The Subjects of the Kingdom (Matthew 5:1–16)

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After his announcement by John the Baptist (3:1–12), his authentication at baptism (3:13–17), and his proven acceptability through temptation (4:1–11), Jesus finally appears proclaiming the imminent arrival of the kingdom that God had promised to the nation of Israel, that which they had been anticipating for centuries. And while his ministry attracted crowds as large as they were diverse, the long-awaited King takes a moment to instruct his disciples specifically. And, in the opening paragraphs of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has two main lessons for his followers: The first has to do with their character and the second, their commission. Jesus “opened his mouth and began to teach” his disciples who they’re to be and what they’re to do.

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Today as we continue our study through Matthew’s account of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we come to what’s probably the most famous passages therein: The Sermon on the Mount.

To this point in Matthew, the long-awaited King of Israel had been prepared and introduced to his would-be subjects. 

After his announcement by John the Baptist, his authentication at baptism, and his proven acceptability through temptation, Jesus finally arrives on the scene and he comes preaching a message consistent with that of his forerunner’s—“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2; 4:17)—and speaking to the same audience: The nation of Israel. Jesus came announcing the imminence of the arrival of the kingdom that God had promised Israel in the OT and which they had been anticipating ever since. 

The closing paragraph of chapter 4 describes for us Jesus’s ministry—teaching, preaching, and healing—a ministry that brought wide-spread popularity. Crowds gathered, the demographics of which ranged from faithful Jews, to called disciples, curious gentiles, and probably some potential opponents. People came from far and wide to hear more about this coming kingdom and to experience and witness miraculous healings.

When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them …

Matthew 5:1–2

Seeing the crowds, Jesus finds a high point, assumes the seated position of a rabbi, and begins to teach. Notice who his primary audience is: His disciples, however many there were at this point of his ministry. While crowds are eavesdropping, it’s his followers that Jesus is mainly focused on.

And what is it he wants to teach them? In the section of the Sermon we’re considering today, there are two main things on the mind of the King: The first has to do with character and the second, commission. Jesus “opened his mouth and began to teach” his disciples who they’re to be and what they’re to do. Character and commission. 

Character for the Kingdom

As we’ll see, the former fuels and enables the latter. In other words, to accomplish the commission given to those waiting for the kingdom, followers of Jesus must first grow in character for the kingdom. That is, character worthy of the kingdom that’s coming.

The sermon begins with what are often called “the Beatitudes,” meaning “blessedness” and, as you read, it becomes clear why—“blessed are … blessed are … blessed are.” 

The word used here for “blessed” carries the idea of divine congratulations or approval. It’s a proclamation, not a possibility. A declaration more than a desired results. The beatitudes, therefore, are a list of commendations from God to certain types of people. But who and why?

Well, looking at the general pattern of each beatitude we see quickly that each pronouncement of blessing is followed by a character trait (or a spiritual disposition) followed by a promised reward. “Congratulations to those who are like THIS because they can look forward to THIS.” 

Remember, Jesus is teaching his disciples—Jews who were looking forward to a coming kingdom. And Jesus here takes time to teach them the type of character that subjects of that future kingdom will possess and the joys they can expect. Let’s move through the list.

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

Matthew 5:3

Picture a man living on the streets asking for spare change from the people passing by. He knows his own helplessness and is throwing himself on the mercy of others.

The poor in spirit are those spiritually destitute to the point of begging for mercy, knowing that if it isn’t extended by the only one who can help, God, they’re dead. In the context, Jesus is telling these Jewish people that they can’t be helped by temple attendance, law abidance, tithe paying, prayer offering, sacrifice giving, or feast keeping. Those who will possess the kingdom of God in the future, they know they are spiritually broke and must ask for mercy.

You may notice that the reward in this first pronouncement of blessing by Jesus is in the present tense: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Some will point to that and make the case that the kingdom is somehow both future and present because, as you scan quickly down the rest of the rewards in this list, they’re all future tense until the last one: “they shall be comforted … they shall be satisfied … they shall see God” until, finally to close out the list in verse 10 we have a repeat of verse 3: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Let me offer an explanation here, reminding us that when John arrived, his message was clearly “the kingdom is on its way” and not “the kingdom is here.” Then Jesus came saying the exact same thing and nothing has changed in the text to indicate that Jesus is not still preparing his disciples and Israel for the yet-future arrival of the kingdom.

