A number of years ago a movie was made about the first pilots who broke the sound barrier. Up until that time no airplane had ever flown faster than the speed of sound. A lot of people didn't believe it could happen. It was thought that an airplane might disintegrate under the pressure. In fact, in the movie, that is exactly what happened to a number of pilots who tried it. The controls of the plane refused to work properly once they came close to breaking the speed of sound.
The climax of the movie came when one pilot had a hunch. "Maybe when a plane breaks the sound barrier the controls will work in reverse." So at the all-important moment, when the plane approached the sound barrier the pilot pushed the stick forward, which would normally send the plane into a nosedive. But it didn't. The nose went up and the plane flew on, faster than any plane had ever flown before.
Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier in real life, insisted that it didn't happen exactly as it was in the movie. However, the movie gives us an interesting picture of something which is true in the Christian life. In Matthew 5:1-12, a passage often referred to as "The Beatitudes", Jesus is taking the controls of life and making them work in reverse. Jesus takes us through a spiritual sound barrier to a place we have never been before.
When planes go through the sound barrier you hear a loud explosion. Growing up near a naval air base I often heard the earth-shattering noise of planes breaking the sound barrier. A visitor to San Diego not accustomed to the vibration might think he or she was in the middle of an earthquake. But in an earthquake the ground rolls, whereas when a plane breaks the sound barrier it shakes the windows of every house in its vicinity.
When Jesus' contemporaries first heard him utter the blessings contained in the beatitudes it must have been like hearing a loud explosion or having their whole life rattled. Let us read the words of Jesus together and see why. . . .
Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
"Rejoice and be glad when you are persecuted? You've got to be kidding, Jesus!" What Jesus is saying in these beatitudes is precisely the reverse of the way we normally look at life. This is an upside-down way of viewing our existence. And to understand Jesus' way of looking at things we've got to ask and answer a few questions. . . .
First of all, what does it mean to be blessed? The Greek word that is used here for "blessed" is sometimes translated "happy", but that is not really a good translation. Here's why: happiness is dependent on happenings, happiness is dependent upon circumstances. But the blessedness which Jesus talks about here is not dependent upon the kind of circumstances that normally make a person happy. In fact, the blessedness Jesus talks about runs counter to the sort of situations that normally make us happy. And therein lies the shock of what Jesus is saying. Jesus is completely reversing the world's standards for happiness. This kind of blessedness is found in a relationship with God through his son Jesus Christ, and is therefore not dependent upon circumstances at all. In fact, this kind of blessedness or happiness shows up in places you would never expect to see it at all because this blessedness is the free gift of God.
Author Gary Thomas, founder of the Center for Evangelical Spirituality, once wrote in Discipleship Journal about a time when he and his wife prayed extensively about buying a particular house. They gave God many opportunities to close the door on the sale, but the door remained open and so they walked through it. Five years later the Thomas' house was worth considerably less than what they paid for it.
Gary and his wife kept wondering, "Why didn't God stop us?" After all, they had given God many opportunities to stop them from purchasing the house. Then one day as Gary's wife was praying she sensed God asking her, "Have you ever considered the possibility that I wanted you in that neighborhood to minister there rather than to bolster your financial equity?"
Gary and his wife began to think of the people they had been able to reach for Christ in their neighborhood. Then they asked themselves, "Are we willing to surrender to a God who would lead us to make a decision that turned out to be undesirable financially but profitable spiritually?" The Thomases discovered that being blessed by God often doesn't look the way we expect it to look.
Secondly, we must ask: Who gets the blessing? It is very important to note who Jesus is addressing with this teaching.
Matthew 5:1-12 is the beginning of the section of Matthew's Gospel known as the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon, which is really a collection of Jesus' teachings from throughout his ministry, runs from the beginning of Matthew 5 to the end of Matthew 7. This is the first of five great blocks of teaching around which Matthew purposely structures his Gospel as an echo of the five books of Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures.
At any rate, in Matthew 5:1-2 we read that when Jesus saw the crowds he went up on a mountainside, presumably one of the mountainsides by the Sea of Galilee, and he sat down. (Sitting down was the normal posture for a rabbi to assume when he was teaching.) Then Jesus' disciples came to him and he began to teach them. So the blessings mentioned here are blessings given to disciples, to people who have committed their lives to following and learning from Jesus.
Jesus is not speaking so much to the crowds who have yet to make a commitment to follow him. He is not speaking to outsiders and saying "try hard to live like this". He is speaking to those who have already experienced his grace and he is saying: "you are blessed because these character qualities are already evident in your life." Jesus is saying, "Look, if you see these things in your life then you are already on the right track, so rejoice, celebrate!" In other words, in these beatitudes Jesus is not telling people how to get into the kingdom of God. He is speaking to people who are already in the kingdom about the blessings that have already begun to be theirs.
