Matthew 4:24—5:10, The Promised Land

The Theme

[February 2, 2014] Today Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount, which is the first of five long discourses that Jesus gives in the Gospel according to Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount describes the Promised Land, which is Jesus himself in his relationship with the Father and the sphere of Jesus into which his disciples have been—and are being—brought by virtue of their relationship to him. The Promised Land is a major theme of the Old Testament; it is that toward which the Torah moves and into which Joshua, at least provisionally, takes the nation of Israel. It is the place where God’s blessing resides, where the kingship exists and where God establishes God’s name, where God resides in the Temple. It is what the people lose when they turn away from God—though its promise had always been provisional, never “fulfilled” except in a typological sense. The Promised Land becomes the great theme of the prophets who tell the people that when the Messiah comes God will bring them back to the land and there they will at last receive the promised blessing.

The blessing in connection to the Promised Land is explicit in the conclusion of Moses’ long address in the Book of Deuteronomy. The blessing depends on Israel’s faithfulness. If they are not faithful they will come under the curse, yet even then God will remain faithful to them and will bring about their repentance so that in the end—in the days of the Messiah—they will at last come into the blessing. The Messiah is the faithful One, “my Son, the Beloved; on him my favor rests.” On him God’s blessing rests (or dwells).

In Matthew’s gospel, the Messiah—who is the heir to the throne of David, Israel’s king—is the coming of God and the coming near of God’s kingship (the kingdom of the heavens). Identifying with the people of Israel, Jesus “crosses” the Jordan and fasts in the wilderness for forty days before he presents himself in the “land” as the coming of God’s kingship, the light in the people’s darkness, the place where God’s favor and blessing dwells, upon whom the Spirit of God has been poured. On the one hand, Jesus receives the Spirit as the anointing of the offices into which he was stepping: of prophet, priest and king: his messiahship (“messiah” means anointed one). On the other hand, Jesus the faithful One receives the Spirit that the prophets of Israel had promised would be poured out on the nation in the last days (when they repent in the days of the Messiah).

However, when Jesus identifies with Israel, he is faithful where they were not. His entering the Jordan is a baptism of repentance in which he becomes a penitent, and when he fasts in the wilderness it is to mourn and grieve over sin. He too is tested, but in every case he renounces himself and chooses the way of the penitent, always giving God (the Father) his place. It is on account of his faithfulness to God that the blessing, the favor of God, resides on him when he emerges from the wilderness into the public life of Israel. Then, wherever he is, the land of Israel becomes the Promised Land.

The Presence of the Blessing (Matthew 4:24)

“His fame spread throughout Syria, and those who were suffering from diseases and painful complaints of one kind or another, the possessed, epileptics, the paralyzed, were all brought to him, and he cured them.” His healing ministry was evidence of the coming of the kingdom of the heavens. It was evidence of the Promised Land where Israel would have none of the diseases that plagued the Egyptians.

The Crowds and the Disciples (4:25—5:1)

“Large crowds followed him, coming from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judaea and Transjordan. Seeing the crowds, he used to go onto the mountain. And when he was seated, his disciples would come to him. Then he began to speak.”

The verbs and participles used here are in the aorist active tense and may indicate what used to happen rather than what happened only once. The article in front of “mountain” does not necessarily indicate a particular mountain but rather a mountain in contrast to something else (say, the plains). Sitting was the usual posture of a teacher. In eastern fashion, the disciples would sit on the grass in a semicircle in front of the teacher. The meaning here then is not that Jesus left the crowds but that he used to go up on a hill so that the crowds could hear him while he was seated with his disciples sitting closest around him.

We can imagine that if Jesus were to project his voice from a seated position on the ground that he must have sat very erect. He was not one to slouch as men do today who are used to soft chairs (women’s posture seems to be better). His back would not have rounded, neither his lumbar spine nor his shoulders. Indeed, while sitting on the ground outside, Jesus could project his voice so that thousands of people could hear him.

