May 4, 2003159
I must confess that I had boyhood fears about death as an unbeliever. My grandparents lived right past a huge cemetery, and I found it possible not to see that cemetery every time we went to visit them. I was fascinated by what was on the other side of the road, but the reality is that I, like most of us, do not really like mourning. When I was in junior high school, a Christian schoolteacher died suddenly, and I was elected as a representative of our class to go to his funeral. I still recall attempting to introduce levity into that event because I couldn’t handle the grief. It was another way of avoiding something the Bible tells us we ought to deal with and, in fact, we ought to practice.
Our text is in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”160 How is it possible for mourners to be blessed and comforted? That is the Good News that only the gospel brings. It is one of the reasons why over the years I have said repeatedly I would far rather do a funeral than a wedding because the reality is, apart from the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is no comfort. So we come to this text assured that there is comfort, and that comfort has to be related to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It would be good for us to begin by asking the question, “What does the Bible mean by mourning?” Let’s look at some examples of mourning given us in the Bible.
In Genesis, you find a lot of mourning always over death, and that shouldn’t be a surprise because when God told Adam and Eve that they should not partake of the fruit of that forbidden tree (I should say Adam and, then through him, Eve), He said that in the day you partake of it, you will surely die. The Book of Genesis is filled with death; we would not then be surprised that it is filled with mourning because of that death. In Genesis 23, we see Abraham mourns for Sarah. Jacob, in a sense, erroneously mourns on account of the death of his son Joseph—he is not dead, but he rightly mourns at least his loss. The Egyptians mourned for Jacob at the time of his death, and David in 2 Samuel 1 mourned greatly over the death of Saul and his beloved friend, Saul’s son, Jonathan. We see mourning throughout the Bible on the occasion of death, but not only death. For example, when Absalom is responsible for murder and flees from Israel to escape any possible consequences, David mourns his absence.
In Numbers 14:39, when the Israelites come to Kadesh-Barnea and fail to go in and possess the land, they are told that that generation will die and will not enter into the land, and the people mourned; they mourned the loss of the benefits of the blessings that were literally within their grasp and were lost. They mourned deeply. You remember the outcome of that mourning was not good because they then tried to go into the land and were defeated.
In Psalm 119:136, you find the psalmist mourning over the sins of God’s people. He says, “Tears stream down from my eyes, because they do not keep Your law.” Hosea 4:3 tells us that the land mourns because of Israel’s sin and because of the consequences that have come upon the land as a result of that. There are countless examples, and there is a transition in the Scriptures from the beginning in Genesis, where the mourning is focused on the loss of one who is loved (mourning that comes as a result of death), to mourning that has a more direct relationship to sin and its consequences. Let’s make an effort to come to some kind of definition by looking at some of the essential elements of mourning.
1) Mourning is an emotional response. All you have to do is to read the Scriptures to see this. For us, in our rather subdued culture and society, that is not quite as self-evident as it may be in some other cultures. In the Eastern culture of Bible times, mourning was done very dramatically, maybe sometimes too dramatically, where mourners were hired literally to weep and carry on. There are other parts of the world that do the same thing today. When we look, for example, at the news pictures in the Middle East and see people mourning the death of their families in a bombing or tragedy, we see a very external, emotional expression of grief in their mourning. I say this because some of us tend to be rather cerebral in what we do. I would say that within my family, nobody really said, “Big boys don’t cry.”
I remember when our son died my dad going outside and starting the rototiller. He just rototilled the whole back garden because he needed some way to let it out. But it wasn’t the kind of emotional mourning we often see in Scripture. It involves our emotions, not just our intellect, and I would say it involves intense emotion. This is not some modest effort we go through; it is not something we try to work up. Mourning is, in reality, intense grief, and you feel that when you are there. It is an emotional response to loss. Someone may prove me wrong on this, but as I understand it, every time I see mourning in the Scriptures, I see a deep sense of loss of something. It isn’t always the loss of someone’s life or fellowship, although it may well be; that is the most obvious mourning. It may be loss of benefits, for example, as Israel mourns at Kadesh-Barnea the fact that they will not enter into the land. There is a loss that is experienced and felt deeply. David has the loss of Absalom when he flees the country and goes to stay with relatives. David feels that loss deeply.
2) We should also say that mourning is not always good; that is, every expression of mourning is not necessarily proper. When David mourned over Absalom’s death, that was a very negative thing. Remember, Joab has to literally come along and slap, if you would, his king on the side of the head. You don’t really do that with kings, but as gently and graciously as he can, Joab essentially says, “David, get your head on straight. What you are doing is wrong; people here sense you are mourning. They feel it would have been better for you had all of them died and Absalom lived. Your sense of loss is wrong. Absalom’s death was the salvation of the kingdom, so get it together, David. Your mourning is improper.”
