Matthew 4:18—5:16, Discipleship and Beatitude (additional notes)

The Lord’s Supper

[January 22, 2012] When we come to the Lord’s Table, our Lord tells us to remember Him. For those who saw Jesus with their own eyes, “remembering” meant to recall Him to their minds, to cherish Him in their hearts, and to honor Him with their intentions, words and actions. For those who came after, it meant to hear their eyewitness testimony and to let what they hear awaken Jesus within their spirits where they too recognize Him spiritually, and, fixing Him in their minds, cherish Him in their hearts and honor Him with their intentions, words and actions.

Since the eyewitnesses have long since passed away, there is only one place where we can hear their testimony, and that testimony still lives. This place is the Gospel written in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. When we hear the Word of the Gospel and our spirits recognize Him, His presence becomes real to us by the Holy Spirit within and among us.

Then, when we eat the bread and drink the wine we are eating and drinking Him, as He is made real to us through the Gospel. We are identifying with Him by taking Him into us. Yes, with bread and wine we are symbolically taking Him into us, but as we do this, it must not only be symbolic. We must take Him in by faith—as we are in Him, He is in us—and thus make Him ours and make ourselves His. In this way we “reconstitute” ourselves as Christians and as the church, and thus affirm and seal our faith and discipleship to Him.

Being the church is no small thing. Christ, after all, has no individual believers, only members of His body. We are not a club or association of like-minded people. We are not a voluntary organization or a denomination formed by a constitution. We are a living organism brought into being by the call of Jesus. He calls us by the Gospel, and the Word of the Gospel creates a new life within us that makes us organically related to one another. He calls us—and calls us into being as Christians—where we live, in a particular locale, and this, this alone, makes us His church. For our spiritual life to thrive, the Gospel must continually renew us, and we need to learn to function together as His body with those with whom the Lord calls us, as we pray together and serve others and build up one another in ministry.

Having said this as a reminder of why we have come together, let us reflect for a moment on the Gospel passage we have just heard. Let us see Jesus that He may nourish and “reconstitute” us as His.

Background (Matthew 3:1—4:17)

In Matthew 3:2 John the Baptist proclaimed, “Repent, for the Kingdom of the Heavens has drawn near.” His message was that people were to repent (in Hebrew: turn around; in Greek: to change one’s mindset) because the Kingdom of the Heavens was coming and, in fact, was nearby. The image is that it was on its way and almost here.

That nearness was fulfilled when Jesus came for baptism. By the act of His baptism, Jesus entered into solidarity with us in our condition of being under God’s judgment and took on the role of someone repenting perfectly—doing what they ought to do—when under God’s judgment. By this act of obedience to the Father, He offered to take upon Himself our judgment on our behalf as He took up the obedience under judgment that we owe. In doing so, He became the nearness of the Kingdom of the Heavens, only that nearness was now the nearness of His own presence.

When He made this decision, not to live only a righteous life but to live in the mode of repentance, as He came up out of the waters of His baptism, the heavens opened to Him and revealed to Him His divine Sonship. The Kingdom of the Heavens foretold by the prophets is the coming of God as the Son.

 Immediately this new mode of consciousness was tested. Satan tempted Him to act on the basis of who His is instead of in complete dependence on the Father in self-denial. By mastering the temptations He exercised the kingship of the heavens over Himself and thus gained the stronghold from which He was to carry out the fight of the Kingdom. By leaving the devil no ground in Himself, He thus “bound the strong man” and, having thus secured His stronghold, was ready to “plunder the goods in his house.”

Jesus, thus prepared, re-entered the public of Israel and at once proclaimed that the Kingdom of the Heavens has indeed drawn near to them by His own presence among them. He was now ready to enlarge the sphere of the Kingdom.

The Call to Discipleship (4:18-22)

If the Kingdom of the Heavens, which is the rule of the heavens overcoming the world’s resistance, has come in the coming of Jesus, in His own presence among them, then this tells us that the fulcrum of the Kingdom, its locus, is Jesus’ own Person. We can define this further by the scene at His baptism where the Father addressed the Son, saying, “This is My Son.” That heavenly address locates the Person of the Son as the One who is addressed, the location further signified by the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Him. The Son who, renouncing His soul, gives Himself to the Father as an intercession and an offering of love, is addressed by the Father as “My Son.” This is the location of His personhood, in His face-to-face relationship with the Father, a relationship of directional but mutual love (in their speech and self-giving and receptivity) in the procession of the Holy Spirit between Them. His Person is the “I” which offers Itself to the Father and the “Thou” addressed by the Father. This, His Person, is the place where the Kingdom of the Heavens happens, its obtainment in creation, its locus here, and thus its sphere, or its space.

