Blessed Are The Merciful

Matthew 5:7

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved). (Ephesians 2:4-5)

We serve a merciful and compassionate God. To serve him, to know him, to believe in him is to experience his mercy, and it is through his mercy that we learn to be merciful to those around us. The knowledge that God loves us and continues to care for us, despite all our sins and shortcomings, makes us want to be kind and caring toward others.

Mercy does not come to us naturally, however, we must learn it by example. We can see this played out in society – a child that has been left to his own devices, unnurtured and undisciplined, does not know how to be kind to others. He does not think to himself, “I’m going to treat these other kids the way I wish someone would treat me.” Unless someone comes along to show him a better way, that child will be selfish and uncaring by default.

But if it’s true that we to need to see mercy before we can show mercy to others, then why would Jesus turn it around and say that it is by being merciful to others that we ourselves are shown mercy? Is he talking about some kind of “karma” here? Or is this just another example of reaping what we sow? No, it is neither of those things; Jesus is simply giving us an introductory lesson into the “grace-based” economy of the Kingdom of God. In God’s economy each of us starts out with Nothing, then God graciously gives us Something, and as we share that Something, we continuously receive more of it back. Jesus touches on this subject often in his sermons and parables (e.g.,the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30). As we share mercy, we receive greater mercy.

We do not compel God to be merciful to us by being merciful to others, but somehow, in making the effort to put our own needs aside and focus on the needs of others, we learn more of what mercy is. We discover new opportunities to show mercy to people around us, and even begin to view others differently, seeing past the rough exterior to the fragility within. We SEE God’s mercy – we see it everywhere! We see how God pours out his mercy to us afresh every morning and sustains us with mercy throughout the day. We see it in the small comforts of our home, in the loving gestures of friends and family, even in the wagging tail of a dog in welcome after a long tiresome day. It is through the practice of mercy that we learn to recognize the mercy that God has lavished upon us

The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.  It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. (William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice)

Blessed Are Those Who Hunger

(Matthew 5:6; Luke 6:21)

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Hunger is a constant in our lives. We are born hungry, we wake up every day hungry, we come home from work hungry; it never ends. We can stuff ourselves to the point of bursting, swearing we will never eat again, only to find ourselves rummaging around in the refrigerator a few hours later.

The same thing goes for spiritual hunger. We have a continuous need for the things of God. We ask for wisdom, we ask for mercy, we ask for grace, and even though God is faithful to grant us these things, there is always a need for more. In fact, the more we experience of God, the more we desire him.

When Jesus talks about hungering and thirsting for righteousness, I don’t think he is talking about a desire to be righteous. We don’t hunger for what we want to become, we hunger for what we want to consume. This is the kind of yearning expressed by the psalmist in Psalm 42:1, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.” And also by David in Psalm 63:1, “Earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.” To hunger for righteousness means to hunger for God himself, because righteousness only comes from God – it’s a product of his very nature.

Hunger is also a sign of health and vitality, just as a loss of appetite is a sign of illness. If we have no appetite for God, if we have no desire to seek the things of his kingdom, it is an indication that things are not right with us. When Jesus said, “woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry” (Luke 6:25) he was speaking to those who felt no desire for God because they derived all their comfort and satisfaction from the things of the world. Keep in mind that Jesus was speaking to a group of his disciples when he gave this warning, not a group of Pharisees or unbelievers, so it should not be taken lightly by us today.

It can be surprisingly easy to fall into the trap of feeling “well fed “when we live inside such a virtual smorgasbord of worldly pleasures. There are so many things here to entice and distract us. We have jobs and responsibilities which feed our egos and make us feel important and influential. We have passions and talents which compel us to create beautiful things, making us feel clever and talented. We have people in our lives whom we love deeply and who love us, making us feel cherished and vital. None of these things may be bad in and of themselves, but if they stave off our desire for God and keep us from seeking the things of his kingdom, they can become dangerous.

