Godliness must always be before Righteousness
Morality is the outcome of Godliness (Martin Lloyd Jones)
An Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount (chap 3)
WE have now finished our general analysis of the Sermon and so can begin to consider this first section, the Beatitudes, this delineation of the Christian man in his essential features and characteristics. I am not, as I have said, concerned with the argument whether there are seven, eight or nine Beatitudes. What matters is not how many Beatitudes there are, but that we should be perfectly clear as to what is said about the Christian. First I want to look at this in general, because again I feel there are certain aspects of this truth which can only be grasped as we take it as a whole. In biblical study, it should invariably be the rule that you must start with the whole before you begin to pay attention to the parts. There is nothing so likely to lead to heresy and error as to start with the parts rather than the whole. The only man who is at all capable of carrying out the injunctions of the Sermon on the Mount is the man who is perfectly clear in his mind with regard to the essential character of the Christian. Our Lord says that this is the only kind of person who is truly ‘blessed’, that is, ‘happy’. Someone has suggested that it might be put like this; this is the sort of man who is to be congratulated, this is the sort of man to be envied, for he alone is truly happy.
Happiness is the great question confronting mankind. The whole world is longing for happiness and it is tragic to observe the ways in which people are seeking it. The vast majority, alas, are doing so in a way that is bound to produce misery. Anything which, by evading the difficulties, merely makes people happy for the time being, is ultimately going to add to their misery and problems. That is where the utter deceitfulness of sin comes in; it is always offering happiness, and it always leads to unhappiness and to final misery and wretchedness. The Sermon on the Mount says, however, that if you really want to be happy, here is the way. This and this alone is the type of person who is truly happy, who is really blessed. This is the sort of person who is to be congratulated. Let us look at him, then, in general, by taking a kind of synoptic view of these Beatitudes before we come to deal with them one by one. It will be seen that I am adopting a somewhat leisurely procedure with this Sermon and I am doing so quite deliberately. I have already referred to the people who are anxiously wanting to know what is going to be said about ‘going the second mile’, for example. No; we need to spend a long time with ‘the poor in spirit’ and ‘the meek’ and terms such as these before we go on to those interesting questions which are so thrilling and exciting. We are to be interested primarily in character before we consider conduct.
There are certain general lessons, I suggest, to be drawn from the Beatitudes. First, all Christians are to be like this. Read the Beatitudes, and there you have a description of what every Christian is meant to be. It is not merely the description of some exceptional Christians. Our Lord does not say here that He is going to paint a picture of what certain outstanding characters are going to be and can be in this world. It is His description of every single Christian.
I pause with that for just a moment, and emphasize it, because I think we must all agree that the fatal tendency introduced by the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed by every branch of the Church that likes to use the term ‘Catholic’, is the fatal tendency to divide Christians into two groups––the religious and the laity, exceptional Christians and ordinary Christians, the one who makes a vocation of the Christian life and the man who is engaged in secular affairs. That tendency is not only utterly and completely unscriptural; it is destructive ultimately of true piety, and is in many ways a negation of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is no such distinction in the Bible. There are distinctions in offices-apostles, prophets, teachers, pastors, evangelists, and so on. But these Beatitudes are not a description of offices; they are a description of character. And from the standpoint of character, and of what we are meant to be, there is no difference between one Christian and another.
Let me put it like this. It is the Roman Catholic Church that canonizes certain people, not the New Testament. Read the introduction to almost any New Testament Epistle and you will find all believers addressed as in the Epistle to the Church at Corinth, ‘called to be saints’. All are ‘canonized’, if you want to use the term, not some Christians only. The idea that this height of the Christian life is meant only for a chosen few, and that the rest of us are meant to live on the dull plains, is an entire denial of the Sermon on the Mount, and of the Beatitudes in particular. We are all meant to exemplify everything that is contained here in these Beatitudes. Therefore let us once and for ever get rid of that false notion. This is not merely a description of the Hudson Taylors or the George Mullers or the Whitefields or Wesleys of this world; it is a description of every Christian. We are all of us meant to conform to its pattern and to rise to its standard.
