The Gospels begin with the announcement of the kingdom. It is proclaimed by angels (Luke 1:11, 26), anticipated by the Magi (Matt. 2:1-6), and preached by John the Baptist (Matt. 3:1-3). The miracles that Christ performed in Galilee prior to the giving of the Sermon on the Mount were the credentials of the Messiah-King. They were the proof of His authority and ability to define acceptability for the kingdom. The Beatitudes must be understood in the light of Jesus’ offer of the messianic kingdom to Israel in fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises concerning that kingdom. Yet the immediate establishment of this kingdom was contingent upon Israel’s acceptance of Christ as its king. The message of the King was, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.(Matt. 4:17).
In order to accomplish the Sermon’s purpose of bringing the multitude to conviction, Christ rejects the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Mosaic Law. In restating and redefining Israel’s laws, Jesus is teaching that the law cannot save (Matt. 5:48; Gal 3:19f; Rom 7:14). The internal spiritual qualities Jesus describes in the Beatitudes are in stark contrast to the so-called righteous acts of the scribes and Pharisees, who focused on external characteristics. The Beatitudes illustrate that the standard of righteousness that God demands must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20). The irony is that those who could not fulfill the requirements of an external Pharisaical code can, through faith, satisfy the conditions of a holy God.
Some teach that the Sermon on the Mount is a summary of the gospel specifying the requirements for salvation. But the gospel is not presented. There is no invitation to accept Christ. Others believe that the Sermon on the Mount is a message to the church. But the concept of the church is still future (Matt. 16:18). The primary argument of Matthew is the presentation of the King and the coming Kingdom. This view confuses Israel with the church. And many argue that the Sermon defines the rules by which Christ would govern in the Kingdom. Yet there is persecution of believers (5:11-12). Believers are salt and light in a wicked world (5:13-16); they are to pray for the coming of the kingdom (6:10); they are warned of false prophets (7:15).
The Beatitudes are an interim message of the kingdom presented to reveal the standard of morality, which is evidenced in the life of one who has repented and is therefore qualified to enter into that kingdom. If the kingdom were only a spiritual kingdom, the proclamation of a coming kingdom would have been without particular significance. Since Israel rejected both the King and His kingdom, the same message will be directly applicable again, when the same “gospel of the kingdom” is proclaimed once more to herald the approach of the King and His literal kingdom prior to the Second Advent.
The Beatitudes are not requirements for repentance. They are evidences of repentance as contrasted with the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of the Pharisees. In the Beatitudes, Jesus presents eight universal, timeless qualities of people who are blessed. For each trait, a present blessing is pronounced and a future blessing is promised. Blessed means “happy” or “fortunate” (Psa. 1:1). The eight Beatitudes are paradoxes. God’s blessings are diametrically opposed to the world’s values (pride vs. humility, materialism vs. spirituality, power vs. service, purity vs. immorality). Our ways are not His ways (Isa. 55:8). The Pharisees sacrificed a relationship with Christ for the praise of men. Godly traits are rejected by the world, resulting in persecution.
The primary focus of the Beatitudes is that there has always been only one standard as the basis of fellowship with a holy God—righteousness which is by faith alone. The problems today are the same as when the Beatitudes were written. People are religious, but they don’t know God. The application of the Beatitudes is twofold: 1) Unbelievers must believe in Jesus Christ to fulfill God’s righteousness requirements for salvation. 2) Believers must walk in the Spirit (1 John 1:5-10; Gal. 5:22-23) to produce the qualities of righteousness specified in the Beatitudes. The law is fulfilled in those who walk in the Spirit (Rom. 8:4), who will then be salt and light to the unbelieving world (Matt. 5:13-16) as they manifest godliness and proclaim the gospel. The emphasis of the Beatitudes is on an internal metamorphosis (Rom. 12:1-2). As opposed to the Pharisees’ desire to honor themselves, the qualities of the Beatitudes, when manifest in the life of a believer, glorify and reveal Jesus Christ.