Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth

Sermon on the Mount by Deborah Coombs
      From a mountain near Capernaum, the celebrated "Sermon on the Mount" was preached by our Lord Jesus, recorded in chapters 5–7 of Matthew’s Gospel. In the opening words blessings ("beatitudes") are pronounced on those exhibiting certain virtues, with the affirmation in 5:5, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (NKJV).
      The term "blessed" is translated from the Greek makarios, signifying those who are "fortunate" and consequently "happy" due to having received a blessing. The blessed ones in this verse are the "meek" (praeis), namely those whose strength is under control and is exercised in a gentle, kind, benevolent manner. And in what way are they blessed? "For they shall inherit the earth."
      This statement has generated a great deal of confusion and debate over the centuries, especially when wrenched from its context and interpreted through the distorted lens of popular premillennial theories. But by removing our 21st-century spectacles and viewing the words of Jesus from the perspective of his original audience, the message becomes much clearer.
      The blessings of verses 4-9 are bracketed between the repeated blessing of verses 3 and 10: "For theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Matthew alone employs the expression "the kingdom of heaven," which is synonymous with "the kingdom of God" (cf. 19:23-24), underscoring the heavenly or spiritual nature of God’s kingdom. This spiritual kingdom, equated with the church that Jesus promised to build (16:18-19), was to be realized within the lifetimes of the Lord’s immediate disciples (3:2; 4:17; 16:28; cf. Mark 1:15; 9:1). Not long after these affirmations were made, the church of Christ was established (Acts 2:37-47) and its members are recognized as citizens of the heavenly kingdom (Colossians 1:13; 4:11; Ephesians 2:19; Philippians 3:20; etc.).
      The promised blessings of Matthew 5:3-10, rather than being withheld from God’s people for millennia into the future, are most certainly available to citizens of the Lord’s kingdom in the here and now. They shall be comforted (2 Corinthians 1:3-4), they shall be filled with righteousness (Romans 1:17; 5:17), they shall obtain mercy (Romans 11:30-31), they shall see (comprehend) God with purity of heart (John 1:18; 14:7-9), and they shall be called sons of God (Galatians 3:26). To then interpret the promise of Matthew 5:5 as something that is unavailable until the distant future in a yet-to-be-established earthly kingdom is to miss the point!
      Note how the Lord goes on to describe the future dwelling place of his faithful ones: "for great is your reward in heaven . . ." (v. 12, emp. added), i.e. the spiritual realm where the heavenly Father resides (vv. 16, 34). Note also the contrast Jesus makes further into the discourse: "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (6:19-21, emp. added).
      What, then, is meant by the statement, "For they shall inherit the earth"? Throughout the sermon familiar sentiments are echoed from the Hebrew scriptures which the Jewish listeners could relate to and readily understand. The audience to whom Jesus was speaking would have recognized the words of Matthew 5:5 as a quotation of Psalm 37:11a. If we want to hear the message as they heard it, we need to appreciate the significance of this familiar passage.
      Traditionally the 37th Psalm is attributed to David and generally understood as a prophetic exhortation for the Jewish captives in Babylon. The Hebrew term arets occurs throughout the text, although it is not consistently translated in many of our English versions. Sometimes it is rendered "land" and sometimes it is rendered "earth." But by recognizing the fact that it was their homeland from which these exiles were separated, it is apparent that it was "the land" in which they longed to dwell (vv. 3, 29b) and "the land" to which they would return (vv. 9, 11, 22, 29a, 34). From this perspective, to "inherit the land" is synonymous with God’s favor, protection, blessings, and providential care (vv. 3-9, 11, 16-18, 22-29, 33-34, 37-40).
      As a brief side note, the Hebrew word ‘olam, translated "forever" in many English versions (vv. 18, 29), is a simple term of duration that describes something which lasts as long as it is intended to last (cf. Genesis 17:7-19; Exodus 21:6; 28:43; 29:9; 31:16-17). Remember that the land promise was conditioned upon the Israelites remaining faithful to God, and without living up to their end of the agreement there was no guarantee that it would remain in their possession (Deuteronomy 28:15, 63; Joshua 23:11-16; 1 Kings 9:6-7).
      Now back to Matthew 5. The Jewish audience to whom Jesus was speaking already inhabited the land, albeit under Roman occupation. Many of their contemporaries (e.g. the Zealots) were attempting to reclaim their sovereignty with aggression and brute force. But Jesus called for a different approach. "Blessed are the meek," i.e. those who refrain from hostility and violence. "For they shall inherit the earth [ge = land]." The meek, while inhabiting the land or dwelling upon the earth, are the ones who truly enjoy divine favor, protection, blessings, and providential care (cf. 6:9-13, 25-34).
      The Lord develops this idea further in a later discourse: "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time–houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions–and in the age to come, eternal life" (Mark 10:29-30, emp. added; cf. Matthew 5:5, 12; 19:29).
      Surely we can appreciate why the meek are so blessed!
--Kevin L. Moore

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