The Importance of the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount

As I mentioned here, I am starting a new sermon series on the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:12-12. It is the first section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It is teaching about happiness.

Sermon on the MountSince Jesus’ teaching is about happiness it makes my job as the pastor much easier because the relevancy of the theme is built right into the passage. Most of us want to be happy but I think most of us find happiness elusive at times. Matthew 5:1–12 describes eight characteristics of the happy Christian life. If we want to know what happiness is all about, we can search through this “happiness manifesto” from Jesus himself. He explains what true happiness is all about.

I think this teaching is required because, truthfully, a lot of Christians seem pretty unhappy. Someone once said to Hannah Whitall Smith, the author of the very successful book, The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, “You Christians seem to have a religion that makes you miserable. You are like a man with a headache. He does not want to get rid of his head, but it hurts him to keep it. You cannot expect outsiders to seek very earnestly for anything so uncomfortable.” I believe that in some regard this unbeliever was right in his assumption. Christians often are quite miserable, even though through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit they may sense that true happiness is their birthright as members of the family of God. And because they are miserable they have little to offer a world that is desperately and often hopelessly searching for happiness.

Jesus’ life and words, both in Matthew 5 and elsewhere would contradict the idea that to be Christian is to be miserable. Clearly in John 10:10 he says he came so his followers could have an abundant life. The beatitudes offer invaluable insight into understanding what Jesus’ meant by the abundant life.

David Jeremiah makes the following observation that helps:

“In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offered a plan for happiness that was entirely at odds with the world’s perspective. Rather than focusing on pride, the Lord recommended being humble. Rather than pushing for pleasure or possessions, Christ said true joy is found in those who help others, seek God, and feel sorrow for their sin. Instead of pushing others out of the way, Jesus tells us to minister to them. His prescription for happiness is exactly the opposite of the worlds. The Beatitudes are some of the most remarkable pronouncements Christ ever made, and they provide a plan for finding real happiness in an unhappy world. Everyone seems to be seeking happiness, but few seem to find it. In a world that never seems to deliver happiness to those looking for it, Jesus offers a path to true joy. So come and examine His pronouncements—find out how you can experience deep joy in the Lord.”

One other thing I should mention. It is easy to forget how important this passage is for us as followers of Jesus. The passage is certainly counter-cultural and yet also challenging to the most committed of followers. In an earlier post I quoted from William Barclay, the great New Testament theologian, who provides insight on the theological importance of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.

Here is the section from William Barclay on the significance of this passage:

“Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them.”

In that brief verse there are three clues to the real significance of the Sermon on the Mount.

(i) Jesus began to teach when he had sat down. When a Jewish Rabbi was teaching officially he sat to teach. We still speak of a professor’s chair; the Pope still speaks ex cathedra, from his seat. Often a Rabbi gave instruction when he was standing or strolling about; but his really official teaching was done when he had taken his seat. So, then, the very intimation that Jesus sat down to teach his disciples is the indication that this teaching is central and official.

(ii) Matthew goes on to say that when he had opened his mouth, he taught them. This phrase he opened his mouth is not simply a decoratively roundabout way of saying he said. In Greek the phrase has a double significance. (a) In Greek it is used of a solemn, grave and dignified utterance. It is used, for instance, of the saying of an oracle. It is the natural preface for a most weighty saying. (b) It is used of a person’s utterance when he is really opening his heart and fully pouring out his mind.

(iii) The Authorized Version has it that when Jesus had sat down, he opened his mouth and taught them saying.

The Sermon on the Mount is greater even than we think. Matthew in his introduction wishes us to see that it is the official teaching of Jesus; that it is the opening of Jesus’ whole mind to his disciples; that it is the summary of the teaching which Jesus habitually gave to his inner circle. The Sermon on the Mount is nothing less than the concentrated memory of many hours of heart to heart communion between the disciples and their Master.