I’ve heard a number of people talk about their goals for this New Year in 2021: goals for health and diet and exercise. Our daughter Libby asked me the other night what my goal was for how many books I’ll read in 2021. Michael Glazer wrote on Facebook that his word for 2021 was “growth”: growth with God, growth in his marriage, growth in his business, and so on — I thought that was really good! One pastor friend of mine mentioned last Sunday about how his goal for 2021 was to hit the “reset” button from 2020 and just get a totally new start this year!
But among your goals for 2021, I hope you are considering what GOD’S goal is for you this year. Now, someone may ask, “How can we know what God’s goal is for us this year?” We can know because He TELLS us in His word what His goal for us is. It’s found in Romans 8:28-29, those famous words, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God; to those who are called according to His purpose.” We all know that verse. But many of us don’t know what it goes on to say in the next verse: “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.” God is saying here, this is My goal for you: to be “conformed to the image of His Son.” This is His goal for us not only for 2021, but for every year, and for your whole existence here on this earth. God wants you to be “conformed to the image of His Son” — in other words, to become like Jesus.
But as many of us know, if a goal is going to be effective, it needs to be SPECIFIC. When John the Baptist called the people to repentance in Luke 3, he didn’t just say “repent;” he gave them some SPECIFIC things to do to repent: he told them to share food and clothes with the poor; he told the tax collectors to assess fairly; and he told the soldiers not to complain. He gave them specifics.
And so it is with God’s goal for us. He doesn’t just say: “Ok, I want you to become like Christ this year.” There is a place in His word where He SHOWS us, specifically, what it means to become like Christ. And we find this in Matthew 5:3-12, in the passage we often call “The Beatitudes.”
Now you’d think if something was really important; if it was really God’s goal for every one of us as His followers — that God would place it somewhere very prominently in His word, somewhere that it would really stick out. And that is exactly what God did with these verses, isn’t it? These are the first words, of the first sermon of Jesus, in the first book of the New Testament. The placement of these words should just scream out to us: THIS IS IMPORTANT! You don’t just put “anything” in a place like that. You put something vitally important there. And what God put here: in the first words, of the first sermon of Jesus, in the first book of the New Testament, is a sketch of the character of the ideal citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven that God wants to build into every one of us as His people: it is a sketch of the character of of Jesus Christ Himself!
I. First of all, notice: “The Picture of Our Goals” that we see here
A lot of people, when they approach the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:3-12, assume that these are just a list of 8 different qualities that God says that He will bless, and that they don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other. To them, it is just like God has just kind of randomly singled out these qualities and said, “I’ll bless this person over here who is poor in spirit; and I will bless this person over here who is mourning; and I’ll bless that gentle person over there too” — and so on – as if they are just different qualities of people that God wants to bless.
But this misses the real point of these. God does bless the people who have these qualities, but they are more related than that. They are not just 8 independent qualities – of which you might “pick one” and say, “I’ll be THAT kind of person.” No, they all relate to each other; one naturally flows into the next, as we will see over the next weeks. And more than that, when you take all of these 8 qualities together, they form a picture: a picture of the ideal citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. Notice that the term “the kingdom of heaven” is prominent here: both the first and the last Beatitude end with: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” So God has placed “the kingdom of heaven” like a “parenthesis” around these 8 qualities, as if He were saying: THIS is what the person looks like, who is an ideal citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. THIS is your goal; THIS is what I want you to look like. THIS is what I am going to “cause everything to work together” in your life to build into you.
But when you examine these qualities, you find not only are they the composite picture of the ideal citizen of the Kingdom in “theory” – you find that taken all together, they also form a picture of THE perfect citizen of the Kingdom Himself, Jesus Christ.
A few years ago, if you climbed up one of the Arbuckle Mountains in south central Oklahoma, you might, as you were climbing, stumble upon a good-sized, white rock. If you looked down, you would have seen that there was another rock right by it, and another by it, although you couldn’t really make out what they were there for. But if you were a couple of miles away, driving north on I-35, which runs right through those mountains, you could see what each of those individual rocks were there for. They were not there by accident; someone had placed them there. And from a distance you could see that all together, these white rocks formed 5 large letters which were visible from the highway: J-E-S-U-S. These weren’t just a bunch of assorted rocks that happened to be there – they were all placed there on purpose, and they spelled out the Name “Jesus” so that everyone who drove by could see it!
