“The Heart of the Gospel”
Matthew 5:1-12, 21-30, Matthew 6:9-13
February 19, 2017
Jesus offers blessing to hungry, humble hearts.
I. The Heart of the Gospel (Matthew 5;1-12)
II. The Heart of Obedience (Matthew 5:21-30)
III. The Heart of Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13)
The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most remarkable texts not just in the Bible, but in all world literature. It’s been analyzed, exposited and applied by nearly every thinker in church history and Western history. It’s early expositors included the church fathers Irenaeus, Tertullian, Chrysostom and Augustine. Irenaeus was one of the first to say that Jesus’s teachings weren’t intended to abolish the law of Moses, but to show how it is fulfilled and developed in us. He highlighted Jesus’ concern for inward motives which lead to outward acts.
But the Sermon has been interpreted in a host of ways, from a new law Christians must obey to be saved, to an ethic of the kingdom unattainable in this world, to a rule of faith for monks, to a constitution for Christian government to a description of the millennium. People like Soren Kierkegaard, Leo Tostoy and Albert Schweitzer have all weighed in. The very first seminary level course I ever took was a correspondence course, through the mail with cassette lectures on the Sermon by John Stott. Don Carson, Martin Lloyd-Jones and many others have also immersed themselves in these words. So, this morning, as we walk through key moments in God’s Big Story, and in the ministry of Jesus, we come to the Sermon on the Mount. To me, as to some of these others the key point of the Sermon is neither to deny the law nor to require it, but to turn it inward, toward the heart that is renewed by grace, and outward toward the kingdom. I think the whole Sermon on the Mount is about the heart of the believer, but because it’s three chapters long, we’re only going to be able to dip in at a few places, three different perspectives on one truth, that Jesus offers blessing to hungry, humble hearts. We’ll begin with the Beatitudes,
Matthew 5:1-12 Seeing 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 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.
Jesus goes up a mountain and teaches his disciples, probably for a much longer time than it takes to read this sermon, and Matthew summarizes the key teachings, which Jesus probably repeated many times. The preamble or bill of rights to that teaching is found in these beatitudes or blessings. To beatify means to bless, “blessed are you.” They are also sometimes called the ‘be attitudes’ because they show the attitudes that can characterize us. We could spend a week on each of these, but this morning we want to look at how they focus, like a laser beam, on the heart. We’re going to run through the heart attitudes themselves and the blessings they receive. I call this the gospel according to the beatitudes. Jesus offers incredible blessing to hungry, humble hearts.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Jesus starts with a heart attitude, a heart recognition of spiritual poverty. As Stott says, “indeed spiritual bankruptcy before God. For we are sinners, under holy wrath and deserving nothing but the judgment of God. We have nothing to offer, nothing to plead, nothing with which to buy the favor of heaven. We belong alongside the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, crying out with downcast eyes, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” John Calvin said: “He only who is reduced to nothing in himself, and relies on the mercy of God, is poor in spirit.”
So we begin with spiritual poverty, and the blessing, which is in some sense the focus of the whole list, is the kingdom of heaven. The gift of God’s kingdom, an upside-down kingdom, is Jesus’ focus throughout his ministry. It is a gift absolutely free and utterly undeserved, yet to be received with the dependent humility of a little child. Thus, at the beginning of the sermon, Jesus refutes every understanding of the kingdom that relies on human achievement or national supremacy. The kingdom is given to the poor, not the rich; the feeble, not the mighty; to little children humble enough to accept it, not to Pharisees who feel they deserve it or to Zealots who boast that they can obtain it by their victories. It was given to tax collectors and prostitutes, the rejects of society, who knew they were so poor they could offer nothing and achieve nothing. All they could do was to cry to God for mercy; and he heard their cry, just as he continues to hear the cry today of those who at heart recognize their need.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. The heart attitude is mourning, grieving. It is plain from the context that the promise of comfort is not primarily for those who mourn the loss of a loved one, though that is one of God’s precious promises, but the hearts in view here are those that mourn the loss of their innocence, their righteousness, their self-respect. Jesus isn’t primarily focused on the sorrow of bereavement, but the sorrow of repentance. This is the second stage of spiritual awareness. It is one thing to be spiritually poor and acknowledge it; it is another to grieve and to mourn over it.