Amnon wrongfully mourned because he could not have Tamar, his sister. Ahab mourned because he could not have Naboth’s vineyard. Samuel mourned because of Saul’s loss of the kingdom. Those expressions of mourning were inappropriate, and so not all mourning is good. I think we therefore must say, “Not all mourners will be comforted.” Is that not valid? When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4), He is talking about certain people and certain kinds of mourning.
3) There is not universal comfort for all mourners. I’ve been at many funerals, as you probably have, where countless unbelievers are present; they mourn, but there is no comfort for them apart from Jesus Christ and the message of the gospel. When we look at this section of the Beatitudes, we are talking about those who mourn, and we are also talking about those who are poor in spirit, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. I don’t think that you can withdraw one segment of the Beatitudes and say that all mourners are comforted. Rather, you have to say, “All mourners who are poor in spirit and hunger and thirst for righteousness will find comfort.” So there is comfort for some but not for all.
4) We need to understand what it is to mourn properly. This is what I would call the core of my message, and it seems to me as I’ve agonized about this (and I must confess to you I have agonized a lot), I got into “Blessed are the meek,” not because there is any affinity in my spirit necessarily to that, but it was more comforting to me than mourning. I have agonized a lot about this mourning and how we come to terms with it, and it seems to me that if we’re going to understand and apply this passage correctly, we have to understand what it is to mourn properly. I’ve tried to isolate several elements that distinguish biblical mourning—the kind of mourning that results in godly comfort.
Let me ask a few questions that are tests for pious mourning.
A. Is this something for which the righteous mourn? Is our mourning something for which we find the righteous in the Bible mourning? Surely that must start with our Lord Jesus. As I understand the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, the things that God calls blessed are those things that characterize God and that ought to be evident in the lives of those who are His saints. You know, WWJD161 applies to mourning. Would Jesus mourn for this? There is a lot of mourning today with which Jesus probably would not concur. But there are two major instances of our Lord’s mourning—the one found in John 11:35-36 at the grave of Lazarus, and the world’s most famous Bible memory verse, John 11:35—“Jesus wept.” The people responded and essentially said, “See how Jesus loved him.”
I am not sure I have the answer to this question, but I am going to raise it anyway. Were they right? Not about Jesus loving Lazarus—of course, Jesus loved him. Were they right in reaching the conclusion that Jesus’ mourning was really tied to and a direct result of His love for Lazarus? It is a little hard when we know the whole story that literally within seconds, Lazarus is going to come out of that tomb in his grave clothes. It is a little difficult to see Jesus totally overwhelmed in sorrow; it may almost be better to say, “See how Jesus loves Mary and Martha,” sisters of Lazarus. At least, we have a biblical text for “Weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice.” Jesus identifies with those who are mourning the loss of Lazarus. It seems to me that there must be the element of sin and its consequences. When one looks in the face of death, should he not see the connection between that death and sin that produced it in the ultimate sense?
I was talking with someone the other day about cremation and whether or not it is a legitimate form of dealing with the bodies of people who died. There are various opinions. I will tell you that I have been involved in funerals where there was cremation, and I did not have any deep agony of soul about that. But I would say this: one thing is important at a funeral where a body is present—when that casket is right there, and families come by, and fathers lift up their children to look at the body—there is something visually communicated by death. Without a body, the full message of death somehow does not really come home.
I am inclined to say that Jesus wept, at least in part, because of the sin and the devastating consequences of sin involved. In Luke 19:41-44, Jesus approaches the city of Jerusalem and weeps over it. He weeps over it because He has presented Himself to Israel as the Messiah, and they have rejected Him, and that city and those people are going to be destroyed and devastated. Again, Jesus’ mourning is over the effects of sin, or I should say more accurately, His mourning is over sin and its effects in the lives of people, and even as it relates to Him.
Two critical texts are key to understanding Matthew 5:4. I put these under a broad category when I say, “Do the righteous mourn for this?” and, “Do the prophets mourn for the things that we are mourning for?” There are a lot of instances of that. The two key texts are Isaiah 61 and Isaiah 40. I cannot read Matthew 5:4 without saying to myself, “He is pointing to Isaiah 61.” I can’t get away from that. Now, if you think I’m fishing a little bit, remember in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus comes to Nazareth and presents Himself there in the synagogue, He takes the scroll, and He reads these verses (Luke 4:18,19). I’ll grant you, He stops because it talks about the Day of Judgment, and He doesn’t go all the way down and emphasize the mourning element, but the reality is that this is a part of the text Jesus chose as a pointer to Himself. So, surely when Jesus is talking here, we can safely say it is a part of what He is about and what He says. Let’s look at it:
because the Lord has chosen me.