Speaking spiritually, how then does anyone else enter this space, the space where Jesus is, that is, this place where the Kingdom of the Heavens is? Immediately following the emergence into the public life of Israel of Jesus as the nearness of the Kingdom of the Heavens, we have Jesus calling the fishermen to be disciples to Himself. This is the answer, so let us notice what happens in the story.

Basically, Jesus calls them and they respond. He does not teach them anything; He does not impart to them any new ideas. He says, “Come after Me,” that is, to follow behind Him. The object is Himself. Come after ME. He asks them to come to Him, that is, to step into His presence. And He asks them to come after Him, that is, to let Him lead them and to stay with Him, close by, as His followers. As He gives Himself to them, He asks that they mutually give themselves to Him, but on His terms, not theirs. It is a call to mutuality but He takes the lead and sets the terms of the relationship. He demands love, but He gives it first; however, He demands no less than He gives, even if our part never equals His, for it never can. The call of the Gospel (the Gospel being the “news” or story of His coming) is His calling us to Himself, to enter a particular relationship to Him. That relationship on our part is to give Him our allegiance, our fidelity, our faithfulness, our commitment, our loyalty. It is to give Him our selves in response to His first giving Himself to the Father for us (even if we do not yet—or ever—fully comprehend the extent of this). It is existential and total, the giving of our whole person. In other words, we enter the space or sphere of His Person by entering into a personal relationship with Him, a relationship of our person to His Person. On His part it is the offering up of Himself to the Father as an intercession for us, to overcome our sin, to save us, and to make us partakers of what He Himself is in His divinity. On our part it is to give Him our allegiance, our fealty, our faith.

We completely miss the point if we think discipleship has anything to do with belonging to an organization, or endorsing an idea, or holding on to an ethical principle. All that is abstract and ignores—or evades—the call. The call is to enter into His personal space, the space of His Person, by entering into a personal relationship to Him in which we are His and give ourselves to Him. This is exactly His relationship to the Father, expressive of their relationship as Persons. Indeed, each Person of the Trinity empties Him or Herself, gives Him or Herself to the Other, and fills Him or Herself with the Other (the Father being just as much a Mother, and the Holy Spirit being the equal female counterpart of the Son, all Three equal to each Other in divinity, each being the divine ONE, yet never without the Others).

Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount (4:23—5:2)

The Gospel is the news or tidings of the Lord’s coming, that is, the story of Jesus, His birth, living, death, resurrection, ascension and term in heaven, and His coming again in glory—and what it means. The Gospel of the Kingdom is what His coming means in terms of the kingdom, that is, the announcement of the coming of the Kingdom in His own coming, that is, in the appearance of His Person. The call of the Gospel is the call to enter into a personal relationship with Him as the Lord, that is, to give Him our allegiance, our fealty, our fidelity and loyalty. The Gospel of the Kingdom issues in the call to discipleship.

Yet Jesus did not go all about Galilee repeating what He did with the fishermen, for He did not expect everyone to drop their livelihood and follow Him. Nevertheless, what He preached was the coming and present nearness of the Kingdom of the Heavens, and though it may seem strange to us, the meaning of His own coming. We are inclined to think that Jesus went around teaching ethics to people; I do not know why. He taught what sounds like ethics to His disciples. But to the people, He presented Himself, and to this end He went about “healing every disease and every sickness among the people” and proclaiming that the time had come, the Kingdom of the Heavens was near, in fact, wherever He was. That which the prophets spoke of was fulfilled (or would be) and was already present—in Him. Sometimes I have heard it said that Jesus preached the Kingdom of God and the church preached Jesus, as if these were two different things. In fact, Jesus proclaimed His own time, His own acts, His own Person, as the arrival of the Kingdom of God. The miracles of healing announced this fact as harbingers of the Age to Come, the age of the Kingdom. Such is what the acts themselves embodied, but what they announced was the presence of the One who brought the healing. For the Age of the Kingdom was not what had arrived, but the powers of the Age to Come in the Person who would bring it. The demonstration of these powers announced that He who would overcome all that resists God, that is, the Kingdom of the Heavens itself—not yet the Age of the Kingdom—had come. The fulcrum of the ages has arrived. It was true, He embodied the Age to Come in His own Person. Moreover, He was to embody the judgment of God that would turn the ages. But His coming at this time did not end the usurpation of the enemy except for those who entered the sphere of His Person. In His own Person He had overcome the world. But the world as we know it will continue until His coming again in glory. Then He will defeat the powers of the world where they are, and during the Age of the Kingdom He will “reign until God [gradually] puts—subjects—all His enemies under His feet,” wherever they are. Not this time, but the Person of the Over-comer, His presence, is what He announced, calling people to commit to Him.