The blessing is comfort. We do not have to remain under the burden of our sins, but as those whose trespasses are forgiven, we receive the comfort of salvation. As the Psalmist says “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered,” that is covered by the blood of the sin offering, covered by the blood of the savior, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This is the comfort foundational to all comfort, for even if we mourn the loss of our loved ones, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. The beatitudes are Gospel. Our recognition of spiritual poverty and our mourning over sin lead us to the gift of the kingdom and the comfort of forgiveness.
Verse 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The word "meek" suggests gentleness and self-control, the same word Jesus uses to describe himself, his strength under control. This is a heart attitude, but focused on our humility before others. We may acknowledge our own bankruptcy and mourn. But to respond with meekness when others tell us of our spiritual bankruptcy is far harder.” Stott says “I myself am quite happy to recite the General Confession in church and call myself a ‘miserable sinner’. It causes me no great problem. But let somebody else come up to me after church and call me a miserable sinner, and I want to punch him on the nose! I am not prepared to allow other people to think or speak of me what I have just acknowledged before God.” Lloyd-Jones says “The man who is truly meek is the one who is truly amazed that God and man can treat him as well as they do.” And it is those who have this realistic view of themselves, Jesus, who will inherit the earth or the land, which is probably a shorthand for receiving all that God has promised his people in the Old Testament and the New, the kingdom, ultimately eternal, the new heavens and the new earth.
Spiritually impoverished, mourning our sin, stripped of pride, we finally reach the place where we hunger and thirst for righteousness, where our hearts deeply desire God. Matthew generally uses the word righteousness to imply God’s justice which will be achieved in his eternal kingdom, while Paul generally uses it to indicate the gift of righteousness which God gives those who believe, Jesus doesn’t rule out either one. He says “you want righteousness in your heart? You want righteousness in a broken world? I’ll give you that. You will be satisfied. But there is an implied responsibility. I’ve got to be hungry, to encourage that desire. If I grow dead to the injustice of a broken world, or if I grow dead to my own poverty of spirit, I won’t be hungry and thus I won’t be satisfied. Gail and I took care of our grandson a couple of days this week. Sometimes you know he’s hungry, but he doesn’t want anything you offer. But his mother will put a taste of the food on his tongue, and then he’s all for it. It’s the same with us. If we will but taste and see that the Lord is good, we’ll recognize our hunger for righteousness and eat what he offers.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. It’s fascinating that these heart attitudes, gentleness and now mercy, are not just turned to God but also to others. The Gospel is not just for our salvation, but is good news for the living out of our salvation. Over and over in his teaching Jesus makes the point that receiving mercy and being merciful go hand in hand. Stott, “if to be meek is to acknowledge to others that we are sinners; to be merciful is to have compassion on others, for they are sinners too.” Jesus will tell the story of the servant whose master forgave him ten thousand talents, but refused mercy to his fellow servant who owed him a little. God’s gracious, generous response to our poverty of spirit, our mourning over sin, our hunger for righteousness is necessarily mirrored and reflected in our meekness and our mercy.
Thus, verse 8, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” This is the first time the word “heart” has been used, though the teaching is all about heart attitudes. But to see God, to be in his presence requires a pure heart. David, deeply aware of his sin cries “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, O Lord.” Purity of heart is God’s gift of righteousness to the contrite and hungry, which opens the door to his incomparable gift of his own presence. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount presumes that your heart has walked down this path and received this gift of cleansing and is learning to live in the presence of God.
Verse 9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Again, turning it outward. Those who have received God’s peace become those who proclaim his peace to the spiritually impoverished and hungry, who imitate God’s peace-making by offering peace to those who have harmed them. Thus they are called Sons of God for they are his imitators in this process of grace.
Finally, Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Stott says “It may seem strange that Jesus should pass from peacemaking to persecution, from reconciliation to hostility. Yet no matter how hard we may try to make peace with some people, they refuse to live at peace with us. Indeed, some take the initiative to oppose us, and in particular to ‘revile’ or slander us. This isn’t because of our foibles or failures, but ‘for righteousness’ sake’ and ‘on my account.’ In other words, some people, even a whole culture may despise the righteousness for which we hunger and thirst, and reject the Christ we seek to follow. Persecution, Stott says, is simply the clash between two irreconcilable value-systems. How did Jesus expect his disciples to react under persecution? With a heart attitude. Verse 12: Rejoice and be glad! We are not to retaliate like an unbeliever, nor to sulk like a child, nor to lick our wounds in self-pity like a dog, nor just to grin and bear it like a Stoic, still less to pretend we enjoy it like a masochist.
