"The Disciple's Portrait"
(Delivered Sunday, May 30, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version, unles.)
We continue our study of the Gospel of Matthew by hearing the sermon of another Preacher. We will hear, in fact, from the greatest Preacher who ever preached, and from the introduction of the greatest sermon ever delivered on earth. We begin this morning what I pray will be a long and fruitful look at our Savior's Sermon on The Mount. And particularly, we begin with that portion of the Sermon known as The Beatitudes.
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I suspect that The Beatitudes is among the best known and best loved of all sections of the Bible. It contains eight very short affirmations. In the Greek, only 107 words make up The Beatitudes altogether; and some of those words are repeated - repeated several times, in fact. But understood in proper relation to one another, these eight assertions give us nothing less than a summary of the greatest themes of the message of the gospel. They present truth so profound and so life-changing, that they could not have been spoken by anyone else but God in human flesh.
The Puritan preacher Thomas Watson wrote an entire book on The Beatitudes. Let me share with you how he began his book. I don't believe he exaggerated things one bit when he said,
In this portion of the Holy Scripture you have a breviary of religion, the Bible epitomized. Here is a garden of delight, set with curious knots, where you may pluck those flowers which will deck the hidden man of your heart. Here is a golden key which will open the gate of Paradise. Here is the conduit of the Gospel, running wine to cherish such are as poor in spirit and pure in heart. Here is the rich cabinet wherein the Pearl of Blessedness is locked up. Here is the golden pot in which is that manna which will feed and [revive] the soul unto everlasting life. Here is a way chalked out to the Holy of Holies.1
The Beatitudes truly does set before us the summation of genuine biblical religion. It lays the pathway to heaven out before us; and invites us to walk that path into the deepest possible fellowship with God. It gives us the Bible's own description of the way to infinite happiness.
But what's remarkable is that the focus of The Beatitudes is not on "doing". It doesn't so much define a set of actions to us as much as describe a kind of character. As someone has pointed out, this isn't the "Do-attitudes"; it's the "Be-attitudes." It's a description of what it looks like to "be" a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is the portrait of someone in whom Christ dwells.
Now if you happen to be someone who is eager to jump into the practical side of things - eager to get right to the "to-dos" of Jesus' teaching; be patient. In The Sermon on The Mount, our Lord will lay out for us plenty of "to-dos" to work on. But in His great wisdom, He begins His sermon by setting before us what to "be" first. And the importance of that cannot be stressed enough. Many people have tried to "do" the Sermon on the Mount, and have ended in disappointment, frustration, and despair. And the reason is simple. The Sermon on The Mount was never meant to be a list of commands that we follow in our own strength. Simply put, we will never be able to "do" the things in the Sermon on the Mount, if we will not first "be" the things in The Beatitudes.
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If God permits, I'd like for us to spend the next several weeks examining each one of the eight Beatitudes individually. But this morning, I'd like for us to take a bird's eye view of The Beatitudes as a whole. And I want us to begin by looking first at how Jesus Himself began.
In chapter four, we're told of how Jesus began His public ministry by going to Galilee. He preached the very same message that John the Baptist had been preaching before Him: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (4:17). And after having chosen some of His disciples to Himself, we're told that He went all through the region of Galilee;
. . . teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people. Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them. Great multitudes followed Him - from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan (4:23-25).
Jesus' authority as a teacher had clearly been established. It was evident to all that He spoke and acted with divine authority. Great crowds were following Him. Multitudes were coming out to Him; eager to be healed by Him. And it was in this context that Matthew tells us; "And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them . . ." (Matthew 5:1-2).
Jesus saw the multitudes; but did you notice who it was that He specifically spoke to? Jesus saw the crowds; but went up to the mountain - most likely one that overlooked the Sea of Galilee - and sat down. He didn't go to the multitudes to speak these words. He withdrew from the crowds that were following after Him; and if anyone wanted to hear what He had to say, they had to go to Him to hear it. We're told that, when He was seated, His disciples came; and He specifically spoke to them. Everyone wanted healing; but only those who were His disciples came to be taught by Him. There may have been others present when He taught (see Matthew 7:28-29); but His teaching was specifically directed to those who came to Him as disciples. And you could tell who was just a part of the multitude and who was truly a disciple; because His disciples - after witnessing His power to heal - came to Him to be taught.
