The Gift Before the Demand

On November 20, 2011, I had the opportunity to preach at Tree of Life Church in Smithville, Ontario. The message was preached from Matthew 5:1-12. The audio is forthcoming—I hope you find my sermon notes below helpful.

When you’re reading your Bible, have you ever just stopped and wondered what it would have been like to be at the event being described? What would it have been like to see the Red Sea part? What would it have been like to see the sun stand still so the Israelites could defeat their enemies?

And what would it have been like to see Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount?

This message, which begins in Matthew chapter five and continues through to the end of chapter seven, is without a doubt the most comprehensive collection of Jesus’ teaching that we have.

And it’s absolutely devastating, isn’t it? This teaching wrecked its hearers in Jesus’ day and continues to do so in our own. It flipped their world upside down as Jesus described what life in the kingdom of God is like. Why? Because the sermon’s powerful ethical teaching offers us a clear understanding of what is expected of God’s people—perfection.

In your love, in your actions, in all you say, think and do, “you therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus says in Matt. 5:48.

Be perfect.

Can you imagine being part of that crowd and hearing Jesus say that God’s standard is perfection? How do you measure up?

You can’t. Read the whole thing and if you’re anything like me, you’ll be left in a little ball on the floor thinking, man, I suck! But here’s the good news: Jesus didn’t start with the demands of citizenship. He started with grace! And that’s what I want you to see today—Jesus, before He ever makes demands, gives grace.

Something we need to consider as we read the Sermon on the Mount—and particularly the Beatitudes, which we’ll look today—and the content of the sermon almost give the impression that perhaps he was standing with his hand outstretched as he preached with passion and thousands marveled as he taught.

But that’s not what we read in verse one. While some of Jesus’ listeners were present merely out of curiosity, he delivered this sermon to and for the benefit of his disciples. He was not talking to neutral observers, people on the fence. He was talking to the committed. Verse one tells us that, “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.” So this is not a massive open-air preaching type event—this is not Paul at the Areopagus, it’s more like a fireside chat. “And,” the text says, “He opened His mouth and taught them, saying”,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:1-12 ESV)

So, what does Jesus tell His disciples in the Beatitudes?

1. Jesus describes a specific type of person. Jesus opened his message by describing those to whom the kingdom belongs as blessed. This word “blessed” is an important one—far more important than we realize. One of the things many of us have been guilty of in recent years is looking at this word and equating it with “happy.”

So, “happy are those who are poor in spirit… happy are those who mourn . . . happy are the meek,” and so on. But happy doesn’t cut it. It’s not even close to the meaning that the word conveys. “Blessed” here is looking at a person in light of their relationship with God—it’s saying, “this person is approved by God.”

Think about that for a moment. “Blessed”—approved of God—are the poor in spirit. Approved of God are the meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… That’s an amazing truth, isn’t it?

Something else we need to notices is that Jesus was not talking about separate categories of people—some who are meek, others who are merciful, etc. This is a single group of people sharing similar characteristics.

Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . those who mourn . . . the meek . . . those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . the merciful . . . the pure in heart . . . the peacemakers . . . those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

Here in these verses, we see the characteristics of those who belong to the Kingdom. Poor in spirit, mourning their sin, humble, hungering and thirsting for God’s righteousness… We see this same message as we look to the Old Testament—in Psalm 51:17, David writes, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

And again, in Isaiah 66:2, we read, “All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”

These are the people who God declares are blessed. They’re men and women, boys and girls, who are painfully aware of their own bankruptcy—their sinful nature that causes them to rebel against the Lord.

They are people that know they need grace—and it is grace that Jesus freely offers. And that brings us to our next point.

2. Jesus gives a specific promise. Notice now the promise that he gives to those who are utterly broken by their sin and long for God’s righteousness—

Theirs is the kingdom of heaven . . . they shall be comforted . . . they shall inherit the earth . . . they shall be satisfied . . . they shall receive mercy . . . they shall see God . . . they shall be called sons of God.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…” And truly, this is amazing grace, is it not? Despite their sin, the poor in spirit are given the kingdom of heaven. Despite their folly, those who mourn shall be comforted. Despite their rebellion, the peacemakers will be called sons of God.

God gives this amazing promise to those who are profoundly broken by their sin, to those who place their trust in Him and in the finished work of Jesus on the cross—“My kingdom is yours,” He says, “for you are my children and I love you.”

That-is-AMAZING-grace! And that is the promise that Jesus offers—this, indeed, is inseparable from the message of the gospel! And this is the gospel: that at just the right time, while we were yet sinners—while we were hopelessly lost in our sin and rebellion against our Creator—Christ died for us, and through His death, God adopted us into His family, giving all who believe the rights and privileges that rightfully belong to Jesus alone.