This was understood, to some degree. For as people heard about Him “they brought to Him all who were ill, those afflicted with various diseases and torments and those possessed by demons and epileptics and paralytics.” He healed them, all of them, as a demonstration of God’s own overcoming presence in Him. He was Emmanuel in the land of Israel, offering the promise of Isaiah—which was originally directed to Hezekiah but which stalled in terms of its initial historical fulfillment after 705 BCE. The promises still waited for fulfillment, an even greater fulfillment than Isaiah at first put into words. Here, in Jesus, was someone greater than Hezekiah, who was the fulfillment of what all the prophets hoped and longed for. The world itself was not yet overcome, but He who would overcome it was here.

Nevertheless, these great crowds did not yet respond to the Gospel. They were coming to Jesus, they were attracted to Him; He gave them hope. But probably for many of them it was still all about themselves and their neediness. They still did not yet see Him. Even the disciples did not yet understand. The disciples, however, stood apart from the crowds, for they recognized in Jesus more than a faith-healer, more than a miracle-worker. They gave the Person their allegiance. There was a distinction between the disciples and the crowds, for “when Jesus saw the crowds, He used to go up to the mountain. And [then, apart from the crowds] His disciples would come to Him.”

The distinction is there. The disciples are the blessed ones. Nevertheless, the distinction was not absolute. The crowds too were invited to be where the disciples were. For we read in 7:28-29, “when Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astounded at His teaching, for He taught them as One having authority and not like their scribes.” The place of the disciples, in the sphere of His Person, was the place to which Jesus was also calling the crowds. The difference was that the disciples had entered that sphere, the crowds had come to Him but had not yet made that commitment; they had not yet given to Jesus their fealty.

The Sermon on the Mount (5:3—7:27)

Most of us recognize the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5—7, as a distinct unit within the gospels. It is considered the core of Jesus’ ethical teachings. Hopefully, if we have understood the last paragraph, we can see by now that the “Sermon” is not simply a collection of ethical teachings. It is a description of the life of the individual disciple, that which distinguishes the disciple of Jesus from the world. What distinguishes the disciple, moreover, is not simply an ethical pattern but rather a pattern that results from her or his fealty to Jesus; and this is really the point.

Before we get into that, however, we need to grasp how the Sermon on the Mount fits into the overall structure of the Gospel according to Matthew. We arrive at the previous point by paying attention to the narrative that precedes it. In fact, Matthew has five major sermons, each beginning with something like, “And He taught them, saying,” and ending with, “And when Jesus finished these words.” The next sermon begins, “These Twelve Jesus sent forth, charging them, saying,” and ends with, “And when Jesus had finished giving these instructions.” Each of these sermons, or units of teaching, is preceded by a narrative section related to the teaching. In the case of the Sermon on the Mount the narrative is rather short, only 4:18—5:1, the last two verses being transitional. The transitional verses vary in length. In the next unit, 9:35—10:4 form the transition. As in 4:25—5:1, the transition may also be the conclusion of the narrative section.

This means that Matthew has five distinct teaching units, each beginning with a narrative followed by a “sermon.” It has been noted that the number five corresponds to the books of the Torah, making these units a Torah or katechesis for the church, a kind of catechism. The Torah also is a combination of narrative and instruction, though not nearly as tidy as Matthew’s. (The sections of the gospel however do not correspond to the books of the Torah in terms of content.)

