, speak what is true, and never hurt a friend. They do what they say they will—even when it turns out to be a bigger job than they thought it would be (Psalm 15).

Purity is everything we do in life—with all its compartments being focused on one thing. David wants an ‘undivided heart’—focused on God and on receiving his favour (Psalm 86:11, 17).

So, how do we come by a pure heart?

First, we need to receive what Jesus does on our behalf.

God promised a Savior who would purify his people (Malachi 3:1-4). This is who Jesus is. He will purify his people totally (Matthew 3:10-12).

Jesus spends a lot of time teaching us how to live well but knows that purity must be alive before it can grow. Our affections are hopelessly compromised—basically dead. We don’t really want to see God.

So, Jesus must give himself to us, and for us—as a husband to a bride—to purify us (Ephesians 5:26). He purifies us to be a people who are eager to do good things (Titus 2:14). Our hearts must be cleansed by faith, not by gradual improvement (Acts 15:9).

When we believe Jesus died in our place—for our sins, we are purified (1 Peter 1:17-22). We are ready to stand in God’s presence! We can never be the same again!

Jesus knows what he is going to do, and he knows it will be effective. That’s why he can promise that we will see God.

Second, we need to make purity a way of life.

The person who writes Psalm 119 asks how a young person can keep himself pure. He or she must carefully read and be led by God’s word (v. 9).

This Psalm goes on to show how we need this word every day and for every situation. God is our Maker after all (v. 73), and he must know what is good.

But the writer is not suggesting we should read our Bibles like a text book. The whole Psalm is really a prayer. He knows God. He knows God is altogether good and strong. This is why he wants to be pure.

So, with this writer, we can ask God to give us understanding. We can talk with him about the difficulties we have getting things right. And we can ask for wisdom. In his presence, we can accept the knocks that come our way—to show us we are off track and that we need to take his word more seriously (v. 67-71, 75).

Purity is not just about us getting our life in order. It’s about sharing life with the Lord. He’s what makes purity worthwhile—and possible. So, we need to seek him eagerly (v. 10).

As we continue to read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), Jesus gives examples of practical purity—not just keeping rules to impress people.

And Paul tells us … that those who have been purified by Christ will be eager to do good things (Titus 2:14).

Sometimes, we do need to take ourselves in hand. As James says, we need to purify ourselves because we have divided loyalties (James 4:8).

Finally, when Jesus says we will see God, he’s talking about our future.

We will see Christ. And in seeing Christ, we will be seeing God. The event will be so powerful that we will be transformed to be like our Saviour in an instant (1 John 3:3). This is a powerful incentive to purify ourselves in readiness for that day.

In fact, we have already seen the glory of God in the face of Christ—through the word of the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:6). And if we keep looking there, we are being transformed little by little while we wait for the final day (2 Corinthians 3:18).

If this is how you see your life, Congratulations!

God’s children—the real peacemakers

Jesus is showing us what it’s like to live when he is King. And here, he says his subjects will be peacemakers—and they should be congratulated. They will be recognised as God’s children (Matthew 5:9).

It’s not surprising to find that we are being given this task. God is the God of peace (Heb. 13:20). It’s what he’s like. It’s how he operates and what he’s creating.

And then, Jesus is the Prince of peace (Isaiah 9:6-7). He’s come to implement this purpose of God.

Making peace between people may be one of the hardest things we ever do in this world. All of us start off going our own way. Making peace between us is not going to be easy!

It starts with parents sorting out squabbles among siblings. It continues as counsellors, managers and negotiators struggle with competing interests—and egos.

So, peacemakers are going to need all the qualities already commended in these beatitudes—humility, mercy and meekness for example, mourning for the pain being caused and purity that can be trusted.

As this Gospel proceeds, we find Jesus creating division rather than peace (10:34). That’s because there’s a rival ‘peace’ and Jesus must expose it. Clearly, the peacemaking of God’s children isn’t just negotiating human interests.

Peace with one another begins with peace with God (Ephesians 2:14-18). Without this, we’re trying to be our own ‘god’—defending our territory and securing the interests of our group. We’ll look at this further in the next article.

So, being a peacemaker is not just being the ‘nice’ person in an angry crowd.

In the end, Jesus makes peace by dying for us (Colossians 1:19-22). He reconciles us angry sinners to his Father!

We are going to need all the perspective and all the power that comes from having our own irritable self-concern put to rest by this wonderful reconciliation.

We don’t know what this is like until it happens! But when it does, we understand how deep the need of everyone around us is for God’s mind-boggling peace (Philippians 4:5-7).

And now, the Lord is sending us out as peacemakers (Isaiah 52:7)! All of us would like peace to be created for us—a change of circumstances. But Jesus reconciles us to his Father so we can be his servants in a hostile environment.

The letter of James has many similarities to the Sermon on the Mount. This is not surprising because its writer is probably the step brother of Jesus. He has spent years watching what peacemaking is like!