The second principle I would put in this form; all Christians are meant to manifest all of these characteristics. Not only are they meant for all Christians, but of necessity, therefore, all Christians are meant to manifest all of them. In other words it is not that some are to manifest one characteristic and others to manifest another. It is not right to say some are meant to be ‘poor in spirit’, and some are meant to ‘mourn’, and some are meant to be ‘meek’, and some are meant to be ‘peacemakers’, and so on. No; every Christian is meant to be all of them, and to manifest all of them, at the same time. Now I think it is true and right to say that in some Christians some will be more manifest than others; but that is not because it is meant to be so. It is just due to the imperfections that still remain in us. When Christians are finally perfect, they will all manifest all these characteristics fully; but here in this world, and in time, there is a variation to be seen. I am not justifying it; I am simply recognizing it. The point I am emphasizing is that we are every one of us meant to manifest all of them together and at the same time. Indeed, I think we can even go further and say that the character of this detailed description is such, that it becomes quite obvious, the moment we analyze each Beatitude, that each one of necessity implies the other. For instance, you cannot be ‘poor in spirit’ without ‘mourning’ in this sense; and you cannot mourn without ‘hungering and thirsting after righteousness’; and you cannot do that without being one who is ‘meek’ and a peacemaker’. Each one of these in a sense demands the others. It is impossible truly to manifest one of these graces, and to conform to the blessing that is pronounced upon it, without at the same time inevitably showing the others also. The Beatitudes are a complete whole and you cannot divide them; so that, whereas one of them may be more manifest perhaps in one person than in another, all of them are there. The relative proportions may vary, but they are all present, and they are all meant to be present at the same time.
That is a vitally important principle. But the third is perhaps even more important. None of these descriptions refers to what we may call a natural tendency. Each one of them is wholly a disposition which is produced by grace alone and the operation of the Holy Spirit upon us. I cannot emphasize this too strongly. No man naturally conforms to the descriptions here given in the Beatitudes, and we must be very careful to draw a sharp distinction between the spiritual qualities that are here described and material ones which appear to be like them. Let me put it like this. There are some people who appear to be naturally ‘poor in spirit’; that is not what is described here by our Lord. There are people who appear to be naturally ‘meek’; when we deal with that statement I hope to be able to show you that the meekness which Christ talks about is not that which appears to be natural meekness in an ordinary unregenerate person. These are not natural qualities; nobody by birth and by nature is like this.
This is a rather subtle matter and people are often in difficulty about it in this way. They say, ‘I know a person who does not claim to be a Christian, never goes to a place of worship, never reads the Bible, never prays, and frankly tells us he is not interested in these things at all. But, you know, I have a feeling that he is more of a Christian than many people who do go to a place of worship and who do pray. He is always nice and polite, never says a harsh word or expresses an unkind judgment, and is always doing good.’ Such people look at certain characteristics in the person they are considering and say, ‘There are the Beatitudes obviously staring me in the face; this person must be a Christian though he denies the entire faith.’ That is the kind of confusion that often arises through failure to be clear at this particular point. In other words, it will be our business to show that what we have here in each individual case[Beatitude] is not a description of a natural temper, it is rather a disposition that is produced by grace.
Take this man who by nature appears to be such a fine Christian. If that is really a condition or a state which conforms to the Beatitudes, I suggest it is quite unfair, for it is a matter of natural temperament. Now a man does not determine his natural temperament, though he governs it up to a point. Some of us are born aggressive, others are quiet; some are alert and fiery, others are slow. We find ourselves as we are, and these nice people who are so frequently brought forward as an argument against the evangelical faith are in no sense responsible for being like that. The explanation of their condition is something biological; it has nothing to do with spirituality, and nothing to do with man’s relationship to God. It is purely animal and physical. As people differ in their physical appearance, so they differ in temperament; and if that is what determines whether a man is a Christian or not, I say it is totally unfair.
But, thank God, that is not the position at all. Any one of us, every one of us, whatever we may be by birth and nature, is meant as a Christian to be like this. And not only are we meant to be like this; we can be like this. That is the central glory of the gospel. It can take the proudest man by nature and make him a man who is poor in spirit. There have been some wonderful and glorious examples of that. I would suggest there has never been a naturally prouder man than John Wesley; but he became a man who was poor in spirit. No; we are not concerned about natural dispositions or what is purely physical and animal, or what appears to simulate the Christian character. I am hoping to be able to show you this when we come to an analysis of these things, and I think you will very soon see the essential difference between them. Here are characteristics and dispositions that are the result of grace, the product of the Holy Spirit, and therefore possible for all. They cut right across all natural states and natural dispositions. That, I think you will agree, is a vital and essential principle, so that as we come to look at these individual descriptions, not only must we not confuse them with natural tempers, but we must be very careful at the same time not to define them in such terms. All along we must be drawing our distinction in a spiritual manner and on the basis of the New Testament teaching.