Nevertheless, when we examine the content of his sermon, we see that 5:3-10, the Beatitudes, is spoken about a third person (a “them”), while the rest of the sermon is addressed to a second person (“you”). The Beatitudes then introduces us to the ones about whom and to whom the sermon is addressed. These are apparently the disciples. They are the blessed ones. The crowds are meant to hear these words. They are meant for them too, though not directly but rather as an invitation.

This may be hard to grasp, because surely the disciples do not live up to the descriptors here: poor in spirit, gentle, mourning, hungering and thirsting for uprightness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted in the cause of uprightness. It is Jesus—not they—who lives up to all these descriptors. They are in fact a description of himself. Yet he attributes these qualities to his disciples. Obviously they are all things into which his disciples need to grow, but, under his care as their master, they are also promises of that into which they will grow. I say this in view of the special relationship that exists between Jesus and his disciples. (Please read last week’s blog.) Disciples are of course students of a teacher, but not in the modern sense. Jesus is not just their teacher, and they are not there just to gain knowledge and a skill. A disciple is more like an apprentice where she learns to become like the master. It is the master’s life that is absorbed, the habits of the teacher’s mind and body. The teaching and skills are not separate from the master herself, as if they were commodities from which one could pick and choose.

This goes back to the calling to follow Jesus. Jesus calls people to himself. When he does, he calls them into a special relationship to himself: a relationship of exclusive faithfulness, fidelity, allegiance, loyalty, and fealty, with which there can be no competitor. He is not only their teacher but their lord. They enter this relationship because he calls them to it, or grants it to them. He makes them his disciples, and when he does so he takes responsibility for them as his heirs and apprentices and students. They belong to him and now come under his care.

The way I say this is that they come into his personal sphere. Theologically this is significant. Jesus is a person of the Triune God, but presents himself to us as a human being. His person (his “I am”) is God’s own person in dynamic relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit, sharing the divine nature with them. Yet in presenting himself to us as a human being, prior to his resurrection (and apart from the Transfiguration), he hid his divine nature. He renounced it in this sense, as an act of will, though he could not make himself not divine, for it is his original nature. Jesus is always divine, even when he hides his divinity behind his humanity. It is his personhood (his hypostasis) that has both natures, his original divine nature and his assumed human nature; the natures do not have or generate the person. We understand personhood then from a Trinitarian perspective. Personhood is not individuality. An individual is a unit that can stand by itself. God is not three individuals but three persons who dwell in each other. Persons exist only in relation to an other. They are defined by their relationship to another. They are the “face” that faces the other. Jesus’ personhood is his relationship as Son to the Father and his relationship to the Holy Spirit. The Father’s personhood likewise is the Father’s relationship to the Son and the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit’s personhood is the Spirit’s relationship to the Father and the Son. It is all dynamic. The personal side of the divine nature—God’s singular intelligence and will and love—is manifest in the dynamic of the divine persons, not in itself, as an abstraction.

When we enter into a relationship with Jesus as a believer, it means Jesus has called us into a relationship of allegiance. It is a relationship to Jesus’ person. When he calls us, he calls us as persons in relationship to his person. We are no longer individuals but persons, and our personhood is defined by his relationship to us. He defines us in terms of himself and in terms of the relationship into which he has called us. When he calls us, we enter into his personal sphere so that we are now defined by his relationship to the Father. His relationship as Son to the Father becomes our relationship to the Father. The Father loves us and cares for us with the love he has for Jesus himself, and with the care the he has for Jesus. Our relationship with the Father then is of utter love and offering in terms of giving (as Jesus’ own relationship to the Father is), and of utter trust and receptivity in terms of receiving. We are also judged according to our fidelity to this relationship, and according to the standard that it implies. The Sermon on the Mount is spoken directly to those who are in this particular relationship to Jesus.