I think what’s happening here with these present tense statements bracketing the list is stylistic. I think Jesus is using the present tense to communicate the certainty of a future reality. We do this as well in 21st-century English. If, after church today, someone invited me out for lunch, I may respond with, “I’m there!” That’s a present tense statement indicating certainty of my future lunch attendance.

I think Jesus is doing the same here. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,”  those aware of their spiritual bankruptcy. Why? “For theirs is the kingdom of God” in the future when it comes, but it’s a certainty.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Matthew 5:4

Just as mourning is an appropriate response to the loss of physical health, abilities, resources, and life, so it’s the appropriate response to the realization that we are spiritually destitute. Jesus says, those who mourn their sin and the effects of the curse on this world, good for them, because it’s them who will experience perfect comfort when the kingdom comes.

Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.

Matthew 5:5

Your copy of the Scriptures may say “meek.” The idea is one of godly humility and submissiveness, a trait ascribed to both Moses (Num 12:3) and Jesus (Matt 11:29). Biblical meekness is not weakness, but strength under control. 

Approved are those who walk in willing subjection to others. Why? Because they get the land. When the kingdom comes and the King reigns from Jerusalem, the gentle will reign with him.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Matthew 5:6

Absolute spiritual satisfaction will be given to those who truly long for what’s right and true to prevail in this world and, more specifically, in their own lives. Congratulations to those who ache to be conformed to God’s will, because it’s them who will get it.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Matthew 5:7

Those who live lives marked by mercy to others, that is, not giving people what they deserve when you have the power to do so, they are blessed, they are approved, and they will be shown true mercy when kingdom comes.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Mattthew 5:8

Purity of heart describes integrity of motive. Blessed are those who live lives with pure motives, longing to bring glory to God and blessings to others. Why? Because it’s those that shall see God with their own eyes in all his grand purity.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Matthew 5:9

Peacemakers are those willing to endure offences and offer forgiveness, even to those who don’t deserve it. It’s people like that, those who work for shalom, who will be called “sons of God,” people reflecting God’s perfectly peaceful character.

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:10–12

Congratulations to those people who are willing to endure opposition, abuse, ridicule, and persecution for God’s name, God’s will, God’s word, God’s truth. They’re blessed because of the huge rewards waiting for them in heaven.

Jesus comes on the scene, telling Israel to prepare themselves for the coming kingdom. Then, here in Matthew 5, he explains to his disciples what it looks like to get ready: It means establishing character for that kingdom—character marked by humility and mourning over sin, gentleness and a desire for righteousness, mercy and purity of motive, peace and conviction. That’s the character of those who will one day inherit the kingdom of God.

Jesus is not saying that, “Unless you check all of these character boxes you can’t be saved.” Justification, eternal salvation, is not the topic of conversation. Instead, Jesus is laying out what can be called an interim ethic. That is, in light of the fact that the kingdom is imminent, those who are following Jesus are to pursue the type of character appropriate for subjects of this future kingdom! And, to those that do, the rewards are great!

It’s like a parent telling their teenager to “act like an adult!” They aren’t yet adults, but they are to aspire to that which will one day be and, as they do, it changes their lives—and the lives of those around them—in the present. Not to mention it prepares them for that eventual adulthood.

Likewise, Jesus is saying to his disciples, “act like citizens of the kingdom.” They aren’t there yet, but they can strive to live according to that interim ethic now. 

And so should we. You and I, like those original disciples, are being invited here to recognize our spiritual poverty, and mourn sin like we ought. And we can do that because we know the comfort of the kingdom is coming.

We should live submissive lives and ache for righteousness, especially in our own lives and homes. We are being called to be a people who progressively, by the power of the Holy Spirit, are characterized by godly mercy and purity in motives; people that work for peace, especially among the church family.

Why do all this? Because it saves us? No. Only faith in Christ saves us. We strive for these characteristics because we know they will one day be so and because it honours our Saviour and coming King. This is character for the kingdom.

