Saturday, February 12, 2011

New Testament Lesson #8 The Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 5


"And seeing the multitudes, [Jesus] went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him..." (Matt. 5:1) 

Why did "seeing the multitudes" result in Jesus going up into a mountain?  Generally speaking, in the scriptures, a mountain is an outdoor temple.  The temple at Jerusalem had been defiled by moneychangers, so the mountain in this case may have been more sacred.  Jesus was setting himself apart, into a more holy place, where those who were really seeking truth would have to put forth the effort to come to him, so he would be left teaching only "disciples."

"The English word 'disciple' fails to convey the richness of the relationship between a rabbi and his [followers] in the first century...The essence of the relationship was one of trust in every area of living, and its goal was to make the [disciple] like his rabbi in knowledge, wisdom and ethical behavior" (Stern, p. 23).

It was to this devoted audience that Jesus shared the powerful Sermon on the Mount.  He began the sermon by offering to these disciples instructions for achieving a state of blessedness.  The word used for blessed (makarios in Greek, asher in Hebrew) "means 'blessed,' 'happy,' and 'fortunate' all at once, so that no one English word is adequate" (Stern, p. 23)


President Harold B. Lee said,  "In his Sermon on the Mount the Master has given us somewhat of a revelation of his own character, which was perfectand in so doing has given us a blueprint for our own lives...

"In that matchless Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has given us eight distinct ways by which we might receivejoy. Each of his declarations is begun by the word 'Blessed'...These declarations of the Master are known in the literature of the Christian world as the Beatitudes...They embody in fact the constitution for a perfect life."

The Beatitudes are related and interwoven, and therefore, different interpretations and explanations of them can each be correct, and can complement each other.  My favorite analysis of the meaning of the Beatitudes is this one, offered by Camille Fronk [Olson]. 

"The Holy Spirit’s role in transforming us into Christlike beings is outlined in the eight Beatitudes. The first four teach how we go from being poor in spirit to being 'filled with the Holy Ghost.'

  1. Blessed are the poor in spirit. I first recognize that I am lacking the Spirit, bankrupt in the Spirit, or poor in Spirit. Considered alone, lacking the Spirit is not a blessing. The Book of Mormon, however, provides the missing piece in Christ’s instruction: 'Blessed are the poor in spirit who come unto me' (3 Nephi 12:3; JST Matthew 5:3). Only when I come unto Christ with my realized need can I hope to eventually be filled with His Spirit.
  2. Blessed are they who mourn. Turning to Christ when I lack the Spirit illuminates weaknesses and sins that caused the Spirit to depart from me in the first place. That discovery causes me to mourn. Feeling 'godly sorrow' (2 Corinthians 7:10) because my shortcomings bring pain to the Savior encourages me to sincerely repent. Through the Holy Spirit, the Lord communicates when my repentance and mourning have been accepted, and I am comforted by Christ’s forgiveness.
  3. Blessed are the meek. Having newly tasted of His grace, I become meek and teachable. In this state, I am desirous to obey the Lord in whatever He asks. I will gladly go where He asks me to go, cheerfully say what He asks me to say, and have the faith to become whatever He tells me I am capable of becoming.
  4. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness. That spirit of obedience leads me to hunger and thirst after righteousness, a desire that is answered with the very gift I longed for from the beginning: I am filled with His Spirit (see JST Matthew 5:3–6; 3 Nephi 12:3–6). Notice again that I am filled with the Spirit only after I recognize my need for the Spirit’s presence in my life, sincerely repent of subsequently illuminated shortcomings, and become meek in willingness to accept and do whatever the Lord may require.
"Now 'filled with the Holy Ghost' (3 Nephi 12:6), I am in a position to change and become more Christlike. The fruit of the Spirit can now develop in me, enabling me to reflect the light of the Savior in everyday living. The fruit is thereby identified in the concluding four Beatitudes.

