Wesley's Sermon 21: Upon Our Lord's Sermon On The Mount, Discourse 1

Mount of Beatitude Capernaum 200704A view to Capernaum from the Mount of Beatitude, where Jesus may have delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Photo by gugganij on Wikimedia [This is a post on one of John Wesley's Sermons as part of the Getting to Know John series. See the other posts here.]

"Above all, with what amazing love does the Son of God here reveal his Father's will to man!"

This sermon begins Wesley's classic series on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7). In the next thirteen sermons, he will move through the passages of this most famous teaching of Jesus. So, basically, we're about to begin a journey into the most influential sermon in history, being led by one of Christianity's most brilliant and influential leaders. It's probably worth seeing what he has to say, right?

Since this is the first sermon in this series on the Sermon, Wesley begins with an extended introduction to the Sermon on the Mount in general, before moving into the meaning of specific passages. He asks (and of course, answers) important questions about the context in which Jesus first gave the Sermon: What had happened to this point in Jesus' life? Who was this teacher? What is it that he's teaching? Whom was Jesus addressing? How does he teach?

Wesley then moves into the content of the Sermon, beginning as Jesus did, with the Beatitudes. He spends the remainder of the message examining the meaning of the first two Beatitudes: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3), and "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" (Matthew 5:4).

Obviously, with as much as I value Wesley's theology, I think it's a worthy investment of my time to study what he says here, and part of his interpretation of the Beatitudes has already surprised me. He says that they are both a list of characteristics that are true to some degree of all God's children all the time, and that they are a progression that we go through in the Christian life (i.e., we must begin with poverty of spirit, then mourning, etc.). Until this point I've not been familiar with an interpretation of this passage that sees Jesus' Beatitudes as a process. It's interesting to see how he applies that idea to these first two, and will be interesting to see the same in the following passages.

Although that idea is new to me, the interpretation of the Beatitudes as a list of characteristics that we are to aspire to as Christians isn't new. This is the way most of us have been taught to understand this teaching of Jesus. It takes Jesus' description of the "poor in spirit" to mean those that are humble and know their sinfulness, then goes through the rest of the list describing characteristics of Jesus himself and of his true followers.

But, although I certainly want to dig into what Wesley has to say, I've come to disagree with this traditional and widespread interpretation. The reason for this is that Jesus does not say, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, because they are poor in spirit," but "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." In other words, Jesus does not identify poverty of spirit, mourning, or any of the other conditions as the reason that anyone is blessed. Rather, he was turning on its head his day's understanding of blessedness. His hearers had never before been told that someone spiritually poor, or in a condition that caused them to mourn, could be blessed. But, because of him and the access to his Father's kingdom that was becoming available through him, everyone in the crowd could be blessed regardless of their condition.

My view of the Beatitudes has been shaped most of all by Dallas Willard, particularly in his masterpiece of a book, The Divine Conspiracy. After working through Wesley's remaining sermons on the Sermon, I'll post a comparison summary of his interpretation and Willard's.

Options for digging in further to this sermon by Wesley:

Here is a list of all of Wesley's sermons in the series, and their corresponding passages: