The Gospel according to Matthew is something of an ancient how-to manual. It is meant to instruct Christ-followers in their discipleship. The book itself ends with the Great Commission, “to go and make disciples”. Surely, Matthew saw himself following this command with his writing. The purpose of the book of Matthew is to form disciples, not just inform them.
Part of Matthew’s method is, understandably, to provide readers with large chunks of Jesus’s teachings. The first of these chunks is traditionally referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. Found in Matthew 5–7, the Sermon provides a sample of what Christ is all about. With the Sermon at the beginning, the tone for the rest of Matthew’s account of the Gospel is set.
The Sermon itself begins with the Beatitudes. With them, Jesus begins to paint a picture of the heavenly kingdom for his listeners (Matt. 5:3, 10). One thing that readers have always noticed is how unblessed these “blessed” states seem to be. The virtues extolled by Christ are not the traits we tend to value—or at least, they aren’t the traits that seem to get us ahead in life. Neither do they come naturally to us. It is far easier—and more natural!—to flex our muscles (so to speak). We can’t display our strength through poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, or mercy. We won’t win that way.
But the Beatitudes are binding nonetheless. They set the bounds for what we might negatively call a Christian counter-culture (what we oppose) and positively call the Kingdom of Heaven/God (what we support). As disciples, we must find our lives within their confines.
On the one hand, the way of Jesus will lead to persecution and suffering. As a Christian counter-culture, we will stand in opposition to the world. And the world will not happily tolerate our opposition—nor should we expect them to! This is the precise warning and encouragement Jesus offers in Matthew 5:11–12. Those who stand up and stand out for Jesus have always been rejected by the world. When we live in defiance of sin because we love our God, we shouldn’t be surprised when we are maligned by those who defy God because they love their sin. But our hope is not found in belonging to the ways of this world, otherwise we would not follow Christ.
On the other hand, the way of Jesus leads to renewal and reform. In Matthew 5:13, Jesus tells his disciples that they are the salt of the earth. They are meant to purify and preserve the earth, much like salt purifies and preserves food. Christianity isn’t simply a matter of opposition—being a counter-culture—it must also put something forth, something better! As Christians, we may be persecuted for our righteousness, but we can just as easily be persecuted for our unrighteousness and hypocrisy when we fail to embrace Jesus’s vision for his followers. God does not rescue us in order to hide us away for safekeeping. He intends to set us out for public display—to shine like lights—so that all might see and be drawn to his magnificence (Matt. 5:16).
As a Christian counter-culture, we stand against sin in the world. As the Kingdom of God, we stand for the renewal of the world. To be truly Christian, we must not break these apart. They are two sides of the same coin. They are the foundations of godly living, underpinning all of Christ’s teachings, not least of all the Beatitudes.
When we hold these together in harmony, we can be like a window peering out from earth into the kingdom of heaven. When people see us, they can steal glimpses of another world and witness a kingdom shaped by love and generosity, peace and righteousness, governed by a holy God.
Or they can simply see their own world reflected back. When we fail to be formed by God, no matter how much information we might have, it will be like looking into a mirror, rather than through a window.
As disciples, we must bear witness. So be a window, not a mirror.