Two things I have asked of you; do not deny me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lies. Give me neither poverty nor riches. Feed me with the food that is needful for me; lest I be full, deny you, and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor, and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God. (Proverbs 30:7-9 NHEB)

Blessed Are The Meek

(Matthew 5:5)

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

The concept of inheriting land was much more established within the mindset of those who were listening to Jesus at that time than it is with us today. We are used to thinking of the “promised land” as something awaiting us in heaven, something metaphysical, so it’s easy to forget that there is also a physical aspect to the promise. But to the Jews of that day who were living in occupied territory under the rule of a wicked and licentious regime, this promise was all about having a place of their own, a physical land where they could worship the Lord freely and live in prosperity and peace; and the idea that it was the meek who would inherit the land was not exactly new to them either, this same promise appears in Psalm 37, which was written centuries earlier:

A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity. (Psalm 37:10-11)

Jesus expands this promise by taking it beyond limits of the boundary lines described by Moses in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 34. He is speaking about a future time when the curse of sin will be lifted, the earth and heavens will be made new, and righteousness will reign over all. At that time the promised land will not just be confined to the boundaries established in Numbers – those boundaries will no longer exist – this promised land will encompass the whole earth!

“Blessed are the meek…” Meekness is not an admirable characteristic by today’s standards; we tend to use that term when describing someone who is basically spineless. We think that meekness is synonymous with timidity and weakness. However, the biblical term used here does not carry that same negative connotation. The Greek word, “praus,” used here for “meek,” can be more accurately defined as “strength under control” and is often translated as “gentle.” Jesus uses this very same term later on when describing himself as “gentle and humble in heart” in Matthew 11:29.

As Christians we are all called to meekness, but it is not something that we can produce within our own selves, it is a fruit of the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-23) We can’t simply say to ourselves, “I’m going to be meek today.” That work is done by the Holy Spirit as he sanctifies us and forms us into the image of Christ, and it often comes by having to endure some very unpleasant circumstances.

Meekness goes hand in hand with Christlikeness. To be meek is to have the same mind in us as Christ had when he humbled himself and took on flesh. (Philippians 2:5-7) We can’t make ourselves meek, but we can humble ourselves, we can surrender to God, and we can take his yoke upon us and learn from him.

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

(Matthew 5:4; Luke 6:21)

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

The word “blessed” means to be happy, to be envied, to be specially favored by God. But there is nothing happy, or enviable about mourning, nor is there anything particularly special about it; everyone experiences it at one time or another in their life. The same is true for weeping, in fact even more so, and yet in Luke 6:21, Jesus tells his followers, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

It’s not the sorrowing or weeping that makes us blessed, but rather the joy that we will have later on. We are blessed now because God will one day transform our sorrow into joy. (Jeremiah 31:13)

Jesus also goes on to say, “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:25) – This truth is much more jarring when looking at the situation in reverse, but that is the whole point. We need to be jarred out of our sense of complacency with the way things are going and realize that there is a world beyond the present. Jesus is warning us not to seek our consolation and happiness from the things of this world, but instead to seek them from God himself. He is the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3) and the source of all joy. (Psalm 16:11)

Jesus speaks of these things within the context of “now” versus “later,” but what is “now?” and when is “later?” In scripture these terms can have multiple levels of meaning. “Now” was that particular moment in time when Jesus was speaking to the crowd, a moment which has already come and gone. “Now” also refers to this present age – the time before Christ returns to establish his kingdom on earth. And for us as individuals, “now” represents the opportunity that God gives each of us to seek him while he may be found, and to call upon him while he is near. (Isaiah 55:6) This opportunity accompanies us day after day, moment by moment, in times of both sorrow and joy, throughout the entire journey of our lives – up until that final moment when the present collides with the future, “now” bumps into “later,” and the opportunity to seek God is lost.

There is a point in everyone’s life when they will pass on from this present existence. If our faith is in Christ, we have the assurance that he will lead us beyond that point and accompany us into an eternal existence, one where grief and death will be no more.

For the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd. He will lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Revelation 7:17)

Blessed Are The Poor

(Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The Sermon on the Mount recorded in the book of Matthew is probably the most famous sermon of all time. Matthew devotes almost three entire chapters of his gospel to this sermon, which took place on a mountain close by the city of Capernaum where he lived, and it is presumed that Matthew was actually there himself, sitting upon the hillside with all the others who were listening to Jesus that day.

