No sooner had Jesus begun His earthly ministry than He ran headlong into opposition from the religious leaders of His day. His most vocal and active enemies belonged to the party of Pharisees. We can summarize all the faults of their brand of religion by saying that it was a religion of the visible. They thought that God cared chiefly about what they said and did in the sight of others, and that God showed His pleasure or displeasure with a man's way of life by altering his external circumstances, making them comfortable if he was righteous, difficult if he was not.
Jesus did not offer a systematic critique of Pharisaism until He had established His spiritual authority. He established it in two ways. First, from the very outset of His ministry, He set forth the unmistakable claim that He was God. Second, He authenticated His claim by doing miraculous works. Then He allowed the Pharisees and religious leaders to examine Him. They were the ones God had appointed to provide spiritual guidance for His people. So, they had a right to examine Him, and, upon finding Him truthful in His claims, they had a responsibility to exalt Him before the people. Jesus gave them a chance to fulfill their role. But when they failed to do so—instead, scorning Him and plotting His death—He moved outside the system, as it were, and started His own movement. He sent forth men of His own choosing to be His representatives before the people. And He began to teach the people how their received religion was wrong.
Selection of the Twelve
Luke 6:12-16; Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:13-19
Jesus' representatives were a band of men numbering only twelve. He gave them a name signifying that they held a new office, distinct from any found in the Old Testament, the name "apostles." The term means "those sent" or "delegates." Jesus chose them only after He had retreated to a mountain and continued all night in prayer. Whether He was seeking His Father's guidance in the selection, we do not know. Perhaps He knew already which men should constitute the Twelve. In that case, He was undoubtedly praying that God would enable them to perform the monumental task that would eventually fall upon them, the task of founding and leading the Church. The next day, He called all His disciples to join Him on the mountain, and from these He singled out His twelve choices.
The various lists of the Twelve show that they were divided into six pairs. The men in each pair were no doubt partners when Jesus later sent them out two-by-two. In Matthew's list there are at least two pairs of brothers and probably more. Peter and Andrew were brothers, as were James and John. According to Mark, Jesus gave the last two the surname Boanerges, which means "sons of thunder," likely an allusion to their ability to preach with exceptional vocal strength.
A certain Judas is said to be "of James," meaning that he was the brother (or possibly son) of James, son of Alphaeus. In Mark this Judas bears the name Thaddaeus, and in Matthew he is Lebbaeus Thaddaeus (a Roman name). Perhaps he later desired to be known by a name that did not recall Judas Iscariot, the traitor. In Matthew and Mark, he is paired with the James who was his brother (or father). This James, son of Alphaeus, was generally known as James the lesser, to distinguish him from James Boanerges. The name James, equivalent to Jacob, was common in Jesus' day. Jude or Judas was another common name, derived from the tribal name Judah.
The disciple called Bartholomew is probably the same as the Nathanael mentioned in John's Gospel (John 1:45; 21:2). He is paired with Philip, the man who brought him to Jesus. In every list of the Twelve, Matthew is paired with Thomas.
Also in every list, Judas Iscariot is put last and identified as the one who would betray Jesus. According to Matthew and Mark, his partner was Simon surnamed "the Canaanite" or "the Zealot," the latter indicating that he had previously been embroiled in radical anti-Roman agitation. Luke associates Simon with James the lesser and puts the two Judases together. Perhaps Jesus shuffled the pairs occasionally so that none of the other eleven would become too intimate with Judas the traitor.
Sermon on the Plain
Luke 6:17-19; Matthew 5:1-2
When Jesus summoned His disciples to join Him on the mountain, many more than twelve ascended and gathered around, for those who later descended were "a great multitude" (v. 17). These people had flocked to Jesus from places far and wide, including Judea and Jerusalem to the south and Tyre and Sidon (cities on the sea coast) to the north. With so many brought together in one place, Jesus saw an opportunity to teach. He therefore, on this momentous occasion when He had just designated twelve men to lead the advance of His kingdom, shifted the focus away from His miracles and assumed the role of a rabbi. He wanted His disciples to understand what kind of kingdom He was offering them. It was a kingdom in which righteousness would prevail.
