In one of the first—and most important—messages Jesus ever delivered, He did something that helped to set the tone for His entire ministry: He challenged a paradigm.
To open His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus outlined eight specific groups of people who He called “blessed.”
But before you dig into what He taught, some context is important. Jesus began teaching during a tumultuous time for His people. Israel was occupied by the Roman empire. Violence was common. Political and religious leaders regularly called for harsh punishments for anyone who ran afoul of their authority (remember the woman caught in adultery who Jesus saved from being stoned?)
People were looking for a savior who was powerful. But, like today, many were looking toward an idea of power that Jesus came to stand against.
For centuries, those who have held the highest offices and wielded the most cultural influence were the ones capable of the strongest rhetoric. They held the most wealth and carried themselves with the most pride. Power, fame and social stature have always been directly associated with strength, wealth and influence.
Challenging this idea is how Jesus chose to begin His career as a teacher.
As the crowds gathered, He said,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Even today, this is a radical message.
Compare this to a presidential campaign ad or how a leader is marketed today. We’re taught that the most desirable leaders are the ones who are strong. Those who are vindictive against our enemies. Who are eloquent and sharp. Who aren’t afraid of a fight.
Meekness, mercy, brokenness (“those who mourn”), being a victim (or “persecuted because of righteousness”), and, in some cases, even peacemaking, are seen as liabilities—but Jesus saw them as the ultimate virtues.
And this is why Jesus’ opening words in His Sermon are still so jarring: They challenge how we think about character, success and purpose.
It’s not just at high levels of government office or in business leadership. The deception of humanity is that fame, wealth, strength, popularity, praise and accomplishments are how we should measure our own success and self-worth.
Being ‘Like God’
Human nature is to want what belongs to God. Even in the Garden of Eden, Satan tempted Adam and Eve with the promise that if they ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, they would “be like God.”
In a culture where the value of statements we make are literally measured in the amount of “likes” they receive—where how many “followers” we have is a sign of our notoriety and where celebrities are worshipped—it’s easy to forget that Jesus praised the meek, the insulted, the righteous, the grieving and poor in spirit. Culture has created platforms where we are encouraged to make our voices known, to build our own brands and draw attention to ourselves. Especially in the age of social media, outrage sells.
But Jesus wanted people to know that society has it all backward.
None of those things are inherently wrong in and of themselves, but when they become our focus, the kingdoms we end up building ultimately won’t last.
It’s a message the Church can’t forget.
Getting caught up in the rhetoric of culture wars—“defending” our faith—can make us forget that Jesus is looking for peacemakers. Being overly concerned with the things we think will make us happy can distract us from what Jesus said about the poor in spirit. Becoming obsessed with receiving recognition and praise doesn’t foster the meekness Jesus said He was after. Building our own kingdoms—of followers, churches, bank accounts—can distract us from building His.
Jesus concludes His Beatitudes by saying this: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
A Greater Reward
Jesus knew persecution was coming.
And yes, there are Christians who still face literal, unimaginable persecution every day for their faith. But opposition to these ideas doesn’t always take the form of physical threats of violence (especially for Christians fortunate enough to live in places that allow them to worship freely). Jesus understood that people will “falsely say all kinds of evil against you” and “insult you” because by living by His commands, we’re challenging a value system many people have based their entire lives on.
It’s completely disruptive to the way we are taught to understand this world—because in the end, it’s about pointing people to a Kingdom that will never pass away.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.