What then? We are to rejoice as a Christian should rejoice and even to ‘leap for joy.’ Why? Partly because, Jesus added, your reward is great in heaven. We may lose everything on earth, but we shall inherit everything in heaven. Partly because persecution is a sign of genuineness, showing our authenticity, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. If we are persecuted today, we belong to a noble lineage. But the major reason why we should rejoice is because we are suffering, Jesus said “on my account,” on account of our loyalty to him, to his standards of truth and righteousness.
So Jesus blesses the humble, hungry heart that recognizes its need, seeks God’s gift and lives in imitation of his mercy, even under persecution. This is the charter, the vision statement for our hearts. But the Sermon doesn’t end there. Jesus goes on to show what this kingdom focused heart attitude looks like under various circumstances: anxiety, need, false teaching and many others. But we only have time to look at two: heart attitudes in temptation and in prayer.
In the rest of chapter 5 Jesus makes a series of comparisons. “You have heard that it was said,” and “I say to you.” In each case the “I say to you,” is more about the heart than merely about externals. So you have heard it was said, do or don’t do these things, but I’m saying to you, look at your heart. How is your heart responding to this temptation? What does it look like when the law, as Jeremiah and Ezekiel promised, is not written on tablets of stone but on your heart? There are two places in particular, only two, where Jesus elevates heart response to the level of ten-commandment sins, adultery and murder.
We tend to be familiar with the second, Matthew 5:27-30, where Jesus elevates lust to the level of adultery. “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
Jesus teaches that to look at a woman with lust is to commit adultery with her in your heart. We are to take that seriously. Our culture is awash in sex. You’ve heard, I hope, testimony from me and others of the addictive, pervasive and corrosive nature of pornography in our culture, and also of the victory Jesus can bring in this arena. If you haven’t, I encourage you to search the church website for the purity conferences and listen to those testimonies. But even porn does not exhaust the depths of our sexual sin. Living together before marriage, adultery after, homosexuality and sexual abuse are tragically common.
Jesus says they all start in the heart and need to be cut out. So we have to say to a man like me, or to any person, man or woman in this room, that it’s not OK to permit a little lust in your heart, in your thought life. We recognize that it’s not wrong to face temptation. That’s inevitable. Temptation is not sin. But we all know that there is this thin line between temptation and lust and for many of us we have spent years finding ways to allow God to drive a wedge between those two things, by prayer, by Scripture, by the recognition of our own cycles of sin, by accountability, by the expulsive power of a new affection. We would not counsel someone to justify to themselves a little lust, a little porn and somehow call it ok or even helpful. And I believe we are right in that.
But, and this is where I’m headed, do we have the same attitude toward irritation and anger? Matthew 5:21-26, the first of these two cases. Jesus elevates anger to the sin of murder. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Just as lust is adultery at the heart level, so anger is murder at the heart level. Do you believe that? Jesus says “you know that murder is liable to judgment.” Of course it is. Every culture acknowledged that. “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” Anger, like lust, is a heart sin. Jesus elevates it to equivalence with murder.
But do we take our anger as seriously as we do our lust? Or do we excuse anger? Do we say, “I just can’t help myself,” or “that makes me so mad.” Do we ignore the fact that there is a line between temptation and sin? That things that are irritating do not have to lead to irritation. That things that provoke anger do not have to result in anger? Do we even try to drive a wedge along that line, by prayer and accountability and these other things? Do we justify our sinful anger? “Oh, it’s righteous anger, like Jesus in the temple.” I would agree that there is such a thing as righteous anger, and praise God for it. But as sinful humans it tends to turn to sinful anger, to selfishness, like that. Our concern for another persons well being can morph into anger at our own inconvenience or emotional discomfort, like that.
