The Greatest Moral Discourse

The Twelve Apostles have been immortalized in Western culture. They were Simon Peter and his brother, Andrew; their partners in the fishing business, James and John, the sons of Zebedee; Philip; Bartholomew; Matthew the tax collector; Thomas; James, the son of Alphaeus; Simon the Zealot; Judas, also called Thaddaeus; and Judas Iscariot.

Jesus chose these men to accompany Him in His work and also to go out themselves to preach and teach. In fact, the word apostle means “someone who is sent out.” But before they could be sent out, Jesus had to train and teach them a great deal more.

In a place overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Jesus spent some time instructing His disciples about the fundamentals of the Way. What is popularly known as the Sermon on the Mount was the basis of that instruction.

There are two accounts in the New Testament of this core teaching. One is in chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Matthew’s Gospel, the other in chapter 6 of Luke’s. Although there are some differences between them, in the essentials they’re the same. Some scholars feel they were two different, though parallel, sermons. Others believe it is one sermon recalled in slightly different ways.

The account begins with the familiar beatitudes, or blessings. These nine statements in Matthew 5:3–12 capture the essence of the godly frame of mind. They describe the kind of outlook and attitude followers of Jesus should have.

To say that these are godly values is to say that Jesus Christ Himself lived according to them. But they are, in fact, universal spiritual truths. And most of them echo earlier writings in the book of Psalms or the Prophets.

Jesus began: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“The kingdom of heaven” is a phrase that’s peculiar to Matthew’s Gospel. Luke uses the similar “kingdom of God,” and the meaning is equivalent. Whenever Jesus is speaking about the totality of living under God’s rule, Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven.” It’s code for the state of mind of a true disciple of Christ. It also anticipates the future kingdom of heaven to be set up on the earth. The disciples came to believe that Jesus would eventually return to the earth and set up that kingdom.

So in speaking the first beatitude, Jesus was demonstrating the benefit, or blessing, that a certain frame of mind produces in connection with the kingdom of God. In this case, the practice of humility—being small in our own eyes—results in entry into the kingdom of heaven.

As noted earlier, there are echoes of these thoughts elsewhere. In the prophet Isaiah’s writings, we find a statement about God’s appreciation of the humble spirit: “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).

When humans come to themselves and gain perspective on the nature of their relationship with God, they cannot help but be humbled.

The lead-in to this passage in Isaiah helps the reader appreciate God’s sovereignty: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?’ declares the Lord” (verses 1–2).

When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”—the humble—He intended the kind of humility that is realistic, that appraises humanity’s position in relation to His sovereignty. It’s the beginning of a right relationship.