  1. Blessed are the merciful. Filled with the Spirit, we naturally feel merciful toward those around us. We have just experienced the Savior’s mercy and we want to show that mercy to people who frankly don’t deserve it any more than we did. As an example, we will graciously allow a driver to bulldoze her way into our lane of the freeway without taking offense or retaliating. In short, we feel a natural inclination to be kind whatever the circumstances when we are filled with the Spirit.
  2. Blessed are the pure in heart. Our hearts are so pure when we are filled with the Spirit that we see God everywhere we look. We not only see Him in nature but in neighbors and coworkers, people whose weaknesses and faults are all too apparent. Being filled with the Spirit, we find ourselves treating them with respect and reverence. We listen more attentively, show consideration for their responsibilities and time constraints, and express genuine appreciation for their contributions to the overall good of the family or company.
  3. Blessed are the peacemakers. We become peacemakers, or as Isaiah described them, those who 'publish peace' (Isaiah 52:7; see also Mosiah 15:14–18). We want to share the glorious good news so that others can be filled with the selfsame Spirit. When we are filled with the Spirit, we are 'ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh [us] a reason of the hope that is in [us]' (1 Peter 3:15).
  4. Blessed are all they who are persecuted for my [God’s] name’s sake. Finally, we can withstand any manner of persecution that the adversary may inflict upon us (see Matthew 5:7–12; 3 Nephi 12:7–12). Being filled with the Spirit, we cannot be offended even when others intend evil against us. We simply turn the other cheek and 'overcome evil with good' (Romans 12:21).
"Completing this cycle once does not immediately make us like Christ, but it does bring us closer. We know more about the Spirit and can discern sins and shortcomings that were not apparent before, and then the cycle repeats. With such divine tutelage and a willingness to endure to the end, we are gradually becoming like our Savior! We are changing from the inside out! We are learning to love as He loved—to receive the greatest fruit of the Spirit, charity, 'the pure love of Christ' (Moroni 7:47).  (Fronk, P. 87-103) 

The first four Beatitudes involve the inward workings of our souls, specifically our relationship with Christ, and the second four involve the outward manifestations of that relationship, our actions in relation to others.  The Beatitudes, therefore, can be seen as the instructions for living the two great commandments, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind...and thy neighbor as thyself."  As we develop that vertical relationship (our relationship with God), we are grounded and better able to manage our horizontal relationships (our relationships with people).

(President Lee's interpretation is slightly different than Sister Fronk's.  He sees "Meek" as having to do with relationships with others, and "Pure in Heart" having to do with our relationship with God.  Of course, both explanations are completely accurate because gospel principles cannot really be compartmentalized, but all weave and flow together.  [Follow the link in the "Sources" below to read his interpretation.])


Of course, one of the disciples listening intently to the Sermon on the Mount was the apostle Peter.  "Peter was one of the greatest of men.  It is true that the New Testament recounts some mortal weaknesses, but it also illustrates that he overcame them and was made strong by his faith in Jesus Christ" (Bible Dictionary).  We can follow the record of Peter's life and see that he set an example as one who learned and then truly lived the Beatitudes.

Upon receiving the miracle of the fish at his call to the Apostleship, Peter immediately realized that he was spiritually poor in comparison to the Master and, mourning over his sins, he "fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord" (Luke 5:8). 

Despite his great catch, he did not regard his business as more important than the Lord's, but meekly he "straightway" left his  net [which, of course, was completely loaded with fish], and followed him (Matt. 4:19). 

It is clear that Peter hungered for righteousness, since he followed Christ everywhere he went.  When Jesus went to a solitary place to have time alone with his Father, "[Simon Peter] and they that were with him followed after him.  And when they had found him, they said unto him, All men seek for thee" (Mark 1:35-37).  Peter even tried to walk on water as he saw the Savior do, and with the Savior's help, he succeeded (Matt. 14:29-31).

So Simon Peter developed a relationship with his Savior, such that when he was asked, "Whom say ye that I am?  [he] answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.  And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 16:15-16).

Peter was the one who asked, "Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven" (Matt. 18:21-22), after which he related the parable of the unmerciful servant, so that Peter might understand the importance of being merciful

After the resurrection, Christ returned to the earth to teach his disciples even more, at which time he gave Peter the imperative to, "Feed my sheep" (John 21:15-17).  Peter spent the rest of his life spreading the gospel of peace.

Along with the other early saints, Peter endured persecution.  He was imprisoned (Acts 12:6), and "it is generally believed that he suffered martyrdom at Rome" (Bible Dictionary).


