Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
Epistle: 1 John 3:1-3
Lesson: Revelation 7:(2-8) 9-17
Psalm: Psalm 149
CLB Commentary – Rev. Brent Juliot
The Gospel text for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 5:1-12, is extremely familiar—both to the preacher and to the congregation. It’s the Beatitudes, which form the introduction to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Our familiarity with it might make it more difficult to hear in a fresh way, particularly for the preacher. But the Word of God, though rock-solid and unchanging, is also fresh and new every time we turn to it, as the Holy Spirit enlightens believers to understand it.
Before we do anything, the key question to ask about this passage is, what is it? Is Jesus giving us the law or the gospel here? Or is it both? Or is it a set of instructions for Christian living, sometimes called the Third Use of the Law? (See CLB Catechism, question 21, part 3: “The law guides me on how I should live, after God by His Spirit has revealed Himself to me.”)
Many have viewed and preached the Beatitudes as a standard God sets for us. A little research turns up such descriptions of the Beatitudes as, “standards of Christian righteousness to be pursued for entrance into the kingdom” and “ethical entrance requirements.” This suggests that these attitudes and behaviors are necessary for salvation. Of course we know that “works righteousness” is not biblical teaching. But, understanding that Jesus is primarily teaching people who are already his disciples here, it may still tempting for us to see the attitudes and behaviors as warranting (even earning) the promises that follow in each beatitude. We may see here this formula for living a blessed Christian life: “Do this, be this, and then you’ll have these results.”
But the scholar Lenski insists, “The Beatitudes are pure gospel.” They are blessings pronounced upon God’s children. We who know Christ are wonderfully blessed by God, even as we are despised by unbelievers (verses 10-12).
Viewing the Beatitudes as gospel means that they are a description (not a prescription) of the true Christian believer and the blessings associated with the grace of God toward sinners. These blessing are associated with the Christian life, not because of our good living, but because of Christ in us.
The practical challenge of preaching the Beatitudes, and of commenting on them here, is that there is so much that could be said about each of them, so many other passages of Scripture that could be drawn upon to illuminate each beatitude. One approach might be an eight-part sermon series, if the congregation and pastor have the patience for it.
If this is handled as one text and one message, it could easily turn into a string of eight three-minute mini-sermons, thus guaranteeing the “shot-gun” preaching effect, of scattering many good and seemingly unrelated ideas, while hitting no target.
So it is helpful to think of and preach the Beatitudes as a whole. It is not a wish for blessing, but a joyful statement of fact—“Oh, the blessedness of those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek…!” Each beatitude presents a true paradox. Together, they cover the whole of our Christian living, the first four in relation to God, the last four in relation to other people. Lenksi, again, points out that the Beatitudes are not a string, but a circle: The last, like the first, bestows the whole kingdom, and it does so now.