Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: Blessed… (Matthew 5:1-3)
Over these last weeks, I have immersed myself in these words of Jesus and they have had a profound effect on me in at least three ways:
I am finding the Beatitudes compelling
Jesus speaks about a life that is blessed by God. Who would not want to listen to Jesus as he shows us the path on which blessing is to be found? Everyone wants to be blessed. We want to be blessed in life and blessed in death. We want to be blessed in eternity.
The opposite of blessed is cursed. Nobody wants that. But here the Son of God speaks about a life that is blessed and people who are blessed. That leads me to say, “I want to be one of those people! I want to take a fresh look at myself and be sure that I am pursuing a life that is blessed.”
The Beatitudes do more than describe a blessed life, they actually give us the means by which we may pursue it. I want to show you, from these words of Jesus, how you can make progress in the Christian life.
If you are a follower of Christ, you probably know what it is to feel stuck in your Christian life. You want to grow and to become more like Christ, but somehow you lose momentum.
You may not believe that a person’s heart can pump faster while they are sitting at a desk, but my heart has been beating faster, as I have seen how the Beatitudes give a key to progress in the Christian life.
I am finding the Beatitudes searching
Jesus describes the person who is blessed by God. That begs the question: Is he describing me? Am I displaying more of the marks of a person who is blessed? What matters is not that I say, “I’m blessed,” but that God pronounces me blessed. Jesus describes those who are blessed right here.
The Beatitudes are leading me in worship
What you hear in the words of Jesus you will see in the life of Jesus. There is total integrity in the Son of God. Christ practices what he preaches. Meditating on these beatitudes is leading me to worship, because worship happens as we glimpse the glory of the Son of God.
Today’s message is an introduction to the series. I want us to become familiar with these Beatitudes and for us to learn how to use them. I see this teaching, and the question is: How do I use this? How do I put it to work in my life? You can use the Beatitudes as: 1. A tool for discernment; 2. A key to progress; and 3. A window to worship.
A Tool for Discernment
Think with me for a moment about bird spotting (or bird watching). Imagine yourself picking up a pair of binoculars, and then you set out looking to spot a few feathered friends.
You look towards the trees and you see an American goldfinch. How do you know it’s an American goldfinch? You know by its distinctive yellow color. Then you walk along a river and you see a Spotted Sandpiper.  How do you know it’s a Spotted Sandpiper? By its distinctive spots.
The point here is a very simple one: Birds are known by their distinguishing marks. That is how you can tell one breed from another.
What are the distinguishing marks of a Christian?
How would you know a Christian if you actually spotted one? Or to put it more personally, “How can I know that I am a real Christian?” What are the distinguishing marks of a true child of God?
Someone might say, “I would know a true Christian by what they believe.” That’s a good answer. God has revealed certain truths in the Scripture, and a person who does not believe them cannot be a Christian.
Jesus says “Unless you believe that I am he, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). He said that “the work of God is to believe in the Father who sent his Son into the world” (John 6:29). There are certain beliefs without which a person cannot be a Christian.
James reminds us that even the devils believe (James 2:19). Satan knows that Christ died for sin. Satan knows, to his cost, that Christ rose from the dead on the third day. He is not in doubt about it. It’s an undeniably true fact, even in hell itself.
All of us have heard stories about people who professed Christian faith while quietly indulging their sins of choice. Such a person is not a Christian but a hypocrite. What a person believes is a necessary mark, but it is not sufficient to identify a genuine Christian.
How do you know that a person is a real Christian?
Someone will say “I know if a person is a Christian by what they do. It’s not words but deeds that count. The real Christian puts their faith into practice.” This is a good answer, because you cannot be a Christian apart from that. Jesus said “The one who hears my words and puts them into practice is like the man who builds his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24).
Yet Jesus himself tells us that there will be people to whom he will say on the last day, “Depart from me I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21). This is one of the most sobering verses in all of the Bible. The reason they will be so surprised is that they were active in ministry, and it never occurred to them that they might not be true Christians.
They will say, “Did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name.” These are pretty impressive works, and they regarded themselves as Christian. But Jesus is making it clear that preaching a sermon about Jesus or even bringing deliverance to other people in the name of Jesus is not in itself conclusive evidence that a person is truly a Christian.
Here’s what that means for me… On the last day, there would be no value in me saying to Jesus, “I was the senior pastor of a large church in Chicago.” There would be no value in me saying that whatsoever. Why? That’s not what he is looking for! Blessing is not found through having a position in ministry. Where does blessing lie? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
Jesus does not begin with a class on all the great doctrines of the Bible. He does not begin by saying, “Let’s get you all involved in a ministry.” He begins by saying “Let me tell you what a person who lives under the blessing of God looks like.”
