The New Testament is full of commands for us to obey. Full of them. The Sermon on the Mount is no exception. Something like sixty-six commands sound from Jesus’s mouth as he calls us as his people to live a life in step with the gospel.
The Beatitudes, Jesus’s introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, are a different story. There you’ll not find a single imperative. Not one.
- Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
- Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
- Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
- Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
- Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
No Commands Here
Jesus never tells us to be poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek, to hunger and thirst for righteousness. His beatitudes never demand that we be merciful, pure in heart, or peacemakers. And, of course, we aren’t commanded to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. That doesn’t even make any sense! You can’t control whether or not people will raise their eyebrows, or their fists, at you for your faith.
No commands here. Just declarations — declarations of who the blessed people are and where that blessedness leads them.
So then, what is Jesus doing as he introduces the greatest sermon ever given? If he’s not giving us a checklist to complete that will lead to a blessed life, if he’s not giving us the rungs on the ladder we ascend to true satisfaction with God, if he’s not telling us what we must do in order to experience life in the kingdom — then what on earth is he doing?
What Happens When Grace Works
The context makes it clear that Jesus is describing what happens in a person’s life when they come to understand God’s grace in the gospel (see Matthew 4:23).
- God’s grace in the gospel shows you your moral and spiritual bankruptcy. You must be spirit-poor if the cross is what it took to rescue you.
- God’s grace in the gospel makes you mourn. To know that your sin nailed Jesus to the cross breaks your heart.
- God’s grace in the gospel makes you meek. How can you be touchy and defensive now that you’ve seen Jesus dying for you? There’s nothing in you worth defending.
- God’s grace in the gospel lets you see how hungry and thirsty you are for a righteousness that will open the door to God’s acceptance. Jesus is that righteousness given to you freely as a gift.
- God’s grace in the gospel makes you merciful. How can you choke your neighbor over what they owe you when both hands are already occupied receiving the mercy of Jesus Christ?
- God’s grace in the gospel makes you pure in heart. Knowing that God has accepted you on the basis of Jesus’s blood and righteousness frees you to live honestly before God and people, admitting who you really are and how desperate you are for Christ.
- God’s grace in the gospel leads you to be a peacemaker. Your experience of God’s grace puts so much joy in your heart that you cannot help but tell others how they can be at peace with God.
- And finally, your experience of God’s grace in the gospel will get you persecuted. There is something simultaneously beautiful and repulsive about a gospel-centered life. In the fallen human heart, there is a deep aversion to salvation not based on our own resume — if we didn’t have to earn a seat at the table, it’s not worth much. So when non-Christians hear that all their efforts to make themselves acceptable to God are a galactic waste of time, they’re going to get angry, and we will be the object of that anger.
The grace of God produces two responses: infatuation or infuriation. Those who are infatuated by God’s grace display the beauty of the Beatitudes. Those who are infuriated with it, lash out at those whose very existence represents the futility of their project of self-salvation.