Our first post on the Sermon on the Mount presented a scenic vista of its context, content, and history of interpretation. In this post we look at Jesus’ counter-cultural values in Matthew 5:3-12, the Beatitudes. These values have been described in many ways, but I prefer to think of them as turning the world upside down. Following Jesus means weeping as others laugh, longing for real shalom as others endorse the status quo, and being marginalized as others flourish. But it’s worth it when you consider the radical reversal of fortunes that will occur when God blows the whistle and ends the game. Jesus’ followers already enjoy the blessedness of his Lordship during difficult times, but when the game is over, the worship party really begins.
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Go here for a teaching video on the Beatitudes. I admire Youtube channels that present well edited and produced videos on various topics. This video is an unedited study group session. You’ll get meat and potatoes but there’s no gourmet sauce or elegant table setting.
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What is a beatitude?
“Beatitudes” (based on the Latin word beatus) are a common literary form in the Bible and in the wider literature from the ancient world of the Bible. A beatitude is simply a statement of congratulations, often followed by the reason for the congratulations. In various ancient contexts, beatitudes congratulate people for their wealth, status, virtue, wisdom, or piety. In the Old Testament there are almost 50 beatitudes, many of which are found in Psalms and Proverbs.1 The New Testament has almost 40, most of which are in the Gospels.2 Most beatitudes occur individually—collections of beatitudes as in Matt 5:3-12 are unusual.
Beatitudes are the opposite of curses or pronouncements of woe (e.g. Isa 5:8-6:5; Matt 23:13-29). Sometimes these pronouncements of blessing are contrasted with pronouncements of woe or disaster (cf. Ps 1:1, 4; Eccl 10:16-17; Matt 25:34, 41). The beatitudes of Matthew 5 taken with the seven woes of Matthew 23 contrast the blessings of following Jesus with the disastrous consequences of following the scribes and Pharisees. Luke immediately contrasts the Beatitudes with symmetrical curses. The radical reversal ushered in by Jesus’ kingdom means that the poor, hungry, weeping, persecuted followers of Jesus are blessed. Those who don’t follow Jesus, even if they are rich, well fed, laughing, and popular, are cursed.
In biblical beatitudes the congratulations are not merely human, The word “blessed” is grammatically passive, implying someone has bestowed a blessing. This “blesser” is God. The NLT and other translations choose to unpack “blessed are the humble” with “God blesses those who are humble,” making what is implied clear. Those who receive the blessing are not merely fortunate or privileged. Some English Bible translations opt to render the Greek word makarios (μακάριος) with “happy” (CEB, GNT, Phillips), but “happy” seems shallow and misses God as the one who bestows of true happiness. The Beatitudes speak of those who have turned to God in repentance, responding to the preaching of God’s kingdom (Matt 3:2; 4:17). These followers of Jesus are blessed—recognized, approved, and favored—in their new relationship with God, despite their negative circumstances. Their experience of God’s covenantal favor outweighs the marginalization that will come their way due to their relationship with Jesus (Matt 5:11-12).
How do Matthew’s beatitudes fit together?
We noted above how Luke’s beatitudes contrast four congratulations with four woes in order to show how Jesus reverses the world’s values. Matthew’s eight beatitudes have a different structure and emphasis. One notable feature is that the first and last beatitudes (Matt 5:3, 10) frame the whole set with the expression “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This double emphasis on present blessedness contrasts with the future blessedness spoken of in Matthew 5:4-9—those blessed will be comforted, will inherit the earth, will be satisfied, will receive mercy, will see God, and will be called God’s children.
The last beatitude about persecution (5:10) is expanded in 5:11-12, showing that the Beatitudes speak of blessedness during opposition. This expansion is more personal (note the switch from “blessed are those . . .” to blessed are you . . .) and more detailed than the previous beatitudes. The statement of blessedness during persecution goes on at some length (5:11-12a) before the reason for that blessedness is stated: “for your reward is great in heaven” (5:12b). The disciples’ identity is also made more clear—they are persecuted because of their connection with Jesus. Their experience is like that of the Old Testament prophets.