Here’s what he says about making peace (James 3:13-18).

It starts with living well—or wisely. This is not simple. We need to stop thinking we are great! We need to say ‘No’ to our selfishness! We need to know that what we’ve been given is so others will benefit.

This will make us realise that peacemaking comes down from our Father in heaven and from our Saviour. Many times, we will need to go back to what Jesus has done, learn from his patience, receive his forgiveness, be settled by his faithful presence and strengthened by his love. In other words, we’ll need to know these beatitudes!

What happens next—whatever it produces among others—will be pure, peace-loving, considerate, merciful, impartial and sincere. People may recognise the Father in his children.

But whether they do or not, the Father will recognise his children, and congratulate them!

Persecuted—and joyful

Here’s the last of our Lord’s beatitudes. He says that if we are being persecuted for being righteous (Matthew 5:10), we are still on the right track. The kingdom is ours. We’re already in its flow, and we will share in its coming glory (13:43).

Jesus never holds back from telling us we will attract the world’s hatred and violence if we believe he is God’s King. Here, he tells us to endure this with dignity, and joy.

Until now, all the beatitudes have been about what we do. This one is about what happens to us. But it completes the picture Jesus is presenting and promises the same kingdom blessing as the first beatitude.

And this is the only beatitude with some extra encouragement (vv. 11-12). Jesus knows we’ll find the going hard. But he knows we’ll be glad we endured.

If we’ve grown up in a community that’s nice to Christians, we will find it surprising that Jesus refers so often to the trouble we can expect as his followers. We may have been welcomed by unbelievers. Even listened to.  Or perhaps just tolerated, or ignored.

But the acceptance of the world is not deep. And it never lasts. People who don’t want God or his Son can see that our way of life comes from somewhere they don’t understand and can’t control. For them, it’s coming from an alien power.

They must find means to silence our voice and shut down our influence. God’s gracious authority has been launched on enemy territory, and we begin to feel the heat!

Because we’ve trusted in Christ and are now enjoying the dynamics of his being King, we can’t help representing him to those around us. So, while we are for peace—as in the previous beatitude, they are for war (Psa. 120:7).

People being nasty to Christians doesn’t just happen. It can only occur by God’s will (1 Pet. 3:17). And there’s good reasons why it needs to be this way. Here’s some help Jesus gives later in this Gospel.

First, persecution gives us opportunity to demonstrate God’s love to our enemies (5:44).

People who say they don’t believe in God must still live with the fact that he is not far away from them (Acts 17:27-28). He remains to them a distant, threatening or hated thought—whatever they may say.

We need to love these people with the love we are experiencing in God’s kingdom—especially while they are hating and hurting us. This is their best chance to see the truth of what we say. And our witness may be persuasive.

Second, persecution scatters us Christians further afield than we may have otherwise ventured. We suffer, but the kingdom prospers (10:21-23). This is what happens in the early days of the gospel spreading out from Jerusalem (Acts 8:3-4; 11:1-20).  `

Third, persecution shows we are one with Jesus in his sufferings (10:25-33). And we are one with him in knowing the intimacy of our Father’s care for us. And if we acknowledge Jesus Christ while we are being abused, Christ promises to welcome us when our time comes to stand before God. This is a great comfort.

Fourth, persecution tests our faith to see if it is real (13:18-23). Jesus knows we can be flippant, emotional or preoccupied. So, he calls on us to really hear the gospel—not treat it as an option. Those who hold on to their faith when it is attacked, grow stronger. Those who are just on a religious picnic fall away.

Fifth, persecutors reveal their own deep hatred of God (23:34-35). They’ve not just been mistaken or misled. They really don’t like God. They’d rather live anywhere without him—and without Christians.

People need to see their own hostility exposed. This is a terrible part of the gospel, but a clear part of what is going on. It may lead to someone realising how much they need Christ. This is what happens to the apostle Paul (Acts 22:6-16).

So, suffering for being a Christian is not something strange. It’s normal, and necessary. Even good.

And Jesus is telling us to be joyful. This is not a feeling that overtakes us. It’s a choice to value what Jesus values. It’s us determining that the lasing treasure of the eternal kingdom is far greater than any temporary truce we may arrange for ourselves on this planet.

Look at how these beatitudes will be fulfilled when the kingdom comes in its fulness.

Everyone will know that everything good has come from Christ. Sorrows will be gone forever. Meekness will control every relationship. Everyone will love how God does things. Everyone will know that they’ve received mercy. And everyone will be good—totally. We’ll be living in and sharing God’s peace—forever. And no-one will oppose any of this.

But we’re not waiting until the kingdom comes. While Christ is Lord and we belong to him, we’re already in its flow. We’re practicing for the final day, walking by faith.

So, congratulations! You and I belong to Christ. Our life is totally different to what it would otherwise be. But we’re on the right track.