But they had no accurate conception of true righteousness. To relieve their ignorance, He delivered the sermon known as the Sermon on the Mount. This is recorded only in Matthew. The sermon that appears in Luke is properly known as the Sermon on the Plain. Since these two sermons are inserted at approximately the same point in Gospel chronology, many readers assume that they are the same. But even a superficial examination of their content is enough to establish that they are not. And the context reveals that they were delivered under different circumstances. Matthew says that Jesus taught the people only after He had gone up into a mountain and sat down, His disciples then following to hear Him. Luke says that He spoke to the multitudes when He came down and stood with them "in the plain" after He had selected the Twelve on the mountain (v. 17). We may therefore conclude that the Sermon on the Mount came first.
It is the more elaborate of the two. It is likely that when Jesus came down to the plain, He was thronged by even more people, including many who had never heard Him before. Perhaps that is why He preached a simpler form of the message He had just delivered on the mountain. In both sermons He presented a version of the wise sayings known as the Beatitudes. The two versions are clearly separate creations, each with its own elegant structure and dominant message. Since the version in Luke is more elementary, we will consider it first.
The purpose of the Beatitudes is to show that true religion is a religion of the invisible. God cares chiefly about the condition of a man's heart, not about His outward conduct. And comfortable circumstances are not a sign of His pleasure with a man's life. On the contrary, the life of a righteous man is marked by trouble and sorrow.
The Version in Luke
A Beatitude is a blessing. In the Sermon on the Plain, there are four beatitudes balanced by four woes. Jesus said that a man was blessed who was poor, hungry, grieving, or persecuted. But a man was in danger of woe who was rich, well fed, laughing, and universally liked. Jesus was sharply contradicting the Pharisees' view of life. They thought that prosperity, applause, and every other circumstance tending to happiness are signs of God's blessing. But Jesus said just the opposite, that God's blessing consists in poverty, sorrow, and every other circumstance tending to unhappiness.
Why does God bring trouble to those He loves? The conclusion of each Beatitude implies the answer. In each tale of adversity there is a promise. He who suffers poverty will someday possess everything. Likewise, the mourner will laugh and the hungry will be satisfied and the hated will be rewarded. Jesus is assuming that a man will respond to disillusionment with this world in the correct way, by seeking a better world. If he does, he will receive the blessing. Bitter experience is therefore a blessing in itself if the failure of this world to satisfy the desires of the heart teaches a man to seek the true riches of heaven—if the impossibility of finding real joy in this life leads him to accept the gospel of eternal life through Jesus Christ.
In the four woes, Jesus was warning the Jews against being content with life in this world. We are not to complain about our lot, but neither are we to settle into soul satisfaction and turn our days into a continual celebration of earthly pleasure. If we do, we will never see the Kingdom of God. Why? Because God will give His Kingdom only to those who earnestly desire it. Therefore, to sharpen our longing for the joys obtainable only in the life to come, we must in this life see darkness, taste disappointment, and feel pain. God wants His children to come into His Kingdom with boundless gratitude for their transport from evil to good, from corruption to perfection.
The Version in Matthew
The first four Beatitudes in Matthew resemble the ones in Luke, but instead of looking at a man's circumstances, they look at his reaction to them.
The first has often been interpreted without considering the parallel blessing in Luke. In Luke, Jesus blesses the poor; in Matthew, the poor in spirit. When we view these beatitudes together, we see that the puzzling expression—"the poor in spirit"—refers to a man who has the spirit (that is, the attitude, the outlook, the world view) of a poor man. A victim of grinding poverty feels deeply unsatisfied with life in this world and longs for something better. The same discontent is a blessing to any man, even though he is not actually poor, if in consequence he embraces God's offer of eternal life. Such a man will obtain the very best, the kingdom of heaven.
The second Beatitude resembles Luke's promise of blessing to those who "weep now," but has another dimension. Like the first Beatitude, the second speaks of a man who senses that something is wrong with life. He mourns the hard blows that spoil times of happiness. He mourns life's fundamental and chronic inability to satisfy the deepest yearnings of his heart. He mourns the aging and death that will overtake him and everyone else he loves. He mourns the inevitable failure of all human aspirations. Hence, he desires something better than life in this world. And if he looks for it in the promises of God, he will be comforted.
Meekness is the opposite of self-assertiveness. The normal human response to the imperfections of life is to try to make it better. A man tries to reconstruct his own private sphere so that it will afford greater happiness. Or he joins with others in efforts to improve society. In essence, he is trusting in self—his own and the collective self of mankind—to solve the problems of the world. But a man who is meek sees himself realistically, as powerless to overcome evil. He puts no confidence in self. He knows that his utmost exertions to rid the world of evil and his life of unhappiness will end in frustration. The third Beatitude teaches that if he declines to trust in self to gain a better world but instead trusts in God, a better world is exactly what he will gain. He will inherit the earth, a new earth free from sin and the curse.