The Beatitudes transition into the salt and light metaphors of Matthew 5:13-16. Like the Beatitudes, these metaphors are primarily statements of identity, not obligation. The Beatitudes are not merely about character in an abstract, passive sense, but about character in missional activity. Responsibility flows from identity—followers of Jesus are salt and light, and as they live in the world they become more effective in their mission. Following Jesus means a living as Jesus did, speaking and acting for the kingdom of God. Being salt implies social contact with the people and cultures of the world (Col 4:6). Being light implies ethical distance from the values of those cultures (cf. John 8:12; Eph 5:8-9; Phil 2:15). Disciples infiltrate cultures but do not assimilate their values. Disciples are in contact with worldly people, but they are not contaminated by their worldly values. In this way the Kingdom of God transforms worldly cultures. Jesus consistently modeled this lifestyle in Matthew, especially in his interaction with the Matthew and his tax-collector colleagues (Matt 9:9-13). “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.”
What is the kingdom of heaven?
Bible scholars and theologians have often debated the meaning of the Kingdom of God/Heaven but they have seldom agreed about it. To some extent this is because scholars talk past each other in their zeal to prove their views. In other words, they make absolute claims based on limited information. The parable of the blind men and the elephant aptly describes the situation. A series of visually impaired men touch different parts of an elephant and come away with very different views of the creature. They are all partially correct, but they don’t realize there is more to the elephant than they were able to perceive. This ancient story from India has made its way into western culture through the humorist and poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-87). Saxe applied the parable to theology in the last two stanzas of his poem:
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
Keeping Saxe’s stricture in mind, We will touch only briefly on two aspects of the kingdom of God. First, what does Matthew mean by his unique terminology, the Kingdom of Heaven? Although some understand the kingdom of heaven to be a different entity than the kingdom of God, this is a mistake. Matthew 19:23-24 uses the two terms interchangeably. There are several parallel passages where Mark and Luke have kingdom of God where Matthew has kingdom of heaven (E.g. Matt 13:14/Mark 4:11/Luke 8:10; Matt 18:14/Mark 10:14/Luke 18:16). Matthew’s expression draws on the close biblical association of God with his heavenly abode (e.g. Dan 2:28, 37, 44; 4:35, 37) and substitutes the term heaven for God much like Americans substitute the term “oval office” for the president. Matthew often speaks of “heaven and earth,” especially in contexts where God’s heavenly reign is coming to the earth (Matt 6:10; 16:19; 28:18 cf. Dan 4:35; 6:27). Matthew’s “kingdom of heaven” is the kingdom of the God who rules the earth from heaven.
A second kingdom question concerns timing—is Christ’s kingdom already present or do we still wait for its arrival on earth? Keeping Saxe’s poem in mind, we answer this question with a resounding YES! There is a sense in which we already experience the reign of Christ, and at the same time a sense in which we wait for its full manifestation on earth. The kingdom is already experienced by the poor, persecuted followers of Jesus—theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:3, 10). Yet this experience, will some day blossom into glory as the humble become royalty—they will inherit the earth (Matt 5:5). The Lord’s Prayer shows us both sides of the Kingdom when it instructs us to pray for God to reign on earth as he does in heaven (Matt 6:10). God’s reign incrementally increases, often in small but real ways, when followers Jesus live under his Lordship. Yet our present experience of Christ’s Lordship is just a small sample of what will come fully to the earth at the glorious coming of Christ. Our partial experience of Jesus’ reign today leads us to long all the more for its fullness to come to the earth. Our prayers should express this hunger for righteousness (Matt 5:6), this longing for God to reign on earth as he does in heaven.
What does a beatitude-centered life look like?
The beatitudes are not kingdom requirements, laying down the conditions we must meet to enter it. Rather they are blessings—promises made to those who had turned their lives around in response to John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ preaching of repentance (Matt 3:2; 4:17). The beatitudes speak to those whose lives have been transformed by allegiance to Christ’s reign. This transformation involves both internal character traits and relational activities. We will briefly comment on each beatitude, but it is best to take them together as a package, noting especially their dependence on the Old Testament.