He has commissioned me to encourage the poor,
to help the brokenhearted,
to decree the release of captives,
and the freeing of prisoners,
61:2 to announce the year when the Lord will show his favor (Isaiah 61:1-2a).
There’s an imaginary line because that’s where in Luke 4:19 Jesus stops, but let’s read on.
the day when our God will seek vengeance,
to console all who mourn,
by giving them a turban, instead of ashes,
oil symbolizing joy, instead of mourning,
a garment symbolizing praise, instead of discouragement.
They will be called godly oaks,
trees planted by the Lord to reveal his splendor (Isaiah 61:2b-3).
As I read Matthew 5:4, I say to myself, “Those who mourn must surely be defined by this text.” Remember that in the context of Isaiah 61, we have been told about Israel’s sin. We have been told about the judgment that is going to come upon the nation Israel, and now we are being told about the deliverance that will come. The comfort we find is comfort that comes for those who acknowledge their sin, who acknowledge that God’s judgment has been exercised. We would say in the fullest sense of that, while Isaiah is looking immediately at Israel’s sin and their captivity and their restoration, ultimately He is looking at man’s sin, Christ’s punishment on the cross of Calvary, and the redemption that comes for all of us. That’s a sermon in and of itself, so let us move to Isaiah 40:1.
“Comfort my people,” says your God.
“Speak kindly to Jerusalem;
And tell her that her time of warfare is over, that her punishment is completed,
For the Lord has made her pay double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2).
The context is Israel’s chastening for sin in the captivity, but looking beyond that, again, is the chastening that falls upon our Lord (Isaiah 53), so that our sins may be forgiven and that He may restore and bless us. Isaiah 40:3 and following (again, a text which should be familiar to the readers of Matthew) says, “A voice cries out, ‘In the desert clear a way for the Lord; construct in the wilderness a road for our God.’” What is that? John the Baptist is speaking about the announcement that Messiah has come. So it seems that the center of the bulls-eye of what mourning is about is sin. It is about God’s judgment. The comfort, therefore, must be the comfort that comes in Messiah, where He bears man’s punishment and where He provides the deliverance and the rescue so that our comfort is in Jesus ultimately, and in His sacrifice for us. The first test for godly mourning then is “What do the prophets and, more importantly, what does Jesus mourn about?” They mourn about sin, and the comfort is the gospel and salvation.
B. The relationship between mourning and laughter. What is the opposite of mourning? The opposite of mourning is rejoicing; is it not? But Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will rejoice.” Matthew doesn’t say that. Jesus says they will be comforted. That means He’s not promising that all of the pain will go away. He’s saying that in this circumstance of mourning, comfort will be brought to bear—not necessarily that you will escape the things for which you mourn, but rather that you will find God’s comfort.
Somebody is going to say, “What about Luke?” That is why I mentioned laughter.
“Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:21).
Now verse 25 of Luke 6:
“Woe to you who are well satisfied with food now, for you will be hungry;
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:25).
I think it was Martyn Lloyd-Jones who made a heavy point of saying (and I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say), “Jesus had a great sense of humor.” I think I’ve said it, and it may well be true, but Martyn Lloyd-Jones says we have a lot of instances where Jesus wept. We have no recorded instances where Jesus laughed. We ought to at least take note of that, and we ought to be careful that we don’t somehow minimize this element in Jesus’ life of sobriety. By that I mean especially soberness in response to sin. I would suggest to you that Satan has a fantastic sense of humor. I love humor, but I’m saying Satan loves to turn things inside out, and he wants us to laugh when we should be mourning.
I told you the story about my response to Mr. Davidson’s death and his funeral. I was trying to laugh because I didn’t really want to mourn, especially with my peers there. How would it look to shed tears and to show grief over the loss of this one? So I found my consolation in humor, which was inappropriate. Satan wants us to do that. Proverbs 14:9: “Fools mock at sin.” Now mockery may include more than that, but it seems to me it’s often there. I was thinking of Ham in Genesis 9. It is a little difficult to figure out all of the elements of that story, but the story in general is that Noah plants a vineyard, the grapes grow, the grapes turn into wine, Noah had too much, and he is now lying naked in his tent. Somehow Ham shows up, and it seems as though Canaan may be involved in that (because the curse falls upon him). One thing that ought to be very apparent is that somehow Ham does not have the appropriate sense of sobriety and sense of grief at that occasion. I get the impression he is looking straight on, pointing, and saying to his brothers, “What do you think of this?” And his brothers come in backwards, carrying the garment, covering their father’s nakedness so that they don’t even look upon it.
I would say to you there is today a great deal of laughter at sin, and Satan loves it. We are to mourn at the presence and the consequences of sin, but we laugh at it. Let me give you some examples. I normally don’t watch the late night talk shows, but I’ve got to tell you, from what little I’ve seen passing by, there’s a whole lot of laughing going on about things that we shouldn’t be laughing about. Let me give you another example: Mrs. Doubtfire. As parents, we look at that movie, and we say, “Oh, my goodness, this is Robin Williams. He’s a funny guy, and you know, it’s kind of a kid’s/family program.” But do you notice how they carefully orchestrate the movie so that we laugh at perversion? I can’t remember those two guys’ names, but you know Aunt One and Uncle Two, and we laugh at that, and we come away feeling pretty good because we didn’t see any nasty scenes.
The reality is Satan has won a victory because we have laughed at sin where we should have mourned at it. That happens over and over again in dirty jokes and other ways. If Satan can get us to laugh about sin first, we’re one step down that path—one long step down that path toward the acceptance of sin. So I say to you that we ought to be very, very careful. I’m going down this path because Luke opens the door and says we have to beware of levity when it comes in relationship to mourning. Sometimes laughter unloads an issue that we shouldn’t feel better about; we should be mourning about.
C. Is there a sense of loss or gain? I mentioned in my definition of mourning that mourning has a deep sense of loss. A number of texts point us in this direction. For example, I mentioned David wrongly mourning the loss of his son, Absalom, when he died. What Joab was trying to say to him was, “You have lost your perspective. This day is not a day of mourning; it is a day of rejoicing. You are going to lose your kingdom if you don’t get your mind straightened out. You have gained your kingdom; yes, you have lost some. You have GAINED your kingdom. Get a perspective on whether you are losing or whether you are gaining.” Samuel mourns the loss of Saul. In 1 Samuel 15:35: “. . .Samuel did, however, mourn for Saul.” God is basically saying to Samuel, “You need to really get this figured out.” Was it a loss for Israel to lose Saul and to gain David? Was that loss? Samuel was the prophet who anointed David. Is that not gain rather than loss?
Inappropriate mourning is sensing a loss where we should feel a gain. The interesting thing about 1 Samuel 16, when God tells him to go and anoint David, is that Samuel’s first response is, “He’ll kill me. Not David—Saul. If Saul finds out I’m going there, he’ll kill me.” And you want to say, “So what was it, Samuel, you felt such a loss about? This man over whom you are grieving is the man who will kill you if you go to anoint another king?” I think there is a loss of focus here.
Think of Philippians 3 where Paul says, “Those things that I considered gain, I now view as loss.” The things he once looked at—all of the Pharisaism, all of his position, all of that stuff—he now understands was really his Achilles’ heel. It was that which he had to forsake. Satan has a way of trying to reverse things. Look at the temptations. When Satan tempts, he tells you that you’re going to gain; you’re going to be like God, knowing good and evil; you’re going to save your life; you’re going to have this ministry for God. He always presents loss as gain, and the reality is, every time men succumb to Satan’s temptations, they lose.
Another thing to notice is the turning around of loss and gain. Youth today feel that virginity is a scourge. It is something they need to set aside. It is not a beautiful, wonderful thing that they present not only to God but also to their mates when they marry. It is a scourge to be shaken off as quickly as possible. Satan turns loss and gain around—modesty, being unique, and many other things. What do we find in the youth culture? Conformity. We shake off uniqueness like the plague. When God calls us to uniqueness, to be distinct, to be salt and light as believers, we shed it because we want to fit into the culture in which we find ourselves.
D. Humility or Humiliation vs. Arrogance and Pride. In 1 Corinthians 5:1-2, Paul says:
It is actually reported that sexual immorality exists among you, the kind of immorality that is not permitted even among the Gentiles, so that someone is cohabiting with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you have been deeply sorrowful instead . . . ? (1 Corinthians 5:1-2a)
“Shouldn’t you have mourned?” And the church is sitting there smugly proud. Is our mourning that of humility and humiliation? Regarding humiliation, what do mourners look like? They look terrible; they tear their clothes; they put dust ashes on their heads; they’re a mess. You don’t make the fashion section of the paper when you are mourning because when you are mourning, you are not trying to look good; you are humbling yourself in your grief. Yet Satan would rather have us exchange that. When you look at the mourning that’s going to come in the Sermon on the Mount, what do the Scribes and the Pharisees do with mourning? They don’t go around with ragged clothes and filthy dust all over them. They probably have some dust, but that’s a symbol, and they proudly wear it as a badge. Thus, in our mourning, is it characterized by humility and humiliation over sin?
