What Kind of Kingdom Is This?
Topic: Expository Scripture: Matthew 5:1–16
Synopsis: When you were in school, did you ever have a “backwards” day, when everyone was told to come to school wearing their clothes backwards? In many ways, when Jesus began to describe the value system of the kingdom of heaven, it almost feels like he is describing a “backwards” or “upside-down” kingdom. In this message from Matthew 5:1-16, entitled What Kind of Kingdom Is This? we start out exploring 8 statements, called the Beatitudes, in which Jesus begins to lay out his Kingdom Manifesto governing life in the kingdom of heaven and defining its value system. If we take his statements seriously, our lives will never be the same again!
In John the Baptist’s ministry and in Jesus’ early ministry, both announced the coming of something called the kingdom of heaven. In his early ministry, Jesus is described as “proclaiming the gospel (good news) of the kingdom.” In earlier message, I pointed out that this phrase is used to describe the dynamic rule of God. Anywhere God (or heaven) is ruling, there his kingdom is present. But what kind of kingdom is it? What are the conditions for entering this kingdom? How will we identify the members of this kingdom? What is the value system of the kingdom? How do members of this kingdom live and act and relate to one another? Who will thrive in this kingdom and who will be left out?
I remember when our sons were in school, one day the school proclaimed a “backwards day.” Everyone was supposed to come to school with their clothes on backwards. It was all in good fun and everyone had some good laughs. But I would like to put to you this morning that as Jesus began to teach about the kingdom of heaven, what he was describing was truly a “backwards kingdom.” He turned every human instinct and every human value system backward and upside down.
From the very first words in this sermon, Jesus introduces us to this backwards kingdom; a kingdom in which the wise are foolish and the foolish are wise; the strong are weak and the weak are strong; the rich are poor and the poor are rich; the way up is down and the way down is up; the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
Before we look at the sermon, though, let’s first set the stage. We left off in our study of Matthew last week in Matthew 4:11 at the conclusion of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.
In the rest of Matthew 4, Matthew moves quickly to sketch in some key facts we need to know about Jesus’ early ministry. He is setting the stage for what will follow, laying out a broad outline which he will fill-in in the pages to come.
He first sets the events of Jesus’ ministry geographically.
Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentilesï¿½"16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light,and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”
Once again Matthew uses his prophetic fulfillment formula. This is a prophecy that fixed the locus of the Messiah’s ministry in Galilee. Matthew is continuing to show his Jewish audience that Jesus and his ministry ticked all the prophetic boxes geographically. He was born in Bethlehem. He came out of Egypt. He was identified as a Nazarene, someone from a nowhere place. And now he refers to this prophecy that the light of his ministry would dawn in an unexpected place; not in Jerusalem or Judea, but in a backwater of the Jewish nation; in Galilee on the northern edge of the nation, often dismissed by Jewish purists for being contaminated by Gentile influences.
Matthew also draws a tight connection between Jesus’ early ministry and the ministry of John the Baptist. In fact, Jesus’ early preaching is condensed and described with the exact words that Matthew used to characterize John’s preaching: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The rule of heaven, the rule of God has come to earth in a new form and a new way. Get ready!
In the remainder of chapter 4, Matthew describes the calling of the first disciples by the Sea of Galilee and Jesus’ early ministry of teaching and healing, and the amazing popularity he enjoyed as great crowds from the entire region flocked to hear him and to be healed of their illnesses and to be delivered from spiritual bondage and oppression.
All of this sets the stage for what will come next. The next 3 chapters of Matthew comprise what is often referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon has sometimes been described as a Kingdom Manifesto. If Jesus had been forming a political party, we might refer to this sermon as his platform. This is what we stand for. This is who we are. These are our values. Before we enter into our study of the sermon, let’s take a quick look at the audience. Matthew 5:1-2 tells us:
Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
Who is in the audience? Who is the “them” that he taught? His primary audience is his disciples; his followers; the ones who had answered his call and prepared themselves for this kingdom Jesus (and John) were announcing. But I believe the crowds were there as well. I picture the audience as both an inner circle of disciples and a large surrounding crowd of the interested, the curious, and the questioning. I suppose in some ways his audience resembled the audience or congregation in any church service or large church gathering. It resembled Friday mornings here at ECC. And I think Jesus had both his disciples and the crowd in mind as he taught.