- Poverty (Matt 5:3; 11:5; 19:21; 26:9, 11). Matthew’s phrase “poor in spirit” does not spiritualize poverty but refers to people whose economic hardships have led them to trust in God alone for their subsistence. This teaching echoes messianic texts from Isaiah which promise relief to the poor and marginalized who trust in the Lord (Isa 11:4; 25:4-5; 41:17-20; 42:3; 57:15; 61:1; 66:2). The Old Testament often refers to such people who lived from day to day, depending on God for wages and charity. Yet all too often the wealthy oppressed the poor. Followers of Jesus will experience poverty and injustice due to their allegiance to him (cf. Deut 15:7-11; Ps 12:5; 37:14-15; 40:17; 69:32-33; 72:4, 12-14; Prov 13:23; 19:1; 31:8-9; Isa 3:14-15; 29:19; 58:6-7; 66:2; 1 Cor 11:20-22; Jas 1:9-10; 2:1-6; 5:4-6).
- Mourning (Matt 5:4). According to Isaiah 61:2, Christ came to comfort those who mourn. Yet that comfort is not immediately and fully realized until Christ comes again. In the meantime, allegiance to Christ and the values of the kingdom leads to mourning over the brokenness of the world. Awareness of our own sins and the sins of others, not to mention the relational and structural sins of the world that surrounds us, leads to profound sorrow. Comfort comes in small ways when grace happens in our daily lives, but we look forward to the ultimate comfort we will receive at Christ’s coming (cf. Ezra 9; Eccl 3:4; 7:1-4; Isa 61:1-3; 66:10-13; Jer 31:13; John 16:20-24; Rev 21:4).
- Humility (Matt 5:5; 11:29; 18:4; 20:26-28; 21:9). This beatitude depends on Psalm 37:11 in speaking of the central virtue of the Christian life. This may be the most counter-intuitive of all the beatitudes—the earth will ultimately belong to those who meekly depend on God, not on those who trample others as they selfishly grab power and status without considering other people, let alone God’s judgment (cf. Ps 37:11; Isa 11:4; 2 Cor 10:1; Phil 2:1-11; Col 3:12; Jas 1:21; 3:13; 1 Pet 5:5-7)
- Righteousness (Matt 1:19; 3:15; 5:6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33; 13:43; 21:32; 25:37, 46). Hungering for righteousness is the “flip side” of mourning over sin. Righteousness in this context is upright behavior, life in conformity to the instruction of the Torah. Those who have begun to reorient their lives to the righteous standards of Christ’s reign hunger for more complete conformity to God’s law in their own lives and relationships, not to mention in the world at large. At Christ’s coming this longing for personal righteousness and social justice will be completely satisfied (cf. Ps 42:2; Prov 2:1-9; Isa 9:7; 55:1-2; 59:17/Eph 6:14; 1 Tim 6:11; 2 Pet 3:11-13).
- Mercy (5:7; 6:2-4; 8:3; 9:13, 36; 12:7; 14:14; 23:23). Those who have experienced the mercy of God will extend it to others. Recipients of mercy become agents of mercy. Their compassionate activity will be rewarded when they receive ultimate mercy at the final judgment. The parable of the unmerciful servant gives us a negative illustration of this truth (Matt 18:32-33; cf. Ps 18:25; Prov 19:17; 21:10; Hos 6:6/Matt 9:13; Zech 7:9; Eph 4:32; Jas 3:17)
- Heart-purity (Matt 5:8, 28; 18:35). In Matthew Jesus teaches that his disciples must be right with God in their hearts, not just in their outward behavior (Matt 5:28; 6:21; 9:4; 11:29; 12:34; 15:8, 18; 18:35; 23:37/Deut 6:4). This beatitude echoes Psalm 24:3-4. The Pharisees’ concern for legal details and ritual purity has supplanted their concern the “weightier matters” of the law, such as justice and mercy (Matt 23:23-28; cf. John 18:28). The “inside-out” heart-purity of Jesus’ followers will ultimately lead to something that is impossible in this life—they will one day see God (cf. Deut 30:6; 1 Sam 16:7; Ps 24:4; 73:1; Prov 4:23; 20:9; Joel 2:13; 1 Tim 1:5; 2 Tim 2:22)
- Making peace (Matt 5:9). Although the kingdom message may lead to conflict with those who reject it (Matt 10:13, 34), Jesus’ disciples are agents of genuine reconciliation. It is not that they are passively peaceful, but that they embody and enact the kingdom message in ways that achieve peace in their circles. It is God’s work to reconcile shattered relationships, and Jesus’ disciples show themselves to be God’s children as they mimic God (cf. Ps 34:14/1 Pet 3:11; Rom 14:17, 19; 2 Cor 13:11; Eph 2:14-15; 4:3; Col 1:20; 3:15; Heb 12:14; 2 Tim 2:22).