There's an important principle in this. The words of The Beatitudes were not meant for the crowd at large. They were not to be taken and applied by all people of the world. They were meant for a very specific audience. They were meant for those who are Jesus' disciples - His followers, who came to Him to be taught of Him. This is true, in fact, for the whole Sermon on The Mount.
So before we look at The Beatitudes, may I ask you: Are you a "disciple" of Jesus? Are you one of His "followers"; and do you set yourself apart from everything else in this world in order to be taught by Him? If you're attitude is to look at the words of Jesus' teaching and perhaps draw some good principles for living out of them for yourself - as if you are the one in charge, and as if you are the one who will be making the ultimate decision of what you will do; as if you're picking and choosing a tid-bit here and there, and constructing your own philosophy of what you'll believe - then you'll never really get anything out of The Sermon on The Mount. It's not meant to be heard in that way. The closer we look at The Sermon on The Mount, the clearer it will be that these words were meant for those who come to Jesus to be one of His disciples - and for no one else. Have you taken the first step? Have you stepped apart from the crowd in order to call Him your Lord and Master? Are you prepared to lay all before Him and follow Him? Are you truly a "disciple" of Jesus?
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So then, being seated with His disciples, Jesus opened His mouth and taught them, saying,
"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
Here, then, are the foundational principles of The Sermon on The Mount. Here's the summary description of the man or woman in whom Jesus Christ dwells. Here is the pathway to true blessedness. Here is the portrait of the disciple of Christ.
Let's look at The Beatitudes as a whole; and first consider how it shows us . . .
1. THE BLESSEDNESS OF THE DISCIPLE.
It certainly isn't hard to pick up the theme of The Beatitudes, is it? We read the same word repeated in each Beatitude - "Blessed".
The Greek word being used is "makarios"; and in its normal sense, it means "happy". The word "beatitude" itself comes from the Latin word beatitudo - "perfect happiness" or "bliss". And in fact, the Jerusalem Bible translates it accordingly: "How happy are the poor in spirit . . . Happy are the gentle . . . Happy are those who mourn . . ."
But we shouldn't understand this to mean happiness in the sense that we're accustomed to thinking. Jesus isn't speaking of "happiness" in the sense of having delight in happy or pleasant circumstances - like when we wish someone a "happy birthday", or when we eat a "happy meal", or have a "happy time" at the beach. Nor is this the kind of "noble" happiness that we speak of when we speak of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". Jesus is speaking of a happiness that is the believer's experience even when in the midst of very unhappy circumstances - a happiness that occurs even during such things as mourning, or hungering and thirsting, or being persecuted unfairly. This is a happiness that does not have its source in any human effort or earthly circumstance whatsoever.
This is a transcendent kind of happiness - a happiness above circumstances. It has to do with "being" something - being a privileged recipient of God's gracious favor and unmerited blessing. Because it's an experience that has its source in God, a better way to understand it is by the translation "blessed". When we say that someone is "blessed", we are speaking of a derivative happiness. We mean that they are the recipients of something given to them by God. We cannot be happy, in this sense, without being a recipient of God's gracious favor.
Did you know that the Bible describes God as "blessed" in Himself? Blessedness has its source - not in circumstances or in things - but in the God alone who is "the blessed and only Potentate" (1 Tim. 6:15). His gospel is described as "the glorious gospel of the blessed God" (1 Tim. 1:11). And what's more, Jesus - the Son of God, who is eternally blessed - wishes to share His joy with us. Jesus prayed to the Father about His disciples, and said, ". . . These things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves." (John 17:13). He told His disciples, "These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full" (John 15:11). He said this concerning His followers: "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly" (John 10:10).
True happiness, then - true blessedness - is a gift of God's grace. It's a happiness that can never be effected by the things of this world. It's the settled, inner satisfaction and bliss that comes to those who are in God's favor through Jesus Christ. And that's the "blessedness" that is set before us over and over and over in these words from our Savior. Jesus offers it to His disciples free of charge.
Now, if someone were truly seeking to be "blessed" in the sight of God, don't you agree that they should listen to what Jesus says in The Beatitudes? In these words, Jesus sets before us the pathway to true, lasting, God-sent "blessedness".
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But, how does someone come to that state of "blessedness"? We could even put it this way: How does someone enter into the state of "being" a disciple - and thus being blessed? That leads us, next, to consider another wonderful aspect of the Beatitudes. There's a logical order to them; and this order shows us . . .
