A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5:3-12. c). The blessings promised (continued).
Luther is even more clear about the second purpose of the Sermon: ‘Christ is saying nothing in this Sermon about how we become Christians, but only about the works and fruit that no one can do unless he already is a Christian and in a state of grace.’ The whole Sermon in fact presupposes an acceptance of the gospel (as Chrysostom and Augustine had understood), an experience of conversion and new birth, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It describes the kind of people reborn Christians are (or should be). So the beatitudes set forth the blessings which God bestows (not as a reward for merit but as a gift of grace) upon those in whom he is working such a character.
Professor Jeremias, who refers to the first explanation (‘the theory of the impossible ideal’) as ‘Lutheran orthodoxy’ and does not mention that Luther himself also gave this second explanation, suggests that the Sermon was used as ‘an early Christian catechism’ and therefore presupposes that the hearers were Christians already: ‘It was preceded by the proclamation of the Gospel; and it was preceded by conversion, by being over- powered by the Good News.’ Thus the Sermon is ‘spoken to men who have already received forgiveness, who have found the pearl of great price, who have been invited to the wedding, who through their faith in Jesus belong to the new creation, to the new world of God’. In this sense, then, ‘the Sermon on the Mount is not law, but Gospel’. To make the difference between the two clear, he continues, one should avoid terms like ‘Christian morality’ and speak instead of ‘lived faith’, for ‘then it is clearly stated that the gift of God precedes his demands’.
Professor A.M.Hunter helpfully sets this matter in the context of the whole New Testament: ‘The New Testament makes it clear that the early Church’s message always…had two aspects – one theological, the other ethical: (i) the Gospel which the apostles preached; and (ii) the Commandment, growing out of the Gospel, which they taught to those who accepted the Gospel. The Gospel was a declaration of what God, in his grace, had done for men through Christ; the Commandment was a statement of what God required from men who had become the objects of his gracious action.’ The apostle Paul commonly divided his letters in this way, with first the doctrinal, then a practical section. ‘But in this’, A.M.Hunter continues, ‘Paul was only doing what his Lord had done before him. Jesus not only proclaimed that the kingdom of God had come with himself and his work; he also set before his disciples the moral ideal of that kingdom…It is the ideal adumbrated in the Sermon on the Mount.’
To sum up these three introductory points relating to the beatitudes, we may say that the people described are the generality of Christian disciples, at least in the ideal; that the qualities commended are spiritual qualities; and that the blessing promised (as an unearned free gift) is the glorious comprehensive blessing of God’s rule, tasted now and consummated later, including the inheritance of both earth and heaven, comfort, satisfaction and mercy, the vision and the sonship of God.
We are ready now to look at the beatitudes in detail. Various classifications have been attempted. They are certainly not a random catalogue but, in Chrysostom’s words, ‘a sort of golden chain’. Perhaps the simplest division is to see the first four as describing the Christian’s relation to God, and the second four his relations and duties to his fellow men.
Tomorrow: Matthew 5:3. 1) The poor in spirit.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.