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Finding True Happiness

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Having set the Sermon on the Mount (hereafter, “SM”) in its context in Matthew 4:23–5:2, we now turn to Jesus’ introduction to the SM:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:3–12, ESV, as are all subsequent Bible quotations)

In this introduction to the SM, which we collectively call “the Beatitudes,” Jesus blesses those who are seemingly cursed.1 Jesus proclaims eternal happiness to people who temporally could very easily (and understandably) be sad. As John MacArthur has put it, “Jesus is in the business of providing people with happiness. … The word [‘blessed’] simply means happiness or happy and we may read these that way.”2 The world says that these people Jesus is blessing can’t be happy, but Jesus says that they’re precisely the ones who will be eternally happy and can thus draw on that happiness in the here and now. According to Jesus, true and everlasting happiness comes to those who look for holy happiness (vv. 3–6), to those who live in happy holiness (vv. 7–9), and to those who suffer hardships for being holy (vv. 10–12).

Look for happy holiness (vv. 3–6)

In the first four Beatitudes, Jesus teaches us the way to find true happiness is to look for true holiness, as opposed to false holiness. False holiness is hypocritical. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees are the prime example of people who live falsely holy lives (see Matt. 6:1–18 for a thinly veiled criticism of Pharasaical hypocrisy and Matt. 23:1–36 for an explicit denunciation). Holy behavior without holy belief is actually unholy. True holiness is both holy belief and holy behavior. Jesus begins the Beatitudes by explaining what holy belief looks like (Matt. 5:3–6). As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones argues at length in his sermons on the Beatitudes, each one builds upon the last.3 Their order is intentional; rearranging the Beatitudes would negate their actual meaning: right actions come only after right emotional thoughts.

In Matthew 5:3–6, Jesus tells us how to find happiness: find holiness. Holiness comes to those who first are “poor in spirit” (v. 3). The poor in spirit enjoy happiness because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven”; the joy of the hope of eternal life in a new heavens and new earth gives them joy even in this life now. As we saw from the context to the SM, Isaiah 61 is one of its primary background texts. As prophesied by Isaiah, Jesus has come “to bring good news to the poor” and “to proclaim liberty to the captives” (Isa. 61:1, 2). In the broader context of Isaiah, these poor captives are the exiled Jews (see Isa. 40:1), who by Jesus’ day—though released from physical exile—were still in a spiritual exile. (Diverse Bible scholars make and develop this point. See, e.g., James M. Hamilton’s Exalting Jesus in Ezra-Nehemiah and N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God.) “The poor in spirit” whom Jesus blesses are thus people who recognize their spiritual poverty.

A truly holy recognition of spiritual poverty leads to sorrow over sin, so Jesus next blesses those who “mourn,” specifically over their sin (Matt. 5:4). Again, the echo of Isaiah 61 is helpful. According to Isaiah, Jesus comes “to grant to those who mourn in Zion”

the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
_____the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
_____the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. (Isa. 61:2, 3)

To go from praising your sinful self to praising God, you must mourn over your sin. The first step to holiness is recognizing your spiritual poverty. Once you recognize your spiritual poverty, you mourn your sinfulness. God in his grace then gives you “the garment of praise” and makes you an “oak of righteousness.”

But wait—there’s more! Those who mourn over their sin immediately are meek toward God; such people “shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). Jesus here alludes to Psalm 37:11b, “the meek shall inherit the land.”4 In Psalm 37, the meek are specifically meek toward God.5 Those who are seeking holy happiness recognize their sin, mourn over their sin, and meekly humble themselves before God.

Consequently, these people “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6). Jesus says that those who do so “shall be satisfied.” This promise anticipates his later promise in the SM: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). This hunger and thirst for righteousness is first and foremost a great desire for God’s own righteousness credited to us through faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross for our sins (Rom. 3:21–25). It is second and derivatively a great desire for becoming more righteous, more like Jesus (Matt. 5:20; Heb. 12:14).

Live in holy happiness (vv. 7–9)

This secondary meaning of “hunger and thirst for righteousness” brings us to the next three Beatitudes, in which Jesus proclaims eternally and truly happy those who live holy lives in accordance with their holy beliefs. Jesus teaches that truly and eternally happy people are “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” and “the peacemakers.”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7). This verse gives us pause, not least because Jesus even more explicitly says later in the SM, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14–15). Is Jesus teaching a works-based salvation, a salvation dependent upon our forgiveness of others? Hardly. Such a teaching would contradict the grace-based salvation that we see in the first four Beatitudes. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s point about each Beatitude building upon the last is particularly helpful at this juncture:

It is a solemn, serious and, in a sense, terrible thing to say that you cannot be truly forgiven unless there is a forgiving spirit in you. For the operation of the grace of God is such, that when it comes into our hearts with forgiveness it makes us merciful. We proclaim, therefore, whether we have received forgiveness or not by whether we forgive or not. If I am forgiven, I shall forgive.6

And Jesus says that merciful people are happy. Eternally “they shall receive mercy.” But even in the here and now, such people are happy. Holding a grudge doesn’t hurt the person you’re mad at (even if you’re justifiably mad at him or her); holding a grudge hurts only you. As Matthew West puts it in his song, “Forgiveness,” “the prisoner that [forgiveness] really frees is you.” And don’t forget: Jesus in fulfillment of Isaiah 61 came to set prisoners free, and we enjoy the happiness of that freedom in forgiving others.