In much the same way, when you study the 8 character qualities of Matthew 5:3-12, you begin to see that these are not just 8 separate qualities that happen to be there, and have nothing to do with each other. No, they are like puzzle pieces that fit together to form a picture of Jesus Christ Himself!
In his book on the Beatitudes in 1955 called: The Secret of Happiness, Billy Graham wrote: “Jesus Christ is the perfect man of the Beatitudes.” Many other Bible scholars affirm the same thing. The qualities we find described here describe the personality of Jesus. You will see, as we study these 8 qualities over the next weeks, how Jesus Himself exemplifies every single one of these:
— He was “poor in spirit” – totally dependent upon God.
— He “mourned” over the sin of others.
— He was totally “meek” – which means submissive to the Father’s will, as we will see in a few weeks.
— He “hungered & thirsted for righteousness” even more than for His daily food.
— He was merciful: He saw needs, felt compassion, and always did something about it.
— He was “pure in heart” – “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin”.
— He was the ultimate peacemaker, who brought man and God together through His death on the cross.
— And He was persecuted only because of His righteousness.
The 8 qualities of the Beatitudes all together form a picture of the character of Jesus Christ.
I like to say that God has painted for us, with 8 “master brush strokes,” a perfect portrait of the character of Jesus, using these 8 Beatitudes. We don’t know what Jesus looked like physically — and it’s probably good that we don’t, because we’d have probably made an idol out of the picture. But we do know what Jesus “looked like” in His character — we see it throughout the Gospels, and it is summarized for us here in the Beatitudes. These are not just 8 random character qualities; no, together they form a composite picture of the character of Jesus Christ that God wants to build into each of our lives. Jesus is “the perfect man” – and God’s goal for us to become like Him.
— As Romans 8:28-29 says, He is working all things together that we might become “conformed to the image of His Son.”
— Ephesians 4:13 says our goal is to “attain to … a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”
— I John 3:2 says “We will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.”
Scripture repeatedly teaches us that God’s ultimate goal for our lives is to become like Christ, and the picture we find here in Matthew 5:3-12 is a portrait of the character qualities of Christ, that God wants more than anything else to build into your life this year.
II. Notice The Nature of Our Goals:
One of the things we should notice about God’s goal for us here is that they are not just “outward actions”, but inward character qualities.
Much has been made of the symbolism of Jesus going to the mountaintop here. 5:1 says “When Jesus saw the multitudes, He went up on the mountain” – that’s why we call this “The Sermon on the Mount” – He preached it up on a mountain. Well, there was another great character in Bible history who went up on a mountain, wasn’t there? Moses. Moses was THE great figure of the Old Testament. He went up on Mount Sinai and God gave him the 10 Commandments – the basis of the Law of the Old Testament. Many of those commandments were, at least on the surface, outward, external acts of obedience: don’t worship other gods; don’t make images; obey your parents; don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, etc. They were primarily a list of things to “do” – or NOT do!
But now Jesus comes in the New Testament, climbs another mountain, and gives us another revelation from God, and while He says later in this sermon, “I did not come to destroy the Law, but rather to fulfill it”, what He gives us here is more than just a “Law” of outward deeds. Notice the SPIRITUAL nature of the qualities He gave us here: for example, the first one is to be “poor in spirit” – right off the bat, we see that Jesus is not just commanding an outward “deed” of some kind, but an inward, spiritual quality. We’ll talk more next week about what being “poor in spirit” means, but suffice it to say for today that it is an inward, spiritual quality which is vital for every believer. The second one is “mourning” – again, that is an inward quality. It may express itself in some outward ways, but it is something that comes from the heart. And so it is with each of these qualities (until you come to “persecuted”, which is the response of the world to the person who has all these qualities). What Jesus gives us here is not a “Law”; it is not a “weekly assignment list” of activities to check off. These are heart qualities that God wants to build into each of our lives.
God’s goal for you this year is not just to keep up a list of legalistic duties. His goals for you are spiritual; they are for your heart. God said in Jeremiah, “I the Lord search the heart; I test the mind.”
Now, as you know I have emphasized repeatedly, spiritual disciplines are good: it is good to discipline yourself to read your Bible daily, to pray, to memorize scripture, and to go to church, and so on. But we also need to realize that what God wants to do in your life is not just a list of activities. He wants to change your heart. And that is what these eight qualities in the Beatitudes address; they are not merely external activities; they are spiritual, they are internal, they are of the heart.