Let us now consider the next principle. These descriptions, I suggest, indicate clearly (perhaps more clearly than anything else in the entire realm of Scripture) the essential, utter difference between the Christian and the non-Christian. This is the thing that should really concern us; and that is why I say it is most important to consider this Sermon on the Mount. This is not just a description of what a man does; the real point is this difference between the Christian and the non-Christian. The New Testament regards that as something absolutely basic and fundamental; and, as I see things at the present time, the first need in the Church is a clear understanding of this essential difference. It has become blurred; the world has come into the Church and the Church has become worldly. The line is not as distinct as it was. There were times when the distinction was clear cut, and those have always been the greatest eras in the history of the Church. We know, however, the arguments that have been put forward. We have been told that we have to make the Church attractive to the man outside, and the idea is to become as much like him as we can. There were certain popular padres during the first world war who mixed with their men, and smoked with them, and did this, that, and the other with them, in order to encourage them. Some people thought that, as a result, when the war was over, the ex-service men would be crowding into the churches. Yet it did not happen, and it never has happened that way. The glory of the gospel is that when the Church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first. That is how revival comes. That must also be true of us as individuals. It should not be our ambition to be as much like everybody else as we can, though we happen to be Christian, but rather to be as different from everybody who is not a Christian as we can possibly be. Our ambition should be to be like Christ, the more like Him the better, and the more like Him we become, the more we shall be unlike everybody who is not a Christian.
Let me show you this in detail. The Christian and the non-Christian are absolutely different in what they admire. The Christian admires the man who is ‘poor in spirit’, while the Greek philosophers despised such a man, and all who follow Greek philosophy, whether intellectually or practically, still do exactly the same thing. What the world says about the true Christian is that he is a weakling, an apology for a man, or that he isn’t manly. Those are its expressions. The world believes in self-confidence, self-expression and the mastery of life; the Christian believes in being ‘poor in spirit’. Take the newspapers and see the kind of person the world admires. You will never find anything that is further removed from the Beatitudes than that which appeals to the natural man and the man of the world. What calls forth his admiration is the very antithesis of what you find here. The natural man likes an element of boastfulness, but that is the very thing that is condemned in the Beatitudes.
Then, obviously, they must be different in what they seek. ‘Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst.’ After what? Wealth, money, status, position, publicity? Not at all. ‘Righteousness.’ And righteousness is being right with God. Take any man who does not claim to be a Christian and who is not interested in Christianity. Find out what he is seeking and what he really wants, and you will see it is always different from this.
Then, of course, they are absolutely different in what they do. That follows of necessity. If they admire and seek different things, they very clearly do different things. The result is that the life which is lived by the Christian must be an essentially different life from that of the man who is not a Christian. The non-Christian is absolutely consistent. He says he lives for this world. ‘This’, he says, ‘is the only world, and I am going to get all I can out of it.’ Now the Christian starts by saying he is not living for this world; he regards this world as but the way of entry into something vast and eternal and glorious. His whole outlook and ambition is different. He feels, therefore, that he must be living in a different way. As the man of the world is consistent, so the Christian also ought to be consistent. If he is, he will be very different from the other man; he cannot help it. Peter puts it perfectly in the second chapter of his first Epistle when he says that if we truly believe that we are a people who have been called ‘out of darkness into his marvelous light’, we must believe that this has happened to us in order that we might show forth His praises. Then he goes on to say: ‘I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims (those of you who are in this world), abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation’ (I Pet. ii. 11,12). That is nothing but an appeal to their sense of logic.
Another essential difference between men is in their belief as to what they can do. The man of the world is very confident as to his own capacity and is prepared to do anything. The Christian is a man, and the only man in the world, who is truly aware of his own limitations.
I hope to deal with these things in detail in later chapters, but these are some of the essential, obvious, surface differences between the Christian and the non-Christian. There is nothing, surely, which exhorts us more than this Sermon on the Mount to be what we are meant to be, and to live as we are meant to live; to be like Christ by being a complete contrast to everyone who does not belong to Christ. I trust, therefore, that any of us who may have been guilty of trying to be like the man of the world in any respect will not do so any longer and will see what an utter contradiction it is of our faith.
Perhaps I can put it all finally in this concept. The truth is that the Christian and the non-Christian belong to two entirely different realms. You will notice the first Beatitude and the last Beatitude promise the same reward, ‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ What does this mean? Our Lord starts and ends with it because it is His way of saying that the first thing you have to realize about yourself is that you belong to a different kingdom. You are not only different in essence; you are living in two absolutely different worlds. You are in this world; but you are not of it. You are among those other people, yes; but you are citizens of another kingdom. This is the vital thing that is emphasized everywhere in this passage.