Luke’s gospel records a very similar sermon, occurring at a later time and in a different place – not on a mountaintop but in a “level place.” In fact, the two sermons contain so many similarities that many Bible commentators have tried to conflate the two, some even asserting that Luke took liberties by altering the verbiage recorded by Matthew to suit his own intentions. But that theory really doesn’t make much sense. The more likely scenario is that Jesus continuously delivered variations of this sermon as he traveled from town to town preaching “good news to the poor,” just as he said he was going to do.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”­ – The opening words of the Sermon on the Mount have become so familiar to us by now, it’s easy to pass right by them. But to those living in that time and place these words were revolutionary. The poor, the disabled, and the diseased were not considered to be blessed, but rather cursed by God. (Deuteronomy 28:47-48) For such people to be regarded as blessed while in the midst of their poverty, and to be considered as denizens of the kingdom of heaven while living under Roman oppression would be inconceivable if it were not for the fact that it was Jesus himself who told them these things.

Jesus was speaking to them as one who had been sent from heaven and in order to understand the truth of his words, we must attempt to look at them from a heavenly perspective. This is difficult to do from our earthly vantage point, and the more we are entangled within our own worldly ambitions the more difficult it is! But it becomes easier when we find ourselves with nothing to lose on this earth. Whether this means an actual lack of material possessions or simply the feeling that we have nothing of real value in life, when we are “poor in spirit” there is nothing to stand in the way or distract us from seeking those things which are above. (Colossians 3:1-2)

“For theirs IS the kingdom of heaven.” – Jesus puts this in the present tense, the kingdom of heaven is theirs NOW, not just in the life to come. God’s kingdom is an eternal kingdom – it has always been in existence and it always will be – but through rebelliousness and pride, mankind has chosen to be exiled from that kingdom. Jesus was letting them know that God, through his infinite mercy and grace, has made a way for those who are lowly and humble in heart to dwell with him and be a part of his kingdom, even while enduring the hardships of life on earth.

For the High and Exalted One, who lives forever, whose name is holy, says this: “I live in a high and holy place, and with the oppressed and lowly of spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and revive the heart of the oppressed.” (Isaiah 57:15 – Christian Standard Bible)

That is Why I Was Sent

Mark 1:35-39; Luke 4:42-44

“I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”

Jesus had spent an eventful few days in the town of Capernaum and his popularity there was continuing to grow. He had already healed many people and delivered several from demons, but there were still more who needed his touch. The demands on his time and attention had now grown to the point where he had to steal away from the house in the very early hours of the morning, without even telling his disciples where he was going, just so that he could get some time alone to pray.

His absence did not go unnoticed for long, however, and soon a broad search ensued for his whereabouts. When his disciples finally managed to find him, they exclaimed, “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus simply replied, “Let’s go on to the neighboring villages so that I may preach there too. This is why I have come.”

“This is why I have come.” – In Luke’s version, he says, “Because that is why I was sent.” But this is not a contradiction, it is simply another facet of the truth. Jesus was sent by the Father, but he had also come willingly, for he and his Father were of one mind.

This discrepancy between two depictions of the same event in scripture brings up a very important point to remember when studying the words of Christ as they are recorded within the Gospels. We must understand that these are not always word-for-word accounts of what was said – his disciples did not follow him around with a recording device or takes notes during his sermons – but by no means does this make them any less accurate, for it is the truth behind the words which is being conveyed here. This is truth which has been filtered through human eyes and ears and compiled into Greek, and then translated into other languages, such as English or Spanish, with each language having variations of its own. But the truth revealed by the written word is not contained within the words themselves; truth transcends words. This is God’s story, after all, and for reasons of his own he has chosen to write it using human vessels.

“I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” (Luke 4:43) This echoes what Jesus said earlier to the congregation at Nazareth when he read to them from the scroll of Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18)

Jesus performed miracles out of compassion for the people who came to him, and also as a testament to his divine nature. But his focus was never on the miracles. His focus was on the message – his message. This good news of the kingdom, which was foretold by the prophets of old, heralded by hosts of heavenly angels, and lastly preached by John the Baptist, was now being carried upon the divine lips of none other than God himself!

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. (Hebrews 1:1-2)

Be Silent and Come Out of Him

Mark 1:21-41; Luke 4:31-41

“Be silent and come out of him!”