The fourth Beatitude emphasizes the truth revealed in the previous three. The only hope for the human condition lies in a right relationship with God. Think of all the dreams you have relished during your lifetime. How many have come true? Very few, because they are self-centered and indifferent to God's will. But unlike earthly aspirations, a hunger and thirst for the righteousness that God requires will not end in disappointment, but will lead to the righteous One, Jesus Christ. A man who turns from all else and identifies with Christ will be satisfied. He will not only find righteousness, but also the fruit of righteousness—a life of joy forever.
Another common slant on the first four Beatitudes interprets them as a description of repentance—showing not the right attitude toward evil circumstances, but rather the right attitude toward one's own sin. A man who is poor in spirit recognizes that there is nothing in himself that is worthy of heaven, nothing that he can use to claim God's mercy and favor. He finds only sin, and as he views the bleakness of his true condition, he mourns. Yet with sorrow comes an openness to the good news of God's remedy for sin. He is meek in the sense that he, instead of clinging to his own will, submits to the will of another. That is, he submits to God's plan for salvation and to God's direction for life. Indeed, his willingness to obey God is not limited to passive submission, but flowers into a passionate pursuit of God's approval, a pursuit described as hungering and thirsting after righteousness.
The structure of the Beatitudes mimics that of the Ten Commandments. The first five commandments deal with man's obligations to God (the fifth belongs in this group, because parents stand in God's place). The second five deal with man's obligation to man. When Jesus summarized the law, He boiled the ten down to two, His first ("Love God") comprehending the first five of Moses, His second ("Love your neighbor") comprehending the last five (Matt. 22:37-40). Since the Ten Commandments were originally inscribed on two tables of stone (Ex. 34:1-4), it has always been generally supposed that God placed the two divisions on separate tables. Thus, the first division is called the first table of the law, and the second is called the second table of the law.
Altogether there are nine Beatitudes in Matthew, but the last is merely an emphatic repetition of the eighth. The number of Beatitudes is therefore generally held to be eight. Like the Ten Commandments, these eight fall into two divisions. The first four show how a man can be right with God. The last four show how a man can be right with his fellow man. Having already examined the first four, we know that the great difference between the law and the Beatitudes is their focus. The law treats outward conduct. The Beatitudes treat motives of the heart. The difference is no less apparent in the last four Beatitudes than in the first four.
The fifth Beatitude commends a man who is merciful. In Jesus' mind, mercy is synonymous with not judging and with forgiving (see Luke 6:36-37). Mercy, not judging, and forgiving are different ways of expressing the same virtue. All three describe someone who chooses not to use his power to punish someone else. Mercifulness is the only quality of a man's soul that sets the standard for God's treatment of the man himself. Just as we must forgive to be forgiven (Matt. 6:12), and just as we must refrain from judgment to escape judgment (Matt. 7:1), so we must be merciful to obtain mercy.
What are the practical outworkings of a merciful heart? All our dealings with others should be governed by a resolve to minimize and overlook their faults. Our dominant purpose must always be to extend help rather than to exact justice. The virtue of mercy produces a rightness of attitude toward other people.
The sixth Beatitude teaches us a rightness of motive. Our motives must be pure, "pure" in the general sense referring to the absence not only of sexual lust, but also of every other defilement. On a later occasion Jesus catalogued the motives of the heart that keep us from being right with our fellow man (Matt. 15:19-20). Here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that if we refuse to imagine within our hearts the evil we might do to others, we will instead see God.
According to the seventh Beatitude, true goodness is not passive. It is not enough to refrain from vengeance and impure motives. To be right with our fellow man, we must actively intervene in his life to do him good. The highest calling is to be a peacemaker, dedicated to erasing conflict and building harmony between man and man and between man and God. The work of evangelism is called peacemaking (Rom. 10:15; Col. 1:20). The seventh Beatitude teaches that those who strive to mend the torn fabric of a godless society will gain membership in that perfect society known as the "children of God" (that is, the brotherhood of all who will live forever in God's presence).
The eighth Beatitude warns those who try to make peace that they will not necessarily be loved. Indeed, all the righteous—especially those busy in proclaiming the gospel and teaching the Christian way of life—will encounter opposition, hatred, even persecution (2 Tim. 3:12). But they will lose nothing. They will gain everything, even the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, Jesus admonishes them to rejoice and be glad.