- Enduring persecution (5:10-12; 10:22-25; 13:21; 23:29-36; 24:9-22). The final beatitude promises that followers of Jesus who are being persecuted will experience the comfort and power of Christ’s reign. This beatitudes as a whole are punctuated by Matthew 5:11-12, which explains that the disciples’ persecution is due to their allegiance to Jesus, and that it is just like the persecution of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus and his disciples present the ultimate prophetic witness to Israel. In Matthew Jesus repeatedly teaches about persecution. The fact that many Christians in the developed nations have not experienced persecution in recent times should not blind us to the current persecution of brothers and sisters around the world. Persecution has been the regular experience of the church through the centuries, and it will intensify as the coming of Christ draws near (cf. Acts 8:1; 11:19; 2 Cor 6:1-11; 12:10; 2 Tim 3:10-14; Heb 10:32-39; 1 Pet 3:13-17; 4:12-19).
In a word, a beatitude-centered life looks like Jesus—the beatitudes are autobiographical. This is clear from Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ humility, righteousness, compassion, mourning, and persecution (e..g. Matt 3:15; 9:27; 11:28-30; 12:15-21/Isa 42:1-4; 20:26-28; 21:5; 26:36-46). Jesus’ life embodies his words. He is the perfect epitome of the blessed person. We who name him as Lord can do no less than follow his example.
Despite what we see in some Christian enclaves, oblivious euphoria is not a kingdom virtue. Jesus was no shiny happy person laughing while holding hands with his disciples. During his ministry on earth Jesus still hadn’t found what he was looking for, but he was still running. He pursued God’s Kingdom with all his being, all the way to the cross. And that’s what he expects of us:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up. After all, you have not yet given your lives in your struggle against sin. (Hebrews 12:1-4 NLT)
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1 Old Testament beatitudes are found in Deut 33:29; 1 Kgs 10:8;Isa 30:18; 32:20; 56:2; Ps 1:2; 2:12; 32:1-2/Rom 4:7-8; Ps 33:12; 34:9; 40:5; 41:2; 65:5; 84:5, 6, 13; 89:16; 94:12; 106:3; 112:1; 119:1-2; 127:5; 128:1-2; 137:8-9; 144:15; 146:5; Job 5:17; Prov 3:13; 8:32, 34; 14:21; 16:20; 20:7; 28:14; 29:18; Eccl 10:17; Dan 12:12; 2 Chron 9:7. Beatitudes are also found in the the apocryphal or deuterocanonical books: Sir 14:1-2, 20; 25:8-9; 26:1; 28:19; 31:8; 34:15; 48:11; 50:28; Tob 13:14; Wis 3:13.
2 New Testament beatitudes are found in Matt 5:3-11//Luke 6:20-22; Matt 11:6//Luke 7:23; Matt 13:16//Luke 10:23; Matt 16:17; 24:46//Luke 12:43; Luke 1:45; 11:27-28; 12:37; 14:15; 23:29; John 20:29; Rom 4:7-8/Ps 32:1-2; Rom 14:22; Jas 1:12; Rev 1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7.