A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5:4. Those who mourn.
One might almost translate this second beatitude ‘Happy are the unhappy’ in order to draw attention to the startling paradox it contains. What kind of sorrow can it be that brings the joy of Christ’s blessing to those who feel it? It is plain from the context that those here promised comfort are not primarily those who mourn the loss of a loved one, but those who mourn the loss of their innocence, their righteousness, their self-respect. It is not the sorrow of bereavement to which Christ refers, but the sorrow of repentance.
This is the second stage of spiritual blessing. It is one thing to be spiritually poor and acknowledge it; it is another to grieve and to mourn over it. Or, in more theological language, confession is one thing, contrition another.
We need, then, to observe that the Christian life, according to Jesus, is not all joy and laughter. Some Christians seem to imagine that, especially if they are filled with the Spirit, they must wear a perpetual grin on their face and be continuously boisterous and bubbly. How unbiblical can one become? No. In Luke’s version of the Sermon Jesus added to this beatitude a solemn woe: ‘Woe to you who laugh now.’ (Lk.6:25). The truth is that there are such things as Christian tears, and too few of us ever weep them.
Jesus wept over the sins of others, over their bitter consequences in judgment and death, and over the impenitent city which would not receive him. We too should weep more over the evil in the world, as did the godly men of biblical times. ‘My eyes shed streams of tears,’ the psalmist could say to God, ‘because men do not keep thy law.’ (Ps.119:136) Ezekiel heard God’s faithful people described as those ‘who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in (Jerusalem; Ezk.9:4)’. And Paul wrote of the false teachers troubling the churches of his day: ‘Many, of whom I … now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ.’ (Phil.3:18).
It is not only of the sins of others, however, which should cause us tears; for we have our own sins to weep over as well. Have they never caused us any grief? Was Cranmer exaggerating when in his 1662 Holy Communion service he put into the lips of church people the words, ‘We acknowledge *and bewail* our manifold sins and wickedness’? Was Ezra mistaken to pray and make confession, ‘weeping and casting himself down before the house of God? (Ezra 10:1). Was Paul wrong to groan, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’, and to write to the sinful church of Corinth: ‘Ought you not rather to mourn?’ (Rom.7:24; 1 Cor.5:2; cf.2 Cor.12:21) I think not. I fear that we evangelical Christians, by making much of grace, sometimes thereby make light of sin. There is not enough sorrow for sin among us. We should experience more ‘godly grief’ of Christian penitence (2 Cor.7:10), like that sensitive and Christ-like eighteenth-century missionary to the American Indians David Brainerd, who wrote in his journal on 18th October 1740: ‘In my morning devotions my soul was exceedingly melted, and bitterly mourned over my exceeding sinfulness and vileness.’ Tears like this are the holy water which God is said to store in his bottle (Ps.56:8).
Such mourners, who bewail their own sinfulness, will be comforted by the only comfort which can relieve their distress, namely the free forgiveness of God. ‘The greatest of all comfort is the absolution pronounced upon every contrite mourning sinner.’ ‘Consolation’ according to the Old Testament prophets was to be one of the offices of the Messiah. He was to be ‘the Comforter’ who would ‘bind up the broken hearted’. (Is 61:1; cf.Is.40:1). That is why Godly men like Simeon were said to be looking and longing ‘for the consolation of Israel’. (Lk 2:25). And Christ does pour oil into our wounds and speak peace to our sore, scarred consciences. Yet still we mourn over the havoc of suffering and death which sin spreads throughout the world. For only in the final state of glory will Christ’s comfort be complete, for only then will sin be no more and ‘God will wipe away every tear from our eyes’. (Rev.7.17).
Tomorrow: Matthew 5:5. The Meek.
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.