2. THE PROGRESS OF THE DISCIPLE.
The Beatitudes were not given to us by the Savior as a random set of assertions. They are interrelated to and build upon one another.2 And that interrelationship shows us how someone progresses in the state of being a disciple of Jesus.
Consider the first three Beatitudes. They deal with that aspect in the progress of a disciple in which he or she first comes to a deep realization of his or her need for God's grace. The first Beatitude says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God." This is speaking of the "poor" - literally destitute and reduced to being a beggar. But it isn't speaking of those who are poor "financially" or "materially". It's speaking of those who have come to terms with the fact that they are poor "spiritually" - those who realize that they have nothing of their own to commend themselves to God, no spiritual worth or virtue in and of themselves. They are spiritually bankrupt before a holy God, and are sinners worthy only of His condemnation and wrath. They are "poor in spirit".
And that is exactly how every man or woman must begin in becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. We cannot come to God thinking that we are "worthy" before Him; bringing our good works with us in order to buy God's favor. Instead, we must come in the poverty of our soul - absolutely naked as it where, able to do nothing but beg for His favor as a gift of His grace. Jesus says that it such people - "poor in spirit" - who are blessed before God; because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
And then, as the second Beatitude teaches us, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." And again, this isn't talking about merely "mourning" in and of itself. Many in the past have thought that this was so; and have tried to make themselves "disciples" by engaging in an artificial kind of "mourning" - walking about in sackcloth and ashes, living in self-denial and self-imposed suffering; always bearing a mournful look. (Such behavior tends to put more attention on the self than on Christ; and it tends to make one more prideful than truly mournful.) Rather, this is speaking of a deep inner mourning in the soul. Those who have a sense of their own spiritual poverty before a holy God also recognize the depth of their own sin. They see themselves as they truly are, and they grieve and sorrow over the sin that is in them.
This too is a critical part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must admit the truth about your sin, and you must be broken-hearted over it. You must have the attitude that James spoke of when he wrote, "Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up" (James 4:7-10). Jesus promises that those who genuinely mourn before God over the sin that is in their lives are blessed; "for they shall be comforted."
In the third Beatitude, Jesus teaches us, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth"; and this needs to be understood in the context of the things that proceeded it. When a man or woman comes to realize the abject poverty of their own soul before God, and then comes to be broken-hearted and deeply sorry for the sin in their lives, how then should they come to God? Should they come in pride and self-confidence? Should they come pointing to all their good deeds and justifying themselves in His sight? Should they come demanding His favor as a right that they have earned? Should they seek honor from God as if they were mighty conquering warriors who have earned favor by their mighty moral triumphs? Certainly not! Instead, they would come as meek and humble beggars - demanding nothing as their right, but only pleading for His mercy.
And again, this is how everyone must come to God if they would be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Jesus promises that those who do so are blessed; "for they shall inherit the earth." They must come as a little child, able to do nothing but receive. Can you see, then, how these first three Beatitudes describe how someone begins the journey of becoming a disciple of Christ? They show the progress of the disciple of Jesus Christ through the deep sense of need for God's grace and mercy?
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That brings us to the fourth Beatitude. It describes the desperately needy man or woman in the state of transition; where they cry out to God for righteousness by grace, and where God, by grace, declares them righteous. What a great and hopeful assertion it is! It's one of the most wonderful promises of grace in all the Bible! Jesus said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."
You see, when someone realizes his or her spiritually bankrupt state before God, and mourns over the sin in themselves, and comes to God in meekness - with nothing that they are able to do but beg for God's favor as an act of His grace and mercy - then such a one longs to be truly righteous. It can only be as a gift of God's grace, but he or she nevertheless longs for it deeply. Such a person realizes that righteousness before God is their true heart's longing, but also that it is outside the grasp of his or her own ability. You don't hunger and thirst for what you already have; and they hunger and thirst after righteousness. They long for it! They passionately desires to be right with God in all their ways! God Himself puts that longing in them. And then, He opens their eyes to see that the sinless Son of God took all their sins upon Himself on the cross and died in their place; and that He is satisfied with the sacrifice His Son has made for us.