Thus the meaning of these beatitudes is not that we must work up these character qualities in our lives if we want to get into the kingdom of God, but rather once God has placed us in his kingdom, or placed his kingdom in us, these qualities will begin to develop and overflow from our lives as a natural result. As C. S. Lewis once wrote, ". . . the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it." (Mere Christianity, Book II, chapter 5, paragraph 5.)
Thirdly, we must ask: When do disciples receive the blessing? And the answer to that is: now and then.
First we must notice what the blessings promised really are if we are to understand when these blessings are received. The poor in spirit are promised the kingdom of heaven. We must remember that the kingdom of heaven does not mean the place where believers go when they die. "Heaven" here is a euphemism for "God". Thus, the poor in spirit are promised the kingdom of God. Those who mourn are promised comfort. Those who are meek will inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied. Those who are merciful will be shown mercy. The pure in heart will see God. The peacemakers will be called sons of God. Those who are persecuted will also receive the kingdom of heaven.
It is important to understand that these blessings are really one blessing, just as the eight character qualities are all connected. The clue as to when this blessing or these connected blessings will be received is actually given later in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6:10 Jesus teaches his disciples to pray: "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." As N. T. Wright says, "Heaven is God's space, where full reality exists, close by our ordinary (‘earthly’) reality and interlocking with it." My father, ever the lover of radio and electronics, used to say that we might think of heaven as being right next to us but on another frequency. N. T. Wright says, "One day heaven and earth will be joined together forever, and the true state of affairs, at present out of sight, will be unveiled."
So there is a sense in which these blessings are both "now" and "not yet". Jesus tells the poor in spirit that the kingdom of heaven belongs to them right now. But Jesus tells the mourning and the meek, the hungering and the thirsting, the merciful and the pure in heart, and finally the peacemakers that they will receive their blessings in the future. And Jesus tells the persecuted both that the kingdom of heaven belongs to them now and that their reward will be great in heaven in the future.
The bottom line is this: Jesus is calling us to live in the present in a way that will only make sense in God's promised future. Just as we are to pray for God's kingdom to come and God's will to be done "on earth as it is in heaven" so we are also to begin living out God's will here on earth just as it is more perfectly lived out in heaven. Developing the character qualities mentioned in the beatitudes is the way to do that, trusting that even if we do not see our reward right now we will see it and enjoy it one day.
On September 22, 1997, the U. S. Army commissioned West Point's first African American cadet-123 years after expelling him! James Webster Smith, a former slave, entered the U. S. Military Academy in 1870. For the next four years he was harassed and tormented because of the color of his skin. White students refused to talk to Smith. Smith was forced to eat all by himself and other cadets even poured slop on him. Smith was court-martialled twice. He had to repeat a year of schooling. In the end, the academy expelled him after his junior year because he failed an exam. Smith died of tuberculosis at the age of only 26. At the time that appeared to be the sad end of Smith's story.
But that was not the end. 123 years later the Army tried to make things as right as they could, after the fact. Smith had no known descendants so the commissioning certificate and gold second lietenant's bars of James Webster Smith were presented to South Carolina State University. James Webster Smith finally received the honor that was due to him.
In this world people who deserve honor may temporarily receive dishonor. In fact, Jesus promises his followers that they can count on dishonor, even persecution. But that is only part of the picture. Eventually we will be vindicated. Honor and blessing will come. Some of it we will begin to taste in this life, but much of it we will not know until Jesus returns and earth and heaven become one.
This leads to a fourth question: What are the character qualities of those who will receive the blessing of the Lord? There are eight character qualities, or beatitudes, mentioned by Jesus. But these eight are all part of what John Chrysostom called "a golden chain". Like the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 these eight character qualities are really one. And these eight character qualities move in sequence from beginning to end. The first four qualities focus on our relationship with God; the last four focus on our relationships with other people.
First of all there is the character of those who are poor in spirit. To be poor in spirit means to acknowledge our spiritual poverty, literally our spiritual bankruptcy; the word for "poor" here literally refers to those who are "destitute". The Christian life begins and continues with confession of sin, confession of our need of Christ. As Spurgeon said, "The way to rise in the kingdom is to sink in ourselves."
The second link in the chain is mourning, or what theologians call contrition, being sorry for our sins. It is one thing to confess our sins, it is quite another to be truly sorry for them. I remember hearing the story years ago of the priest who came upon a man who had been in a car accident as he lay dying by the side of the road. The priest went over to the man and asked him if he had any sins to confess. The man said, "Yes Father, I do." Then the man proceeded to confess his sins to the priest. When he was finished the priest asked him, "Are you sorry for your sins, my son?" And the man said, "No Father, I am not sorry for my sins." The priest was surprised and hesitated for a moment but then he asked, "My son, are you sorry that you are not sorry?"
I believe our God shows such grace and compassion toward us that when we are not sorry for our sins he asks in effect, "But are you sorry that you aren't sorry." God can begin from just a wee bit of mourning in us to develop a righteous character.