Jesus was teaching in the local synagogue at Capernaum, the home town of Peter and Andrew. The people gathered in that congregation would have already been somewhat familiar with Jesus by now, and they would have been very familiar with one another, since most of them had lived there all their lives. But within their midst was a man possessed by a demon.

Whether this man was well known to the others or a stranger is not clear, but his condition became obvious to everyone once he began to cry out in terror at the sight of Jesus. “Go away!” he cried, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” Jesus’ response to this was both immediate and absolute: “Be silent and come out of him!” was all that he needed to say. The demon instantly threw the man down with a shriek and came out, leaving him unharmed.

Shortly after this incident, Jesus went to Peter’s house where Peter’s mother-in-law was lying sick in bed with a fever. Although Jesus’ exact words are not recorded, Luke’s gospel tells us that he rebuked the fever and that Peter’s mother-in-law was instantly restored.

“Come out of him!” – The demon who had shouted in fearful defiance for Jesus to “Go away!” was impelled to come out at his command; it had no choice but to obey. The same was true of the fever, it too could not withstand the rebuke of the Lord, for this was a command from God himself – the same God who commanded the light and separated it from the darkness, and who established the boundaries of the sea upon the sand. (Genesis 1:3-10)

“Be silent!” – Each time Jesus encountered a demon, he silenced it. He did not engage in arguments with them, or scold them, or respond to any of their questions – he simply commanded them to be silent. The gospel writers tell us that he didn’t allow them to speak because they knew he was the Messiah. As we continue to study the words of Christ, we will see that this was a consistent pattern with Jesus – he wanted people to believe in him by faith through direct revelation (Matthew 16:16-17) and not by word-of-mouth, especially not by word-of-mouth from demons! He wanted the message of the gospel to precede the revelation of who he was, for though he truly was the Messiah that they were waiting for, he knew he was not the one that they were expecting.

I Will Make You Fishers of Men

Luke 5:1-11; Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20

“Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people.”

All three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) contain an account of this call to discipleship, spoken by Jesus to Peter and his younger brother, Andrew. If the Bible were limited to just the Synoptics, we might think this was the very first time Jesus had met them, along with their fishing partners, John and James. However, John’s own gospel informs us that they were actually well acquainted with Jesus by this time, and had even witnessed some of his miracles.

These disciples were real men, not just characters in a story, and they had real families and real lives which intertwined with one another in a variety of ways. They were friends and business partners living within a community of other devout Jewish families, attending the same synagogue every Sabbath and celebrating the same yearly feasts.

When John the Baptist traveled through this region preaching his message of repentance, these men would have stood together among the crowds who flocked to see him. In fact, both John and Andrew had actually been disciples of John the Baptist before meeting Jesus, so the news of his recent imprisonment must have brought great sorrow and discouragement upon them, as well as their families. We can almost sense the despondency in the air when looking at this account in Luke’s gospel, for here is Jesus, speaking to his usual crowd of eager listeners, but Peter, John, James, and Andrew are not among the crowd. They are off on the sidelines, wearily washing their fishing nets after a long night of fruitless labor.

This air of despondency grows even more palpable within the text as we see Jesus coax the weary Peter back into his boat, asking him to row it out from shore so that he might continue his sermon from the water. And then afterwards when Jesus asks Peter to put the fishing nets out again, the tone of apathy and discouragement in Peter’s response is unmistakable: “Master, we have worked hard all night and caught nothing! But at your word I will lower the nets.” Yet as soon as he did this, everything changed:

When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets started to tear. So they motioned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they were about to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For Peter and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so were James and John, Zebedee’s sons, who were Simon’s business partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” So when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:6-11 NET)

“Do not be afraid.” – Fear is really just a visceral manifestation of unbelief. We may not understand the exact cause of the fear which brought Peter to his knees in a fit of remorse at Jesus’ feet, but it’s easy to imagine what it might have been. We know that Peter was responsible for running his own business and that he had other mouths to feed. We know that the world he inhabited was currently in the midst of great upheaval, and that the righteous John the Baptist had just been inexplicably imprisoned by King Herod. But Jesus knew far more than this – he knew all that was in Peter’s heart, and his words, “Do not be afraid,” would banish all traces of fear, giving Peter the courage to leave everything behind and follow him.

