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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.

Written by Jordan Atkinson

September 2, 2014 at 9:06 PM

Posted in New Testament, Sermon on the Mount

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Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Part II) (Review Thursday #4)

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[For my review of Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG) Part I, click here.]

Having placed Paul within his Jewish, Greek, and Roman contexts in Part I of PFG, N. T. Wright discusses Paul’s worldview in Part II before moving onto Paul’s Theology in Part III. To Wright, four basic components comprise Paul’s worldview: praxis, symbol, story, and question. Since these worldview elements are the subject of PFG Part II, Wright’s treatment of them is the subject of this review.

In chapter 6, Wright discusses praxis and symbol together because “in Paul’s day praxis was symbol, and symbol praxis” (353). What does Wright mean, then, by the combined term, “symbolic praxis”? “The point about symbols [and thus about symbolic praxis],” Wright writes in the next paragraph, “is that they are everyday things that carry more than everyday meanings.” The first part of chapter 6 after its introduction focuses on the symbolic praxes of Judaism, Greek culture, and the Roman empire. This discussion was helpful, especially its discussion of Judaism. Interestingly, Wright argues that Paul like his fellow Jews expanded the land promise God made to Abraham to encompass the entire cosmos (366-367). Fair enough. But as the speakers at Chosen People Ministries’ 2013 conference, The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel, maintained in their presentations, enlarging the original promise does not make the original promise null and void. Ethnic Israel still has a special place within God’s plan for the world, as Paul himself (contrary to Wright) upholds. As for Paul’s uniquely Christian symbolic praxis, Wright rightfully emphasizes the two ordinances (though he calls them “sacraments”), baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Wright’s lengthy discussion of baptism (417-427) is helpful for its emphasis on baptism as

community-marking symbol, which the individual then receives, not first and foremost as a statement about him- or herself, but as a statement which says, “This is who we are.” (421, italics in original)

Nevertheless, Wright wrongly affirms that while baptism’s “primary point … is not so much ‘that it does something to the individual,’ … it does” (426). Wright, along with other sacramentalists (pro-infant baptizers), misunderstands baptism to have a grace-imparting effect, when really it functions as a symbolic re-enactment of the new birth. Although Wright discusses Col. 2:12, which teaches this reality about baptism, he allows his prior convictions about baptism to trump the plain reading of the text. I do not, however, want to end my discussion of chapter 6 negatively. Wright’s brief discussion on suffering (431-436) is excellent; he even refers to suffering as “the final main category of [Paul’s] praxis” (431). Most edifying is Wright’s statement concerning 2 Cor. 12:7-10 — “Exactly in line with the redefinition of power and authority in Mark 10.25-45, Paul believes that apostolic life consists not only in telling people about the dying and rising of the Messiah, but also in going through the process oneself” (433). This is a truth of which I constantly need reminding. I hope quoting it here will help you, as well. This chapter on Paul’s symbolic praxis was thus largely helpful.

Chapter 7 is devoted to the story behind Paul’s worldview. “Story” seems to be one of Wright’s favorite subjects, and he tries to set himself apart by making the debate over Old and New Perspectives on Paul about “whether the underlying narrative which we have seen to be so powerful for so many (not all) Jews in Paul’s day was taken over, modified or simply abandoned” (460). Wright here seems to be setting up a straw man. Although he accuses Old Perspective scholars of making Paul “ditch everything about his previous worldview, theology and culture,” I can think of two Old Perspective (if I must use labels) scholars whom I deeply respect who are guilty of no such crime. Dr. Thomas R. Schreiner’s recent biblical theology, The King in His Beauty, is unapologetically narratival, and Schreiner argues that Paul and the other New Testament writers viewed Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament narrative. Similarly, Dr. James Hamilton in “The Skull-Crushing Seed of the Woman,” which I have reviewed, argues that the Old Testament as a whole is a messianic document whose hope Jesus fulfills. The main argument of chapter 7 is Wright’s construal of Paul’s underlying worldview narrative. From the largest perspective, Paul’s narrative is about God and creation (475-485) — no quibbles there. The more Wright zoomed in, however, the more I found with which to disagree. Zooming into humanity (485-494), Wright sets up his too-heavily-depended-on reconstruction of the story of Israel (495-505). The main problem with Wright’s Israel narrative is his repeated assertion that the story of Israel is “the story of God’s people, of Abraham’s people, as the people through whom the creator was intending to rescue his creation” (495, italics in original). This, as I mentioned in my review of Part I, overreaches the biblical evidence. Biblically, God always intended to rescue his creation (and his people – who in Adam were already sinful!) through the Messiah Jesus, who, yes, admittedly sprang from Israel, from Abraham. But God’s plan was never for corporate Israel to rescue creation but for Israel’s representative (himself by human birth an Israelite), Jesus, to rescue creation. Zooming in even closer to the core of the narrative is Wright’s discussion of Torah (505-516). This helped temper some of Wright’s more extreme statements regarding Israel, but he seemed to confuse (as Denny Burk has argued elsewhere in another context) the meaning with the implication of “righteousness.” Wright consistently renders “righteousness” in Paul’s writings as “covenant membership.” Membership in the people of God, however, is not what righteousness means but what righteousness results in. This chapter’s story concludes with a discussion of Jesus, which I was glad to see included a paragraph (but only a paragraph!?) on the fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection frees us from our imprisonment to sin (518-519). Thus, while there are significant flaws with Wright’s retelling of Paul’s worldview story (I agree more with Schreiner’s and Hamilton’s interpretations), it was nevertheless edifying.

