The Sermon on the Mount: Happiness and Woe
The Setting (Matthew 5:1-2)
While Jesus was traveling the countryside teaching and healing people, he stopped for a while on a plain (Luke 6:17). People from not only Israel, but also from places as far away as Tyre and Sidon in Phoenicia were among the crowd. Scholars place this event on the plains of Esdraelon, which is also known as the valley of Jezreel.
Before beginning to speak, Matthew’s account (Matthew 5:1) mentions that Jesus moved up on a mountain because of the multitude. As you can see from there are several mountains along the edge of the plains, but the one most often attributed to being the location of Jesus’ sermon is Mount Tabor.
The primary audience was Jesus’ disciples who gathered around him, but we know that others from the multitude gathered also listened to Jesus’ discourse (Matthew 7:28; Luke 7:1). Luke’s record of the sermon, while covering much the same topics as Matthew’s is much shorter. It is likely that neither Matthew or Luke recorded the entire lesson, but each gave us an abridged edition that was tailored toward their respective audience.
The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12)
The first topic in both Matthew and Luke’s accounts are a list frequently titled “the Beatitudes.” Jesus gives a series of blessed attitudes. “Blessed” is just another word for happy. Each statement is a description of the people who are truly happy in life. The odd thing is that we would not normally associate happiness with these types of people.
The first group is the “poor in spirit.” In other words people who are humble and do not demonstrate pride in themselves. Our world generally tells people that to get ahead in life one must have pride, or self-esteem. Only people who are noticed will get their way, so people learn how to be assertive to keep others from pushing them around. Yet, Jesus said it would be those who are seemingly lacking in spirit who would see the kingdom of heaven (a phrase referring to the church, Colossians 1:12-14). The kingdom, or the church, is comprised of those who are saved and God said, “For the LORD takes pleasure in His people; He will beautify the humble with salvation” (Psalm 149:4). A humble attitude has always been more valuable than pride and riches (Proverbs 16:19) because pride and riches only bring temporary earthly wealth. True riches last eternally and can only be gained by the humble (Proverbs 22:4) because God grants these eternal rewards (James 4:10).
“Those who mourn” are the second blessed group. It is difficult to see how someone who is sad can be truly happy. David explained, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart - these, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). It is to these people that God draws near and gives them salvation (Psalm 34:18). The reason is simple, only when a person truly sees the sad state of his life will he work to make changes in that life (II Corinthians 7:9-11). When we, in turn, draw near to God we find comfort and happiness under His protective care (Psalm 126:6).
The third group declared blessed are the meek. Meekness is often defined as gentleness, but such doesn’t adequately expresses the word. A meek person places the needs of others above his own concerns, even to the point of wearing himself out taking on the burdens of others. Of meekness Vines said, “Described negatively, meekness is the opposite of self-assertiveness and self-interest; it is equanimity of spirit that is neither elated nor cast down, simply because it is not occupied by self at all.” Moses is described as being the meekest man on earth (Numbers 12:3) and we can see it illustrated in Exodus 18:13-23. Moses was literally wearing himself out trying to help everyone solve their personal problems. He never complained or even gave thought to what his efforts were doing to him. He willingly bore everyone’s problems on his own shoulders. It took the effort of his father-in-law to get Moses to see that he needed to spread the burdens around. It is difficult to see how such people could conquer the world. We usually think of world conquerors as aggressive. “For evildoers shall be cut off; But those who wait on the LORD, They shall inherit the earth. For yet a little while and the wicked shall be no more; Indeed, you will look carefully for his place, But it shall be no more. But the meek shall inherit the earth, And shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace. The wicked plots against the just, And gnashes at him with his teeth. The Lord laughs at him, For He sees that his day is coming. The wicked have drawn the sword And have bent their bow, To cast down the poor and needy, To slay those who are of upright conduct. Their sword shall enter their own heart, And their bows shall be broken. A little that a righteous man has Is better than the riches of many wicked. For the arms of the wicked shall be broken, But the LORD upholds the righteous. The LORD knows the days of the upright, And their inheritance shall be forever” (Psalm 37:9-18). The true key is to understand that we are not talking about this physical earth. It is temporary, it will die (II Peter 3:10), but the meek will inherit from the earth after its death. In other words, we are speaking of gaining heaven.
The next group are those who desire righteousness. Those in the world generally think that happiness comes from pursuing sin (Proverbs 1:10-19; 6:14-19), but such fun is self-destructive. Instead we should see that real happiness comes from pursuing righteousness. “As the deer pants for the water brooks, So pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, While they continually say to me, "Where is your God?" When I remember these things, I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go with the multitude; I went with them to the house of God, With the voice of joy and praise, With a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast” (Psalm 42:1-4). True satisfaction comes from being righteous before God (Psalms 17:15).
Next comes the merciful. The world believes we must not let anyone stand in our way in our rise to success. Only the ruthless can make the big bucks. But mercy is the idea of caring for others, easing their burdens, and releasing them from their debts. But in the end, everyone needs mercy, especially for our debts of sin before God. God promises no mercy to the merciless (James 2:13). “Let not mercy and truth forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart, and so find favor and high esteem In the sight of God and man” (Proverbs 3:3-4). Thus a person who is helping others is also helping himself (Proverbs 11:17).
Jesus also states that the pure in heart, those freed from the stain of sin, are able to come before God. “Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? Or who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation” (Psalm 24:3-5).God is righteous. He exists without a shadow of sin and if we are to come before Him, we must also be without sin (I John 1:5-7). Pure religion is being unspotted by the world (James 1:27). Jesus is looking for a pure bride (Ephesians 5:27).
We also learn that peacemakers also have happiness. It is difficult to bring peace to a world that is not interested in peace. But, being a peacemaker is a mark of a follower of God. “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Proverbs 12:18). Since people in the world center their thoughts around themselves, when someone does them wrong, they look for ways to gain revenge. Everything has to be done “my way,” but not so with a child of God (Romans 14:19).
Finally, and hardest to understand, persecuted people are happy people. This is completely opposite from the world’s view. To worldly people, it is the popular people who are happy. However, Christians realize that persecution is merely temporary (II Corinthians 4:16-18), and there are benefits to be gained from persecutions (James 1:2-4). Our faith and resolve to serve the Lord is strengthened. We look for the ultimate outcome, the ultimate bliss, of heaven (Revelation 7:14-17).
Sorrows (Luke 6:20-26)
Luke’s account records a list of contrasts. The poor gain the kingdom of God, but the rich have their reward and are sorrowful as a result because their gain is so shallow and temporary. Those hungering now for righteousness will be feed, but those who believe themselves to be full now, will go hungry because the full don’t seek righteousness. Those who are sad now will become happy, but those who laugh now will end up sad because they see the realities of life backwards. When people hate you because of Christ it is a time of joy because it shows we are walking the path the righteous before us have walked. But when people praise us, then we should worry because it is the false prophets who were popular with the world.
Influence (Matthew 5:13-16)
Knowing that we will be hated and persecuted because of our beliefs, there is a strong desire to lay low and let the storms of life pass over us. However, Jesus tells us we need to stand out and be noticed. If we don’t we are worthless to God.
This is why confession is key to salvation (Romans 10:8-11). Unless we are willing to allow our faith in Jesus to be put on display, we cannot serve God (Matthew 10:32-33). Being on display is to our benefit. Sinners hide under the cover of darkness. Standing forth in the light places a hindrance to committing sin (Ephesians 5:8-12). “And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (II Peter 1:19).