What is meant by this kingdom of heaven? You will find certain people saying that there is a difference between the ‘kingdom of heaven’ and the ‘kingdom of God’; but my difficulty is to know what the difference is. Why does Matthew talk about the kingdom of heaven rather than the kingdom of God? Surely the answer is that he was writing primarily for the Jews, and to the Jews, and his chief object, perhaps, was to correct the Jewish conception of the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. They had got into this materialistic way of looking at the kingdom; they were thinking of it politically and in a military sense, and our Lord’s whole object here is to show that His kingdom is primarily a spiritual one. In other words He says to them, ‘You must not think of this kingdom primarily as anything earthly. It is a kingdom in the heavens, which is certainly going to affect the earth in many different ways, but it is essentially spiritual. It belongs to the heavenly rather than to the earthly and human sphere.’ What is this kingdom, then? It means, in its essence, Christ’s rule or the sphere and realm in which He is reigning. It can be considered in three ways as follows. Many times when He was here in the days of His flesh our Lord said that the kingdom of heaven was already present. Wherever He was present and exercising authority, the kingdom of heaven was there. You remember how on one occasion, when they charged Him with casting out devils by the power of Beelzebub, He showed them the utter folly of that, and then went on to say, ‘If I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you’ (Mt. xii. 28). Here is the kingdom of God. His authority, His reign was actually in practice. Then there is His phrase when He said to the Pharisees, ‘the kingdom of God is within you’, or, ‘the kingdom of God is among you’. It was as though He were saying, ‘It is being manifested in your midst. Don’t say “look here” or “look there”. Get rid of this materialistic view. I am here amongst you; I am doing things. It is here.’ Wherever the reign of Christ is being manifested, the kingdom of God is there. And when He sent out His disciples to preach, He told them to tell the cities which received them not, ‘Be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.’
It means that; but it also means that the kingdom of God is present at this moment in all who are true believers. The Roman Catholic Church has tended to identify this kingdom with the Church, but that is not right, because the Church contains a mixed multitude. The kingdom of God is only present in the Church in the hearts of true believers, in the hearts of those who have submitted to Christ and in whom and among whom He reigns. You remember how the apostle Paul puts it in language reminiscent of that of Peter. In writing to the Colossians he gives thanks to the Father ‘who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son’ (Col. i. 13). The ‘kingdom of his dear Son’ is ‘the kingdom of God’, it is ‘the kingdom of heaven’, it is this new kingdom into which we have entered. Or, again, in his letter to the Philippians he says, ‘Our conversation is in heaven,’ or, ‘Our citizenship is in heaven.’ We are here on earth, we obey the powers that be, we live our lives in this way. Yes; but ‘our citizenship is in heaven; from whence also we wait for a Saviour’ (Phil. iii. 20, RV). We who recognize Christ as our Lord, and in whose lives He is reigning and ruling at this moment, are in the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of heaven is in us. We have been translated into the ‘kingdom of his dear Son’; we have become a ‘kingdom of priests’.
The third and last way of looking at the kingdom is this. There is a sense in which it is yet to come. It has come; it is coming; it is to come. It was here when He was exercising authority; it is here in us now; and yet it is to come. It will come when this rule and reign of Christ will be established over the whole world even in a physical and material sense.
The day is coming when the kingdoms of this world will have become ‘the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ’, when
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Doth his successive journeys run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
It will then have come, completely and entirely, and everything will be under His dominion and sway. Evil and Satan will be entirely removed; there will be ‘new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness’ (2 Pet. iii. 13), and then the kingdom of heaven will have come in that material way. The spiritual and the material will become one in a sense, and all things will be subject to His sway, that ‘at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Phil. ii. 10, 11).
There, then, is the general account of the Christian which is given in the Beatitudes. Do you see how essentially different he is from the non-Christian? The vital questions which we therefore ask ourselves are these. Do we belong to this kingdom? Are we ruled by Christ? Is He our King and our Lord? Are we manifesting these qualities in our daily lives? Is it our ambition to do so? Do we see that this is what we are meant to be? Are we truly blessed? Are we happy? Have we been filled? Have we got peace? I ask, as we have looked together at the general description, what do we find ourselves to be? It is only the man who is like that who is truly happy, the man who is truly blessed. It is a simple question. My immediate reaction to these Beatitudes proclaims exactly what I am. If I feel they are harsh and hard, if I feel that they are against the grain and depict a character and type of life which I dislike, I am afraid it just means I am not a Christian. If I do not want to be like this, I must be ‘dead in trespasses and sins’; I can never have received new life. But if I feel that I am unworthy and yet I want to be like that, well, however unworthy I may be, if this is my desire and my ambition, there must be new life in me, I must be a child of God, I must be a citizen of the kingdom of heaven and of God’s dear Son.
Let every man examine himself.