Every true Christian hungers and thirsts for holiness. This inherent inclination (which must be followed by crisis-experience) is because we are “born again” by the Holy Spirit, and it is this Spirit of holiness that dwells within every regenerate believer. That is, in other words, we want to be holy because we have the Holy Spirit living within us (emphasis mine).
This said and understood; what practical steps can we take in order to become more holy, more Christ-like in our nature, disposition, and affairs? We must, briefly stated, walk in and by the Holy Spirit in order to both avoid (when we can) and overcome (by God’s grace) the corrupting influences of Satan, sin, self, and society. Granted, sanctification is a crisis experience. Granted, as well, we must make ourselves available to the ongoing sanctifying work of the Spirit. And yet, with these truths both believed and obeyed, are there practical steps we can take in order to enjoy the Christian perfection that God, through Christ by the Holy Spirit, has for us? The answer to these broad and brief questions is a resounding “YES!” There are indeed practical steps we can take in order to enjoy the sanctifying gifts and graces that God has for us. These, in part, are found in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-9).
When we read the Beatitudes we are prone to assume that these eight statements are disconnected dictums; important but not interconnected. We might, as one example, think that we must embrace Jesus’ words about spiritual poverty (Matthew 5: 3) without appreciating how this “poverty” relates to both mourning (Matthew 5:4) and humility (Matthew 5:5). But, in fact and practice, they are related and connected. Each of these eight dictums, while individually important, provides a ladder by which (if applied) we can more effectively step up to life in Christ. Each dictum, quite naturally and effectively, is joined to the other and forms a step-by-step process for spiritual discipleship and development.
Discipleship begins, as we find in our text at verse 1, when we come to Jesus. Our Lord sat down, in a position of instruction, and his disciples came to him. There are many reasons why people come to Jesus Christ. Not all of these reasons are reasonable or biblical. However, those who are saved and hungry for God’s sanctifying work come to Jesus in order to be more effectively conformed to God’s image and likeness by the Holy Spirit. We do not simply come to avoid Hell. We do not simply come in order to enjoy more robust and wholesome relationships. We do not come so that we can be given some set of socio – psycho – pneumatic (spiritual) insights to help us live more effectively in a broken world. We come to Christ in order to become more like Christ. Period. We may, indeed, be afforded these other graces — but this is not our goal. Our goal is God, more… more… more!
Poverty of spirit (verse 3) is the beginning, middle, and end of our journey. The poverty to which our Lord refers is not only a moment of crisis. It is, in fact, the essential condition for discipleship. At all places and at all times we are poor in spirit. We need God at all times. We need to “see Jesus” at all times. We need the enlightenment and enlivening of the Holy Spirit at all times. We never escape this essential impoverishment because, as with Paul the Apostle, when we are at our weakest we are also at our strongest. God assists the impoverished, not the proud.
If we truly embrace our inherent poverty of spirit, we will naturally mourn over our condition (verse 4). One naturally leads to the other. The first (poverty) organically creates an atmosphere by which we can experience the other (mourning). When we truly know our need, and our inability to spiritually provide for ourselves, we will mourn. This, again quite naturally, leads us into a sense of deep humility (verse 5). True humility cannot be manufactured. True humility is produced by being given God-inspired insight into who we really are, what we really need, and our absolute inability (without God) to be who we are called to be and do what we are called to do. To see ourselves as entirely dependent upon Christ and his saving and sanctifying work is where humility begins. It is the great equalizer because we are all in the same boat. As G. K. Chesterton once said, “We are all in the same boat and we are all seasick.”
The “steps” of poverty, mourning, and meekness now bring us to the next rung in this ladder of Christian perfection: hunger and thirst for righteousness (verse 6). When we reach this stage of development, I think many people feel that they have “arrived.” Having been enemies of God (and resistant to God’s person, will, works, and ways) it is quite an accomplishment to come to a place where we actually “hunger and thirst” for what is right– and for He who provides this righteousness. But, of course, we have not “arrived” and we have really not “accomplished” anything. Certainly we have by God’s goodness experienced grace and growth, and grace in growth. There is more, however; and this “more” swiftly moves us into the “marrow” and “muscle” of spiritual growth.