Of course, progressing through the Beatitudes is not a one-time event.  We must continually, day by day, recognize our weaknesses, meekly learn the lessons set out for us, mourn for our sins of the last 24 hours, seek for greater righteousness, exercise mercy, apply for the purification of our hearts through the Atonement, and share the gospel with others.  If we are persecuted by men, or chastised by the Lord, or smacked down by life, we must endure it well for Christ's sake.

In the remainder of chapter 5, Christ elaborates on the necessity of living the Beatitudes in order to be "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world."  He gives examples of ways in which our relationships with others will be different if we live the Beatitudes, rather than the letter of the Law of Moses.  If we "love [our] enemies, bless them that curse [us], do good to them that hate [us], and pray for them which despitefully use [us], and persecute [us]"--in other words, if our attitudes and actions regarding our fellow men come from the Lord's constitution for a perfect or charitable life, rather than as a reaction to what others do--"[we] may be the children of [our] Father which is in heaven" (v. 44). We will clearly recognize that he loves them as he loves us, taking care of their needs for sun and rain just as he does ours (v. 45).  And then he delivers his famous injunction, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (v. 48).

“I am convinced that the Master was not merely thinking relatively when he said, ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’...Would you suppose the Savior was suggesting a goal that was not possible of attainment and thus mock us in our efforts to live to attain that perfectness? It is impossible for us here in mortality to come to that state of perfection of which the Master spoke, but in this life we lay the foundation on which we will build in eternity; therefore, we must make sure that our foundation is laid on truth, righteousness and faith. In order for us to reach that goal we must keep God’s commandments and be true to the end of our lives here, and then beyond the grave continue in righteousness and knowledge until we become as our Father in Heaven."  (Lee)

I like this analogy by C.S. Lewis:  "I find a good many people have been bothered by...our Lord's words, 'Be ye perfect.'  Some people seem to think this means 'Unless you are perfect, I will not help you;' and as we cannot be perfect, then, if He meant that, our position is hopeless.  But I do not think He did mean that.  I think He meant 'The only help I will give is help to become perfect.  You may want something less: but I will give you nothing less" (C.S. Lewis, p. 1065). 

Mr. Lewis then compared the Lord to a dentist; you may go to a dentist only wanting relief from a toothache, but the dentist is never satisfied with just that.  He insists on going over the whole mouth, and he will find other teeth that have problems which he will want to fix as well.  He won't stop until everything is in perfect order.  Give a dentist an inch, he said, and he'll always take a mile.  And so it is with Jesus.  He won't be satisfied with us until we are completely overhauled and fully developed.

Each Sabbath we have time for reflection on Christ during the Sacrament.  What a great time to check our spiritual progress against his Constitution, the Beatitudes!  Here is a little scripture bookmark that you can print out and use to guide your thoughts during the Sacrament.


David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary 

Camille Fronk, "The Mission of the Holy Ghost:  From Believing to Becoming," Salvation in Christ: Comparative Christian Views, ed. Roger R. Keller and Robert L. Millet (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005)

Harold B. Lee, "Striving For Perfection," Teachings of the Presidents of the Church:  Harold B. Lee

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, quoted in The C.S. Lewis Bible


Anonymous said...

Lovely thoughts. You have a gift and we are all grateful you share it.

Indra Burgess said...

Today is Missionarie´s day for writing and receiving mail. I've been 'ponderoing' on this subject for months now, but it wasn't until today that I deceided to look into your blog for more insights, thanks so much for giving me the subject to write about to my son in the mission, I'm pretty sure it will be of great help to him also, for me is much greater!!

Unknown said...

I have been very blessed in my life and rewarded with good friends and good health. I am grateful and happy to be able to share this. See the link below for more info.


Anne Brown said...

Beautiful insights. Thank you for opening these scriptures up to me. I’ve always seen them as individual insctruction rather than a process to grow in the Spirit. I love what you’ve shared here.

Sharon said...

I just want you to know that even though the curriculum has changed so the lessons may not line up exactly as they did with the previous Sunday School manuals, I still love to come to your site each week and read your insights. They help me personally, help with out family discussions, and help when I teach Sunday School twice a month.

Gaye said...

Thank you Nancy once again for the uplifting insights. I’ve never thought about the beatitudes in this way,really makes sense to me to divide them up like that. Thanyou .