If we include the introduction and conclusion, Matthew’s gospel has seven sections. The introduction and conclusion differ from the other sections in the size of their “teaching” part. The introductory section has only half a verse in its teaching section, “Repent, for the Kingdom of the Heavens has drawn near.” This verse, however, concludes the initial section on the emergence of the Kingdom of the Heavens. The concluding section has three verses in its teaching part, the verses of the Great Commission. It concludes the final section on the accomplishment of the Kingdom of the Heavens. For those who are familiar with Biblical numerology, it should not be a surprise that the second section is on discipleship, the third section is on mission, the fourth on the world, the fifth on the church, and the sixth on judgment.

The shortness of the narrative part of the second section (on the sphere of the Kingdom) gives it clarity and focus, which helps us approach the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is not about general ethics such as anyone could teach but about discipleship to Him. It is about this unique relationship. The ethics therein are about His personal claim on us as the One who has called us and is making us this. The ethics are not abstract principles that we can apply to the best of our ability. The Sermon on the Mount has nothing to do with our will power and resolve. It is about what the call of Jesus to Himself is making us through His grace (that is, through the power of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ). The Sermon is in the form of instructions and imperatives, but always what is before us is the personal relationship in which we stand to the Person who speaks the instructions and imperatives. The relationship to Him changes the dynamic of the command, for because the command comes from Him personally, it is also the enablement to do it. The Word fulfills itself in us because of the grace in which we stand, because of our relation to the One whose Word lays hold of us and claims us. The difference is that the call of Jesus through the Word of the Gospel brings us into the sphere of His own Person.

What the Sermon describes then is how Jesus is in the world. When we attach ourselves to Him as a result of His call, if we subject ourselves to the grace that is in Him, then that grace makes us become the way He is. His call to us acts as a creative Word, the same creative Word that brought creation into being.

The Beatitudes (5:3-10)

At this point you can read, “Matthew 4:18—5:16, Discipleship and Beatitude.”

With respect to the Beatitudes in verses 3-10, the reward of the first and last beatitude is to enter and possess the Kingdom of the Heavens, the rewards between describe aspects of this. The rewards are these: entering and possessing the Kingdom of the Heavens, being comforted, inheriting the earth, being satisfied with righteousness, being shown mercy, seeing God, being called “sons of God” (“sons,” in contrast to merely “children,” refers to coming into maturity as opposed to remaining in one’s minority), and—in verse 12—having a great reward in the heavens when we enter and possess the Kingdom of the Heavens. The blessing or blessedness, then, is to be where Jesus is—where the Kingdom of the Heavens is—and to receive His reward, which is His glory in the Kingdom of the Heavens when at last the Kingdom is manifested on the earth. (In the earthly days of Jesus, the Kingdom’s presence was still hidden, as it is now.)

Jesus lists eight (or nine) qualities that bring blessing: poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peace-making, and bearing the reproach of persecution. These all have shock-value, for they stand in sharp contrast to what the masculine world values. To have these qualities is to stand out, to be in contradiction to the world. I have pointed out that Matthew and Mark are masculine in tone and approach and Luke and John are feminine. While it is true that Matthew’s gospel takes a very masculine approach to Jesus—it concerns judgment and the Kingdom that overcomes, discipleship and the Lord and King—the gospel also inverts the culture’s masculine values of the strong man, domination, enslavement, war, force and violence with the suppression of the female. The values that Jesus sets forth are the opposite of the masculine values of a Patriarchal culture. They are not the feminization of the masculine but the inversion of it. They recall us not to the harsh days of the invasion of Canaan under Joshua and the early confederacy and kingdom of Israel, and the intolerations under the Persians, but to the gentler egalitarian values of an earlier Neolithic time, and they do so on the basis of God’s judgment (proclaimed by the prophets) on the aggressive civilizations that have prevailed since the days of Babel. The Gospel according to Matthew is a masculine gospel for the sake of inverting civilization’s masculine values. Jesus is not anti-male but rather the salvation of the male. (For it was the male that was expelled from Eden, not the female.) The Pharisees as a group were threatened by a resurgence of these values, which we can see in the school of Shammai, and Jesus’ opposition to them can be seen in His confrontation with them.