As I read these Beatitudes I have to ask, “Are these the things I am pursuing? Colin, forget about being a senior pastor, forget about saying that you’ve been a Christian for the best part of 50 years… what evidence is there of these things in your life?” That’s searching. I invite you to open yourself up with me to the searching gaze of Jesus:
Blessed are the peacemakers… (Matthew 5:9)
Am I a person who brings peace? Does peace follow me because it lives in me? Or do other people in the home or in the workplace experience tension from me because of the turmoil that is in me?
Blessed are the pure in heart… (Matthew 5:8)
What is the condition of my heart? To what extent is it marked by purity? To what extent is it marked by impurity?
Blessed are the merciful… (Matthew 5:7)
How am I doing when it comes to this business of forgiving others? Do I forgive quickly? Am I merciful towards the weaknesses and failings of other people?
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… (Matthew 5:6)
Does that describe you today? If I go one day without food, by the end of the day, I would do anything for a beef sandwich—really, really hungry. Is that how I feel about living a life that is marked by righteousness? Am I person who says, “I want to do what is right… at any cost!”
When Jesus describes the person who is blessed, is he describing you? Would someone spot these marks in me? Ask yourself: Am I consciously submitting myself to the will of God? That’s meekness.
Am I mourning over my sins so that I begin to hate what I used to love, and to despise what I used to choose? Or, am I remaining pretty much the same, with my habitual sins pretty much unchanged? Do I recognize that when I have done all, I have nothing to offer God, and I hang on the mercy of Christ as an undeserving sinner?
Before we go further, I need to pause and make one thing very clear…
The Beatitudes are not telling you how to become a Christian
The Beatitudes tell us what a true Christian looks like. The message is not: “If you humble yourself, mourn over your sins, submit yourself meekly to God, and get an appetite for righteousness—this will get you into heaven.” That would be salvation by works. This is not the teaching of the Bible, nor is it the teaching of Jesus here.
Here’s the message: “Many people profess to be Christians. It’s easy to say it. The church, at its best, is a mixed bag of genuine Christians and people who have deceived themselves. We need to examine ourselves to see if we’re truly Christian.”
The evidence that you’re a Christian—the unfakeable marks are: That you humble yourself before God, that you mourn over your sins and do not skip over them lightly, that you submit yourself meekly to God, and that you have an appetite for righteousness.
If we do not imitate His life, we cannot be saved by His death. 
Watson is not saying that we are saved by imitating the life of Christ. He is quite clear that we are saved by his death. The question is: Who is saved by the death of Christ? And how would you know it? Answer: “They are the ones who seek to imitate his life.”
By speaking these words, Jesus invites us to measure ourselves. There are certain distinguishing marks that are seen in the person who is blessed, as opposed to the person who is self-deceived. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Use the Beatitudes as a tool for discerning your own spiritual condition.
As we move through this series, it may be that you will come to the conclusion that you are not yet a Christian and that you need to become one. If that should happen, you will thank God for it for the rest of your life and for the rest of eternity.
All over this congregation there are people who would say, “I used to think that I was a Christian. I was a moral person. I attended church. Then I started listening to the Word of God. And as I listened to the words of Jesus, something started happening inside me. I realized: What Jesus is describing is not true of me. If this is Christianity, I’m not yet a Christian.”
If that should happen for you, it will be a great breakthrough. Thank God for it. Only when you know that you’re not, in fact, a Christian will you be in a position to become one. One of Satan’s great strategies to keep people out of heaven is to make them falsely assured that they are a Christian.
A Key to Progress
There is a definite order in the Beatitudes. Each of these virtues flows from the one that went before. There is an order. There is progress. And there is development.
The first three Beatitudes deal with our need: We are poor in spirit because we see our inability to live as God commands. We mourn because our sins are many. We become meek, rather than self-willed and defiant, because we do not have the ability to direct our own lives wisely. These three are the roots of a godly life. What comes out of these roots?
Out of this great sense of need comes a deep longing for what we do not have—a hunger and thirst for righteousness, a desire to be like Christ—the Righteous One. I’m calling this the life of godliness. The soul of a godly life is a hunger and thirst after the righteousness that’s in Jesus Christ.
This life of hungering and thirsting for the righteousness that’s found in Christ produces beautiful fruit: Mercy, purity of heart and peace.
To use the language that we’ve found helpful at The Orchard, there is a roots-life-fruit pattern to the Beatitudes. You can’t get the fruit without cultivating the root. Why can’t I forgive? You can’t just try harder to forgive. You must start with the root that produces the fruit of forgiveness.
