A large store posted its core values where everyone could see them. They included friendliness and good customer service, but one clerk was providing particularly surly and reluctant service. When a customer pointed out, as gently as he could, that she was not living up to those core values, she snapped that she considered them as just words on paper.
The Beatitudes are the core values of the church. There is probably no other passage in the New Testament that is so widely known and admired. Some people even hold them up as the be all and end all of Christianity. We don’t need Paul’s epistles, they say, because he’s such a scold. He’s always getting in people’s faces about stuff that doesn’t seem like any of his business. They say, we don’t need to believe that Jesus is God. All we need is the simple gospel contained in the Beatitudes. Jesus was a great teacher, they say, and that ought to be enough for anyone.
But it is not enough to post the Beatitudes, to love them, to defend them, to claim them. If they are more than just words on paper we need to believe them. The test of how much we really believe them is how well we live them. They may be simple, but they are very difficult for us to live, because they run counter to all of our most basic instincts.
We can understand the Beatitudes as a summary of the gospel, much as the Ten Commandments are a summary of the law. In neither case can we embrace them to the exclusion of the rest of Scripture. Speaking of the Ten Commandments, nine are prohibitions. All of them are commandments, not options. They are law. They must be obeyed. When any law is broken, it entails certain penalties. In American law, the penalties can include fines, imprisonment and other unpleasantness. In the Old Testament, God instituted a curse for those who broke the law. Some time, I challenge you to read Leviticus 26. It contains a blessing, 11 verses long (3-13), for obeying the law and a curse, 32 verses long (14-45), for breaking it
Now, what happens if a law-breaker repents and seeks to return to God? The law makes provision for an elaborate system of sacrifices. Once a year, there was a Day of Atonement. All of this served to remind people of their sin and its contrast with God’s holiness. And it was mostly for the benefit of individuals. But the curse applied to the community as a whole. What provision was there under the law if the whole nation turned its back on God and wanted to return to him? There wasn’t any. That is a very important thing to understand. According to Leviticus 26:40-42, they could only fall back on God’s covenant with Abraham.
Under the law, there was no provision for the community to return. Under the law, there was no grace. Grace was found only in the older covenant with Abraham. Paul tells us that Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law in order that the blessing of Abraham might come not only to his physical offspring, to whom the covenant was given in the first place, but also to repentant Gentiles, who are Abraham’s spiritual offspring. It is Jesus’ fulfillment of the law that makes that blessing possible, because everyone else who has ever walked the earth, including everyone who has ever named Jesus as Lord, has been a law-breaker, not a law keeper.
What a contrast when we turn back to the Beatitudes. If the law tells us how to earn salvation by doing or not doing certain things, the Beatitudes tell us how to earn blessings. Salvation itself is a gift. We don’t often talk about earning things in the New Testament, but I want you to notice something. The first Beatitude says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Does it say only the poor in spirit are saved? No. Anyone who calls on the name of Jesus is saved. Those who are saved and poor in spirit get a particular blessing that other saved people forfeit. No one is poor in spirit by nature. All of us are pretty full of ourselves by nature: self-centered, proud, if only proud of our poor self-image. Getting saved does not automatically make that change in anyone. All the rest of the Beatitudes follow the same pattern and promise special blessings to believers who develop certain parts of their personality and behavior.