This chapter and the next two that follow it comprise that blessed discourse of our Savior which is frequently called the Sermon on the Mount. Here the Lord Jesus expresses, in a short and forcible manner, some of the most important particulars of our Christian duties. Great numbers of people thronged to hear Him, probably as a result of the miracles which He had performed. However, this particular sermon was chiefly addressed to His twelve disciples, but the words which He taught are of the deepest interest to all mankind.
The Savior’s message opens with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” – that is, those who are content to be humble in heart. This seems to be mentioned first, because pride lies at the very root of man’s transgressions; and also because humility is absolutely necessary to man’s repentance and reformation. What does the Lord say concerning such persons? “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – that is, they are allotted a sure portion in that state of peace, hope, and glory which Christ’s Gospel proclaims.
“They that mourn” are next blessed. These are persons who grieve for their own sins, or for the iniquity of the world. But they shall be comforted now, and they shall also be comforted hereafter. They shall be comforted by the Holy Spirit, Who is the Comforter of His people with real and lasting joy.
“The meek,” in like manner, are next blessed; and they are assured that “they shall inherit the earth.” This means that they shall have a peculiar enjoyment, even in this life, wherein few things so much embitter our existence as the dispositions which are so opposite to meekness – such as an angry, arrogant, or contentious spirit.
“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Their strong desire to do their Christian duty, and to be counted righteous for Christ’s sake, is such as may be compared to these natural appetites. “They shall be filled” and satisfied continually with the spiritual feast that lasts until death, and which furnishes the nourishment of eternal life.
The blessing of the merciful is that “they shall obtain mercy.” Do we need pardon? Then let us not dare to seek revenge! Do we have many things that need to be forgiven? Then let us freely forgive after our heavenly Example, even unto the loving of those who use us ill.
To the pure in heart, it is said that “they shall see God.” Surely we desire to enjoy our Lord’s presence, and to dwell in the light of His countenance! Our rule, then, must be purity in life; we must abstain from every action, word, or thought which even resembles the defilement which He abhors.
The peacemakers are blessed also, “for they shall be called the children of God.” If they are the sons and daughters of God, then they are related to that blessed Elder Brother Who came down from heaven to reconcile lost mankind to His Father. This means that they are brothers and sisters, to whom is committed the pleasant work of making peace here on earth; and then they shall also be brothers and sisters in the inheritance of the saints in light (Col. 1:12).
Lastly, there is a blessing – even “the kingdom of heaven” – for those who are “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Persecution such as this may not frequently take place in our country; and if it does not, let us fall on our knees and give thanks, for there are many lands where this is not the case. But we may properly call to mind this text whenever we incur censure, ridicule, or ill-will by the faithful discharge of our duty; and in faithfully performing it, we may be encouraged by remembering that great is our “reward in heaven.”
Verses 13-16 were particularly addressed to Jesus’ disciples, who were to be teachers of others. But our Lord, in thus speaking to them before the assembled multitude, also intended to interest all His hearers in duties which – to a great degree – clearly relate to all. All, in some measure, teach others by their example; their conversation and character may teach someone else a great deal of either good or evil. If we make the profession of being an earnest Christian, we ought to live in such a way as to make others glorify our Father which is in heaven; for otherwise, we dishonor in their eyes the Lord Who bought us.
To all, then, who are named Christians, it may be truly said, “Ye are the salt of the earth” – keeping the whole world, by their holiness and faith, from being utterly handed over to spiritual corruption. If our own lives grow corrupt, then we are not only miserable in ourselves, but we also become unprofitable to others. Thus it is in our power, as a Christian family or individual – to help keep in health the souls that are around us, which are ready to perish. Surely it is of no small importance for them to know of a whole family taking pains together in the service of a heavenly Master! And those things which they see in our lives, hear from our lips, and meet with in our conduct – these things may convince them that piety toward God and love toward man are indeed attainable through grace; and that when they are attained, they are full of joy. Thus we may become the salt of the earth, so that hundreds – whom we neither know nor think of – shall be better and happier for our Christian behavior.
“Ye are the light of the world.” This figure again, was most appropriate for our Lord’s immediate disciples; but it well expresses the condition of every family or person who lives in the profession of the Christian faith. We “cannot be hid.” The way we live and the things we do are seen by all those who dwell around us. It is in vain to put our candle under a bushel – that is, to indulge the hope that we may continue to sin without fear of doing others harm; or to imagine that we do not need to try to amend, in order to do them good. Being Christians, people will set us up like a candle on a candlestick, so that our conduct may give them light and direction. Let us endeavor, then, that our light may “so shine before men,” so that they may glorify our heavenly Father.