Lately I’ve been asking God to morph righteous anger not into expressions of anger but into grief, sadness for a person or a circumstance. But often we don’t do that. We keep looking for ways to justify anger. “If I don’t get angry they won’t listen to me. The only time they hear me is when I’m mad.” Do you say that? I would like to carefully say that you are justifying sin, and sin that Jesus takes very seriously, warning of judgment and liability and the hell of fire. Jesus is concerned about our hearts. He blesses humble selfless hearts that hunger for him rather than the junk food satisfactions of lust or anger.
I want to close by thinking for a few moments about his model prayer, the Lord’s prayer, we call it. I chose this because it expresses a real response to Jesus’s concern for our hearts. In other words this is how a hungry and humble heart, growing out of the beatitudes, cries out to God. I’m going to be reading the DeGray Standard Version. It’s not any one Bible translation, but it is the way I actually pray it. Matthew 6:9-13 Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread, 12and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. 13And let us not be led into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Or often I pray, from the evil one.
I hope many of us pray this familiar prayer often. It’s clearly the prayer of a humbled heart, not of the person overly concerned about themselves or about their external circumstances. It starts with a focus on God and on his praise, which is something our hearts do not do naturally. We easily focus on ourselves and our circumstances. I mean I have probably said to everyone here that my most frequent prayer is “Oh Lord, let this work.” It’s entirely circumstantial. And I don’t apologize for it, because God cares about our circumstances. But it’s certainly not the only prayer I ought to pray. Jesus begins with “hallowed be your name,” blessed be your name, praised be your name, a focus on God and his character and behavior. I’ve really appreciated the men’s prayer group because we spend the first half of our hour praising and thanking God. From the scriptures, from his revealed character, for his work in our lives and the lives of others, and for the wonders he has made, creation large and small. That’s incredibly refreshing, and sets us up for the petitions which follow.
The humble hungry heart cries “Your kingdom come,” that is, “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This isn’t easy to say. The human impulse is “My will be done. God, do what I want. Give what I want.” But hunger and thirst for righteousness, leads us away from what we want and to what God wants. Victory in the war between those things often begins with a conscious turning of desire to delight in his will. Even for Jesus, the night before he went to the cross for us, there was a need to pray “not what I want but what you want.”
“Oh God, not what I want, but what you want, even when it’s hard. Not what I want but what you want, even when I don’t understand. Not what I want but what you want even when temptation is strong.” Jesus shares this incredible prayer with us so that we can receive, as he did, the “blessed are you’s,” the joy set before him, the comfort, the mercy, the promise, and ultimately the kingdom.
We pray “your kingdom come, and your will be done.” Then we pray, “give us this day our daily bread.” It’s a humble prayer, and hungry. We don’t need to know the future, if our job will last, if our plans will unfold, if our circumstances will continue. As Jesus will teach later in the chapter, we don’t have to harbor anxiety about a future we can’t see. Instead we consciously trust God for today, and that means giving thanks for his daily provision. Most of us have our needs met every day of our lives. But have we given thanks?’
And then “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” God offers the amazing, almost unbelievable gift of forgiveness of sins, at the cost of Jesus’s life, his blood shed on the cross. But Jesus will re-emphasize the truth, that if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” We need to take this seriously. I don’t believe its causal, that forgiveness is a work we must do to be saved, but rather consequential, that forgiveness is a work we will do if saved. We may not forgive immediately, we may not forgive perfectly, but we need to be, we long to be people who come to forgiveness and avoid bitterness, because of the incredible, inestimable and life changing forgiveness we have received.
And then “let us not be led into temptation.” The grammatical form of the request is slightly different than all the others and implies that God is not responsible for the temptation, but that he can, if it fits his purpose, prevent us from being led into it. We ask him to rescue us from the evil of this world and probably, from its evil ruler. We ask him to be our refuge and strength, especially when evil threatens to overwhelm us, physically, emotionally, relationally, spiritually.
Do you see that that’s a prayer from the heart? It’s prayer from a heart that has walked through the beatitudes, reflecting their attitudes and receiving their blessings. It’s a prayer from a heart that has seen the trap of sin, seen how it wants to justify lust while bemoaning adultery, justify anger while bemoaning murder. And it’s the prayer of a heart that has come to see the blessing of God’s kingdom, God’s will, God’s provision and God’s forgiveness.
Let’s pray it together. We’ll use my version that will appear on the screen.