When we were in North Carolina, our church had a partnership with a church in Romania, and Cheryl & I took a trip there and met the pastor and his family, whom we love. One year, the first Monday of the New Year the pastor’s daughter, Sara, who is a friend of ours on Facebook, shared her New Year’s goal on Facebook. It was a little sentence that she wrote neatly on a chalkboard and she took a picture of it, and made it her cover photo on Facebook. It said: “Be kind and gentle.” That was her goal for the year: to be kind and gentle. When I saw that I thought, THIS is the kind of goal that God has for us here in Matthew 5 (being gentle IS in fact the 3rd Beatitude!). We need to realize that His most important goal for us is not to run so many miles, or save so much money, or lose so many pounds. Rather God’s goals for us are character goals: He wants us to BE the kind of person that He shows us here in Matthew 5:3-12.
God’s most important goal for you this year is not to lose 25 pounds. Now, losing 25 pounds would surely be good for some us — me included! — but losing a certain number of pounds is not God’s most IMPORTANT goal for you. God’s most important goals for your life in 2021 don’t have anything to do with numbers — they deal with your HEART. More than anything else, God’s goal is for your character to be conformed to the image of Christ, which we see pictured for us here in Matthew 5:3-12.
III. His Goals Are The Real Measure of Our Success
Because these 8 qualities are God’s goal for our lives, they are our ultimate measure of success. One of the problems that many of us have today — perhaps MOST of us — is that we have been shooting at the wrong targets when we think about success.
One of the human drama stories that came out of the Olympics several years back (in 2004) was the American sharpshooter who just dominated the 50 meter rifle competition. With one shot to go, he had a huge lead. So he lined up his final shot, took aim, squeezed the trigger, and he hit the bulls’ eye – but unfortunately, he hit the bulls’ eye on the wrong target! It was a great shot – but since he hit the wrong target, he got nothing for it, and plunged from 1st place in the competition to 8th and finished totally out of the medals. It was so ironic – he actually hit what he was aiming at — but he was aiming at the wrong target!
That’s such a sad story to me — but what a metaphor for what so many people are in fact doing with their lives today! Francis Chan wrote in his book, Crazy Love: “Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.”
That is exactly what so many people are doing: living their lives being “successful” in the wrong things. So many of us are going to get to the end of our lives and realize that we’ve been shooting at the wrong target! We’re going to realize when it’s too late, that life wasn’t about how much money you could make; we’re going to realize too late that life wasn’t about how big your house was, or “who had the most toys”; that life wasn’t about how many people like you, or how high you can climb up the ladder of your organization – we’re going to realize too late that we’ve been “shooting at the wrong target,” and that God’s goal for our life was to become conformed to the Image of Jesus Christ.
Sadly, many of us even in the church are missing the target. We are aiming for the wrong goals and measuring ourselves by the wrong standards of success. Many churches over the years have pointed to numerical goals as the measure of our success in church (many Baptists have called them the “Baptist B’s”): the number of baptisms, buildings, budgets, and “bottoms” in the pews. But we need to realize that in the end we are not going to be judged as a church by the “Baptist B’s”, but by the Be-Attitudes — by how much we in the church have become like Jesus Christ in our character. Our real success is not measured by whether we have a new building; our real success will be measured by whether we have these new attitudes: by whether we are humble; whether we mourn over sin; whether we submit to God’s will; whether we are hungry for righteousness — THESE things are God’s measure of our success in His Kingdom. Do we look like the picture of Jesus we find drawn out for us in Matthew 5:3-12? THAT is the target we are supposed to be shooting at!
That’s why we are beginning this study today, and will continue it over the next 8 or 9 weeks. We need to know what God’s goal for our life is, so that we can be “shooting at the right target.” So we’re going read these words each week; we’re going to study together what they mean — and I hope you’ll make it a priority to memorize them so that you’ll have them in your heart and mind all year. God’s Spirit will use that scripture to help build these qualities into your life. And then measure your success this year by how much like these qualities you become — because that is how GOD will measure your success!
Many of us need to begin see our lives in light of what God is doing to build these qualities into us. Some of what we consider to be the worst times of our lives, are actually some of the BEST, from God’s standpoint, because He is using these difficult times to make us more like Christ, which is His ultimate goal for us.
