Finding true happiness in Jesus’s paradoxical kingdom.
On the blessedness of God that’s found in what the world avoids.
This article originally appeared on Modern Reformation.
The Sermon on the Mount is, perhaps, the most famous discourse on record from the Lord Jesus. Snippets of this sermon appear in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, but the fullest treatment, of course, occurs in Matthew’s Gospel, chapters 5–7. Spanning three chapters and over one hundred verses, Jesus of Nazareth proceeds to reveal what life in the kingdom of God looks like. “The Sermon on the Mount,” notes John Stott, “describes what human life and human community look like when they come under the gracious rule of God” (18). Indeed, this discourse details the “already but not yet” reality of the Christian life. The extent of Jesus’s sermon will be fully realized when the heavenly kingdom comes, but it is also true now, in the hearts and lives of those who are part of the kingdom by faith.
In many ways, then, the precepts of this sermon will only make sense if they are perceived through the paradigm of the new creation that comes by faith. “The whole Sermon,” Stott continues, “presupposes an acceptance of the gospel, an experience of conversion and new birth, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit” (37). Unless this understanding is accepted, we will in short order find ourselves in the ditch of prescription. This isn’t to say that there are no prescriptive ingredients in Jesus’s sermon. Indeed, he was enlarging upon many generally held religious directives in order to expose the true kingdom-dwellers from the false. Ultimately, if Jesus’s words are to be understood as rigid prescriptions for how one enters into the kingdom, we’re doomed.
In that rendering, they’re nothing more than the unforgiving tenets of an impending eschatological domain the likes of which none of us are able to fulfill. Rather than prescriptions, though, Jesus’s words are descriptions of what God’s kingdom-dwellers look like. He’s giving us a glimpse not of how we become accepted into the kingdom, but of what it looks when we are accepted on the premise of faith alone.
What Christ does in this sermon is articulate the wonderfully paradoxical characteristics of the citizens of God’s kingdom. Much of the Christian faith can be summed up by the word “paradox,” that is, something that sounds absurd or contradictory but is found to be quite true. This is especially poignant in the opening verses of the sermon, often referred to as “The Beatitudes”:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:3–12)
Jesus, in effect, says that those who are part of the kingdom of heaven find blessedness in what the world avoids. Every characteristic mentioned here is, to be sure, a quality the world views negatively. The world doesn’t relish poverty or mourning or hunger or persecution. The point is, those who belong to the kingdom of heaven can find blessedness — literally, “happiness” — in such things because of who their King is. Little did that crowd know that the very King of the kingdom itself was sitting in front of them, delivering this sermon. The greatest paradox of God’s kingdom-dwellers is that the epitome of the Beatitudes was standing right in from of them, beckoning them to look to him for all he requires of them.
Christ Jesus lived his life as the vicarious embodiment of the heavenly kingdom's blessing, extending mercy to every meager, miserable soul, and making peace for sinners by enduring their persecution and reproach. He was the one who panted after the law, giving himself freely to fulfill all its demands. He embraced the shame and affliction of the cross, returning his executioners’ derision with a word of absolution. Jesus is the perfectly merciful one, the one who hungered and thirsted for righteousness above all else, in order that the enemies of his Father’s kingdom might be reconciled as residents. He was persecuted and pierced, all for our sakes and on our behalf. And in him, all the blessedness, peace, mercy, comfort, and hope they could ever need or want was found.
God’s kingdom-dwellers can find comfort in the midst of mourning because of who their Comforter is — namely, “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3). They can endure hatred and wrong with meekness because of where their victory lies: not in them but in the one who gives them their inheritance and satisfies their hungering and thirsting (Matt. 5:3, 5–6). And it is because of this King who satisfies that his subjects can find hope and gladness in the midst of pain and persecution (Matt. 5:10–12).
This, of course, was a distinctive pillar upon which the early church was founded: “They left the presence of the council rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41, emphasis mine). As Paul would later express, the church’s strength was found in the fact that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). This, once again, is indicative of the paradoxical kingdom of which we are made citizens by faith. Our King delights to welcome sinners to find their dwelling in his kingdom of righteousness and blessedness, for in it they are bathed, made new, in the righteousness and blessedness he gives out of pure grace.
John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5—7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978).