Jesus promised, "for they shall be filled"; and you have to understand that promise in the context of the whole of Scripture. No one is ever "filled" with righteousness apart from faith in the cross of Jesus. And so, it's to such a man or woman that God graciously imparts the very righteousness of Jesus Christ Himself by faith. And it's in such a man or woman that the Holy Spirit takes up permanent residence - ever assuring them of God's gracious favor through Christ, and ever empowering them to live lives of righteousness. And it's to such a man or woman that God makes the wonderful promise that, no matter what, they will indeed stand one day before Him faultless and blameless in eternal glory through Christ - without spot or wrinkle or blemish.
Such who hunger and thirst after righteousness truly are greatly blessed; "for they shall be filled."
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That brings us to the remaining four Beatitudes. They all speak of the blessed state of the man or woman who has come to God in the depth of their need for His grace, and who have - by God's grace - been pardoned and declared "righteous" through Jesus Christ. Such a person is transformed from the inside out. They live a new kind of life in God's grace.
First, Jesus says, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." God has had mercy on them. He has forgiven them. And how, then, can they be anything but compassionate and merciful and forgiving toward others who - like themselves - are trapped in the clutches of sin? As Paul wrote, they seek "to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men. For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another" (Titus 3:2-3). They remember that they too were trapped in sin; but that God had mercy on them and forgave them. They recognize that, as recipients of God's great mercy, they would surly be disciplined as disobedient children if they were not merciful toward others.
As a second assertion about those who are justified in God's sight, Jesus says, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." God has declared them righteous through faith in Jesus Christ. Even though they still stumble and fall, God has declared them to be 100% righteous in His sight. But that doesn't then give them the motivation to continue in sin. Quite the opposite, it motivates them to be as pure in practice as they are in position before God. They want to live like what they truly are in His sight. They want to live now like people who will one day share fully in the glory of Jesus Christ. As John said, "Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure" (1 John 3:2-3). "Blessed", then, "are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."
Third, Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." Many people take this to be a reference to those who oppose war and violence, and who work to bring about "world peace". But I believe it needs to be seen in the greater context of being someone who has been declared righteous by God's grace and is a disciple of Jesus Christ. Such a man or woman realizes that they were in a state of enmity toward God; and that it was sin that was the barrier that separated them from the God who made them. When the barrier of sin was removed through the cross, they ceased to be in a state of enmity toward God and were able to enter into fellowship with Him. As Paul wrote, "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:1). And now, as "peacemakers", they seek to show others who are separated from God because of sin how that barrier of sin is removed through Christ. They work toward "peace" between God and other sinners! This peace will certainly bring about peace within the heart of the sinner, and peace between one sinner and another. But true "peace-making" starts with seeking to reconcile the sinner to God through Christ through the removal of the barrier of sin.
And finally, Jesus says, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." In fact, Jesus expands upon this last one assertion, and further says, "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
The man or woman who admits his or her hopeless condition before God, cries out to Him for mercy, is pardoned by grace through the cross, and then goes on to live life in the grace of God as a follower of Jesus Christ, has become an enemy of the world. Jesus told His disciples, "If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (John 15:19). But even then, Jesus assures us of the blessedness of the man or woman who is persecuted for righteousness' sake - that is, for His sake. Such a person should leap for joy, because their reward in heaven is very great!
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So you see; the Beatitudes are not just a random group of assertions of blessedness. They describe the blessedness of the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ - from beginning to end. It describes a life begun in neediness, brokenness and repentance; and then goes on to describe that same life justified and transformed by the redeeming grace of God through Christ.
And let me just make three more observations. First, we should understand that the Lord Jesus intentionally began The Sermon on The Mount with the Beatitudes because the Sermon would make no sense without the blessings being described for us in The Beatitudes. The Sermon is for disciples; and The Beatitudes is, if you will, the front door of blessing by which we enter the practical teaching of The Sermon. The Beatitudes serves as the basis for all that is going to be said in The Sermon on The Mount. As we will see in our study of the individual Beatitudes, everything that we find in The Sermon (Matthew 5:13-7:29) can be traced back to what is said in The Beatitudes.
And because this is true, this means that none of the individual Beatitudes should be seen as independent of the others. They are not individual "blessings" that we can take out of context and make to stand on their own however we wish. People often seek to do this, you know. Most people like the ones about the meek inheriting the earth, or about the peacemakers being the sons of God, or about the merciful obtaining mercy, or about the pure in heart seeing God. Those sound very noble. But very few people wish to be identified with the one about being poor in spirit, or about mourning, or about hungering and thirsting after righteousness, or about being persecuted for Jesus' sake. But we can't pick and choose like that. They all go together and are interrelated to one another in such a way as to form a single progression.