This is what it means to be sitting on the ground in that inner circle with Jesus. What about the crowds then? For when “Jesus had now finished what he wanted to say, his teaching made a deep impression on the people because he taught them with authority, unlike their own scribes” (7:28-29). What Jesus taught his disciples, he also taught the crowds, at least at this point. Later on in the gospel, Jesus will withdraw from the crowds and teach only his disciples.

Here, however, Jesus is offering himself to the people as the Promised Land, the place where there is blessedness or beatitude. He is to them the promise of the Scriptures: of the Law and the Prophets. To enter into the relationship to him of disciple is to enter his personal sphere; it is to enter the Promised Land.

The people come from all over. The assumption is that most of them are Jews, but it need not be exclusively so. The Messiah of Israel, promised by the prophets, was also going to be a blessing to all the gentiles—though they would have to give up their foreign gods and their violent ways and come to Zion to be taught. Jesus is that Zion, the Mount of God, of both the throne and the Temple.

So, are the crowds inside or outside? For Jesus has been in their midst healing their sick and performing wonderful signs of the “age to come.” They are not on the outside, at least not until they reject him, but they are not on the inside either. They flock to Jesus but they do not yet “get it.” Of course, at this point the disciples themselves do not have any idea what they are getting into. Nevertheless, the disciples have this relationship to Jesus which the crowds do not yet have. Some of them will. As we will see, many believe, even though they do not come under training.

The four disciples who are called, come under Jesus’ personal training. They are to be fishers of people and menders of the nets. That Jesus takes them under his wing, the way that he does, does not mean that they are the only ones who believe and who would give Jesus their allegiance. The special training of the Twelve is with a view to the future, with a view to the church, Jesus’ qahal. At the moment, Jesus’ own person is the only gathering point for the believers in Israel, otherwise they are scattered. In the future, all the believers will be gathered into local churches, and in each assembly where two or three are gathered into Jesus’ name, he is in their midst (18:20), and he will be with them to the end of the age (28:20). What Jesus says to his inner circle in the Sermon on the Mount applies then to all who believe. All believers—all who will be hearing Matthew’s gospel read in their gatherings—are really that inner circle.

Yet the crowds are not for that reason on the outside. Jesus is their Messiah, Israel’s promised One but also—and as such—the hope of the gentiles, and speaks in the synagogues as their own. The promise is to them. Even if they do not yet grasp who he is, the promise that is himself is still theirs if they remain faithful to God or even if they turn to God in the future. The threat of divine retribution exists where people reject or oppose him, for as long as they do so. The assumption is that we are already under the divine judgment. The only answer is the mercy of God in the present and the future that God has promised. By opposing Jesus a person turn her back on the mercy of God and the promise of God. Yet, the prophets are emphatic about how God will eventually overcome Israel’s sin and, by the grace of God, all Israel will repent, though it be—for many—on the other side of judgment.

Perhaps it is not so easy for God to win our hearts. We speak about God’s sovereignty, but it does not seem as if God can willy-nilly save whoever God pleases whenever God pleases so that those who do not believe do not do so only because God does not choose them. It is not like this. True, we offer a tremendous wall of resistance that is only overcome by God’s grace. Yet it is not overcome by fiat, simply by God’s willing. God dies out of love for us to win our love. God dies … Can God die? Yet God dies for love of us (yes, by becoming human and experiencing death as a human being, nevertheless, it is the divine person who does this, who dies). It is not by fiat, but by suffering love.

 Oh, I think some of us see it sooner and some later, and whoever sees it does so by the grace of God alone, but it is, nevertheless, the sight of this (suffering love) that devastates us and melts our hardness. No, the crowds are not on the outside; they are just not on the inside yet. Jesus invites them, and shows them that to which they are invited. It is a picture of that which God has in fact promised to them, even if they cannot appreciate it at this point in time. Jesus suffers knowing that they are suffering in their resistance. It is, indeed, why he was fasting—and grieving—in the wilderness. But he joined them in their suffering by his baptism in the Jordan. He joined them, he was in solidarity with them, he did not rise above them; though in joining them he was going to be faithful to God in their midst.