As Jesus introduces his kingdom, from his opening words we are faced with the fact that this is a very different kind of kingdom. He opens with 8 statements, each beginning with the word “blessed”. They are often referred to as “the beatitudes”, a word based on the Latin word for a blessing. But what exactly are these? In his commentary on Matthew, R. T. France states that these are essentially…“commendations, congratulations, statements to the effect that a person is in a good situation.”
He goes on to say: “The sense of congratulation and commendation is perhaps better conveyed by (the word) “happy,” but this term generally has too psychological a connotation: (this term) does not state that a person feels happy, but that they are in a “happy” situation, one which other people ought also to wish to share.”
So what kind of people are commended and to be congratulated in this kingdom? Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (v. 3)
Right away we are faced with the shock factor; the upside down nature of this kingdom. The first thing Jesus tells us is that the kingdom of heaven is not for the proud. It is for the poor in spirit; those who recognize their own spiritual poverty.
I suppose we should have been prepared for this by John the Baptist’s sermon: Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. You may remember that I paraphrased John the Baptist’s preaching this way: “You have to get down to get in.”
The second statement carries forward this same truth: Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. (v. 4)
This is the mourning that accompanies poverty of spirit. It is the response of the one who has confronted his or her bankruptcy of spirit and total inability to please God and is broken-hearted because of it. This is the “broken and contrite heart” of Psalm 51. This is the experience the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 7 when he tries his hardest to be righteous by his own efforts and just can’t do it. He eventually cries out in anguish: “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me?”
The best illustration I know of this spiritual reality is the story Jesus told of the two men who went up the temple to pray. The self-righteous Pharisee stood and rattled off all of his achievements and religious performances to God. But the other man, a despised tax collector, stood far off. He was ashamed to even lift his head in God’s presence. All he could do was to blurt out the broken words, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus concluded by saying that it was the tax collector who went home justified before God. It is men like that tax collector who will enter the kingdom of heaven.
You have to get down to get in. But this is not just the way we enter the kingdom. The brokenness of spirit that is a precondition for entrance to the kingdom should characterize and forever shape us for life in the kingdom. This is not a kingdom for the proud!
Look at number three: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (v. 5)
Meekness; while the poverty of spirit and the mourning of the first two beatitudes describe the blessed man’s vertical relationship in responding to God, meekness translates that same spirit into our horizontal relationships with the people around us. There is no arrogance or presumptuousness or sense of entitlement here, but a graciousness of spirit that is the mark of true humility. This is the character quality that Jesus displayed when he left heaven’s glory to become a man and to give himself as the sacrifice for our sins. “Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus,” the Apostle Paul tells us. This is the meekness that leads us to serve others rather than demand that others serve us. Many of the dramatic examples and word pictures that Jesus will paint in succeeding verses are really just practical examples of this quality in action, as he calls us to “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile.”
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be satisfied. (v. 6)
The members of the kingdom of heaven are not obsessed with rights but with righteousness. True righteousness; heart righteousness; God’s righteousness. They hunger and thirst for it because they know they don’t have it. They are obsessed with it because they value it. It is a hunger and thirst that God promises to satisfy. He will satisfy us first by assigning to us the righteousness of Jesus Christ. And then he will satisfy us by transforming us into the image of Jesus Christ. But the blessed members of the kingdom of heaven are those who have a deep longing for righteousness above all else.
