As the New Year has begun, I’ve sense in myself a pervasive longing this year to specifically know and meditate on the teachings of Jesus. What better way to gain that perspective than studying and meditating on perhaps his greatest message ever – the Sermon on the Mount – as recorded in Matthew 5-7 (a smaller version is also in Luke 6 but we’ll focus on Matthew).
I believe scholar John Stott was correct when he said, “The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the teachings of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed.”
Ouch, that’s uncomfortable but it’s true, isn’t it?
What I appreciate about Jesus’ most famous sermon is twofold:
- I love how it reveals and positions Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament, consequently demonstrating the beautiful unity between the two testaments. Some have even speculated the Sermon on the Mount presents Jesus as the new Moses, yet absolutely greater in every way!
- I love how the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t just present believers with a futuristic ethical demand, but it lays out a lifestyle that Christians can and should be living now, thanks to the in-breaking of the kingdom of God in the life of every believer. Stanley Hauerwas aptly says the Sermon on the Mount “is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus.”
But before we begin our study, I’d like to discuss two critical questions: to whom is the Sermon on the Mount directed towards, and what does the word “blessed” really mean.
To begin, let’s read Matthew 5:1-4:
“Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (NIV)
As this passage tells us, the Sermon on the Mount was spoken to many people, but it was specifically for his disciples. Matthew 5:1 has the first recorded use of the term “disciple” in Matthew’s gospel. As almost everyone knows, Jesus had 12 disciples he chose and invested in during his ministry, but he would soon have many more disciples as the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20 is obeyed and fulfilled.
But what is a disciple? According to how Jesus interacted with his disciples, and its use in Scripture, here are a few important descriptions as to what a disciple is:
- A disciple is a ‘learner’, a ‘follower’, as the derivation of the word reveals;
- A disciple separates himself from the crowd, as we see in 5:1;
- A disciple has a personal relationship with his master;
- A disciple lives a life marked by thought and obedience (learning from the master and obeying his instructions).
The problem today is the church has too many “Christians” (supposedly?) and not enough genuine disciples! In other words, lots of people are “saved”, but are they growing in their faith, using their gifts for the kingdom, and a host of other critical traits that should mark every true disciple? According to the Scriptures (especially Matt. 28:19-20), we were never instructed to “make” Christians. We are called to make “disciples” as one can see by how Jesus describes what a disciple is, and the fact that the word Christian is only used three times in the New Testament, but the word disciple is used over 260 times!
I appreciate how Dallas Williard described a disciple both in the New Testament and for today. Willard, in his classic book The Divine Conspiracy, translated the word disciple as an “apprentice”. He once said, “But if I am to be someone’s apprentice, there is one absolutely essential condition. I must be with that person . . . If I am Jesus’ disciple that means I am with him to learn from him how to be like him.” (italics mine, p. 276) Undoubtedly, Jesus is concerned with making disciples who are in a vibrant relationship with him, growing more and more like him each day.
That is what the Sermon on the Mount will help us to become – genuine disciples looking like our Master because his life is seen in all we do!
The next question I’d like to investigate is what does it mean to be “blessed”? This is worthy of discussion because the Sermon on the Mount begins with a section famously dubbed “The Beatitudes”. Does this sound familiar?
“Blessed are the poor in spirit . . .”
“Blessed are the meek . . .” etc.,
One of the challenges with the Beatitudes is scholars aren’t even sure how to translate this word “blessed”. Notice a few attempts at Matthew 5:3:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . (NIV and others)
“God blesses those who are poor . . . (NLT; CEV)
“Happy are people who are hopeless . . . (CEB, LB)
“Wonderful news for the poor and humble . . . (N. T. Wright)
Do you see the challenge here? As we attempt to translate this word and concept into English, what is it telling us? In today’s culture, to say you’re blessed in most cases means you’re rich, or things are going well and somehow you’re “lucky” or “fortunate.” Is that what Jesus meant by the word here in the Sermon on the Mount?
I don’t think so. Here’s why.
- The word “blessed” derives from a root meaning ‘to become long, or large’. Consequently in this context it relates to growth, specifically in reference to how one is changed by someone and/or something.
- The use of this word is based on a relational aspect – you are “blessed” because of a relationship!
- A person who is “blessed” is in an enviable position because in some way you are the recipient of divine favor. That is how you ‘become large’ or ‘grow’ because God has extended his grace and favor to you. So notice at least biblically speaking, to be “blessed” is not just declaring you are ‘happy’ or ‘fortunate’, but is objectively declaring God approves who you are as exemplified by how you’re living!
- You can be “blessed” regardless of your circumstances (notice the typical cultural definition today is the exact opposite!). So circumstances don’t verify you’re blessed; it is the presence of Christ in your life that does!
- Ideally, the best translation for this word is “God approves and is with those who are poor in spirit . . .”
I hope this helps as we begin this new study! May all of us be “blessed” as we learn from Jesus’ greatest sermon!