Jesus reinforces the importance of a holy heart as well as holy hands in the sixth Beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (v. 8). This theme gets further explication later on in the SM when Jesus applies it specifically to sexuality (Matt. 5:27–28). Later in Matthew, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for being a “brood of vipers”; he explains to them that they can’t “speak good, when [they] are evil” because “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (12:34). Only the pure in heart are truly pure. As the first four Beatitudes emphasize, it’s not just actions that Jesus is concerned about, it’s about the attitude of our hearts, as well. The pure in heart are happy “for they shall see God.” Isaiah’s blessed promise holds true for them: “Your eyes will behold the king [God in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ] in his beauty” (33:17).7

Just as the merciful are blessed, so are the peacemakers (v. 9). Peacemakers are those who strive to reconcile estranged parties. In the context of the SM, Jesus is referring specifically to those who make peace between two estranged people (Matt. 5:23–24; cf. Jas. 3:18), although Paul refers to evangelization as an attempt at making peace between a person and God (2 Cor. 5:16–6:2). Peacemakers are happy because they “shall be called the sons of God.” Whether the peacemaking attempt goes well or turns sour, peacemakers can take heart that God will vindicate them as his children when Jesus comes again.

Find Happiness in Hardships on Account of Holiness (vv. 10–12)

This final vindication is vital for Christ’s followers because they will be persecuted for their holiness, as the final two Beatitudes explain.8 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” Jesus says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”; furthermore,

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:10–12)

Jesus’ disciples will be persecuted for being holy. Jesus’ disciples “are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Persecutors “revile … and utter all kinds of evil against [the disciples] falsely on [Jesus’] account.” Persecution comes to those who put their “faith in action.”9 Just as all the prophets were holy, not only believing the right things about God and loving him but also living in light of that loving faith, and were persecuted for their holiness, so will Jesus’ disciples be persecuted for their holiness.

In the midst of the hardship of persecution for being holy, Jesus’ disciples can be happy. They can be happy because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” the charges brought against them are false, and their “reward is great in heaven.” Charles Quarles explains the reward of the kingdom of heaven well: “Those who have been oppressed and persecuted will be exalted to a place of authority and privilege when the kingdom comes in all its fullness.”10 For the faithful, knowing the falsity of the charges against you can impart an inner peace; Peter echoes the truth of Jesus’ words when he tells persecuted Christians to “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings” (1 Pet. 4:13). And the reward for Christian martyrs is unsurpassable, as the book of Revelation bears out (e.g., 2:10; 3:10–11). Such future hope for eternal happiness undergirds present hope despite temporary hardship.

Conclusion

Jesus turns conventional wisdom on its head. In contrast to the world, which says that happiness comes from a loose lifestyle that selfishly pursues physical pleasure, Jesus teaches that true happiness comes from finding holiness through faith in him and then growing in holiness thereafter. Temporal happiness for Jesus’ holy disciples can even stand strong in the midst of hardships such as persecution because of the eternal happiness he promises believers by his grace and mercy. Who do we believe, Jesus or the world? Who do we trust, the God who created a perfect universe and has always set forth the way to live a fully happy life by living a fully holy life (see Gen. 1–2); or people who are under the power of the “prince of the power of the air,” Satan, who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (Eph. 2:2 and John 10:10)? Context is always king. Don’t forget that Jesus is the One greater than Moses because he is not only the Son of God but also God the Son (Matt. 5:1–2). True happiness only comes from finding holiness through faith in Christ and living a holy life in dependence upon his empowering Holy Spirit. The only happiness that can withstand hardship is a holy happiness that roots itself in the promise of future eternal happiness, which itself is grounded in the glorious promise of Isaiah 33:17, “Your eyes will behold the king in his beauty.”

Notes

1 According to the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary, “Beatitude” means “blessedness; felicity of the highest kind; consummate bliss; used of the joys of heaven” and “the declaration of blessedness made by our Savior to particular virtues.

2 John MacArthur, “Happiness Is…” (sermon, Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, CA, September 3, 1978), http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/2197/happiness-is (accessed September 2, 2014).

3 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976 [1959–1960]), chs. 3–13.

4 The New Testament was originally written in Greek, and first-century Jews read the Old Testament in Greek, as well. The Greek word translated “earth” in Matt. 5:5 is the same Greek word translated “land” in Ps. 37:11.

5 Charles Quarles puts this well: “Psalm [37] describes the meek as those who ‘trust in the LORD’ (vv. 3, 5), ‘take delight in the LORD’ (v. 4), ‘wait expectantly for’ the Lord (v. 7), and ‘put their hope in the LORD’ (v. 9)” (Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church, NACSBT 11 [Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011], 55).

6 Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 88.

7 The promise of Isaiah 33:17 is the verse that undergirds the main argument (and is the source of the title) of Thomas R. Schreiner’s recent whole-Bible biblical theology, The King in His Beauty (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013).

8 NT scholars debate the number of Beatitudes Jesus spoke. Since “Beatitude” is the Anglicization of the Latin translation for the Greek word that the ESV translates “blessed,” the fact that Jesus says “blessed” nine times indicates that there are nine Beatitudes. Admittedly, the ninth Beatitude is an extension of the eighth Beatitude, but its longer form and direct address do not necessitate subsuming it under the eighth Beatitude. Nevertheless, I will treat the two Beatitudes together and interpret each in light of the other. For a more thorough defense of reading Matthew 5:11–12 as a ninth Beatitude, see Dale C. Allison Jr., “The Structure of the Sermon on the Mount,” Journal of Biblical Literature 106.3 (1987), 429 n. 17.

9 Gregory C. Cochran, “Christian Persecution as Explained by Jesus (Matthew 5:10–12),” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 18.1 (2014), 13.

10 Sermon on the Mount, 75.

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Written by Jordan Atkinson

September 2, 2014 at 9:06 PM

Posted in New Testament, Sermon on the Mount

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