Most human arguments and human conflicts ultimately boil down to “rights” and quarrels over who is “right”. Did you ever stop to think that there is a big difference between being “right” and being “righteous”? It is no coincidence that later in this same sermon Jesus will urge us to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”
Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy. (v. 7)
There is a kind of endless cycle that is set in motion within the kingdom of heaven. We must first receive mercy. This is implicit in the opening two beatitudes as we come to God in poverty of spirit and mourning for our sins and receive the mercy of God. Receiving the mercy of God should then create within us a heart of mercy toward others. And as we extend mercy to others, we in turn experience more of the mercy of God. But we can short-circuit that cycle. If, after experiencing the mercy of God, we withhold mercy from others, we in turn, at least experientially, may find ourselves unable to access the free, life-affirming mercy of God in our struggle against our own failings. This is a deep subject which we will visit again in the pages of this sermon. For now, let me simply say, “Let mercy flow.” It is part of the very heart and soul of what it means to be a member of the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. (v. 8)
This is an echo of the earlier “hungering and thirsting for righteousness” but there is an added emphasis. I think we should underline the words “in heart”. The Pharisees prided themselves in their “purity” and took extreme measures to maintain a state of ceremonial cleanness. But their cleanness was all about the externals and never penetrated to their hearts. This will become a major recurring theme in Jesus’ teaching.
Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.
The meek and the merciful and those who are more concerned about righteousness than they are about rights: these are the character qualities necessary to make peace. These are the traits that mark the sons of the kingdom and the sons of God. These qualities not only cause us to live at peace ourselves, but equip us to engage with others to make peace. This is why churches in conflict are such a contradiction in terms and such an essential contradiction of our true calling as members of the kingdom of heaven.
And now we come to number 8. I said at the beginning that the kingdom of heaven is an upside down kingdom. It is counter-cultural in the most radical sense of that term. And we live in a world that thrives on conformity. Go along to get along. So it should not surprise us that those who live by the radical values of the kingdom of heaven will find themselves at odds with the societies in which we live. And so Jesus warns us:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The world hates non-conformists. As followers of Christ, we should be the ultimate non-conformists. And that means we will pay a price. We will be persecuted. But that should cause us to rejoice. That should be the true evidence that we are living by the values of the kingdom of heaven and not the values of this world.
I have said that there are 8 beatitudes. Yet someone who is counting might point out that verse 10 also begins with the word “blessed” which would make 9. That’s true, but the formula is different. Rather than the third person descriptions (“Blessed are those who…”), Jesus now uses the second person: “Blessed are you…”
This is a direct application and expansion of the 8th beatitude. It is as though Jesus goes from speaking to the larger crowd, and turns and directs these remarks directly to the inner circle of his followers. They may be seen to be squirming at the final beatitude: “Blessed are those who are persecuted? What kind of kingdom is this? What have I gotten myself into?” So he adds these words of explanation and encouragement:
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
As members of the kingdom of heaven, we do enjoy incredible earthly benefits. But ultimately, the final balancing of the books must wait for eternity. And in the meantime, we can take this encouragement when we are persecuted: we are in good company.
I love the way the Apostles took this teaching so literally in Acts 5:41 when they were arrested for preaching about Christ: Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.
Jesus then concludes this section of his sermon with two vivid illustrations or word pictures.
13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Jesus is still focusing his remarks here on his disciples, addressing them as “you”. I can imagine him gesturing around that inner circle as he taught that day. The first illustration highlights the distinctive character of the members of the kingdom. He doesn’t say that we are to be salt dispensers. He tells us that we are the salt. The whole value of salt lies in its saltiness, its distinctiveness. If we lose that, if we become like the world around us, we are like salt that isn’t salty; good for nothing except to be thrown out.
The second illustration takes us one step further. Light, by its very nature, is distinct from the darkness. But for light to have value, it must not only be distinct. It must be visible. A lamp that is hidden is a ludicrous concept. What good is it? The kingdom of heaven, God’s people who are ruled by God, are to be visible. They are not to hide away.
