Just after lunch on our third day in Israel, our group ascended to the top of a beautiful hill near the shore of the Sea of Galilee to visit the Church of the Beatitudes. This church sits in the traditional site where Jesus first preached the Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in Matthew 5-7.
Unlike some of the sites where archaeological evidence can prove or disprove the historical veracity of a location, traditional sites (like the Church of the Beatitudes) carry no such certainty. After all, Jesus did not preach this epic sermon in a building that could be excavated. He preached it on a hillside to a group of the curious and committed. Jesus never pastored a church with walls, pews, and budgets. He came instead “to seek and to save the lost.”
The Church of the Beatitudes was built in the 1930’s . . . many, many years removed from when Jesus first preached His message. It is a beautiful location with well manicured grounds and a small but ornate octagonal chapel. Though I appreciated my trip to this location, I could not help myself from thinking that “something was wrong” with my experience there. The site felt very tame and peaceful . . . and very familiar. It felt very religious and organized. While all of these things are totally appropriate in a church today, the Sermon on the Mount was really none of those things.
When Jesus first preached this message, He did so in the countryside, not in the synagogue – outside the normal religious structures of His day. He preached a message of a radical revolution of values – where the poor gain a Kingdom and the meek inherit the earth. He tore down religions of appearances, and demonstrated how even those who look like they have it all together are still in great need for a Savior. He talked in this message about being a change agent in a culture, not withdrawing from it. He talked about loving enemies, helping the poor, and looking to heavenly treasure instead of earthly comfort. This was one wild message . . . and it spoke to Jesus fulfilling the Law and the Prophets and ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Millions of people have visited the Church of the Beatitudes and loved their experience there. Rest assured, I thought it was an amazing place as well. I am glad that we visited this location and am sure that all who visit it are blessed by its serene, pastoral feel. Those who have built this church have created a wonderful place and those who maintain it are doing a fabulous job . . . it is one of the most immaculate places we visited in Israel. However, if you visit this traditional location, do not let the familiar/peaceful feel of the site distract you from the radical message that was first preached here. Take some time today and read Matthew 5-7 and hear the platform of the King and His Kingdom. Imagine the barren hillside on which it was preached, and hear the passion in the voice of the One who preached it.
At the end of the sermon, those who first heard it responded this way (according to Matthew 7:28-29):
“And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at His teaching, for He was teaching them as One who had authority, and not as their scribes.”
This was no ordinary message. Jesus is no ordinary man. He is the Son of God. Come to Him and be astonished.