“From now on you will be catching people.” – The sight of those heaps of fish gasping and flopping about on deck must have presented a striking contrast to the faces of the men and women who had gathered along the shoreline. But this imagery serves to illustrate the paradigm shift taking place in the lives of Peter and the others at that very moment, for suddenly they could see the world and their own futures from a new perspective, a heavenly perspective. They were no longer fishermen laboring for their own gain, but were about to become apprentices in the vocation of their heavenly master – they were going to be fishers of men!

Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven Is Near

Mark 1:14-15; Matthew 4:12-17

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

This was the message proclaimed by John the Baptist as he went about the Judean countryside baptizing people and making disciples. After John was put in prison, Jesus himself began proclaiming the exact same message. (Matthew 3:1-2, Matthew 4:17)

“Repent” – The Greek word used here (“metanoeó”) literally means, “to change one’s mind or purpose.” Repentance is not a matter of simply changing one’s behavior – the real change must first start within, inside the heart and the mind, and then the outward change will inevitably follow. Genuine repentance always brings about some sort of behavioral change, which is why John the Baptist warned his listeners that they must “produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” saying, “every tree which does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Alarmed by his warning, the people sought him for practical examples of this “fruit:”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:10-14)

The advice given to each of these groups was not merely to do good deeds, but to change their mindset. They must surrender worldly ambitions of material gain and be content with what they had; they must be generous and compassionate toward others. Repentance requires that we turn away from ourselves, from our pride and selfish desires, and that we turn toward God and seek the things that God desires; serving him rather than serving ourselves.

“The Kingdom of Heaven” – Called “Kingdom of Heaven” in Matthew and “Kingdom of God” in the other gospels, it is the same kingdom which was foretold in the book of Daniel:

In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. (Daniel 2:44)

“Has come near” – The word used for “near” is in verb form – this kingdom of God which was first spoken of so many centuries ago was now very close and advancing still closer as Jesus drew nearer to the cross. But this was not to be a geographical kingdom; it was, and still is, a heavenly kingdom, and the entrance to that kingdom is not through an earthly gate, but through a spiritual one – Jesus Christ himself is the Door to this kingdom.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” – This is the Eternal Gospel (Revelation 14:6) in a nutshell – this is the message of reconciliation, the tidings of great joy, the the good news that God’s kingdom is near and accessible to anyone who is willing to turn away from their selfish attachments to the things of this world and submit themselves to God.

But what does it say? “The message is near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart.” This is the message about faith that we are proclaiming: If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:8-9 ISV)

No Prophet is Accepted in His Hometown

Luke 4:16-30

“Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown.”

Jesus was teaching at the local synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, where his mother and other family members would also be in attendance. We believe it was Mary who actually provided Luke with most of the details about this particular event. As we read Luke’s account, we can easily imagine her sitting there listening to the whispered remarks of those around her, her awareness of their reactions heightened by her maternal sensibilities.

At first the audience appeared to be responding quite favorably to the things Jesus was saying. They expressed amazement at the gracious words falling from his lips and said to one another, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” But behind the outwardly positive reaction there was hidden an inward resentment. Here he was, this man who had grown up in their town and who had lived and worked among them for his entire life, and yet never once performed the kind of miracles that they heard he was doing elsewhere. And why not? Didn’t they also have those among them who were suffering with sickness and disease?

Jesus knew what was in their hearts and he exposed their resentment saying, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” (Luke 4:22-24)

He then went on to back up what he had just said with examples from the lives of Elijah and Elisha, two of their most revered prophets: “I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

In Proverbs 9:8 it says, “Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you,” and that is exactly what happened when Jesus reproved the congregation at Nazareth. Jesus had not only wounded their pride, he had also challenged their deeply held prejudices regarding the Gentiles and their right to feel superior to them. Any fleeting sense of admiration that they might have had was immediately transformed into fury. They all rose up as an angry mob against him, and drove him out of town.

Their fury quickly escalated into a murderous rage, up to the point where they were about to throw him off a cliff at the edge of town. However, the timing and manner of his death was not going to be determined by this angry mob. Jesus simply walked right through the crowd and went on his way, leaving the small town of Nazareth behind him. It would never be his “hometown” again.