This is the pattern that we see all throughout Scripture—before we’re ever given commands, we are given grace! In the giving of the Mosaic Law, God gives commandments not so that he might redeem the Israelites and make a people of them, but because He already has! Paul, in virtually every one of his letters starts reminding his hearers of what God has done—the book of Romans starts with an 11 chapter explanation of all that God has done in history and how He is restoring all things. It’s not until chapter 12 that we receive a command, which is “Therefore, by the mercies of God, be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”

And here, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, we see the same pattern. Before Jesus ever offers ethics, He offers grace. If we don’t see that then we will use the Sermon on the Mount as a hammer, a means of trying to force ourselves or others to act in a way we never could act without the grace of the Holy Spirit. To those who are weary and burdened, these words of Jesus—the grace he offers—is sweet water. To those who are proud and self-righteous, his grace is the bitterest of medicines.

Now why do I say all that? Why does it matter that we understand that the Beatitudes show us a specific type of person and gives us a specific promise?

There are three reasons:

1. We can stop trying to earn God’s approval and the approval of others. We don’t need to keep trying to earn it, because we’ve already got it! The devastating thing about grace is that it kills our hypocrisy and our desire for the approval of man. Grace destroys our plan to try to meet God’s demands out of our own will. Grace sweeps away our anxiety and shatters our tendencies toward legalism.

Legalism is the natural inclination of our hearts. You see, all of us, we all want law, not gospel. We want deeds, not creeds. We want the demands of the law—even if it’s just so we can disobey them.

But the good news of the gospel includes the fact that grace always comes before the demands of the kingdom. Jesus is not telling us what is required to earn blessing. He’s telling us what to do in light of the fact that we are already blessed! In other words, “The gifts of love always precede the demands of love.”

2. We can enjoy God. Because grace tells us that God has already approved of us in Jesus Christ, and because it sweeps away our perverse desire to “earn” and view God as a cruel taskmaster looking for a reason to punish us. Grace allows us to say, along with the Apostle Paul, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1)

3. We can persevere through duty, trial and persecution. The need for perseverance is huge—what I mean by perseverance is continuing to faithfully follow Christ, despite whatever circumstances that we face. We “finish the race,” as Paul writes throughout his letters. Look at the final two verses of our passage: 

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Only grace allows us to persevere when others “revile” and “persecute” us. We truly don’t know much about that here in North America, but I believe it’s coming. But look at the underground church in China, the persecuted church in Middle East… look all throughout history and you’ll see men and women who were able to persevere in the midst of severe trial, keeping our eyes focused on the hope that is set before us in the gospel.

The kingdom of God belongs to those who persevere, Jesus says. 

Perseverance is something that applies not only to the extraordinary but also to the everyday duties of the Christian life.

You see, if we really pay attention to what we see the Sermon on the Mount requires of us, we’ll quickly realize that there’s not a single command is possible for us to fulfill without grace.

Not one.

Let’s look at three:

1. Matt. 7:7-11:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

2. Matt 7:1-5:

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

3. Matt. 7:12:

So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

It’s ludicrous to think that we’re capable of that without grace empowering us! The burden of even something that seems insignificant is too great for us to bear.

But grace bears it for us. And it’s grace that allows us to persevere. It’s grace that allows us to persevere in prayer, trusting that the Father will give good gifts to those who ask.

It’s grace that allows us to be careful of how we judge, examining our own hearts before passing judgment on another.

And it’s grace that allows us to put others before ourselves, doing to them what we would have them do to us. No amount of will power will allow us to do these things.

And that’s why it matters that Jesus gives grace before he ever gives commands—why the gift of love always comes before the demands of love. His love is for a specific person and carries with it a specific promise that leads us to rejoice in our acceptance by God, to enjoy our relationship with God and to persevere to the glory of God.

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  • Gary Eugene Howell

    I recently found this blog and am excited to participate in it.  This is the first post for which I’ve taken the time to open with the intent to read, but when I realized that this article is nearly 2,500 words, I decided not to read it.  it’s my opinion that the purpose of a blog is for a quick short read.  This particular article could have been broken up into three days worth of posts.  Anyway, I’m still excited about participating in this blog, I just hope your articles are not all this looooong.

    • Aaron Armstrong

      Hey Gary, the typical article here isn’t 2500 words—I try to keep things around 500 words, although some go up to 1000-ish if necessary (typically book reviews). Since this post was my sermon notes from last week (I preach from a manuscript), I didn’t feel right about breaking it up. 

      Thanks for reading—have a great day!