The Beatitudes (5:3-10)

Jesus himself is the beatitude—the blessedness—that he describes here. “How blessed are …” The word does not mean “happy” as so many translations translate it. Those who are mourning are not happy; they are sad. A better translation is “fortunate” as long as it does not connote any sort of chance (as in “luck”). I prefer “blessed” because of its connection to Deuteronomy. It is the opposite of cursed. It means to be favored by God, to be a beneficiary of God’s mercy, grace, goodness, and abundance. Certainly there can and will be happiness there, but “happiness” focuses too much on the experience of the recipient rather than on what the recipient is given.

There are eight beatitudes. The ninth beatitude (verse 11), which begins “blessed are you,” functions as a shift and actually begins the next section and the rest of the sermon. You are persecuted “on my account,” it says. There is a shift to the second person and the relationship of discipleship to himself becomes explicit. The first eight beatitudes are more abstract and given in the third person.

Each beatitude has three parts: “Blessed are …,” a description of the ones who are so blessed, and a description of the blessedness. Who are blessed? The poor in spirit, the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for uprightness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted in the cause of righteousness. How are they blessed? The kingdom of the heavens is theirs, they shall have the earth (or land) as their inheritance, they shall have their fill of uprightness, they shall have mercy shown them, they shall see God, they shall be recognized as children (literally, sons) of God, and the kingdom of the heavens is theirs.

The first and last blessedness is repeated as if they were bookends, thus framing the rest. If yours is the kingdom of the heavens, then everything in the between is also yours. They are not separate as if you could have one without the other. Rather, the state of blessedness includes all of this. This implies that the conditions: being poor in spirit, etc. are not separate from one another either, as if by being one you can earn one condition of blessedness and by being another you can earn a different condition of blessedness. First of all, all of these “conditions” describe one person: the disciple in Jesus, really, Jesus himself. Second, they are not means of earning the consequences. The consequences are a matter of grace, of God’s magnanimousness. They describe what Jesus has as the Son of the Father; it is into this that the disciple is brought.

However, this is not to say that these “consequences” are given to the Christian as some sort of cheap grace. Jesus does all the work and all you need to do is accept Jesus as your personal Savior and then you get all the benefits. This false doctrine of cheap grace is the reason for the fiasco of American popular Christianity. When you enter into a relationship of fealty to Jesus (not just “accepting” that Jesus died in your place), you come under the judgment of this new relationship and are thus responsible for your fidelity to it. Every believer shall appear before the judgment seat of Christ and will show up in Jesus’ own light—how do they compare to him? Most of Jesus’ teachings on judgment in this gospel are about the believer. Not all, not even most, believers will inherit the kingdom of the heavens. “Our ancestors all had the cloud over them and all passed through the sea. In the cloud and in the sea they were all baptized into Moses; all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink, since they drank from the spiritual rock which followed them, and that rock was Christ. In spite of this, God was not pleased with most of them, and their corpses were scattered over the desert. Now these happenings were examples, for our benefit, so that we should never set our hearts, as they did, on evil things” (1 Corinthians 10:1-12). We shall be saved, no doubt, but only through fire (1 Corinthians 3:13-15). All believers will be resurrected, for they all possess eternal life (and indeed all the dead will be resurrected at some point), but not all believers will be ready to enjoy eternal life in the kingdom of the heavens, for not all will the salvation of their souls when they appear before Jesus. Eventually, yes, but it will not come cheaply as many are counting on now.

How are we to interpret the conditions? Eight, of course, represents a new beginning, so the number is appropriate for the new thing (the new cloth, the new wine) that Jesus has brought into play. The guide I use is to assume that they each describe Jesus in some way. I will also assume that the first one is foundational. We move from “poor in spirit,” which is an active inner condition before God, to being “persecuted in the cause of uprightness,” which is a passive outer condition inflicted on one by others, by society (the “world”). Gentle issues out of being poor in spirit, while making peace as it relates to others stands in contrast to being persecuted by them. This much is obvious. The connection of the other beatitudes is something we will have to investigate further.