Hunger for righteousness does not, alone, produce a pure heart (verse 8). Just because we are hungry and thirsty does not in any way suggest that we are fed and full. Hunger can just be hunger. Thirst can just be thirst. And, in this illustration, hunger and thirst only help us to once again see how very poor we are. It is right and good that we have stepped up to living the Christian life according to the teachings of our Lord (verse 2), but there is more than just the wanting and the willing. There is the doing!
The careful reader will note that, both in life and living, there is a gap between our intention to holiness (verse 6) and our achievement of holiness (verse 8). The fifth step, in this context and in our life-context, is often missing. Between the intention and the reality “falls the shadow” (T. S. Eliot)! So – and here is the proverbial meat of the matter– how do we, by God’s grace and appreciating our absolute need for the Holy Spirit’s empowerment, come to the place of the purity of heart referenced in verse 8? MERCY!
In Matthew 5:7 we read about the practical hinge of holiness. It is ESSENTIAL! To capitalize upon “hunger and thirst” alone, as if we have now arrived at the pinnacle of perfection, only highlights our poverty. To capitalize upon “pure in heart” alone, as if the gap between intention (verse 6) and fulfillment (verse 8) did not exist, only encourages pharisaical pride. Mercy, this essential step of practical discipleship, is the hinge of holiness by which poverty becomes “kingdom” and purity is truly achieved. That is, to know, experience and express mercy is the path of true purity of heart. It is the chief means by which God can be truly, and only, seen (verse 8b).
William Shakespeare tells us that the “quality of mercy is not strained.” Although I am not an Elizabethan or literary scholar, I am prone to disagree. Mercy WILL strain and stretch us. The exercise of mercy WILL cause us to struggle and to suffer. Practical mercy will again cause us to pause and count the cost of following Jesus. Mercy DOES NOT, when we exercise it toward others, feel like “gentle rain.” Mercy puts a painful but necessary end to the spiritual delusion that assumes that purity can be achieved without people and that holiness can be attained without hardship.
And this is precisely the point. The Sermon on the Mount is the New Testament “answer” to the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Matthew, the author of the Gospel, intended it this way. He is comparing and contrasting Law with Gospel as he, in the Beatitudes specifically, seeks to demonstrate the intensely personal and practical nature of Christian perfection. God, in the Gospels, did not “thunder” his expectations. He did not communicate in flashes of lightning that resulted in fear (Hebrews 12:18-19; 24-28). Instead, as seen at the beginning of the Beatitudes (and elsewhere), God in Christ by the Holy Spirit “tabernacle” among and within us and demonstrated the practical mercy of God. Christ came to the mountain, his disciples came to him without fear, and he taught them about the “blessed” life. He incarnated and inculcated the way, the truth, and the life– which is he himself. That is, in other words, he was (and is) love and mercy personified. As such, as we have experienced mercy as the practical righteousness of God, we must express mercy as the means of practical righteousness– a hinge, a bridge, a stepping-stone between intention and fulfillment.
Both space and time require that I draw these words to a conclusion. It might appear that this new vision of God (verse 8b) is the Christian’s end. She or he has attained the purpose of God through the experience and exercise of mercy. However, as we read later, this is not the case. Mercy, like poverty, is a beginning, middle, and end. Mercy is a path. Seeing God sends us into the world to be peacemakers (verse 9); a vision and a path that will AGAIN challenge us to embrace “poverty,” “humility,” and “mercy” with the absolute assurance of persecution (verse 10).
These good words of our Lord are transformative. They provide a practical means by which, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can live holy lives. At the core of this, however, is mercy. Mercy is the hinge between the intention and fulfillment of righteousness and holiness.
Image above, right: “Sermon on the Mount.” Undated mosaic. Sant’ Apollinare, Ravena.