How and Why Jesus Was Different

Some have claimed that the teachings of Jesus are impossible to apply because they contrast so sharply with normal human behavior. But we can’t achieve our highest potential without practicing them.

Despite His popularity, there came a day when many of Jesus’ followers walked away from Him. He had said something that troubled these disciples so much that they no longer wanted to be associated with Him. 

It was one thing for Jesus to afflict the comfortable, quite another to alienate many who had committed to Him as students. We might expect a teacher of spiritual values to have strong words about the world’s way of operating, and that some of those truths would be difficult for even the most devoted followers to accept. 

But the reason Jesus was so different was the origin of His thoughts—they came directly from His Father, God. Therefore, His thoughts were in harmony with God but not with the natural human mind. To be like God, it is essential for human beings to align with His values. 

Among the “difficult sayings of Jesus,” the Sermon on the Mount contains some of His most challenging words, yet followers and non-followers alike have recognized them as the finest moral teaching of all time, condensed into just eight verses. Some have claimed that they are impossible to apply due to their stark contrast with normal human behavior. Paradoxically, human life cannot achieve its highest potential without practicing those values.

The eight statements, known as the “Beatitudes,” or blessings, are arranged in a logical sequence. They begin with the starting point for humans, which is the recognition of our spiritual poverty or inadequacy. 

Blessed [or happy] are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). This teaching emphasizes our first priority if we are ultimately to have a relationship with our Father in His kingdom. We need God spiritually because we are spiritually poverty-stricken. Humility results from this recognition that we are nothing without God and can do nothing of spiritual value. This acknowledges the contrast between God and humanity. It can be challenging to recognize our spiritual poverty because it conflicts with our natural desire for self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and pride. If we resist the notion that our lack of humility could be the issue, we should question whether we have a clear perspective. 

Poverty of spirit is a fact of life for human beings. It is our condition, and God wants to relieve us of that burden by giving us access to His kingdom. But we must recognize our condition and seek His help in dealing with the problem. If we do not empty ourselves of this condition and work on ridding ourselves of the weakness of the human spirit, we cannot inherit the kingdom. If we do not recognize our need for God’s help and become subject to His will and way, we cannot share eternity with Him.

These are not natural qualities; nobody by birth and by nature is like this.”

David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount

The second blessing pictures the next step in coming to terms with spiritual poverty. It is to be sorrowful over the human condition. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” This cannot be talking about the sorrow the world in general feels. It is something that the follower of Christ experiences. It is a state of mind that convicts us of the need to make radical change. This is sorrow because of the evil perceived in the world we inhabit. It’s sorrow over the oppression of both righteous and unrighteous people. It’s also mourning over personal sin and individual condition. A follower of Christ is going to be moved by the gravity of the state of the world and by the effects of personal sin. Spiritual mourning leads to a desire to change human nature through God’s help. The promise attached to this beatitude is God’s personal comfort.

The third blessing requires introspection and represents another logical step in the progression of beatitudes. It states, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Although meekness in human terms does not lead to power and possessions, it leads to inheriting the world in a spiritual sense. Meekness is the quality of being teachable and open to learning about the way of God. It is a way of demonstrating humility and avoiding arrogance or pride. 

Seeking Inner Purity

Now the beatitudes take a more challenging turn, as we’re asked to consider allowing outside perspectives to show us where we’re wrong, after recognizing poverty of spirit and mourning over the human condition. Our willingness to learn may be challenged, but if we remain teachable, we can accomplish much and inherit the earth according to God’s master plan. The fourth blessing acts as a bridge to the following three. It represents the inner desire to earnestly search out the ways of God that underpin right behavior. If we seek out godly ways with the same enthusiasm as we seek out food and drink, we’ll be blessed with fullness; we’ll feel fed. We will experience God’s blessing for thinking and acting in a right way. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

Next, we see another level of development in the beatitudes. The fifth blessing introduces a characteristic that is directed toward others rather than being introspective. It states, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Some translations use the word “compassion” instead of “mercy.” Compassion was one of Christ’s chief characteristics. When considering mercy as a quality, what comes to mind? Think of times when someone has shown you mercy despite your weaknesses and imperfections. Showing mercy promises to bring blessings, and those who show mercy will receive mercy.

The human heart is central to many problems. Achieving purity of heart is a commendable life goal. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Those who make purity their goal will see God. The natural heart cannot see God and, according to Jesus, it is the natural heart that defiles us. In Matthew 15:19, Jesus stated that evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness and blasphemies come from the heart. 

Therefore, the beatitudes focus on inner purity and core attitudes. We are invited to strive for purity of heart, which is a condition compatible with God. Humans cannot exhibit this kind of heart on their own. With God’s help, it is achievable. John, another follower of Christ, wrote that in the future life those who believe will be like Him, for they will see Him as He is—the same promise that is attached to the pure in heart (1 John 3:2).

The eight qualities together constitute the responsibilities, and the eight blessings the privileges, of being a citizen of God’s kingdom. This is what the enjoyment of God’s rule means.”

John W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount

Hard Sayings 

The third beatitude in the second set shows a progression of spiritual qualities. It states, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” In Jesus’ time, making peace would have been the last thing expected of the Messiah, because people were looking for the overthrow of Roman oppression. 

To become godlike, however, human beings must become peacemakers at heart. The text discusses the importance of actively pursuing peace and being a peaceable person. Peace is highly valued in the Scriptures, with God the Father referred to as the God of Peace and the returning Christ as the Prince of Peace. His kingdom will be identified by peace and security. Believers are encouraged to promote peace, with peacemaking listed as a top priority in the beatitudes.

Jesus’ listeners may have found the final blessing difficult to accept, but it promises entry into the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is named, just as in the first beatitude. This list of essential attitudes for the follower of Christ has come full circle. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

The beatitudes list spiritual qualities that followers of Christ must make part of their core identity. These qualities are profoundly spiritual and impossible to achieve if only the natural mind is engaged; but if the Spirit of God is active, they become attainable. Inevitably there will be opposition to true followers of Christ under the conditions of the present world. Yet this opposition is bearable when the spiritual characteristics and related promises are in view.

These are eight essential characteristics for those who want to follow Christ. During His ministry, many became His disciples. On one occasion He spoke figuratively about Himself as the bread of life, which must be ingested for the eater to become Christlike. He thus extended the analogy of eating bread to ingesting His flesh and allowing Him to live in them. Many found this to be “a hard saying”; they decided they could no longer listen and turned away (John 6).

Difficult sayings, like the beatitudes, can teach valuable truths and demand much from us, but they hold the promise of infinite fulfillment.