Commission until the Kingdom

Jesus, speaking to his disciples, explains the character qualities of future subjects of the kingdom, character that brings blessedness and rewards. But in verse 13, Jesus shifts his attention from the character for the kingdom to his subjects’ commission until the kingdom. Jesus moves from what his disciples are to be to what they are to do. This is their assignment while they wait for the kingdom to come.

While verse 1–12 are often called “the Beatitudes” because of the blessings pronounced, verses 13–16 are sometimes called the Similitudes because of how Jesus compares his disciples to salt and light in describing the task he’s giving them.

You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 5:13–16

The disciples have been reminded of the character for the kingdom and now they’re given the commission until the kingdom: Stay salty and shine brightly. That’s their assignment, and it’s ours today as well.

First, stay salty. “You are the salt of the earth.” We may think of salt as something that brings flavour to food or something used for food preservation. This could be what Jesus meant. As disciples, we’re to be agents of preservation in an otherwise rotting world.

In Luke 14:35, Jesus speaks of salt increasing fertility of soil. Maybe this is what he meant: That disciples are to be agents of increased fruitfulness for God in our world.

But perhaps the real meaning of Jesus comparing his followers to salt is wrapped up in the fact that, no matter how you use salt, it is useful because it is different than its surroundings. It’s different than food, so it increased flavour. It’s different than meat, so it keeps it from spoiling. It’s different than the soil, so it increased yield. In Ontario, it’s different than ice, so it melts it on the roads. Salt is useful because it’s unique.

That’s why Jesus asks the rhetorical question: “If salt loses its saltiness, what use is it?” Answer: None at all. Same with disciples. What use is a disciple who no longer functions as a disciple? None. So, stay salty!

Disciples are useful because they don’t look and act like the world into which they’re being sent. They stand in contrast. Maybe they’re used by God to preserve, to bring godly flavour to the world, to increase fruitfulness for God, or maybe to melt the ice of hardened hearts. Whatever it is God uses us for in this world, it’s because we’re different than the world.

And what better way to stay different from the world than to pursue the character for the kingdom? You want to stand out in the world and be different? Be gentle in a world that idolizes power. Mourn for the sin in a world that celebrates and promotes it. Show mercy in the midst of a cutthroat culture. Make peace in world at war with itself.

You see, to accomplish the commission, we need the character. To stay salty, we need to be godly.

Second, shine brightly. “You are the light of the world.” This is coming on the heels of Jesus himself being called the Light (4:16). Jesus says his disciples are the light that must not be hidden but propped up and shown off! They are to give open testimony that Jesus is the promised Messiah and King. [ILL: Benedict Option]

We’re to be different from the world, staying salty, and then be in the world, shining brightly. And, when disciples do this, Jesus says people may bring glory to God in heaven. So, shine brightly!

The disciples, sitting at the feet of their Rabbi and anointed King, are being told to get busy while they wait for the kingdom to come—to stay salty and to shine brightly. And the way they’re able to fulfill the commission they’ve been given until the kingdom is to pursue the character that is fitting for the kingdom.

Sometimes as Christians and as churches we can get this backward. We get busy doing a lot of things but ignore the character, the maturity, the sanctification, the growth that God wants to develop in us as well.

Imagine you were meeting a new family doctor and in conversation they admitted that they wanted to badly to practice medicine they skipped med school. They so badly wanted to help people that they didn’t want to waste time in a classroom and they won’t waste time now in professional development or research. You would rightly conclude that’s probably an ineffective doctor.

Why then to Christians think they can fulfill God’s commission—to stay salty and shine brightly for him—without first and throughout the process, paying attention to our own maturity, sanctification, growth, character development? It can’t be so.

I want to encourage you this week to seek some “professional development” in your Christian life. At the church we are committing to helping you do that (in fact, it’s why the church exists—Ephesians 4). 

Ask yourself, How am I growing in character that is consistent with the coming kingdom? Be intentional. He diligent. There’s nothing more important than what Christ is calling us to do. Let’s take it seriously, stay salty, and shine brightly.