For example, when I graduated from seminary, I expected that some great church was going to immediately call me, and I’d be off and running and “successful” with all the “Baptist B’s” in no time! But I was in for a surprise. Months went by after my graduation, and I did not have a call from a church. In the mean time, we had our first first son, Paul, and we were struggling to make ends meet on just a part-time job. It was a very dark and difficult time. In fact, up until my sickness in Louisiana in 2012, it the most trying time of our lives. And at one point, of course, I asked God why. Why didn’t I have a church yet? Why were we going through these hardships? And one day in my daily Bible reading, He showed me Romans 8:28-29, that His ultimate purpose was to make me like Christ — and He showed me these 8 Beatitudes, how these are the character qualities of Christ that He wanted to build into me — and He showed me how He was using the difficult circumstances in my life right then to build those character qualities more into my life:
— I was poor monetarily, but it helped make me dependent upon God — poor in spirit.
— I was more sensitive to sin in my life, because I didn’t want anything to come between me and God’s will.
— I used to pray only for my own needs, but while I was waiting for a church, I had started to pray for other seminary student friends who were in the same situation that I was, so He used that time to make me more merciful towards others.
And on and on. In fact, God showed me that day how every single one of these 8 Beatitudes were more present in my life than ever before, because of this difficult time that we were going through. So although from a worldly standpoint, it was one of the worst times of my life, from a spiritual standpoint, it was one of the best, because God used it to build the character of Christ into my life in a greater way than ever before!
The same thing happened in Louisiana in 2012. In February of that year I got sick, I ended up losing my job, I lost my church, we lost our house, and we had to sell many of our possessions — from a worldly standpoint it was a time of darkness and defeat — but from a spiritual standpoint it was, again, one of the best times of spiritual growth I have ever had! So from God’s perspective, it was one of the most successful times in my life, because in my character I was becoming more like Christ — and becoming like Christ is the way that God measures our “success.”
One of the most important things you can learn this year, is that these Beatitudes are how God ultimately measures your “success.” Your success this year will not be measured by how much money you make, or how “popular” you are, the kind of house or car you drive, or how big this church or your own personal ministry gets. God will measure your success this year by how much like Jesus you become — and we need to know that He will gladly sacrifice any of these other things in your life, if it will build the character of Christ into you in a greater way.
Some of us today need to view some episodes in our lives in a different way. Maybe you’ve looked at a time in your life when you lost money, or lost friends, or suffered physically, or whatever — as times of “defeat” or “failure.” But God wants you to see that from HIS perspective, these were actually, very successful times, because of the character He was building in your life. From God’s perspective:
— If you become more humble as a result of being in a situation — that is not a defeat; it’s a victory.
— if you become more dependent upon Him as a result of a situation — that is not a defeat, but a victory.
— If you learn to mourn over your sin more because of a situation — then that situation is not a defeat — it is a victory! Because God does not measure “victories” and “successes” the way that we often do. He measures our real success on how much our character is becoming like Jesus Christ.
So today we need to understand what God is doing. We need to realize what His goal for our lives is, so that we can be “shooting at the right target” for success, and “work together with Him” in what He is trying to accomplish in our lives.
So God’s goal for your life in 2021 may not be what you thought it was. His goal for you this year may not be that you have an “easy life”, or what a lot of people would call “success.” His goal for you is to become conformed to the character of Jesus Christ that we see here in Matthew 5:3-12. So next Sunday, we’re going to start with Beatitude #1,THE single most foundational quality of the Christian, absolutely essential to enter the Kingdom of Heaven or to grow in it, found in Matthew 5:3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
But for now, let’s bow our heads together …
— As we bow together, would you think about your goals for this year: and if you haven’t done it already, ask God to help you make HIS goal your most important measure of success this year: not your money, or your health, but becoming more like Christ in your character.
— Ask Him to use these next weeks to build these things into your life.
—Many of us need to ask God to help us memorize these 8 Beatitudes, so His Spirit can use them to help build that character into your life.
— Some of us need to pray about a life situation that you’ve thought was/is a failure — but God is showing you that there are some things about this that are actually good, because He is building the character of Christ more into your life.
— If you’re in a difficult situation right now, pray about how God can use this to build His character in you through it.
— Most importantly, maybe you can’t say that God is working these things into your life, because you have never really committed to follow Jesus as your Lord & Savior. If you’re ready to do that for the very first time, why don’t you pray with me right now …