The qualities that describe the space of Jesus, the sphere of blessedness (beatitude), are not something that we can simply put on or adopt by sheer effort. These are the qualities of Jesus that become ours by virtue of associating closely with Him in a relationship of fealty and fidelity and loyalty. They are wrought in us by His grace, through the Holy Spirit, that Is, from the inside out. The revelation of Christ in our spirit by the Holy Spirit shines into our soul and permeates it with its image so that we become like Him, both in resurrection and crucifixion. At this point in the Gospel according to Matthew, however, all we need to know is that it comes about by closely adhering to Jesus, submitting to His Person and, being in that place, allowing His government over us.

Persecution, Salt and Light (5:11-16)

What follows result from the “shock value” of the qualities that bring beatitude. The inversion of values brings offence and misunderstanding and jealousy, hence persecution. The transitional ninth beatitude breaks the pattern of the rest because it belongs with the sayings on salt and light that follow. Here the “because of Me” becomes explicit, as does the prophetic tenor of the whole list of beatifying qualities. (By prophetic I mean its connection to the literary prophets of the Old Testament, not the modern socio-political idea of prophecy espoused nowadays). We are not in the sphere of Jesus’ Person in a closet somewhere but in the midst of the world that is at odds with Him. Inasmuch as He was persecuted by the powers of the world, we will be too. The dynamics that make the world what it is have caused the world to draw closer to God with time but only further away. If the diabolical powers of the world felt Jesus as a threat to their sustained delusion, they ought to feel the same about His disciples. They world can only be sustained by denying reality and insisting on the lie (the delusion) that it props up in its place. Our very existence—inasmuch as we embody what Jesus embodied—are a threat to that.

Salt is a preservative. The presence of blessedness, of the space that is occupied by the Person of Jesus and by those who attach their loyalty to His Person—who enter His space—preserves the creation and forestalls its destruction. For the human race is under the curse, the judgment of God’s condemnation and wrath. This subjects the creation to vanity and chaos—the chaos of humanity’s so-called civilization—and to destruction. When the Gospel goes out to the nations, and foreigners and strangers turn from their idols to the God of Israel, then the creation will be seasoned with salt and there is a basis for God’s providential mercy to continue. For the disciples to bear the qualities that are blessed—poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peace-making, and bearing the reproach of persecution—is the saltiness that preserves the earth for God’s providential mercy.

If however the salt loses its quality, then it is trampled underfoot and lost. It is possible to be a stalled or failed disciple and not possess the qualities that a disciple ought. If that is so, as disciples we are under the government of the Kingdom of the Heavens. We are not useful and so will be cast aside.

The disciples—with these qualities!—are also light to the world. The salt concerned the creation. Light concerns the world of human beings. The world is in darkness. It does not possess the qualities that are in Jesus, and therefore the disciples of Jesus ought to stand out by virtue of these qualities. We ought to shine in the darkness so that our light can overcome the darkness. If we possess the beatifying qualities, we are like a city situated on a mountain for all to see. This is the city of St. Augustine’s. A city speaks of our being built together in one and functioning together, yet it is not the same as the body. Together we stand above the world, so that it cannot miss our presence. If we possess these qualities, we are a lamp on a lamp-stand shining on all who are in the house. Perhaps the house speaks of the local church, or the house of Israel, or even the world. (Sometimes the house is the house of our body.) By our testimony and witness, we give each other light.

If we are not to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing (Matthew 6:3), we are certainly not to show off our good works (6:1-4).  Yet we are to let our light shine. If we let it shine, people will see the good works of which we are not even aware and will know who to glorify—our Father who is in the heavens. What does it mean then to let our light shine? It must be something besides our good works themselves. According to the context, it is our beatifying qualities that are the light. These qualities are related to being, not doing, and therefore are not the “good works” that we do. They are attitudes that we have, attitudes connected to who we are rather than with what we do. I think there is one more thing which the next section (chapters 8—10) will bring out, and that is our confession and testimony of Jesus. Not to confess and testify is to hide our lamp under a bushel. To put it on a lamp-stand is to testify. To confess Jesus to the world is to let our light shine before men. If we are persecuted because of Jesus, it assumes that we bear His name before others so that our good works are not done in the complete silence of anonymity.

Salt and light then are our attitude, but this attitude is accompanied by our confession of loyalty to Jesus, for which we are persecuted. To follow Jesus means that we come public about our allegiance to Him. And so the circle that began in 4:18 comes around.

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