R. T. France summarizes the teaching of this section this way: “Disciples, therefore, must be both distinctive and involved. Neither the indistinguishably assimilated nor the inaccessible hermit will fulfill the mandate of these challenging verses.”
We are to be in the world and we are to let our light shine. This illustration also shows us that our witness is to be a corporate one, not just an individual one. In verse 14, Jesus says “You (plural) are to be the light (singular) of the world.” That chorus we used to sing in Sunday School doesn’t get it quite right. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…” It is not just my light that matters. It’s our light, as we live in relationship with one another and display the character qualities that Jesus is describing in these verses. This is the kingdom which will reflect glory to our Father who is in heaven.
So we have taken some significant steps in addressing the question: What Kind of Kingdom Is This? I know I have moved quickly. And this is pretty radical stuff. It is not something we can absorb quickly and add to a “to-do” list. In fact it will take a life-time to truly discover and experience the blessings God promises in his “upside down” kingdom. So I have a challenge for you. Memorize these 8 beatitudes. Commit them to memory ï¿½" and use them as fodder for meditation and reflection.
I also want to hasten to reassure you if you think I’ve moved too fast and left you confused on some points. This opening section of the sermon is a kind of seedbed, out of which will grow many of the illustrations and lessons that Jesus will give in the rest of the sermon, and I will endeavor to draw the connections back from the illustrations to the character qualities Jesus has mentioned in this opening paragraph. These illustrations will help us to understand, for example, what meekness and purity of heart look like and what it means to be merciful.
But we have already learned some very important and basic truths about the kingdom of heaven. We have learned that it is a backwards kingdom. The values and strategies for getting ahead are very much upside down when compared to the world around us. We have also learned that it is a kingdom based on character, not human power, personal achievements or earthly fame. And once again, we have found this fundamental truth to be emphasized: you have to get down to get in.
So I close with these three questions: Are you part of this kingdom?
And if you are: Does your life reflect the character qualities and inner values Jesus has described?
The third question is for all of us corporately as a church; this microcosm of the kingdom of heaven that we call ECC: Are these the values that we live by? Are these the values on display as we relate to one another and to the world around us?
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
Note: This message was preached on October 4. However, in view of the fact that Pastor Cam will not be preaching in the services on October 11, you are encouraged to take two sessions to work your way through these questions.
1. Read Matthew 4:12-25 together to set the stage for the Sermon on the Mount. How would you describe Jesus’ early ministry as portrayed in these verses?
2. What can we conclude about the audience to whom Jesus delivered this sermon? Why is keeping the audience in mind important to our interpretation?
3. In his introduction, Pastor Cam described the kingdom of heaven as a “backwards” or “upside-down” kingdom. What did he mean by that? Do you think it is an accurate description? If so, what are the implications of this fact?
4. Each of the eight statements in this opening section of the sermon begin with the word “blessed”. Some versions translate the word “happy”. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of these two translations, and what you think Jesus is trying to convey by the word.
5. Discuss each of the eight beatitudes in turn, using this outline
- Describe a person who displays this quality
- What is promised to the person who displays this quality?
- How does this value compare or contrast to a worldly value system?
- How do you see (or not see) this value being lived out in the Christian community in general and in ECC in particular?
6. Challenge: pledge together to memorize the first four beatitudes before your next meeting ï¿½" and hold each other accountable!
7. Discuss the illustration of “salt” in verse 13. What is Jesus seeking to convey with this illustration. How does in relate to verses 1-12?
8. What is Jesus teaching with the illustration of the lamp and the city on the hill? Discuss ways that the church “lets the light shine” and ways we might be tempted to “hide the lamp under a basket”?
9. How do we reconcile the command in Matthew 5:16 with Jesus’ command in Matthew 6:1?
10. (Assuming you have taken two weeks to complete these questions)…recite the first 4 beatitudes together and pledge together to memorize the next four before your next meeting.