In chapter 8, Wright discusses how Paul’s worldview addresses five of the six worldview analysis questions (because the sixth, “why?” “will take [Paul], and us, from worldview to theology” [538]).

  1. Who are we? Wright’s understanding of Paul’s answer to this question is rather good: “We are the Messiah’s people, defied by our membership ‘in’ him, marked out by our sharing of his pistis, celebrating our status as having died and been raised ‘with’ him, living in the ‘age to come’ which he has inaugurated” (544). Of course, there is the troubling notion of what “sharing Jesus’ faith” means (which will come out fully in Part III), as well as a continued emphasis on the Israel story, Wright’s understanding of which I have already critiqued above.
  2. Where are we? Wright’s answer is the standard Christian answer: We live in the time when Jesus has already inaugurated God’s kingdom without yet consummating God’s kingdom. (Wright already answered this question in short form by saying that we are “living in the ‘age to come’ which he has inaugurated” above.)
  3. What’s wrong? Death — which is a right answer but not the best answer. Death is the result of sin. Sin is the ultimate problem. Here I (and Paul!) disagree with Wright.
  4. What’s the solution? The resurrection from the dead, which Jesus will accomplish at his second coming on the basis of his own resurrection from the dead in his first coming. Again, this right solution points beyond the problem of death to the larger problem of sin. The reason we won’t die in our resurrection bodies is because death itself will be destroyed by virtue of the new heavens and the new earth being free from the very presence of sin.
  5. What time is it? We live now in “messianic time, a new sort of time” (558, italics in original). What does Wright mean? “Maturity lies in the celebration of messianic time within the muddle and mystery of the present age” (562). To use Paul’s clearer language: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:4-5). We have spiritually died and spiritually been raised with Christ, which our baptism declares, and until he returns to resurrect our bodies we strive to live in the newness of life his resurrection has given us by faith.

To conclude, I reiterate a point from my review of Part I: as a historian, Wright is flawless, and flaws his appear only as we move from history to theology (and in this section, in worldview analysis). Almost halfway through Part III, I can say that the mixed bag of good and bad theological points only grows from here, but Wright’s book is proving to be a profitable read, as Schreiner and Hamilton have found to be the case with his earlier works, which I myself haven’t read. The most helpful takeaway from Part II, I believe, is this: Wright rightly emphasizes the importance of Paul’s (Christian) worldview, and it is important for all of us Christians to have a worldview based on the Bible that interacts with the worldviews around us in our broader culture. I hope to use Wright’s discussion of Paul’s worldview in Part II of Paul and the Faithfulness of God to help me refine and articulate better my own worldview, which I pray is as close to Paul’s as possible.

Back from College!

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Blogging during the academic year has proven impossible for me, so I’m very excited to begin this summer break from my classes at The University of Alabama, which will give me enough time once again to blog regularly. For my classes at UA, I have to read books that don’t necessarily interest me and write papers on topics that often don’t stir my heart, so I look forward to being able to read books that I actually enjoy (like Thomas Schreiner’s The King in His Beauty, which I had to pause reading for the 2013-2014 academic year) and to write blog posts about subjects that do always stir my heart (like God and my family).

This summer, I’m excited to offer two new special features here at Things That Are Above: Wisdom Wednesdays and Review Thursdays. These alternating, biweekly features will respectively highlight devotional thoughts on the book of Proverbs, which I’m teaching my youth group on Wednesday nights, and reviews both of books I’ve read and of movies I’ve seen. I can’t wait to begin these regular series in addition to blogs on anything and everything else I find edifying enough to write about.

May God use this summer of blogging for his glory, by spreading the gospel to non-Christians who may happen upon this site and by edifying us Christians with blogs that help us to set our minds on things that are above.

Soli Deo Gloria,

Jordan

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