In Romans 1:32, the irony is when you get to the bottom rung of the ladder, so to speak, Paul says, “And they not only practice these things, but they actually encourage others to do it.” Look at Hollywood, folks—and not just Hollywood. They wear their sin with pride; they don’t just practice sin in some dark, murky closet. They practice it in public, and they’re proud of it. People sometimes buy their work because of it.
E. Last, does mourning produce repentance? If it is genuine mourning, then, in my estimation, it is the prerequisite to, and the motivation for, repentance. It is what precedes repentance. If repent means to turn around, then it seems to me that we have to acknowledge that the first thing we must see is not only that the direction we are going is wrong, but that it is ugly, and it is something we loathe. It is like we think we are on the road to the beach, and we realize as we approach it that we are on the way to the city sewage processing plant, and you say to yourself, “Yuk, I do not want to be going in this direction; I must turn around.” If you like what’s down at the end of that path, you’re going to keep going. Mourning is that prerequisite where you recognize, and not only intellectually, cognitively say, “God calls it sin,” but you, in your emotions, loathe it so that you turn from it. In 2 Corinthians 7:5-10, we read:
For even when we came to Macedonia, our body had no rest at all, but we were troubled in every way – struggles from the outside, fears from within. But God, who encourages [the word comforted is the word encourages] the downhearted, encouraged us by the arrival of Titus. We were encouraged not only by his arrival, but also by the encouragement you gave him, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your deep concern for me, so that I rejoiced even more than ever. For even if I had made you sad by my letter, I do not regret having written it (even though I did regret it, for I see that my letter made you sad, though only for a short time). Now I rejoice, not because you were made sad, but because you were made sad to the point of repentance. For you were made sad as God intended, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For sadness as intended by God produces a repentance that leads to salvation, leaving no regret, but worldly sadness brings about death (2 Corinthians 7:5-10).
There is a kind of worldly mourning that does not result in righteousness. I don’t mean that our mourning produces it. In fact, ungodly mourning is actually selfish. You will find that some people who mourn become very introverted, and they look only within and think about themselves and their loss. The more they mourn, the more self-centered they become. The mourning we are talking about is the mourning when you come to an emotional realization, as well as an intellectual one, of the ugliness and the filthiness of sin, and you turn from it. You turn to Christ for the comfort that He alone can give.
In conclusion, mourning is a part of life. If you notice, this verse “Blessed are those who mourn,” is very emphatically present tense and ongoing. It is not just those who, from time to time, have an experience of mourning; there is an ongoing sense. This is consistent with Romans 8:18 and following, where Paul talks about the sufferings and the groanings of life exist because we are a part of a fallen world. My friend, we ought never to get over our warning, and I fear for others and myself as we become accustomed to the sin. We become accustomed. Take abortion, for instance. Here we are at war over in Iraq because “x” number of people have been killed by Sadam Hussein. Somehow we have gotten used to the fact that this goes on, and we’re not mourning it as we first were. Something’s wrong with that; mourning ought to be an ongoing part of life, as Paul says in Roman 8.
Consider one last thing. Mourning is the appropriate response to sin, and the appropriate manifestation of mourning is repentance. But there is the other side of the coin. Just as mourning is the appropriate response to sin, so worship is the appropriate response to the perfections of God. It would be wrong to experience and confront sin and not mourn, but it is just as wrong to come face to face with the perfections of God and not worship. I think it is interesting because we are considering mourning in our text but yet there is a very prominent theme today about joy and rejoicing, and you say, “Well, isn’t that sort of schizophrenic?” You know the answer? It probably is. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep”. Those both go on at the same time, and the reality is, as I understand it, we would not rejoice and praise God as we ought apart from the mourning that comes in response to sin. As I understand it, our mourning because of the occasion of sin is what makes our joy and our rejoicing greater because our salvation takes us from its consequences. We are coming to the time this morning for our worship service when we are to worship our Lord, and I say to you, “Don’t lose the mourning dimension, but as we think about our Lord, it is only appropriate that we praise and rejoice in Him.”
159 This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 11 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on May 4, 2003.
160 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
161 WWJD stands for “What Would Jesus Do?” which has become a popular phrase and motif for jewelry worn by many young people.