What then does it mean: “poor in spirit”? Was Jesus poor in spirit? Are we not supposed to be rich in spirit, and would not Jesus be the richest of all?

We do not want to overlook that the word “spirit” in the original does not mean what it means in modern English. We use spirit to refer to one’s attitude or disposition. Webster’s dictionary gives us a number of meanings: the part of the human being associated with the mind and feelings as distinguished from the physical body, or one’s essential being; a person as characterized by a stated quality; a specific inclination or tendency; an emotional state; a particular emotional state characterized by vigor and animation; strong loyalty or dedication; the predominant mood of an occasion or period; or the real sense or significance of something. This is all misleading. In the Bible the spirit is the life that animates something, that makes it alive as opposed to dead. It makes the body alive and gives the person their soul, though it is not equivalent to their soul. It is their consciousness or awareness, meaning that which is aware rather than that of which one is aware. It is how we are present before God and in the creation.

So what can “poor in spirit” mean? Since I do not have time I will try to go straight to the point. To be poor in spirit is, first of all, to be what we are, second, to be this before God, and third, to not be attached to it or even to possess it.

It is not to strive to be someone other than who and what you are; it is to simply be yourself. It is not to try to be righteous or to imagine that we are. It is not to try to be or imagine you are more than you are. This is to attempt to be “rich in spirit.” And to be rich in spirit, in this sense, is to condemn oneself. To be poor is to be utterly honest and authentic before God. I am what I am. We are ashamed of ourselves before others and so we wear many disguises. Can we stand before God without any disguises? Dare we? Poor in spirit, implies, then, first of all, being naked in spirit.

Second, it is to be this before God; that also is to be poor. To be righteous is indeed to flee from God. It is an attempt to make oneself acceptable to God so that you do not come under God’s judgment. By trying to avoid God’s judgment, we avoid God; we turn our back on God. If we are poor in spirit, it means that we freely place ourselves in God’s hands; whether it be for judgment or mercy is up to God. “Spirit,” in this case, refers to our awareness of God; to be poor “in spirit” is to be poor in God’s sight. To be what we truly are, not just before others but before God, is to be poor indeed.

Third, we let it go. We do not hold onto what we are as if it were something we had by right or desert. It is simply what we are. We do not hold onto our goodness or our guilt. We are completely possession-less before God, and therefore free. Jesus was sinless, and all his thoughts and feelings and intentions were in accord with God’s own. Of course, they were God’s own, even in his humanity. Yet he denied himself again and again. Even though his will agreed with God’s, he renounced his own will to choose the Father’s will. He did not renounce who he was. He renounced his claim to it. It belonged to God. So in the desert, his sonship was tested in three ways and in each case he renounced himself in favor of the Father’s will. Each temptation was legitimate. Turn stones into bread? Jesus fed the multitude with five loaves and two fish (an even greater miracle). Throw himself from the parapet of the Temple to demonstrate his messiah-ship? He performed countless miracles, and walked through crowds that wanted to lynch him. Taking all the kingdoms of the world as his own? All authority in heaven and on earth was given to him. But in each case, he would not act on his own but chose the Father’s will. In each case what he renounced was his ego. Ultimately Jesus would not save his soul but laid it down in death. His self-renunciation was a form of voluntary poverty; this is being poor in spirit.

In our case too it means to let go of who we are into God’s hands, to place who we are into God’s hands without any entitlement or claim to it. It does not mean that we reject who we are or renounce who we are; rather it means that we be just that but without possessing it. It also does not mean that we lose who we are in the presence of others. No, in the presence of others we can be no other than who we are and the roles that it is our responsibility to shoulder. It refers to being before God in grateful awe and humility, not clutching onto our identity and all the things with which we identify, but rather, in that place of humility, allowing ourselves to be utterly and completely poor.

There are now seven other beatitudes, but I have run out of time. I hope one day to explore all of them in this blog.

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