This leads to the third link in the chain of character which Jesus blesses: meekness. The word can be translated: gentle, humble, considerate or courteous. Meekness comes between mourning and hungering and thirsting after righteousness for a reason. This meekness has to do with a gentle and humble spirit toward others which is determined by a true estimate of ourselves before God. If we have realized how spiritually bankrupt we are, and if we have mourned over our own sin, then we will truly be meek, gentle, humble, considerate and courteous in our relationships with others. Thus meekness stems from an amazement, an enthrallment even, with God's grace shown to sinners, among whom, as Paul says, I am chief.
This leads to the fourth character quality in those who will be blessed by the Lord: a hunger and a thirst for righteousness. This beatitude means: Blessed is the person who longs to enter into a right relationship with God; literally, blessed is the person who longs for all of righteousness. Realizing and mourning over our spiritual bankruptcy and therefore being meek toward God and others is only part of the equation which results in a right relationship with God. It is not enough just to realize what we lack, we need to also long for our emptiness to be filled with the righteousness of God. Jesus promises that the person who longs for that will be filled to the point of complete satisfaction.
These four aspects of character in relationship with God necessarily lead to a different character altogether in our relationship toward our fellow human beings. The first of these character qualities, and the fifth beatitude, is: mercy. John Stott has written: “‘Mercy’ is compassion for people in need. . . . Our God is a merciful God and shows mercy continuously; the citizens of his kingdom must show mercy too. . . . Nothing moves us to forgive like the wondering knowledge that we have ourselves been forgiven.”
Do you remember the story of when Jesus went to dine in the house of Simon the Pharisee and a woman who had lived a sinful life anointed Jesus' feet with a costly jar of perfume? She stood behind Jesus at his feet, weeping and she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped his feet with her hair, kissing them and pouring perfume on them.
The Pharisee thought to himself, "If Jesus was a prophet then he would know who was touching him, that this woman has lived a sinful life."
Jesus, knowing Simon's thoughts, said: "Simon, I have something to tell you." Then he proceeded to tell Simon a story.
"Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?"
Simon replied, "I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled."
"You have judged correctly," Jesus said.
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven--for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little."
Those who show mercy to others do so because they themselves have been overwhelmed by the mercy of God as this woman was. And those who show mercy, unlike the Pharisee in his stingy judgmental attitude, will be shown even more mercy before the judgment seat of God.
Once you have experienced the mercy of God, once you have come into his loving light, that leads to the development of another character quality: purity of heart. This phrase literally means sincerity. According to Psalm 24 he who has clean hands and a pure heart does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false. In relationship to God and people the pure in heart person is free from falsehood; he or she lives their life completely in the open. They are no longer afraid of letting people see what they are like on the inside because all that is evil has been forgiven by God and God is putting his righteousness, his purity into their hearts. Yet, how few of us live our lives completely in the open. The only way we can do it is by the grace of Jesus Christ.
Those who live their own lives in the open, at peace with God and others, are then able to help others live at peace; the pure in heart become peacemakers. One of the most frequent causes of conflict in families, in the church, in the world is secrecy. But if we live our lives in openness and sincerity this can lead to peace and reconciliation. The most effective way we can be peacemakers in our world is by leading people in our own homes, our extended families, our neighborhoods, our communities to the one who is the Prince of Peace. If we know him in a personal way then we will begin to know peace in all dimensions of life.
I say, "begin to know peace", because even when we know peace in our own hearts and lives that doesn't mean everything will automatically be right with the world. We pray for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, but that obviously isn't happening yet across the board. Often the peacemakers in the world are the persecuted. As someone once said, "Jesus promises his followers four things in this world: peace, power, purpose and trouble!" However hard we try to be at peace with others some others will refuse to be at peace with us.
How did Jesus expect his disciples to react to persecution? "Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." If we are living the sort of upside-down life that Jesus calls us to live we will not be in perfect sync with the world. We will be swimming upstream, going against the flow. And so we will naturally feel pressure, and even persecution from those who are trying to live their lives just gently flowing downstream. Jesus is saying, "Look, if you are experiencing persecution, oppression, rejection, then you are on the right track!" Conversely, if we never experience these things in life we need to question whether we are really following the counter-cultural Jesus of the Gospels.
As A. W. Tozer once said, "A real Christian is an odd number, anyway. He feels supreme love for One whom he has never seen; talks familiarly every day to Someone he cannot see; expects to go to heaven on the virtue of Another; empties himself in order to be full; admits he is wrong so he can be declared right; goes down in order to get up; is strongest when he is weakest; richest when he is poorest and happiest when he feels the worst. He dies so he can live; forsakes in order to have; gives away so he can keep; sees the invisible; hears the inaudible; and knows that which passeth knowledge."
Are we living this sort of upside-down life? Have we discovered the secret of allowing Jesus to take the controls of our life and making them work in reverse so that we can fly higher and farther than we ever have before? If so, then we are beginning to be blessed beyond measure.