You will notice that there is an eighth Beatitude, which reminds us that the person who pursues this godly life will not only be blessed by God but persecuted in this world.
Now seeing that there is a distinct pattern of progress in the Beatitudes, but I want to go a step further and suggest to you that each of these Beatitudes flows from the one that went before.
The monkey rings
There is an image that I want you to have in mind today and throughout this series. Imagine a child at the playground swinging from one ring to the next on the monkey rings.
The key to swinging on the monkey rings is momentum (I speak from observation, rather than experience). The momentum of your swing on the first ring makes it possible for you to reach the second. The momentum of your swing on the second ring makes it possible for you to reach the third, and so on. Without your momentum from the previous swing, the next ring would always be beyond your reach.
The Beatitudes are like a series of rings. You move to the next one with the momentum that you have gained from the last. I am finding this profoundly helpful in my own life and also in ministry to others.
Someone says, “Pastor, I can’t forgive. I want to, but it’s beyond me. I just can’t get there.” How do you get to forgiveness?
Another person says, “Pastor, there is so much impurity in my heart. I hate it. I want to get rid of it, but I don’t know how.” How do you get to purity? That’s a deeply felt question for many.
How do you get to the fifth or sixth Beatitude? You start from the beginning. Everyone can do this, because the first ring is to recognize that you don’t have what it takes: Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Can you imagine how sunk we would all be if the first Beatitude was “Blessed are the pure in heart?” We’d all say, “I can’t do it.” Blessing begins when you realize that you don’t have what it takes. You can reach that ring today. That’s me!
Swing on that first ring and you will soon find that repentance comes within your reach. You will find that you begin to hate what you used to love and despise what you used to choose.
As you mourn over your sin, seeing its effects in your life and on the lives of others around you, you will begin to hate the self-will that says, “God may not want this, but it’s what I want, so I’m going to do it anyway.”
And, as you hate that self-will, you will find the meekness that submits to God’s will for your life coming within your grasp. This is how the Holy Spirit works in the sanctification of a Christian believer.
Think about the child at the playground, swinging from one ring to another, but as he’s swinging, he misses the next ring. If he holds on, he’ll continue to swing from that one ring, gradually losing momentum, until he’s just hanging there. And because nobody can stay in that position very long, eventually he’ll fall off the ring.
That’s a good picture of something that often happens in the Christian life. Suppose you’ve been deeply hurt by someone or something and you say “I can’t forgive.” You start losing momentum, until you’re no longer swinging—you’re just hanging there, and eventually you fall off.
There’s only one thing to do, and that is to start again from the beginning. You have to go back to the place of saying, “Lord, I do not have what it takes to forgive. I do not have what it takes to deal with the impurity I find in my heart.” You swing on the first ring of your own inability, and that momentum will move you forward.
This is of huge importance. How can I have purity of heart? How can I forgive the person who has hurt me? How can I become a person who brings peace instead of turmoil? You cannot start from where you are. You have to start further back.
This is not something that you do just once. This is how you live the Christian life every day. Every day you set out saying, “I want to pursue purity of heart. I want to be a person who forgives. I want to bring peace where there is trouble. And Lord, I have to say to you today, I don’t have what it takes to do this. My own sins are too many, so Lord, help me. Help me to pursue your purposes for me.”
A Window to Worship
Looking at Jesus will give you a fresh vision of the glory of Jesus. Everything Christ says, he does. He is the blessed One.
See him as he leaves the riches of heaven, embraces our poverty and humbles himself, even to death on a cross.
See him as he mourns over the sins of Jerusalem. He has no sins of his own to mourn: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered you to myself, as a hen gathers chickens under her wing, but you would not” (Matthew 23:37). Do you know any of that in your own life?
See him in the Garden of Gethsemane as he meekly submits himself to the will of the Father, even when it means an incalculable cost. You think this is weak? “Father, not my will but yours be done.” See him fulfill all righteousness and lay down that righteous life as a sacrifice for others.
See him drawing near to you today in his awesome purity, and yet with grace, mercy and forgiveness to bring you peace with God.
Aren’t you glad that “Blessed are the pure in heart” is not the first Beatitude? If it was, we would all be saying, “We can’t reach that ring.” Thank God the place to begin is not with purity of heart, or with becoming a forgiving person, but with realizing that I do not have what it takes.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. All of us can start there. You can get on that ring—recognizing our great need, coming to this Savior. You can do that today. You can do that every day.
 See a picture at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Goldfinch/lifehistory.
 See a picture at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Spotted_Sandpiper/id.
 Thomas Watson, The Beatitudes, p. 114, Banner of Truth, 1971.