And this brings us to one more observation. They are not meant to be understood as eight different descriptions of eight different types of disciples. We will be badly misunderstanding The Beatitudes if we pick one Beatitude out and say, "That's the one for me. I'm not much interested in the others, but I'm going to work hard at being 'meek'. (By the way, have you ever actually seen someone 'work hard' at being 'meek'?) Instead, the individual Beatitudes are meant to be understood as eight different aspects of the portrait one kind of person. They together describe what each disciple of Jesus Christ is to be like.
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That naturally leads us to a third thing that the Beatitudes show us . . .
3. THE DISTINCTIVENESS OF THE DISCIPLE.
The Beatitudes describe a kind of person that is, if I may put it this way, truthfully "out of this world". Some of the Beatitudes make no sense at all to someone whose values and priorities are limited to this world only. Think of them: Blessed are the poor? Blessed are the mourners? Blessed are the meek? Blessed are the hungry and thirsty? Blessed are the persecuted? Those statements almost sound like cruel jokes to the people of this world!
But compare these things to what Jesus said to the "blessed" people of this world in Luke's version of the Beatitudes. Jesus said,
"But woe to you who are rich,
The world scoffs at The Beatitudes because the world's only focus is on 'blessings' experienced here and now. But The Beatitudes shows the distinctiveness of the disciple of Jesus Christ in that it has a profoundly "heaven-ward" and "future" focus.
Consider the "Fors" of The Beatitudes, and you can see the "heaven-ward" or "future" focus of the blessings that it conveys: "For theirs is the kingdom of heaven"; "For they shall be comforted"; "For they shall inherit the earth"; "For they shall be filled"; "For they shall obtain mercy"; "For they shall see God"; "For they shall be called sons of God"; "For great is your reward in heaven". The great "heaven-ward" focus of The Beatitudes is a part of what makes the disciple of Jesus Christ stand out from the rest of the people of this world.
And its because of this aspect of the Beatitudes that the disciple of Jesus Christ is most able to make an impact on the world. Do you notice what Jesus says after speaking The Beatitudes? After describing the blessedness of His disciples in all respects, He then says,
"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor to they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" (vv. 13-16).
I suggest that the Beatitudes describe to us the kind of life that bears the greatest witness of Jesus Christ to this world. It describes the kind of man or woman who is truly indwelt by Christ, and who then becomes a light to the world and salt upon the earth.
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This leads me to one final observation about The Beatitudes - perhaps the most important of all. It reveals to us . . .
4. THE MASTER OF THE DISCIPLE.
The kind of life being described in The Beatitudes is not one that you or I could ever manufacture in our own power. It is, through and through, a life that can only be lived by Jesus Christ Himself dwelling in us.
As we study the Sermon on the Mount, you'll find that it presents us with a humanly impossible standard to live by. Jesus says such things as, "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter into the kingdom of heaven" (5:20). He then goes on to describe the commandments of God in such a way as to show their true intent - making it impossible for any of us to keep them. Later on, He'll say, "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect" (5:48). Who could possibly live such a life? Only an prideful and arrogant fool would think that he or she could live out the principles of The Sermon on The Mount.
No; only Jesus can live such a life. And if we are to live it, it will only be because He lives it through us. In John 15, Jesus said, "I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in Him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing" (John 15:1-5).
The Beatitudes is the portrait of a man or woman in whom Christ dwells. It's the portrait of someone who abides in Christ. More than that, the Beatitudes is a portrait of Christ Himself. Only He can live the life through us that is described in these eight assertions. This means that abiding in Him and He in us is the only way to true blessedness.
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As we study The Beatitudes together over the next several weeks, may Jesus Himself live His perfect life in and through us - and thus cause The Beatitudes to be true of us. And in that way, may He Himself prepare our hearts to hear all that He has to teach us in The Sermon on The Mount.
1Thomas Watson, The Beatitudes (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1971), p. 5.
2I'm indebted to D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' Studies in the Sermon on the Mount for this observation. Because the order of Beatitudes is slightly different in Luke 6:20-23 from that of Matthew's account however, I have adapted his explanation somewhat, and have focused on how the broad categories found in The Beatitudes build on each another, rather than how the individual Beatitudes form a strict succession.
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