Notice that Jesus heaps favor on those who will suffer for His sake. Twice He says they are blessed. Moreover, He promises them not only that they will gain the kingdom of heaven, but also that their reward in heaven will be great. He implies that those who suffer the most will obtain the greatest reward.
The Purpose of Life
Salt and Light
The purpose of life according to the Pharisees was to keep the law. But as we have observed before, they viewed the law as a set of prohibitions and duties controlling a man's visible behavior. Their religion was all external. Keeping the law was, for them, basically an exercise in raising themselves to a higher plane in society. The end result was pride. Their religion served the interests of self, and they lived for self.
Jesus, in the next portion of the Sermon on the Mount, addresses the question, What is the true purpose of life? The answer He gives sharply contradicts the thinking of the Pharisees. He teaches that the purpose of life is to live not for self, but for others.
He says "ye," meaning the children of God, are salt and light. We His children are saltlike in two ways.
- We are a preservative. In Jesus' day, people were dependent on salt as a means of keeping meat from going bad. In a similar fashion, the world needs us. By our example and teaching and good works, we check the spread of corruption in human society. Our mere presence in the world draws God's blessing upon the communities in which we live.
- We give a good flavor to the world. If we did not live in it, God would find the world so distasteful as to be repugnant, and He would instantly withdraw His sustaining power. The whole vast universe would instantly collapse and vanish. It is as if the whole universe were connected to a single switch, and God has His finger on it. Except for us, He would throw the switch. Why would He act with such violence? Because to allow the continuation of an absolutely evil world would make Him a party to evil. He tolerates this world only because His beloved children live here.
If we cease to perform our role as salt, God might as well get rid of us, as they did with salt that had lost its flavor. They threw it out to lie with all the other garbage in the street. Likewise, God will not bestow eternal life on those who claim to be His children but who fail in their motives and actions to show the genuineness of their faith.
We are also light. Light is a symbol of truth. God's people disseminate truth to the world. Through witness we make people know their sinfulness before God and we unveil God's plan of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Jesus compares us to a city set on a hill. A typical city in ancient times was built on a hill for defense. At night the light of candles and torches blended and shone outward, allowing the city to be seen from a long distance away. Just as a city at night cannot be hid, so we as bearers of divine truth cannot make ourselves inconspicuous. If we try to hide, God will force us out into the open. He will put us in a situations demanding that we reveal who we are. How much better if we always let our witness burn brightly, instead of seeking to thwart God's intent for us to be light in a dark world.
To warn us against dimming our testimony, Jesus says that no one wastes a lit candle by setting it under a basket. Rather, the owner places it so that it will shed as much light as possible on its surroundings.
We shine our light by doing good works. Others will see them either now, if they are done openly, or at the time of judgment, and in gratitude for the good that we have brought into their lives and the lives of others, they will glorify God. Even our enemies will someday acknowledge that we were an instrument of blessing to the world, for they too will bow the knee to Christ (Phil. 2:10). Indeed, they will bow the knee to those Christians they persecuted (Rev. 3:9).
The metaphors of salt and light show the basic reason God has placed us in this world. He wants us to devote our lives to helping others. He wants us to bring them joy, like the joy someone feels when he tastes something good or sees a directing beacon at night. The same metaphors also show how we should bring them joy. The salt speaks of spiritual nourishment and the light speaks of spiritual knowledge. In providing these we have a wholesome effect upon the world around us. But our influence is salutary only if we live unselfishly.
Jesus Himself provided the application. The people regarded the Pharisees as paragons of righteousness. But in the Beatitudes and in His discussion of God's purpose for His people, Jesus showed that the Pharisees were not seeking the kind of righteousness that could please God. So long as they were content with external piety and failed to cultivate a right heart before God, they had no chance of entering the kingdom of heaven.
This was the first time Jesus was so outspoken in His criticism of the Pharisees. What He said was relatively mild. He merely issued a warning that Pharisaism was wrongheaded in its understanding of righteousness. But as His ministry wore on, His criticism of the Pharisees grew in severity, until at the end of His career He was pronouncing dire woes upon them.
The challenge to us is that we must see to it that we are not Pharisees. We are Pharisees bound for damnation if we are playing at religion while cherishing secret sin, or if we are going through the motions of Christianity while remaining in the darkness of self-will and pride.
© 2007, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.