The whole multitude who heard these words had been accustomed, from infancy, to hold in high reverence the Law of Moses under which they lived. Although they erred widely as to its true spirit and intention, they did believe that it was ordained for their good by Almighty God. Thus nothing would have made them more averse to receive the teaching of Christ than a false notion that He intended to destroy the law and the prophets. Therefore, before the Savior began the section starting in verse 17, He expressly declares that He came not “to destroy, but to fulfil” them. The principles which He was about to lay down were not meant to contradict the precepts of Moses, but to enforce them in a more extensive sense. The doctrines which He was about to teach were not at variance with the teaching of the prophets; but rather, they were designed to explain their holy lessons further, and to apply them more closely to the hearts of the hearers. We are to readily apply each principle of the Gospel to every event and circumstance in our life, and we are to shape our very thought processes after the pattern therein laid down.
The Savior gives an illustration of this in verses 21-26, by explaining the case of the sixth commandment of the law. The scribes and Pharisees considered themselves as fully obedient to it, for they had not committed actual murder. But Christ causes us to see here that every word, look, or thought of evil is no less of a sin than the actual act. In fact, the Divine Teacher bids us to leave even His own worship incomplete – His own gift unoffered upon the altar – until we are first reconciled with an offended brother.
It is in this way, then, that Christians are here taught to apply every commandment in the law of Moses. They must take it in a fuller sense, and they must extend it from the outward actions to the innermost thoughts. The character of each person is thus seen to consist in the purposes of the heart. In these are to be found that love to God and to our neighbor which is the fulfilling of all the commandments (chapter 22:37, 39). By these purposes of love, let us now examine ourselves; for by these, we also must be judged hereafter. Where the purposes of our heart remain corrupt, all outside show of holiness is vain. It is only where these purposes are conformed to the Gospel-pattern of Divine truth that we can be reckoned to have fulfilled the precepts of the law, or to have entered into the Kingdom of heaven.
The Savior’s words upon the sixth commandment show us how the Gospel fulfills rather than destroys the law. The same principle is here applied to the seventh: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Purity, like kindness, must be felt in the heart. It is from there that evil thoughts arise, and there they must be immediately suppressed. And whether it is with the eye or with the hand that we are chiefly tempted to offend, we must restrain that member which lends its aid to sin; and we must cut off that thought which prompts us to hatred or to lust, lest our whole body should be cast into hell, and our whole soul should perish everlastingly.
To these general directions, we find a particular rule added about divorcement; for the Jews, and much more the heathen nations of that period, viewed it as lawful to put away their wives upon the most trifling grounds. Thus the wayward inclinations of one party prevailed over those holy bonds which were ordained as a remedy against sin, and which were also established for the mutual help and comfort of both husband and wife. How deeply we need the grace of God to preserve our feet from falling into the strife, jealousy, confusion, and every evil work which takes the place of the domestic purity and peace which God designed for marriage.
Observe further how Christ fully interprets the meaning of the law in the matter of swearing oaths. There would be no need to call God to witness if we were always careful to speak the honest truth; for whether we call on Him or not, He is witness to every word we utter! The plain utterance of “yes” or “no” ought to answer every purpose of mutual information, and render it unnecessary to swear at all.
The Law of Moses had said in Leviticus 24:20, “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.” But it did not allow this by way of private revenge, but it ordained it for legal punishment. Hence the scribes and Pharisees, admitting that they were bound to love their neighbors, proceeded to infer that which is nowhere written in the Law – namely, that they were also bound to hate their enemies. The severe retribution which the Law enforced as legal punishment for crimes tended to hinder, rather than encourage, the evil propensities of the heart. Therefore, it is in fulfillment of this very law – for the more effectual attainment of the same objective – that our Lord now teaches, “Resist not evil.” In fact, He urges us to go further, and meet these things by a voluntary subjection to fresh indignities; “turn to him the other cheek also,” “let him have thy cloak also,” and “go with him twain.” This is the Gospel-method of baffling wrong and violence, if not entirely banishing it from the world. Moreover, instead of hating our enemies, we are to “bless them that curse” us, “do good to them that hate” us, and “pray for them which despitefully use and persecute” us. As the Lord’s grace enables us to love all mankind, we become created anew in the likeness of the Lord Jesus, Who prayed for the men who were nailing Him to the cross, and Who died for those who crucified Him.
Thank You, Lord Jesus, for the blessedness that we enjoy as Your sons and daughters; for You make us poor in spirit, rich in faith, and heirs of Your Kingdom! Help us to walk in purity, peace, and love as children of God. Amen.
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